The Media’s Airplane Problem

Covering aviation isn’t an easy beat, but there are no excuses for shoddy reporting. And please, no more aviation professors!

November 17, 2012

HERE’S ANOTHER GOOD EXAMPLE of laziness in the press’s coverage of airplane stories. In this case it’s an airport story, courtesy of our old friends the Associated Press…

“(AP) A woman driving with her infant son in her car crashed through a gate at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and drove on the runway in the latest in a series of similar mishaps across the country that have raised questions whether the nation’s airports are truly secure. The woman rammed the partially open airport gate around 10 p.m. Thursday and started crossing the runway, police spokesman Sgt. Trent Crump said. Such incidents are troublesome because a vehicle that crashed into a jetliner landing or taking off could cause a catastrophe, whether it was an intoxicated driver behind the wheel or a terrorist, said Jeff Price, an aviation professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.”

“The runway?” Really? May I ask which one? Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) has three runways.

Would it have been that troublesome to simply say, “one of the runways,” or “a runway”?

Though, to be honest, I’m skeptical that the woman drove her car onto a runway at all. I’m skeptical not only because no attempt was made to clarify which one, but because reporters have a bad habit of referring to pretty much any portion of airport tarmac as a “runway.” Taxiways, terminal ramps, etc., are commonly called “runways,” when in fact they are not. I should hardly have to point this out, but a runway is a very specific thing with a very specific purpose: it’s that long and clearly defined strip of pavement that a plane takes off from and lands on.

The silliest part, though, is that line about the dangers of a collision between and airplane and a car. Could such a collision actually cause a catastrophe? Absolutely. But did the reporter really need to call up an aviation professor at some college in Colorado to confirm this? What a bizarre conversation that must have been.

(Actually the silliest part is that the police sergeant’s name is Trent Crump, but that’s not the AP’s fault.)

I have a problem, in general, with the media’s reliance on aviation academics. It’s very common for reporters to cite aviation professors, aerospace researchers, and the like, in their stories. I understand the temptation here, and with certain topics these individuals can offer valuable insights. But what reporters don’t realize is that professors and researchers can be highly unfamiliar with the day-to-day operational aspects of commercial flying. This is not their expertise. If the topic is aerodynamics, meteorology, or something statistical, that’s one thing. But for anything that touches the nitty-gritty of airline operations and the SOPs of flying jetliners, professors are often terrible sources, with little idea what they’re talking about.

This business about runways, meanwhile, reminds us of another annoying habit of the news media: its custom, in pretty much any story about an accident or incident, of referring to “the pilot.”

Commercial jets are flown by a cockpit crew of at least two people: a captain and first officer. The latter is known colloquially as the “copilot”, but they are both pilots, and they are both fully qualified to operate the aircraft.

Citing “the captain” would be better — though bear in mind that the captain may or may not have been the person actually flying the aircraft at the moment of any accident or incident. First officers fly too, performing just as many takeoffs and landings as captains do. And often, during emergencies or other abnormal situations, the captain will handle the checklists and troubleshooting, while delegating the hands-on flying duties to the first officer.

Thus the safest and most accurate option would be to refer to “the crew,” or “the pilots,” plural.

Wait, we’re not finished yet…

We’ve also got the issue of emergency landings. Basically, any and every time a plane diverts or returns to its airport of origin, be it for a mechanical problem, medical issue, or anything else, the event is described as “an emergency landing.”

In fact, the vast majority of what are described as emergency landings are simple, precautionary diversions or returns. Actual emergency landings are rare, and pilots do not employ the term nearly as loosely as the media does. The captain must specifically declare an emergency to air traffic control. Situations vary, but generally it pertains to a situation in which expedited air traffic control handling is requested, and/or aircraft status is uncertain. Even then, most emergencies aren’t anything close to the life-or-death scenarios many passengers (or TV reporters) are prone to imagining.

Last but not least, I’m tired of being told about alleged terrorist schemes to blow up entire airports.

A few weeks ago, the sentencing of would-be Millennium Bomber, Ahmed Ressam, was making the media rounds. Rassam, you might recall, was the fellow caught driving into the US from Canada in 1999 with a trunk full of explosives. He originally was given 22 years in prison, but was re-sentenced in October to 37 years. His plan was to detonate the explosives at LAX. To bomb the airport, in other words. But in story after story after story, both then and now, we have been told that Ressam had intended to “blow up the Los Angeles airport.” If only I had a dollar for every time I’ve read and heard this childish phrase — in newspapers, on the Internet, and on radio and TV.

Rassam maybe have blown up a terminal — or a portion of one. He may have blown up part of the airport. Terrible things, yes. But he was not, under any circumstances, going to destroy the entire LAX complex, or anything remotely close to it.

We heard exactly the same thing in 2007, when three men (one of whom, curiously, had been a member of the Parliament of Guyana) were arrested and convicted in a conspiracy to blow up tanks of jet fuel at Kennedy Airport in New York. Or, as the new stories had it, and continue to have it, they were convicted in a plot to “blow up New York’s Kennedy Airport.” Google it, and start counting.

