Ask the pilot

Do you really think I'd lie to you about cabin air? Plus: The Colgan crash and the problems with regional airlines.

Published May 15, 2009 10:28AM (EDT)

I blame the airlines. I blame the airlines because I'm not sure whom or what else to blame. I blame them for cultivating widespread mistrust among the flying public, for helping create an environment that allows rumors, myths and conspiracy theories to flourish unchecked.

They haven't done this through lousy service, necessarily. They've done it by being such awful communicators. Millions of people, we know, are anxious fliers. This is the insurmountable result of human nature as much as anything else; all the statistics and straight talk in the world won't overcome a certain, perfectly understandable reluctance toward racing through the air in giant metal tubes filled with explosive fuel. But clearly the airlines, as lazy and ineffective communicators, have made a difficult situation worse.

As a current and former employee of five of them, I can attest that airlines do not, as policy, intentionally lie or mislead. What people often take to be lies are more accurately garbles, caused by the faulty transfer of information; such is the rigidly compartmentalized structure of airlines, where specifics of a circumstance are passed along from department to department, each with its own priorities, vernacular and expertise. But whatever the reasons, time and time again, and against their best interests, airlines fail at getting the truth out.

Pilots, when they pick up the microphone and speak to their customers, are often part of the problem. With their career and their airline's reputation in the balance, pilots are generally forbidden from speaking to the media following an incident. Sadly, this has a tendency to carry over in the way they speak about anything. There's an element of fear in every cockpit -- not a fear of crashing, but fear of saying the wrong thing; of being blamed, implicated, scapegoated or punished should something be misconstrued or taken out of context. Crew-member manuals contain many stipulations about public address announcements and general interactions with customers, and captains are sometimes put through a brief version of charm school prior to earning that fourth stripe. But more often than not, the focus is on how not to communicate -- which phrases never to say, which terms and scary-sounding buzzwords to avoid.

That's not to imply that crews don't tell the truth, but they're known to euphemize to the point where things sound goofy -- a compressor stall described as an "engine pop," for instance -- or else more harrowing than they really are.

The other day I was riding in economy class on a flight into Boston. Just before landing, at about a hundred feet over the runway, the pilots aborted the landing and went around. There was no reason to believe anything remotely serious had occurred, but as the engines roared and the landing gear clunked through its retraction sequence, the sense of fright emanating from those around me was palpable. Eventually, one of the pilots came over the P.A. with an explanation. "Ah, well, sorry about that," he began. "Another plane was still on the runway, so we needed to break off the landing. We're circling back and will be landing in a few minutes."

Nothing else was offered. I sat there in silent anguish. "Please, say more," I thought. "You need to say more!"

But he didn't, and instead of quelling the passengers' anxiety, he had made it worse. "A plane was still on the runway?" came a raised voice from a few rows down, followed by nervous laughter. "Jesus!" A college kid sitting diagonally from me was visibly shaken, explaining to his seatmate that he had never before experienced such a thing. Later that evening, no doubt, he'd be regaling friends with the harrowing tale of his "near miss."

Which, in fact, it was not. The go-around was the result of a simple spacing issue -- not a near miss at all, but a maneuver performed well in advance of one; indeed, to avoid a near miss.

Last October I did a whole column about go-arounds, which are one of the most fear-inducing and misunderstood phenomena in commercial flying. You can read it here. Maybe I'm being presumptuous, but at the time I believed that all or part of that column would make a useful addition to my airline's in-flight magazine. To be honest, I think a lot of what I write in this space each week would make for helpful and illuminating in-flight reading. I tried. I made phone calls and sent e-mails to the editors, none of which were acknowledged or returned.

But this isn't about me, or a magazine, or the average pilot's P.A. etiquette. It's about the pervasive culture of reticence found across the board at airlines. When it comes to the technicalities of flying, they reveal nothing beyond the superficial. And when the media makes a scandal out of some rumor or half-truth, the airlines have a bad habit of ignoring the issue altogether or countering with boilerplate ad copy that, if anything, makes people more suspicious than they already were.

This has helped to perpetuate so much bad information that even I have a hard time disabusing people of certain stubborn beliefs. One of the central purposes of this column is to clear up misconceptions and offer what I think are valuable -- and accurate -- insights into this weird and insular business, and the idea that I am part of some grand conspiracy leaves me aghast. Yet it's out there.

A week ago I produced a column about the facts and fallacies of cabin air. The reality is that the air on planes is much cleaner than almost anybody gives it credit for. There is no contact with oil or fuel; the air is filtered using hospital-quality filters; and the entire volume is changed out several times per hour. Honest and straightforward enough, I thought. But not everybody was buying it.

"Then why the hell do I get sick virtually every time I fly somewhere?" asks a reader with the moniker of jimmydigits in the letters section.

