Ask the pilot

What is proper etiquette during an emergency evacuation? Plus: Confused pilots and angry readers

By Patrick Smith
Published October 9, 2009 11:07AM (UTC)
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Unidentified passengers wait in a holding area after the Air France Airbus A340 plane they were passengers on slid off the runway and crashed at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2005.

I was on a US Airways flight from Phoenix to JFK. There were a dozen planes ahead of us waiting to take off. Suddenly we crossed the active runway, turned onto a parallel taxiway and proceeded straight to the front of the line! Two minutes later we were airborne. What circumstances might have caused this? 

Things like this happen once in a while. Usually it's because traffic in the direction of your departure is less saturated than in other directions. Westbound sectors might be clogged with storms or heavy traffic, while to the east there's clear sailing. So long as it doesn't entail a large-scale rejiggering of the taxi queue, an eastbound plane can be given priority. 


That's not to give you false hopes the next time you're No. 34 in line. Bear in mind that the choreography of traffic around a busy airport is complex, and routings aren't always intuitive. Arrival and departure paths might require eastbound planes to first proceed west; northbound planes to initially fly south. And so on. 

We are told that in the event of an emergency evacuation we should leave behind our carry-on items. I have frequently mused how in one of the more benign evacuation scenarios, I would probably disobey this policy and carry my laptop bag with me, throwing the shoulder strap around my neck before taking my turn down the inflatable slide. Grabbing it won't slow me down more than a second; I'm young and agile, and my hands will remain free. Would this really be unsafe? What considerations am I missing? 

Reach for your computer, and you're liable to inspire others to do the same. Now you've got dozens, maybe hundreds of passengers trying to save their belongings as well as themselves. Planes are certified such that all occupants can be evacuated in 90 seconds or less with half of the emergency exits blocked. That assumes people are not first digging around in the overhead bins and hauling bags with them. 


And should fire or smoke break out, things can go from orderly and benign to complete chaos in just a few seconds. With visibility reduced and panicked people pressing around you, suddenly you're not as agile as you think you are, increasing the likelihood of you dropping whatever it is you're carrying, slowing the egress of others. 

Also, those escape slides are very steep. You'll be coming down -- from over two stories high, in the case of a wide-body jet -- at a rapid clip, with others doing the same in front of you and right behind you. Your computer becomes a dangerous projectile as well as a possible hindrance. 

Discouragingly, we've seen a pattern of people choosing to grab their carry-ons after even very serious incidents. In Toronto in 2005, an Air France A340 ran off a runway, careened into a gulch and was consumed by fire. Photographs from the scene show passengers nonchalantly escaping with briefcases, computers and backpacks. Nobody was killed, but had more of the doors been blocked or slides not deployed (as it happened, two of the slides were unusable, as were both rear exits) or had flames spread more quickly ... 


Descending toward New York, our pilot told us we were passing over Bridgeport, Conn. Except it wasn't Bridgeport, it was New Haven, about 20 miles away. This degree of inaccuracy surprised me and was frankly a bit worrying. 

Embarrassing maybe, but not shocking. Pilots do not navigate relative to landmarks, and even with help from the cockpit flight displays it can be difficult to ascertain the exact orientation of the cities below, especially mid-level altitudes and especially over areas of contiguous urban buildup. Also, navigational beacons and fixes sometimes take their names from places with which they are not precisely co-located. 


Remember, too, that routings change. If a pilot -- let's call him Patrick Smith -- tells passengers that their transatlantic flight from Europe will be making landfall north of Gander, Newfoundland, and it turns out the flight passes south of Gander, Newfoundland, it's not because he's disoriented or intoxicated, and there was no need for the snide remark on your way out the door. (You know who you are.) 

Last week you talked about pilots not being able to accurately set cabin temperature from the cockpit. "The temperature values we see on the gauges," you wrote, "aren't always reflective of the exact comfort level. Over the course of  a long flight, we'll typically get three or four calls from the cabin attendants asking us to raise or lower the temperature slightly." Obvious question: Why not give the cabin attendants control over the temperature instead of the pilots? This seems to make more sense, and passengers would be more comfortable. 

A few aircraft are set up this way. Most are not. This is bound to insult a flight attendant or two, but here goes: Safely outfitting a plane with multiple sets of controls would be expensive and merely multiplies the possibility for trouble. A plane's air conditioning packs are important pieces of equipment; they supply air not only for heating and cooling, but also for pressurization. Much of their operation is automatic, but they need to be monitored and their temperature outputs carefully adjusted. Rapid or large-scale changes can result in overheats, valve problems and even complete shutdowns. Thus, the job is best left to those with a more in-depth understanding of the plane's pneumatics -- and the full set of controls for troubleshooting any malfunctions. 