How exactly does one blow up a 5,000-acre complex — complete with 30 miles of road, nine miles of runway, nine terminals, and dozens of other buildings? Answer: short of possessing a nuclear weapon, you don’t.

I know how this might sound. But these aren’t just petty or semantic complaints. I understand the need for clarity; I understand space constraints and the other editorial excuses. But the press has a duty and obligation to get it right, and it is in the attention to detail that a reader’s trust is ultimately won or lost. And what of extrapolation: If aviation it treated so shoddily, should we not expect the same in matters of law, science or economics?

And these are just the nitpick examples. Rarely is an aviation article free from some measure of distortion, exaggeration, or at times outright nonsense. On the one hand, journalists face a challenge. They are working on deadline, under the pressure of limited word counts, assigned to a topic about which they probably know very little. Aviation is a strange and insular field, overflowing with jargon and recalcitrant spokespeople. It’s not an easy beat.

But the answers are out there. Accurate and reliable sources are available (I, for one, will happily pick up the phone, and I’m usually willing to speak on the record). If nothing else, can’t we get the easy stuff right? The issues above are almost comically obvious and simple to correct.

To be fair, there are reporters whose expertise and accuracy rises above the fray. To name names, I’ll give you Christine Negroni, who writes for the New York Times, Susan Carey at the Wall Street Journal, and the inimitable Richard Quest at CNN.

But these, unfortunately, are the exceptions to the rule. When it comes to airplanes and pilots, mainstream journalism, like Hollywood, usually gets it wrong. Movies we can forgive. The press, however, we hold to a much higher standard. Though sometimes I wonder who is trying harder.


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21 Responses to “The Media’s Airplane Problem”
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  1. John says:

    At one time I had the job of terminating a cable in the teletype room of a major news paper (the heart of the news agency). After finishing, I struck up a conversation with an editor sitting at one of the terminals. I asked him how much of what came in on the teletype made it to the paper, and he responded with “about ten percent”. Just for measure, I asked him how much of that was the truth and he responded “about ten percent of that”.

  2. Richard says:

    I was particularly annoyed once by an online article about a belly landing a few years ago. No one was hurt thankfully. But the report made several references to the plane being forced ‘to land on its undercarriage.’ I made a sarcastic comment that a plane landing on its undercarriage was not exactly news. They then corrected the article, but did not put an editing note to state this (which some newspapers do, and I think should have to) – so my comment was then taken out of context and looked silly.

  3. Tom says:

    I absolutely agree with this article! Aviation and Science are the most common ‘misunderstood’ topics in press.

  4. Jim says:

    Don’t know exactly where to post this link but you may fin it amusing:

  5. Josh says:

    Totally agree with your criticism of the 4th estate. But I too can assert that, while annoying, the media’s ignorance is not limited to the aviation industry. Their hysteria on all things medical-flu, autism, etc. would be laughable if not for the fear it causes the public. I suspect the media behaves the same way in any industry it deems suspect/secret or feels it has a hidden agenda.

    Great articles!

  6. Jeff O'Byrne says:

    Sierra Hotel! It has been my experience that one in a position to develop and publish facts is as unreliable in all areas, therefore: if they make dumb pronouncements in an area in which I have knowledge, they probably are just as wrong in areas that I don’t know about and are not to be trusted.
    Was riding from GTMO to NORVA in a C-141. Halfway down the glide slope we terminated the approach and flew off to Langley. Eventually found out that a P2 had fouled the runway. The amusing thing was the expressions of panic on the many pilots riding as cargo. (It was the COM10 tennis team enroute to the LANTFLT tournament.) Welcome to the back of the bus!!

  7. Martin Sovik says:

    Patrick, I agree with your thoughts here in general. But while you decry a reporter’s use of an aviation academic for operational info on the one hand, you assert on the other that everyone should know that nothing but a nuclear weapon could “blow up” an airport.

    Good reporters generally accept the premise that they don’t know anything, and seek authoritative sources for every judgment. You, for instance, as a pilot, might be authoritative about ops, but not about explosive power. The problem is that(1)there are too few pilots willing to be quoted about ops (even you ducked my question about that notorious Google Earth image of La Guardia with 3 planes in close separation, two on one runway and one on near final approach), and(2)most reporters correctly assume that when someone refers to “blowing up an airport” people are talking about the buildings, not the airside grade level infrastructure. But still, your assertion that it would take a nuke might be wrong, if one could place multiple truck bombs in the correct locations. I don’t know that, I suspect you don’t know that for sure, so one goes to an academic, whose job is to be publicly knowledgeable without breaking security issues.

  8. Dave Beedon says:

    Inaccuracies and exaggerations are annoying and—as you say in your article—cast doubt on the validity of reporting. I agree with the commenter who mentioned the tendency for the news media to over-dramatize in general in the interest of selling their wares. “The National Enquirer” might claim the award for most outrageous articles on many topics, but even mainstream publications are not immune from some pandering or lazy reporting.