I don't know, jimmydigits. Why is it that I have only been sick once on an airplane, out of thousands of times? I must be lying? Maybe the issue is you and not the air?

"Bullshit," offers another poster, who complains of elevated levels of carbon dioxide in airplane cabins, and tells us about the time a pilot allegedly admitted to running the air system at less than optimum. "I told the pilot and he said he had the air running at half the full setting and he understood the problem," he wrote. "I guess it costs fuel to provide full life support. Some do and some see what they can get away with. How many passenger freakouts are caused not only by alcohol and drugs but by anxiety and panic due to excessive CO2 levels?"

Probably none, actually. And while I can't know exactly what this pilot told you, or why, or what you thought he was admitting to, I can tell you that crews do not -- do not -- reduce airflow to save fuel. It simply does not happen. On the plane I fly -- a 767 -- we make frequent adjustments to temperature when the cabin becomes too cold or too warm. But the normal rate of airflow is automatic; the backup mode, which allows for some manual modulation, is something that, in two years of flying the plane, I have never touched. There is no need to, short of there being a malfunction, because the automatic flow is perfectly adequate.

"I will not fly U.S. Airways because they routinely have bad air," the poster continues. This one really leaves me baffled. The suggestion that one airline's air, fleetwide, is intentionally and detectably worse than another's, is just absurd.

As for carbon dioxide -- along with the ensuing oxygen "controversy," which we'll get to in a moment -- let's start with a quick review of pressurization:

The atmosphere at higher altitudes is very thin, providing insufficient oxygen. Rather than breathe supplemental O2 from a tank, passengers get it through pressurization of the cabin, which effectively squeezes the air back together, replicating conditions near sea level. Cruising at 35,000 feet, the level of pressurization inside the cabin is equivalent to somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000 feet, usually, depending on the model of airplane. (Pressurizing all the way to sea level equivalent is unnecessary and would put undue stress on the airframe.) In other words, you're breathing the same air you'd be breathing in Denver, or maybe Mexico City -- minus the pollution. Maybe this isn't perfect, but it's close enough.

And please be reminded that the pilots are not enclosed in an independently pressurized capsule separate from the rest of the plane. They are breathing the same air that you are breathing, and they are not especially interested in poisoning or asphyxiating themselves.

Also in last week's column I remarked on the commonly heard claim that pilots cut back on oxygen levels during flight as a means of saving fuel and keeping passengers docile. This ridiculous assertion is something I had addressed in earlier columns and presumably left for dead. Not so fast.

"Regarding the 'myth' of cabin oxygen," starts a comment, from somebody calling himself grownup01. Notice the use of quote marks around "myth," instantly insinuating that I am not being truthful. "I have flown for years with an altimeter watch on my wrist and have used it to monitor cabin pressure," he continues. "I have observed several times on flights to and from Europe the cabin pressure going to 7,500 feet between meals to about 4,500 feet at meal time. It got to the point that I could tell it was meal time by observing the pressure change."

Listen, grownup01: I suspect you will be loath to accept the word of an airline pilot writing in a national magazine over the supreme expertise of your altimeter watch, but what you describe is something I have neither participated in nor heard of, ever before, and I operate flights to and from Europe all the time. Perhaps you need a new watch, or perhaps you can't read it properly?

Here's how we work the pressurization system in a modern jetliner: We dial in the altitude of the arrival airport prior to takeoff, and ensure that the switches are in the correct -- that is, automatic -- operating mode. And that's it. During flight we will keep an eye on the differential and cabin altitude levels, but the rest takes care of itself. The idea of pilots reaching up and tinkering with the cabin pressure to synchronize with mealtimes is, in my realm of experience, totally off the charts.

And so on.

I suspect that if the carriers were more forthcoming, a lot of this weirdness would go away. So why aren't they?

Well, perhaps at the heart of the matter, they don't need to be. Airlines pay little penalty for acting as their own worst enemies. Fostering and reinforcing skewed perceptions of air travel has little effect on their balance sheets. Getting back to what was discussed here some months ago, the airlines do just fine regardless of their or the media's inaccurate, sensationalist renderings. Profitability is another issue altogether, but planes are packed, and a majority of people, intellectually if not emotionally, grasp that flying is safe. Why stir the pot?

And so they are content. And to the frustration of some of us, their passengers remain frightened, suspicious and misinformed.

A follow-up on the crash of Colgan Air (Continental Connection) Flight 3407 over Buffalo:

The evidence was pointing to crew error all along, but the more we learn, the more disturbing it gets. A hearing was held in Washington on Tuesday, and you may have caught Andy Pasztor's Wall Street Journal piece that ran on Monday. The latest revelations do not reflect well on the actions of the flight's captain, 47-year-old Marvin Renslow, who responded improperly to a stall warning system, bringing on a loss of control and a deadly plunge to the ground.