Re: Names and letters 

Correction to a correction: Two columns ago, in talking about the lyrics to the Replacements song "Waitress in the Sky," I pointed out that the name of Republic Airlines had been changed to the nonsense name "Reunion," presumably to avoid any libel issues. Republic Airlines, I explained, no longer exists.  


Not so fast, according to somebody calling himself "marketerguy." He left a correction in the letters forum informing us that Republic Airlines is in fact alive and well, based in Indianapolis with a fleet of regional jets. 

He's right. And so am I. 

The Republic Airlines that marketerguy is referring to was founded in 2003, and has been operating on behalf of US Airways and Midwest Airlines. But this is not the original -- some would say "real" -- Republic. The real Republic was formed in 1979 through the merger of Minneapolis-based North Central Airlines and Atlanta-based Southern Airlines. A year later, Phoenix-based Hughes Airwest joined the fold. Republic became one of the nation's largest airlines, serving more individual destinations than anybody else. In 1986, it was acquired by Northwest Orient Airlines. The "Orient" was dropped, and Northwest became the Northwest we know today. (Established in 1926, it is the country's oldest major airline, but it, too, will soon disappear as the company is absorbed into Delta.) 

In other words, an outfit with no relation to the original has simply resurrected the name. Why they chose to do this is anybody's guess. To rekindle some old allegiances, maybe? Or because they liked the sound of it? 


Whatever the reasons, they are not the only ones. There have been numerous in-name-only start-ups, most of them short-lived before joining the originals on that big tarmac in the sky. At one point or another we had three versions of Pan Am, three Braniffs and two Midways. When USAir -- as US Airways was called at the time -- purchased Piedmont and Pacific Southwest (PSA) in 1987, these brands had been so admired that a decision was made to keep the names alive. They were assigned to a pair of USAir Express affiliates. Suddenly, PSA found itself in Ohio, while at airports along the Eastern Seaboard passengers could once again step aboard "Piedmont." Sort of. USAir, known for decades as Allegheny Airlines, assigned the Allegheny name to yet a third Express division. 

Ironically, the new Republic just completed the acquisition of struggling Frontier Airlines, another borrowed moniker. The original Frontier, based in Denver, flew from 1950 until ceasing operations in 1986. 

Lastly, speaking of the Replacements: 

Look, it isn't my fault that readers hijacked last Friday's letters section, opting to focus on the music and television segment of my column rather than the airplane material. Out of 75 posts, I counted four that weren't about "The Simpsons," the Replacements, Hüsker Dü or R.E.M. I found this refreshing, actually, though some of you were perturbed. "Dammit!" howled poster ColoradoLife, "I can read this horseshit anywhere. Please get back to what's made you successful." 


Well, I should point out that Ask the Pilot has, from Day One, taken the occasional sabbatical from the province of commercial aviation. This has long been a sore point to some, but I submit that the column owes much of its success precisely to these breathers. And as to "getting back," the article in question was just under 2,300 words long. Of those, 980 were devoted to the pop-culture discussion -- all of them tacked to the end. Perhaps ColoradoLife was reading in reverse, and managed to miss the six Q&A segments prior to the addendum? There you'll find a question about how pilots control temperature; a question about fumes in the passenger compartment; one about takeoff malfunctions; one about Mayday calls.

Though ColoradoLife, at least, sticks to the material and doesn't get personal. It amazes me sometimes just how unkind letter-writers can be. I'm not talking about critiques of the work itself, which is always fair game, but the cheap shots. Such as the one a few weeks ago, courtesy of somebody using the elegant tag "punkrockho," who had seen me on television and took the time to let me know how disappointed she was to discover what I looked like. She (?) was expecting "goodlooking," only to discover "dopey and boring." 

What makes this comment so astonishingly rude isn't the insult in and of itself, but that punkrockho, in the same breath, admits to otherwise being a fan of my "ideas." So, let's see, you appreciate my writing but have no qualms about dropping an anonymous insult about my appearance -- the type of thing one ordinarily saves for a person they despise -- onto a public message board? What am I supposed to take from that, other than the fact you're a thoughtless jerk and the type of reader we all could do without?

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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.

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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