Information: The good, the bad and the ugly

Airworthy planes, "dangerous" airports, and baby talk from the cockpit

Published July 31, 2009 10:30AM (EDT)

747 landing at Princess Juliana airport, St. Maarten.
747 landing at Princess Juliana airport, St. Maarten.

After landing, our flight was met by a fire engine and ambulances. The pilots offered no explanation, and we never learned what had happened. Is there a protocol against telling passengers about certain malfunctions or emergencies to avoid causing alarm?

There is a widespread belief that airlines intentionally withhold information when something goes wrong. In reality, there is no formal policy against advising passengers about the nature or extent of any problem, other than common-sense stipulations to avoid inflammatory words and descriptions that might induce undue worry or panic. That's not to say that pilots will let you know about every burned-out light bulb or minor technical issue, but if anything occurs that poses a potential hazard, you will hear about it. This needs to be the case, for the purpose of evacuation planning, etc.

As for why this particular crew said nothing, I have no idea. Certainly the presence of fire trucks or ambulances warrants an explanation, regardless of the reason. It may have been a passenger medical issue, and even minor mechanical or electrical malfunctions can result in the calling out of emergency vehicles -- as in this story -- but that is not an excuse for staying silent. Personally, I can't imagine a crew not offering an announcement in such a scenario.

Though, for what it's worth, I've noticed that carriers are becoming increasingly lazy with respect to public announcements in general, especially during delays. I was on a flight a couple of weeks ago that was delayed for almost two hours thanks to air traffic. There was no apology from anybody, at the gate or on the plane. No matter the cause of the delay, that's just not acceptable.

Or maybe it's better that way, judging from the vapidity of most airline P.A. efforts. Every time that microphone crackles, mostly what we hear is choreographed baby talk. Eyes begin to roll every time a customer service agent or crew member opens his or her mouth. Even the most basic broadcasts are heavily fortressed: the campy legal-speak theater of the cabin safety demo, the squeally condescension of the thanks-for-flying-with-us pitch. Anomalies are typically reworded, intentionally or otherwise, into a lexicon of infantile explanations. Turbulence becomes "a couple of bumps up ahead," the complexities of air traffic control delays are reduced to "waitin' for some rain showers to pass."

The desire is to avoid confusion, keep things topical, and never, ever insinuate danger. The result is the shaking of heads and a propensity, often enough, not to believe a word of it.

In that sense, an airline P.A. is a lot like a political sound bite.

Are your ears ringing? The above snippet is taken from an old column I did on airline P.A. madness. You can read it here.

I'm a nervous flier planning a trip this fall to St. Maarten. I was keeping my anxieties in check, but then I stumbled onto this list of what are supposedly the most dangerous airports in the world. Sure enough, St. Maarten's Princess Juliana airport is there! Tell me it isn't so.

It isn't so.

Princess Juliana International (SXM) is famous for the thrilling views it provides of arriving flights. Plane spotters and gawkers gather at Maho Beach, where the threshold of the airport's single runway extends nearly to the tide line, providing a spectacular, if earsplitting, view of giant jetliners passing just a few feet overhead.

But the aircraft arrive on a standard glide path. It just happens there's a public beach unusually close by. Really it's not much different from the arrivals into numerous other airports -- LaGuardia's Runway 04, for instance, where a highway passes just shy of the threshold. At SXM there's the novelty of its being a tropical beach instead of a roadway, and the fact that some very large aircraft (747s, A340s, etc.) make regular appearances.

The Listphobia page above contains many distortions, exaggerations and just plain nonsense. Of SXM it says: "The airport is famous for its short runway … at only 2,400 meters it is barely long enough for heavy jets to land."

Not true. At 2,400 meters, or 7,800 feet, the runway is longer than those at LaGuardia and Washington-National, among others, providing ample room for pretty much any jet to land. Takeoff presents some complications, but nothing flights can't safely adjust for. Longer-haul flights out of SXM are usually weight-restricted. Legally, there must always be enough room for a plane to safely stop on a runway after accelerating to a point just below takeoff speed. If need be, flights will reduce payload to ensure these and other parameters are met.

"Therefore," the description continues, "incoming airplanes approaching the island have to fly extremely low."

That is also untrue. Pilots do not fly lower approaches because a runway is shorter than normal. The low passes over the beach are simply due to its being very close to the threshold. The glide angle is normal.

Listphobia collectively describes the airports on its list -- which also include Hong Kong's Kai Tak airport, closed for several years -- as "an airline pilot's worst nightmare." That is, if you'll permit me, bullshit. If any airport were remotely nightmarish, no sane airline pilot would fly there. Some commercial airports are more challenging than others, sure, but none are dangerous.

(Man, when it comes to aviation, the amount of misinformation out there is truly stupefying. Making it worse, Listphobia refused to post my explanations in its comments section.)

The picture at the front of this column was taken at SXM by Anthony Guerra, who lives in France and who traveled to the island earlier this year specifically to photograph planes from Maho Beach. This is probably my favorite of the hundreds of Maho Beach shots in the archives at I don't want readers to spend all day there looking at pictures instead of reading Salon, but I'd be doing a disservice not to include a few other links:

How about this one.

Or here. Through the cabin window it looks like this. And from a cockpit, like this.

If these landings are unsafe for anybody, it's the sunbathers and swimmers. You'd be advised to hit the sand to keep clear of jet blast and the swirling vortices from a 747's wingtip. Indeed the beach is posted with signs warning visitors of those very hazards.

