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January 9, 2017.   The Airport-Fortress.

Just a quick note on last week’s fatal shooting in Fort Lauderdale, in which a lone gunman killed five people. What’s bothering me is the temptation to analyze this incident through the crucible of airport security. We expect as much, of course, but still it’s frustrating.

How to deal with a proliferation of firearms? How to restrict mentally ill people from running amok with them? Regardless of your Second Amendment opinions, those are useful and reasonable arguments right now. What’s less useful are suggestions that we should be arming TSA guards or barricading airports entirely. We heard these ideas in the wake of the airport attacks in Istanbul and Brussels, and we’re hearing them again. What to do about the “soft targets” of the check-in counters and terminal lobbies? The New York Times described airport baggage claim as a “weak spot” in security. The implication is that our airports aren’t yet secure enough, and that only more barricades, checkpoints, cameras, and armed guards will make them so. People are asking if perhaps terminals need to be closed off to everybody except ticketed passengers and employees, with security checkpoints moved onto the sidewalk.

As if, by moving the fences, we’re somehow safe. The only thing these “solutions” would actually do is shift the perimeter, and the busy choke point of passengers, to a new location. This means nothing to an attacker, whose target has simply been relocated from one spot to a different, no less convenient one. But it would mean immense amounts of hassle for everybody else.

Airport terror attacks are nothing new, by the way. In 1972, the Japanese Red Army murdered 26 people in the arrivals lounge at Lod Airport outside Tel Aviv (today’s Ben Gurion International). In 1985, the Abu Nidal group killed 20 in a pair of coordinated ticket counter assaults in Vienna and Rome. In 2002, a gunman shot three people near the El Al ticket counter at LAX, and in 2011 a suicide bomber at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport killed 35 people. Plus last year’s attacks in Brussels and Istanbul.

The murders at FLL baggage claim do not seem to have been be politically motivated. And although we’re understandably twitchy when it comes to airports, this could have happened anywhere: at a mall, in a parking lot, in a theater, in a public park. Indeed mass killings have happened in exactly those places before, and in many others. The location in this instance strikes me as incidental, and is pushing the conversation in the wrong directions.

December 29, 2016.   Coincidence of the Macabre.

THE ANSWER TO THIS QUIZ IS NOW POSTED BELOW.

Commercial flying has never been as safe as it is right now, and usually I go out of my way to remind people of this. Every now and then, however, I get a little morbid. (If you’re a nervous flyer made uneasy by talk of crashes and disasters, you should immediately stop reading.) My post the other day about the anniversary of the Pan Am 103 bombing got me thinking about something, and I managed to put together the following list. Each of these was a historically significant air disaster of one type or another. The causes and circumstances run the gamut, from sabotage to pilot error. There is one thing, however, that all of them share. It’s not an especially meaningful thing, but it’s a peculiarly coincidental one. Can you tell me what it is?

The first reader with the correct answer wins an autographed copy of my book, or, if he or she prefers, an Emirates first class stationery kit identical to one you see below, held in the stumpy, Trumpian fingers of yours truly. Send your response to patricksmith@askthepilot.com.

In no special order…

Pan Am 103 (Blown up over Lockerbie in 1988)
Pan Am 1736 (Collides with KLM 747 at Tenerife in 1977. History’s worst air disaster)
KAL 007 (Korean Air Lines 747 shot down by the Soviets in 1983)
American 587 (Airbus A300 goes down seconds after takeoff from JFK airport in New York)
Swissair 111 (MD-11 crashes off Nova Scotia after an onboard fire)
TWA 800 (Fuel tank explosion destroys 747 headed from JFK to Paris)
Air France 4590 (A chartered Concorde crashes near Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris)
Avianca 52 (Boeing 707 crashes in Cove Neck, New York, in 1990, after running out of fuel)
EgyptAir 990 (Pilot intentionally crashes a 767 bound for Cairo, killing all aboard)
Eastern 66 (Watershed disaster in 1975 ushers in the study of windshear and microbursts)

 

And the answer is…

All of the crashes in the list involved flights that originated from, or were destined for, John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City. Quite strange if you think about it. No other airport can be linked to so much infamy. Apparently some nefarious cosmic force has a grudge against JFK. Which worries me a bit since I’m based there.

