Why are airline passengers such slobs?

Plus, a crash in Iran spotlights the safety of Russian-built planes, and the latest misinformation from the press

By Patrick Smith
Published July 17, 2009 12:18PM (EDT)

Dear passenger: Look, I know it's a long flight, and I realize that, at least in your mind, commercial air carriers are the most malevolent entities the universe has ever known, fully deserving of your disrespect. But must you? Must you throw your damn garbage all over the floor?

The amount of post-flight trash littering the floor of airplanes is more or less proportional to the time spent aloft, but the sheer volume of litter can be astonishing even after a short flight. The photograph accompanying this column was snapped after a flight from Europe to the U.S. Can you make out the quarter-pound of Pringles, mashed into the carpet like sawdust? Or the plastic bags, wrappers, crackers and assorted other debris?

Here's another one.

Such detritus is normal after a flight. And all of it, of course, needs to be reckoned with prior to the next takeoff. Recently at Kennedy airport I watched a cleaning crew -- 10 or so Dominicans and Venezuelans ranging from ages 21 to about 50 -- tackling the leftovers of 200 passengers. Truth be told, overseas cabin cleaners tend to do a much better job than those in the States, but this particular crew had only a half-hour to tidy up a 767 cabin that looked as if a typhoon had blown through it. The end result was, well, acceptable if not immaculate.

Their job would be a lot easier, and airplane cabins would on the whole be cleaner, if only customers had the decency to pick up after themselves. People don't act this way on public buses or subway cars, but they tend to show a lot less restraint when flying. There are some reasons for this, I know: You are seated for an extended period of time in cramped quarters, and it's not as if there's a waste receptacle at every seat. But I'm afraid that is not a good enough excuse for, say, leaving leaky Chinese food cartons or a half-eaten Chick-fil-A sandwich under your feet. Litter is one thing; garbage is something else. It's common to find apple cores, wads of chewing gum and even sullied diapers stuffed into a seat pocket.

Airlines, for their part, could and should enact a few sensible (and cheap) countermeasures:

1. Put a lunch-size paper trash bag in each seat-back pocket. Or, if that itself is deemed too wasteful, supply a paper or plastic bag for each block of seats, to be shared.

2. Have the cabin crew make more frequent trash collection runs, especially near the end of a flight, accompanied by a public address announcement.

3. Cut down on the insane amount of plastic that accompanies the typical in-flight meal (cellophane wrappers, cups, and so on).

These practices would be especially helpful on long-haul trips. Interiors would remain less soiled; turnaround times would be quicker and require less labor.

Until then, here's a tip: In a pinch, an airsickness bag might be too small for cans, but it otherwise makes a semi-useful trash container. (Just remember, though, that using it for refuse takes it away from the next person, who might be needing it for its intended purpose.) Or, if you're up in first or business class, your blanket or duvet frequently comes wrapped in a plastic sheathing that, if carefully removed, makes for a roomy receptacle.

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On Wednesday, a Caspian Airlines jet crashed in Iran killing all 168 passengers and crew. The Russian-made Tupolev Tu-154, bound for the Armenian capital of Yerevan, went down minutes after takeoff from Tehran. Witnesses reported the plane's tail was on fire. All three of the Tu-154's engines are located in the tail section, leading to speculation that an uncontained engine failure may have led to a fire, though it's also possible that witnesses were seeing the effects of one or more engine compressor stalls. Compressor stalls result from an interruption of airflow through an engine, and often occur when a plane is out of control or flying at unusual angles. 

More than 900 Tu-154s were delivered before production ceased in 1996, making it the most popular of all Russian-built jetliners (save for the tiny Yakovlev Yak-40). It remains in widespread service. The one that crashed on Wednesday was built in 1987, making it roughly the same age as many MD-80, 737 and 757 models flying in the West. Tu-154s have been involved in several deadly accidents over the years, but those have mostly been a function of the environments in which the plane is operated rather than deficiencies in its design. Safety is chiefly a function of crew training and maintenance, both of which can be substandard in certain areas of the world, particularly in countries under sanction.