The plane, a Bombardier Dash-8 Q400 (the actual aircraft involved in the accident, N200WQ, is seen here last October), was on its final approach into Buffalo Niagara Airport on the evening of Feb. 12. For reasons unknown it was flying slightly slower than it should have been. This, together with the effects of mild icing, caused activation of the so-called stick shaker -- a warning system that vibrates the pilots' control columns in advance of an aerodynamic stall. This is a bad situation to be in -- shaker activation during flight, for any reason, is serious -- but nothing that couldn't be remedied.

Except it wasn't remedied, and it was followed moments later by activation of the stick pusher. The pusher is a device that nudges the control column forward (that is, the nose downward), if the initial warning (the shaker) is not heeded and a stall becomes imminent. In a transport-category plane like the Q400, stall recovery can take several thousand feet, and the plane is smart enough to take matters into its own hands at such a crucial moment.

The basic tenets of stall recovery are leveling or lowering the nose, leveling the wings, and increasing power. That's flying 101. Instead, Renslow pulled sharply back, on the control column, ignoring the shaker and fighting against the force of the pusher, raising the nose and throwing the plane into a full stall from which, at less than 2,000 feet of altitude, recovery was impossible. It fell to the ground, killing all 49 people on board, plus one person in a home below.

Yes, he did the opposite of what he should have done. Was it panic? We'll probably never know.

The WSJ story touched off a substantial amount of buzz about the captain's training record, his experience level, and the conversation he was having with his young first officer, Rebecca Shaw, in the moments just prior to the accident. While some of the fuss, I concede, is justified, some of it is not.

For example, much is being made about the crew's violation of the so-called sterile cockpit regulation prohibiting extraneous conversation below 10,000 feet. Were the pilots chitchatting in violation of this rule? According to the transcripts, yes. Does this have any bearing on what happened? I doubt it.

Another hot tidbit is the revelation that Renslow had only 109 hours logged in the highly sophisticated Q400. The WSJ called this "an unusually limited amount of time by industry standards." The New York Post called it "minuscule."

To be fair, Renslow was a new captain on the type, and you don't accrue hours spontaneously. It is very common for airline pilots to upgrade into a type in which they have little or no prior experience. This is industry standard. Pilots transition between aircraft types all the time, and when seniority grants an upgrade from first officer to captain, that upgrade is often to a model that the soon-to-be captain has never flown. This is how airline flying works, and there's nothing dangerous about it. It can even be argued that a pilot is never as sharp, or as safe, as when he's fresh out of simulator training on a new aircraft, with all the various procedures and systems knowledge fresh in his mind.

In any case, the crash wasn't caused by anything specific to the Q400. It was caused by the captain's egregious response to the stall.

The WSJ and other sources have pointed out that Renslow received no specific simulator training on stick-pusher recoveries. Such training, Colgan has been quick to point out, is not FAA mandated. But does it need to be? Renslow did receive classroom instruction, and if you'll allow for a crude analogy, ask yourself this: If you are in an automobile speeding toward a brick wall, do you hit the accelerator, or do you hit the brake? Certain things are presumably intuitive and basic enough they shouldn't require formalized training. Maybe that needs rethinking with respect to stick-pushers, but it's the basis for the FAA's policy, and to me it is nothing scandalous.

On the other hand, with respect to training, I was startled to learn that Renslow had previously failed a total of five FAA flight tests -- known in the vernacular as "check rides" -- including two while working at Colgan. None of us is perfect, and there are many good airline pilots with the occasional recheck on their records. But five? That's pretty remarkable.

"Repeated check-ride failures raise red flags," wrote Pasztor in the WSJ, "and large carriers rarely keep pilots who require such extensive remedial training, according to numerous industry officials."

This is true.

Colgan, in its defense, says that Renslow may have failed to fully disclose his poor performance before being hired. Perhaps, but FAA records are scoured before any candidate is accepted. If he successfully hid something, it's the fault of the carrier or the company it hired to perform background checks.

In the end, this is a terrible black mark for the regional airline industry, and it is liable to become a litigation nightmare for Colgan, the airplane manufacturer, and other parties as well.

Though, to some extent, the regionals had it coming. Traveling aboard regional aircraft remains extraordinarily safe, and I am not disparaging the thousands of professional, fully competent pilots out there who fly them for a living. Further, there is no need or reason for the public to be fearful or apprehensive about flying on a regional aircraft. Nevertheless, as highlighted here a few weeks ago, there is something dysfunctional in the cultures at these companies. There will be a lot of focus on pilot training in the weeks and months ahead, and good for that -- but the problem runs deeper. Between the lousy pay, the high-stress working conditions and the often hostile management under which regional pilots work ... all of this, on some level, is a potential risk to safety. And it needs to change.

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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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