Congrats to Andrea Georger of New York City for being first with the correct answer. She took the stationery.

December 21, 2016.   Lockerbie and the Solstice.

Wednesday, December 21st, is the winter solstice and either the shortest or longest day of the year, depending on your hemisphere. It also marks the 28th anniversary of one of the most notorious terrorist bombings, the 1988 downing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Flight 103, a Boeing 747 named Clipper Maid of Seas, was bound from London to New York, when it blew up in the evening sky about a half-hour after takeoff. All 259 passengers and crew were killed, along with eleven people on the ground in Lockerbie, where an entire neighborhood was virtually demolished. Debris was scattered for miles. Until 2001, this was the deadliest-ever terror attack against American civilians. A photograph of the decapitated cockpit and first class section of the 747, lying crushed on its side in a field, became an icon of the disaster, and is perhaps the saddest air crash photo of all time.

maid-of-the-seas

Two Libyans, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, were later tried in the Netherlands for the bombing. Fhimah was acquitted, but al-Megrahi was convicted and sentenced to life.

The government of Mohammar Khaddafy would also be held responsible for the 1989 destruction of UTA flight 772. Few Americans remember this incident, but it has never been forgotten in France (UTA, a globe-spanning carrier based in Paris, was eventually absorbed by Air France). A hundred and seventy people were killed when an explosive device went off in the forward luggage hold of the DC-10 on a flight from Congo. The wreckage fell into the Tenere region of the Sahara, in northern Niger, one of the planet’s most remote areas. (Years later, a remarkable memorial, incorporating a section of the plane’s wing, was constructed in the desert where the wreckage landed.)

Khaddafy eventually agreed to blood money settlements for Libya’s hand in both the UTA and Pan Am attacks. The UTA agreement doled out a million dollars to each of the families of the 170 victims.  More than $2.7 billion was allotted to the Lockerbie next of kin. 

The investigation into the Lockerbie bombing was one of the most fascinating and intensive in history. Much of the footwork took place on the Mediterranean island of Malta, where the explosive device, hidden inside a Toshiba radio and packed into a suitcase, was assembled and sent on its way. The deadly suitcase traveled first from Malta to Frankfurt, and from there onward to London. Both Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah had been employees of Libyan Arab Airlines, and Fhimah was the station manager there in Malta. During my vacation to the island a couple of years ago, it was a little eerie when I found myself walking past the Libyan Airlines ticket office, which is still there, just inside the gate to the old city of Valletta.

In 2009, in a move that has startled the world, Scottish authorities struck a deal with the Libyan government, and al-Megrahi, terminally ill at the time, was allowed to return home, to be with his family in his final days. He was welcomed back as a hero by many.

There’s lots to read online about flight 103, including many ghastly day-after pictures from Lockerbie. But instead of focusing on the gorier aspects, check out the amazing story of Ken Dornstein, whose brother perished at Lockerbie, and his dogged pursuit of what really happened. (Dornstein, like me, is a resident of Somerville, Massachusetts, and he lives within walking distance. I’d like to meet him one of these days.)

November 30, 2016.   The Colombia Crash, and a Primer on Fuel.

A charter flight crashed yesterday near Medellin, Colombia, killing 71 people, including most members of a popular Brazilian soccer team. The aircraft was a British-built Avro RJ85, a variant of the British Aerospace BAe-146, a four-engined regional jet considered obsolete in most of the world. The jet was operated by a small company called LaMia Airlines, based in Bolivia, and was en route from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to Medellin. The distance between Santa Cruz and Medellin is about 1,845 miles, and the published range of the Avro RJ85 is, well, 1,845 miles. Indeed fuel exhaustion seems to have been be the culprit, but know that the aircraft range figures cited on websites — and which the media keep throwing around as hard facts — are estimates. Range is more accurately measured by time, not distance, though even that can vary. There is simply no fixed range for any aircraft type. It depends on wind, weather, and altitude.