At least one shot from the Airliners archives does seem to show a jet touching down a hair short of the threshold markings -- something that is very much not supposed to happen. Maybe it's a perspective thing, but check out this jaw-clenching shot, and note the figures cowering behind the chain link fence.

That one really gives you some sense of the size of a 747 -- though this is one perspective you should hope never to see in person.

On a recent Delta flight to Philadelphia, several passengers refused to board when they noticed, as one source put it, that "a part of the wing was missing." Care to clarify?

What was missing wasn't a part of the wing; it was a fairing. Those long, canoe-shaped pods that stick from the back of a wing are called fairings -- aerodynamic coverings that streamline the airflow around the flap mechanisms inside. Here you can see four of them, conveniently illuminated on the starboard wing of an Air France jet.

Their function is chiefly superficial, though when they're missing there might be a slight fuel-burn penalty. The wing itself is not affected, and the flaps can extend and retract normally.

Whether one or more fairings can be missing, and what the penalty might be, is spelled out in the plane's CDL (configuration deviation list). An airplane's technical bible consists of two books: the CDL, and something called the Minimum Equipment List (MEL). Together they spell out precisely which parts and components -- even components of components -- may be AWOL for a given flight. They specify when, under what flight conditions, and for how long. The asterisks and restrictions can be extensive.

Usually if a fairing, or portion of a fairing, is missing, it was removed for some maintenance-related purpose. It's not that they fall off. (Here in Boston, a wing flap panel once fell from a British Airways 747 and crashed onto somebody's car in Revere. Late 1970s I think that was.)

Getting back to that photo, the pronged, V-shaped doodad on the wingtip is called a winglet. They too can sometimes be granted a CDL waiver, depending on the aircraft model. Winglets are occasionally damaged by ground equipment or lightning strikes.

Winglets come in different shapes and sizes -- some are tall and rakishly canted; others are more modest -- but their function is basically the same: At the tip of a wing, the higher pressure beneath meets the lower pressure above, resulting in a turbulent discharge of air. The winglet smooths this mixing, decreasing drag and, in turn, improving range and efficiency.

Because planes have different aerodynamic fingerprints, winglets aren't cost-effective on all models. You'll notice the 747-400, A330 and A340 have them, but the 777 does not. On others, like the 737-800 and 757, they're available as an option. An airline must consider if the long-term fuel savings is worth the cost of installation. It depends on the type of flying its aircraft are typically engaged in. In Japan, Boeing sold a number of 747-400s, used specifically on short-range pairings by JAL and All Nippon, with the winglets removed.

It fills me with despair that people refused to board that flight to Philadelphia over something so minor. The jet was perfectly airworthy. Though from an airline P.R. point of view, I'm not sure which is more of a potential black eye, a fairing that's been removed, or one that looks like this.

That picture, sent in by an agonized passenger, ran in a column several years back. A similar picture was making the Internet rounds a few weeks ago, so let's revisit. What you're looking at is the perfectly safe and legal application of heavy-duty aluminum bonding tape, called "speed tape" in a mechanic's lexicon. Depending on what a plane's maintenance manual stipulates -- the manual itself being under the aegis of the FAA -- certain noncritical components, such as the flap fairing shown, can be temporarily patched with this material. Embarrassing as it looks, it has virtually no bearing on safety. The tape is extremely durable and is able to expand and contract through a wide range of temperatures.

Regarding your latest Hüsker Dü reference, I have to ask: Who in your estimation was the bigger talent, Bob Mould or Grant Hart?

That's something of an unfair question, sort of like asking, Strummer or Jones? McCartney or Lennon? The band would have been, at best, half as good without one or the other -- and probably less, since the whole of a truly great band is more than the sum of its parts.

I will say this, though: As far as post-breakup efforts go, I've been decidedly more impressed over the years by Grant Hart's efforts than by Bob Mould's.

Back in Hüsker Dü days, clearly it was Hart's work that had the poppier sensibilities. Mould's contributions were noisier and more abrasive, though he too was no slouch with a hook -- provided it was buried beneath a wall of neo-psychedelic guitar. Try the song "Chartered Trips" from 1984's "Zen Arcade," or "First of the Last Calls" from the "Metal Circus" EP in '83. Mould's masterwork, however, has to be his searing, scorching, soaring cover of the Byrds' "Eight Miles High," released as a 7-inch single by SST records in the spring of '84. If this isn't the greatest cover song of all time, I don't know what is or could be.

Hart's best moments are probably "Diane" from the "Metal Circus" EP, "Books About UFO's" from '85's "New Day Rising," and "Keep Hanging On," off "Flip Your Wig" in '86.

It always disappointed me that Hüsker Dü never developed the posthumous cachet they deserve. They had more grit, volume, intensity and songwriting sass than pretty much any of their contemporaries, not to mention an unmatched work ethic, producing eight albums -- two of them, "Zen Arcade" and "New Day Rising" -- among the best-ever indie albums of all time -- and numerous tours in a six-year span. And I'm surprised that none of today's indie rock posers have cashed in by covering one or two Hüsker Dü cuts. A version of Hart's anthemic "It's Not Funny Anymore," or a rendition of Mould's "I Apologize," are made-to-order chart-toppers.

One problem is that most people's familiarity with the trio comes from either the "Candy Apple Gray" or "Warehouse" albums. These were the band's two major-label releases (Warner Bros.), and by any measure, save for a few scattered moments of brilliance, their weakest efforts.

The 1980s get no respect. People hear "'80s music" and imagine us sitting around listening to Cyndi Lauper and Duran Duran. As if.

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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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