What's the big deal about JetBlue?

The FAA takes on model airplanes, Sully's plane makes its final journey. Plus: Don't knock those extra service fees

Published June 24, 2011 12:32AM (EDT)

All in a Name ...

Everybody loves JetBlue. Me, I find it overrated. Its service is no better or worse than that of other U.S. airlines, and the carrier's ballyhooed Terminal 5 at Kennedy Airport is the most disappointing airport building in America.

Not to pick on it unduly, but another thing about JetBlue that irks me is the manner in which flight attendants, during their pre-departure public address spiel, introduce the cockpit crew. They do it by first names only. "Our flight is under the command of Capt. Kevin," so it went on a JFK-Boston hop a few weeks back. "Assisted by First Officer Jamie."

First Officer Jamie? The sound of it made me wince.

I realize this is in keeping with JetBlue's casual and quirky verve, but it strikes me as a little too "lite." It's a touch unprofessional, if not goofy. And while maybe I'm being too sensitive, it slyly reinforces the notion that the pilot's job -- and his professional identity along with it -- is no longer terribly important. As my regular readers are well aware, few things get under my skin more than myths about cockpit automation. First Officer Jamie? Well, whatever. After all, isn't the plane just "flying itself by computer"?

The "assisted by" part makes it even worse, preying on one of my other pet peeves. The implication being that first officers, aka copilots, are mere apprentices and not full-fledged pilots.

"Jamie, I'm gonna go ahead and let you put the landing gear down. Just be careful now."

"Yes sir!"

If I were a JetBlue pilot, particularly a first officer, I'd be a little embarrassed, and maybe a little insulted. 

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Latest From the Department of You Can't Make This Up ...

The Federal Aviation Administration wants to regulate the use of remote-controlled model airplanes. They call these toys -- get ready now -- "Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems," also known as "SUAS."

Naturally, if the FAA has hold of something, it requires some needless acronym. Perhaps, in this case, that makes the "threat" seem more real?

And so maybe you're a 40-something RC enthusiast, and that's fine. But let's face it, that's what these things are: toys.

Maybe the feds should regulate paper airplanes too? 

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Thespian Security Administration ...

In my opinion, the rudest and most confrontational TSA guards are those at New York's Kennedy International Airport. There is one guy at Kennedy, though, who seems to have a good sense of humor. He gets my coveted Transportation Security Officer of the Month award (my in box welcomes other nominees).

One day I was going through the checkpoint, and I saw that he had assembled a display -- a little altar of sorts -- of confiscated water bottles and soda cans on the floor next to the X-ray machine. When he saw me giving it a look, he smiled. "Well," he said, "if we're going to have security theater, we ought to have some props to go with it."

Several passengers broke out laughing.

They should hire more people like him. 

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Looking Out ...

Speaking of JFK, chances are you heard about the incident at Kennedy earlier this week. On Monday afternoon a Lufthansa Airbus A340 aborted its takeoff after a taxiing EgyptAir 777, which had been instructed to remain clear of the runway, mistakenly crossed the "hold short" boundary. This wasn't the near miss that some have hyped; the Lufthansa crew stopped well short of the EgyptAir plane, which itself came to a stop before actually entering the runway. Still, any deviation from a "hold short" clearance is serious. A nod to Chris Hawley of the Associated Press for this levelheaded, non-sensationalized account.

On the bright, if ironic side, the FAA reports that runway incursions overall have fallen by an astounding 90 percent since 2001. Credit goes to better training, improved runway and taxiway markings, and overall crew awareness of the issue. Airports are busier and more congested than ever before, and ground collision hazards have been a hot-button issue for some time. I once devoted a column to the issue, here.  The attention seems to have paid off. 

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Call Me an Apologist ...

The media has been reporting how U.S. airlines raked in over $5.5 billion last year in extra service fees. That is, the supplemental charges for luggage, food, itinerary changes and so forth that everybody loathes so much.

That's a lot of money, but the stories have been disingenuous for not bothering to mention that the average airfare remains at or near 1980s levels.

People feel nickel-and-dimed by supplemental fees, but they help keep fares down by allowing people who desire certain extras -- those wishing to check a bag, make a reservations change, buy an on-board snack, etc. -- to absorb a higher share of the cost. Those who don't want such things don't have to buy them.

Sure, these items used to be included in the ticket price. And that ticket price used to be higher. Airlines are easy to pick on, and there's plenty of room for improvement, but the fact is that flying remains affordable, mostly reliable (over 80 percent of flights arrive on-time or better) and astonishingly safe. 

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Heroes Never Die ... 

Capt. Sullenberger's "Miracle on the Hudson" Airbus A320 is back in the news. The jet recently completed its final journey -- by flatbed trailer, sans wings -- from a warehouse in New Jersey to a museum -- a museum! -- in North Carolina.

This is the latest and hopefully the closing chapter in the most overhyped and misrepresented air crash story of all time

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Culture and Music ...

I've been noticing a curiously large number of young urbanites sporting handlebar mustaches lately.

A couple of weeks ago at the Davis Square subway station here in Somerville, Mass., I found myself standing alongside two 20-something hipster dudes, both of whom wore meticulously waxed handlebars. "Hey, um, excuse me," I said. And I asked if they knew who Greg Norton was.

Neither had any idea who I was talking about, at which point I realized that I despise this silly new trend.

And if you too have no idea who Greg Norton is, please, do not grow yourself a handlebar mustache. You don't deserve one.

Google it. Or just look at this picture.

Which reminds me:

I always thought I should be the one to write the official Hüsker Dü biography. But Michael Azzerrad has beat me to it, sort of, having just published "See a Little Light," the biography of former HD guitarist and co-vocalist Bob Mould.

I haven't got a copy yet. I expect that Bob devotes several pages of nostalgic reminiscence to the time I played frisbee with him in the summer of 1984. (The game ended when I accidentally stepped on the frisbee and cracked it in half.)

"See a Little Light" is the name of a song from Mould's "Workbook" album -- his first post-Hüsker solo project, released in 1989. It's an OK song from an OK album, though not remotely on a par with Mould's earlier output.

Michael Azzerrad is also the author of "Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991" -- the definitive memoir/account of the salad days of the U.S. independent rock scene.

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

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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