Calculating the amount of required fuel is a somewhat scientific undertaking. Crews do not ballpark the load with a cursory glance at a gauge, as you might do in a car before a road trip. The regulations can be intricate, especially when flying internationally, and will vary from country to country (a plane is beholden to its nation of registry, plus any local requirements if they’re more stringent), but the U.S. domestic rule is a good indicator of how conservatively things work: There must always be enough to carry a plane to its intended destination, then to its designated alternate airport(s), and then for at least another 45 minutes. The resulting minimum is nonnegotiable. Sometimes, if weather criteria so dictate, two or more alternates need to be filed in a flight plan, upping the total accordingly. If traffic delays are expected, even more will be added. At the bigger airlines, it’s licensed dispatchers and planners who devise the final figures, but the captain has the final say and can request more still. I’m unfamiliar with Bolivian or Colombian regulations, but some version of the U.S. rules are more or less universal.

So, if LaMia flight 2933 succumbed to empty tanks, was it gross negligence, a malfunction, or some combination of the two? Well, it’s worth noting that the captain of the flight was also the co-owner of the company, and Colombian media is speculating as to whether he refrained from declaring a low-fuel emergency to avoid potential penalties against both him and the carrier. Rushing to judgment so soon after a crash is usually a bad idea, but it’s not looking good for LaMia.

However, keep in mind that LaMia is a tiny company and not a commercial airline in the usual sense of the term. Regardless of what countries they are from, established carriers do not play fast and loose with fuel rules. They just don’t. Meanwhile, I know, the words “Bolivia” and “air safety” don’t necessarily feel right in the same sentence, but try to keep an open mind. The South American nation has a long and proud aviation heritage. The former national carrier, LAB, was one of the oldest airlines in the world.

November 15, 2016.   The New Roo.

qantas-new-livery-787

When I heard that Qantas was unveiling a new livery, to coincide with the launch of its Boeing 787 Dreamliner (shown above), it was all I could do to look. Over the past decade or so, the trend in airline branding has gone from bad to worse, and there was every reason to think Qantas was no doubt turning to yet another of the swirly-curly-curvy motifs that have become so nauseatingly common (and difficult to tell apart). Well, I finally took a peek, I’m happy to say the results aren’t bad. It’s more of an update than an overhaul, and it retains the basic template. Up on the tail, the famous kangaroo has been smoothed around the edges. The new ‘roo is a little too fluid and abstracted. It looks a bit like a scribble, and the poor thing has lost its arms in the process. I’m not sure why they felt this change was needed, as the current kangaroo hardly looks cumbersome or old-fashioned, and it’s every bit as streamlined, even with all its appendages. But it’s still the Qantas kangaroo, and is more less less instantly identifiable as such, which is the important thing. It could have been a lot worse. I’m take-it-or-leave-it on the gray accenting, and there’s a nakedness to the fuselage that cries out for a dash of red somewhere — maybe on the engine cowlings. The bolder and more stylish QANTAS typeface, however, is a handsome improvement. I’d have gone with the new lettering and left the tail alone. All in all, it’s a strong look.

New tail left; old tail right

New tail left; old tail right

October 20, 2016.   Miracle Over Baghdad, 2003.

I still haven’t mustered up the courage to see “Sully,” the new movie starring Tom Hanks as Chesley Sullenberger, captain of the U.S. Airways jet that ditched in the Hudson River in 2009. Those who’ve watched it say the technical aspects were usually well done, which is encouraging. But that’s not what’s keeping me away. As discussed already, my gripe with the movie — with the whole idea of the movie — is less about overplaying the “heroics” of Sullenberger than frustration over the fact that so many other pilots, who faced considerably more harrowing circumstances, never got their due. Sullenberger is a consummate professional who has handled his fame as deftly as he handled that Airbus, but with all due respect, I’m convinced that had flight 1549 not come splashing down alongside the world’s media capital in broad daylight, the event would be seen in a more reasonable and deserving context.