  9. keith peers says:

    this is great reading. its all true.

  10. Jeff Latten says:

    Exaggeration sells. What else explains this hysteria? A news article reporting that a pilot had to execute a missed approach and go around again because another aircraft was crossing the active runway, all due to someone in ATC losing track of who was where, would hardly sell any copies, whereas if you titled it “Near Disaster Due to Controller Screw-Up” or something along those lines, now you have front page above-the-fold material. There’s an old showbiz saying:”know your audience” and obviously the media realizes that the public loves hysterics. In the tug of war between accuracy and deadlines, deadlines win.

  11. Randall says:

    Hey Patrick, point of curiosity: what is the most common type of “emergency landing?” I am guessing it would be a fuel emergency during one of those massive-storm-closes-down-the-North-East events, with aircraft stacked-up waiting for permission to land at a now over-tasked divert field. The passengers and media would never know the pilot declared an emergency, and the landing would be normal.

    But that does not sound exciting like the rare mechanical problem.

    • Patrick says:

      Well, strictly speaking, medical emergencies (sick passengers) are far and away the most common type of emergency. But, in the sense that you’re thinking, it’s probably mechanical malfunctions more than anything else. A no-flap or partial-flap landing, for example, or trouble related to brakes or landing gear. Things like this aren’t terribly uncommon. Neither are they all that serious, usually. Declaration of an emergency is, nine times out of ten, a “just in case” thing — a means of getting priority handling from ATC, and also a means of covering your butt should something unexpected happen. — PS

    • Siegfried says:

      There was actually an incident in Europe a few months ago when exactly that happened: Two diverted planes declared emergency (or priority for what I know) because of low fuel after spending more than half an hour in a holding pattern at a Spanish airport. The media made a huge fuzz about it and it was generally questioned whether it is safe to fly with that particular airline or not because the pilots would be forced to fly with “not enough fuel” due to economical reasons.

  12. Moof says:

    I flew to Madrid-Barajas Airport terminal 4 two days after it had been dramatically “blown up” in a terrorist incident that “brought airport security into question”.

    Hell, Even the Wikipedia article is egging the pudding, at least in the introduction:

    “The attack, one of the most powerful carried out by ETA, damaged the airport terminal and destroyed the entire parking structure.”

    One van exploded. Part of the parking structure were weakened, and some did fly off, which hit the terminal, creating mostly cosmetic damage to the terminal. 2 people sadly died, and another 52 were injured.

    All that being said, the parking building at Terminal 4 is huge. When I was there a few days later it had been declared safe to park in, other than module D, which was the one that had been damaged, and operations were happening as normal, even if there were a few more police around. In fact, flights to other terminals weren’t even interrupted at the time of the blast.

    It’s quite difficult to “blow up” an entire airport. It’s a lot easier to shut it down by leaving unattended luggage somewhere when security people are feeling jumpy because they’ve been fed one too many stories of people who can “blow up” an airport. There are genuine fears regarding airport security, but most of the ones the press go on about are there to fill space.

  13. David M. says:

    Ah Patrick…I always get a chuckle out of those “emergency landings” we always hear about.

    The plane landed on 3 sets of gear, stopped normally, taxiied to the terminal, and everyone walked off under their own power. What was the big deal again?

    In all my years of flying, I’ve only had one missed approach – and it turned out to be an utter non-event. It was highly turbulent, though…the worst that happened is a couple of passengers threw the heck up. OTOH, I was fascinated by the procedure.

    Wish they’d tell us only when one comes down in pieces killing hundreds, and left the routine stuff out of the headlines entirely. But “DRAMATIC EMERGENCY LANDING” sells the papers, doesn’t it?

  14. Matt says:

    I have a problem with the usage of the word ‘tarmac’ to describe anything having to do with an airport on this side of the world (or pretty much anywhere else). There hasn’t been a true ‘tarmac’ in use at a major airport in this country in decades.

      • Kim Hinton says:

        I absolutely love your Glossary feature Pat. I didn’t know all that about Tarmac. Now I do. I especially love how you explain the common crew callouts a person hears on a flight. So very informative!

        One thing I would add about the Captain/First Officer positions. I would mention, besides the cockpit being dual qualified, that on any given flight your First Officer might have been a Captain on a previous flight with a different airline. With the demise of airlines such as Eastern Airlines and Pan American, just to name a few, scores of pilots have been forced to start at the bottom of the seniority list once again. Of course, I know YOU know that, but maybe your readers don’t.

        I love your wonderful website and blog Patrick! Very Cool!

  15. Sadly, this is far from an “airplane problem”. The mainstream media reporting on pretty much everything is laden with “distortion, exaggeration, or at times outright nonsense”.

  16. Roger says:

    Hollywood has also convinced people that the slightest mechanical interactions result in huge spectacular explosions. Of course it is possible, but extremely improbable.