Maintaining these aircraft has been made more difficult by the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent decline in the manufacture of spare parts. We're talking about a plane that's been out of production for nearly 15 years, originally built in a country that technically no longer exists and whose aviation industry has since turned to Airbus and Boeing products.

Caspian Airlines was formed in 1993. Based in Tehran, it is one of several independent Iranian carriers. Until yesterday its fleet consisted of five Tu-154s. Here is a photo of the aircraft that crashed, tail registration EP-CPG.

Personally, I love the look of the Tu-154, with its gothic empennage and menacing Cold War lines. I was thrilled at the chance to fly aboard an Aeroflot model back in 1986. For more on the history of Russian and Soviet commercial aircraft, see here

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If you missed it, on Monday a Southwest Airlines 737 made an emergency landing in Charleston, W.Va., after a fuselage rupture caused the plane to depressurize about 30 minutes after takeoff from Nashville. A small hole was later found in the plane's upper fuselage, about halfway along the roof of the cabin.

The incident is reminiscent of the one involving an Alaska Airlines MD-80 in December 2005, when a baggage handler struck the plane with a loading cart, then failed to report the damage. What may have initially appeared as a minor skin crease became a full-blown rupture under the forces of pressurization. Any fuselage breach is a serious issue, but neither incident was anything close to a catastrophe. The planes rapidly depressurized but otherwise remained fully intact. Passengers and crew donned their oxygen masks, and the pilots descended to a safer altitude.

This time the media took it easy. The Alaska Airlines incident, by contrast, garnered far more attention than it ever deserved, thanks in part to a jittery blogger named Jeremy Hermanns, who was a passenger on the flight. You might remember my squabble with Hermanns, who was loath to let any troublesome realities get in the way of his appearance on "Good Morning America." 

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According to an article in last Friday's Financial Times, the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research is helping develop a warning system that will aid pilots by better predicting storms and turbulence over the ocean. "Pilots currently have little weather information as they fly over remote stretches of ocean," said NCAR scientist John Williams. "Providing pilots with at least an approximate picture of developing storms could help guide them safely around areas of potentially severe turbulence."

As somebody who flies across the ocean for a living, I find this somewhat misleading. In fact pilots have relatively good weather information when operating over remote areas. They receive reliable weather and turbulence charts prior to departure, constructed in part from satellite data, and during flight will receive updates providing the position, altitude and movement of lines of storms. Sophisticated on-board radar shows the contours and intensity of weather ahead,  and pilots are able to communicate directly with nearby aircraft, sharing information on turbulence and other conditions. It is true that storms can build and migrate unpredictably, and a real-time presentation of violent weather would certainly be helpful (I think that's what the article is talking about), but please don't assume that pilots are flying blind. 

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Last but not least, a quick, if maybe petulant, clarification: Apparently, according to the latest reports, Air France Flight 447 was intact, or mostly intact, when it crashed into the ocean near Brazil on May 31. "No inflated life jackets have been found in a month of searching," wrote the Washington Post, indicating the 216 passengers and 16 crew "were probably unaware during their final minutes that they were speeding from 35,000 feet toward the deadly crash."

Numerous media outlets picked up on this same uninflated life jacket business. In fact, that the jackets were uninflated indicates very little. Passengers are instructed not to inflate life jackets before evacuating. This is to avoid head and neck trauma when entering the water, and to keep the vests from snaring or tangling on debris prior to exit. I imagine that a certain percentage of passengers would, in a panic, inflate their vests anyway, but this is not the best measure of whether occupants were preparing for a water landing. What we really need to know is whether they were wearing vests, be they inflated or otherwise.

Also, that the airplane was "intact" does not necessarily mean that it was under full control. And it may still have shed critical components at some point before impact.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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