Ask the pilot

The American non-traveler: What's the price of staying put? Plus: When airline pilots have the opportunity to roam widely, but choose not to.

Published October 24, 2008 10:18AM (EDT)

Before getting started, I would like to express my appreciation for your many flattering comments in response to last week's story about the African slum and the injured hedgehog.  It was not an easy column to write, and I worried that feedback would not be positive.

Still, though, I beg to differ that the piece was, as one e-mailer called it, "by order of magnitude better" than anything I've published in the past. Granted, the subject matter was a bit headier than my usual fare, and I was happy with the finished product. But I wouldn't rank it my best.

Not that you asked, but if I were to choose my favorite columns to date, the list would go like this:

First place goes to my meditation on fate and fear, set on board a cargo jet flying from Belgium to New York City.

Next in line would be the piece I wrote about the time my copilot and I were faced with a near emergency and a planeload of obsessed Japanese tourists. Part 1 ran on June 6, 2008.  Part 2 followed a week later.

Then there's the true tale of a near-death experience over Nantucket Sound with the beautiful Dorothy Meyer.

Another sentimental fave is my quasi-memoir of pranks and planes at Logan International.

Rounding out the greatest hits are my description of the flotsam and jetsam around America's most colorful airport, and the night I spent wandering through JFK.

Several of the above were published fairly recently, but in fact most of them -- the rough drafts, at least -- were written several years ago. They form the main body of what was intended to be a loosely chronological book titled "Half the Fun -- Pains, Planes, and Places in a Life Aloft." Though seeing how I failed to find an agent interested in pitching this brilliant and hilarious tome, perhaps they're not as good as I think.

But enough with the cheap attempt at generating clicks for old columns. Getting back to that masterpiece about the slum and the hedgehog ...

During the story I lamented what I called the average American's "geographical know-nothingness and lack of interest in visiting foreign countries." I caught a little flak for that. One reader called me a snob, and another accused me of "insulting hardworking Americans who, unlike you, can't simply jet around the world for free."

I am well aware that not everybody has the money to fly thousands of miles on soul-searching missions. Somehow that misses the point. The truth is that too many Americans are shamefully, even willfully uninterested in the world beyond their borders, and have at best a superficial awareness of world geography. In 2002, a National Geographic survey revealed that 85 percent of Americans between ages 18 and 24 could locate neither Afghanistan nor Iraq on a map. Sixty-nine percent could not find Great Britain, and nearly 33 percent of young Americans believed the U.S. population to be between 1 billion and 2 billion.

It was painfully apropos, I thought, to learn that vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin had only recently acquired a passport, and with the exception of a highly choreographed political trip to the Middle East, has never been abroad save for a family vacation in Mexico. I find it astonishing, if not frightening, that millions of citizens apparently have no problem with this.

We need to ask ourselves: Is it healthy for the citizens of a nation with so much power, economic and military, to be so oblivious and xenophobic? Aren't global influence and global ignorance, in the end, mutually exclusive? Not to take this too far -- and surely it's a leap to draw national security into the mix, at least directly -- but on some level, as citizens, we ignore the rest of world at our peril. And while the waning of American exceptionalism cannot be blamed on something so simple, isn't this, deep down, part of the problem?

As I was saying a week ago, I am of the mind that every American student, in exchange for financial aid, ought to be conscripted into a semester (or more) of overseas service. And why not a tax credit for certain international travel, similar to that provided with the purchase of a hybrid car. Perhaps then we wouldn't have such a vulgar sense of entitlement and a shallow worldview.

Which, as I took pains to explain, is not to idealize or romanticize the act of travel. There is plenty of beauty and splendor in the world, it's true. But there is just as much despair, poverty, pollution and corruption. And it is the latter, maybe, that is the more valuable for us to experience firsthand.

That being said, no, I do not believe the physical act of travel, however beneficial it might be, is absolutely critical to one's understanding of the world. (I would like to give Ms. Palin the benefit of the doubt on this one, but something urges me not to.) It is possible, I admit, to be adequately knowledgeable and informed without ever setting foot outside the United States. By the same token, there are plenty of raving xenophobes who have traveled widely.