“Why don’t we have a John Testrake movie? Why don’t we have a Bernard Dhellemme movie?” I asked in my earlier critique, I wrote also about Donald Cameron and Claude Ouimet, the pilots of Air Canada flight 797, who managed — barely — to get their burning jet onto the runway in Cincinnati in 1987. It took so much effort to fly the plane that they passed out from exhaustion after touchdown. Also I brought up Al Haynes, the United Airlines captain who, ably assisted by three other pilots, guided his crippled DC-10 to a crash landing in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989, after a disintegrated engine fan had bled out all three of the plane’s hydraulics systems, resulting in a total loss of flight controls. Well, if I was going to mention Haynes, who is fairly well-known because of that accident, at least in some circles, I probably should have included a similar incident that happened in 2003, involving an Airbus freighter flown on behalf of DHL, the global shipping company, by a Belgian-based outfit called European Air Transport. The flight was struck in the right wing by a shoulder-fired missile over Baghdad. Like the DC-10 that Haynes was flying, all of the wide body jet’s hydraulic systems failed, taking the flight controls with them. For all practical purposes, the plane, an older model Airbus A300, was uncontrollable. Yet astonishingly, using nothing but engine thrust to maintain altitude and direction, the three-man crew was able to land safely after 16 minutes. The pilots, none of whom you’ve heard of and none of whom will have a Hollywood movie made after them, were captain Éric Gennotte, first officer Steeve Michielsen, and second officer Mario Rofail. I’ll take a daylight ditching in the Hudson any day of the week over what they had to deal with. You can read more about this remarkable incident here.

DHL A300

DHL damage

October 5, 2016.   American Revisionism.

In 2013, when American Airlines announced its first livery makeover in forty years, nobody was more appalled than me. I have to say, three years on, the look has grown on me.

The tail, at least, has earned my hard-won appreciation. The piano-key flag motif is distinctive and handsome; even patriotic, without being jingoistic or in-your-face about it. Still, I can’t give the makeover an overall thumb-up. What’s that they say about the baby and the bathwater? Well, unfortunately, it’s that dastardly little logo — that weird, vapid, vertical banner with the curved nose — that continues to ruin the entire thing. Arguably the ugliest corporate trademark ever adopted by a major airline — I once described it as “a linoleum knife cutting through a shower curtain” — it gives American Airlines all the look and feel of a bank or a credit card company. The carrier can never be forgiven for trashing Massimo Vignelli’s timeless “AA” trademark, first unveiled in 1967. How close. If only they’d gone with Vignelli’s “AA” and the piano-key tail, the result would’ve been a winner:

AA Livery How It Should Be

aa-logo-combo

September 1, 2016.   Remembering Joe Sutter.

Joe Sutter, the visionary creator of the Boeing 747, died on August 30th. He was 95 years-old. I don’t have many heroes, but Joe Sutter is one of them. The sheer improbability of the 747 program is hard to fathom. Sutter led a team of more than four thousand engineers, and turned what began as a napkin doodle into the most important and most iconic jetliner ever built — in less than thirty months! When the 747 entered service with Pan Am in January, 1970, it was double the size of any existing plane, and its stupendous economies of scale ushered in the era of affordable long-range jet travel. And it did so in style. The 747 wasn’t just big, it was beautiful.

More than 1,500 747s have been sold over five decades — more than any other Boeing save for the much smaller 737. It was the largest jet in the sky for some forty years, until finally being eclipsed by the double-decked Airbus A380. The tragedy there is that the A380, for all of its size and technological prowess, was engineered without a shred of the 747’s grace. A sort of anti-747, it’s possibly the ugliest commercial plane ever conceived. The 747 remains in production, but for how long is anyone’s guess. The latest derivative, the 747-8, hasn’t sold very well and there’s talk of shutting down the line. More than four hundred are still in service, however, and the jet won’t be going extinct any time soon. The way I describe it, the 747 is the Empire State Building of airplanes: It’s no longer the biggest, or the flashiest. But it’s still the classiest, the most elegant and dignified.