Still others have the opportunity to travel widely, but choose not to. I should know because I have worked with them.

It might surprise you to learn that airline pilots are not, on the whole, especially adventurous travelers. I'll be taken to task for bashing my colleagues, but the average pilot's lack of wanderlust has never ceased to depress me. Nowadays pilots are required to hold U.S. passports, but it wasn’t always this way, and in the past I encountered many a colleague who owned neither a passport nor any particular interest in leaving the country. I remember one pilot who, it was revealed during casual conversation about vacation plans, had no idea what the capital of Spain was. Other employees too: I recall a young flight attendant who, on a layover in Quebec -- Canada! -- would not leave her hotel room in fear of, as she put it, "culture shock."

That's a true story. You can find such attitudes in any line of work, I suppose, but it is especially frustrating to experience them within the airline industry. Travel is what we do, and as was alluded to earlier, we in the business are privy to some remarkable benefits that allow us to reach far corners of the world at little or no cost. People spend years saving up for once-in-a-lifetime adventures, yet here are airline workers, who can fly virtually anywhere for pennies, who either take it for granted or scorn the very notion. Not all of us, but some.

People often assume that my affection for travel and geography is what got me into this line of work. Actually, it's the other way around. My enthusiasm for airplanes and airlines came first, at a very young age, eventually stirring an interest in the places they flew to. It all became connected, literally. People ask why I love flying so much. Truth be told, I don't. What I love is air travel, a beautiful term that so aptly expresses the integration of aviation and geography; the jetliner is part and parcel of the journey.

Meanwhile, since I brought it up, and since I'm often asked about it, here's a primer on the flight benefits enjoyed by airline employees.

With the exception of a privilege that allows access to the auxiliary flight deck seats (called "jumpseats" in the biz), the perks extended to pilots are no different from those extended to any other employee. Normally, they and their immediate family members are entitled to complimentary, space-available transportation throughout their carrier's network. Sometimes there is a small per-segment charge ($10 per flight, say), and/or a yearly fee (maybe $50 or so per person). Specific charges, if any, vary from company to company, and usually include upgrades to first or business class when available (rarely, these days, on domestic flights).

In addition, there are reciprocal agreements between carriers that allow employees of one airline, together with their eligible family members, to fly on another, subject to a rather complex arrangement of reduced-rate "interline" fares. (My own airline has reciprocal agreements with more than 50 others around the globe.) Discounts range anywhere from 50 to 95 percent off published airfares.

If you're looking to bring a friend along, or maybe you want to reward that baby sitter who puts up with your bratty kids, most airlines also grant a limited number of reduced-rate tickets each year, commonly called "buddy passes," that can be given out to friends, extended family, etc. These tend to be considerably more expensive than the passes used by employees themselves, and are subject to numerous restrictions, but they make good Christmas gifts. (Though in my experiences, surprisingly few people actually want them, and I wind up throwing several away each year when they hit their expiration date. If you're one of those readers who want to travel but cannot afford to, maybe we should talk. I would particularly like to hear from somebody who has never before been abroad.)

Flying on your benefits is generally referred to as "non-revving." The root term, "non-rev," is shoptalk shorthand for non-revenue, as the airline makes little or no income from your patronage. If you haven't noticed, aviation binges on arcane expressions, acronyms and jargon, and there is a vast and confusing lexicon describing every aspect of employee travel.

Try not to be jealous. None of this is as fabulous as it sounds. Non-rev travel is almost always space-available, which is to say standby. Seats are never guaranteed; careful planning, patience and flexibility are a must. Non-revs are often conspicuous at the boarding gate -- they're the ones sweating, looking nervous, occasionally weeping, waiting for their name to be called at the last minute. We all have one or more nightmare tales of getting stuck somewhere. I could tell you, for example, about the three days I spent at Charles de Gaulle airport, trying and failing to reach Cairo, and the nonrefundable trip through Egypt that it cost me. Those pilots who spend their vacations at home, it sometimes seems, have the right idea after all.

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The author invites readers to view his online travel photos here.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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