Sutter

Joe Sutter and the prototype 747. Note the insignias of the jet’s first customers. We see the logos of Pan Am, TWA, American, United, Continental, Lufthansa, JAL, Air France, Aer Lingus and World Airways, among others. And a little-known fact: the 747 that made the inaugural commercial flight, from JFK to Heathrow on January 21st, 1970, was Pan Am’s Clipper Victor. As fate would have it, this was the same aircraft destroyed at Tenerife seven years later.

Sutter looks like Pat Buchanan’s long-lost twin.

August 24, 2016.   Time to Celebrate “National Aviation Day.”

Last Friday, August 19th, was National Aviation Day.

Who knew? Not me. I only found out because a reader asked me about it. I’d never heard of it before and had to look it up. Turns out National Aviation Day goes all the way back to 1939. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s idea. He chose August 19th because it’s Orville Wright’s birthday. According to Wikipedia, the idea is to “encourage citizens to observe the day with activities that promote interest in aviation.”

I’m unsure how much the average citizen can or should do to “promote interest in aviation.” Stand in a TSA line? Have lunch at Chick-Fil-A? Sorry, but I’m just not feeling it. I’m tired, jaded, frustrated. And if this summer is any indication, I think maybe we’ve stretched this aviation thing as far as it can go. Have you been to an airport lately? The crowds are overflowing, the noise levels are insane, the lines are endless and the delays are piling up. My flight the other day from Boston to New York — a 35-minute hop — was delayed for three hours because of “flow control” into JFK! And heaven forbid a thunderstorm roll in. Our airspace is so super-saturated with planes — half of them regional jets — that the slightest meteorological ripple tips the whole system into chaos. We’ve hit Maximum Aviation.

Yeah, flying sucks because we’ve made it that way, with inefficient use of airspace, mindless security rules, and so on. But one thing for sure, it hasn’t kept the people away. As I type this I’m sitting in a terminal at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. There are so many people here, surging through the concourses, that you can hardly see the floor — a great, streaming river of miserable-looking, stressed-out humanity. Where is everybody going?

“Final boarding for Kigali.” KLM has a nonstop flight — an Airbus A330 no less — to Kigali, Rwanda, among dozens of other far-flung places. I love traveling, and I wish that I was on that flight, right now. Just the same, I have to ask: are there really that many people who need to travel from Europe to Rwanda? Is all of this moving around really necessary? All of these people — the countless businesspeople; the throngs of college kids with their hoodies and backpacks; the soccer teams and the infants and the infirm — constantly on the move, across entire oceans and continents.

For me there’s a troubling paradox: The more I travel, the more I’m of the mind that people ought to be staying the heck home.

I know, what a buzz-kill, right? Shame on me. This is a flagrant dereliction of my duties and responsibilities as pilot-blogger and air travel advocate.

Here, maybe we should revisit this older post of mine.

That’s the spirit! In the meantime, I need a vacation, maybe. A trip somewhere.

August 18, 2016.   The Jetway Giant.

The photo below, taken a couple of weeks ago, shows an Air India 777 at Kennedy Airport. I’m not a huge fan of Air India’s newest livery, but I’m happy they stayed with the little Taj-Mahalian patterns around the cabin windows — though they aren’t as detailed as they used to be.

But look, also, at the boarding bridge. Is there a boarding bridge anywhere that doesn’t say “HSBC” on it? How did this company come to display its logo on virtually every jetway on earth?

By spending a lot of money, is how. I’m not sure this advertising strategy has been all that effective, however, because although millions of people see these four letters every day, relatively few of them know what they’re looking at. I did a little impromptu research, asking several of my colleagues if they knew what HSBC was. Not one of them could tell me.

HSBC is a British bank, originally founded in Shanghai and Hong Kong. The letters stand for “Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.” It’s currently the biggest bank in the world measured by assets. The company pays tens of millions of dollars every years to airport authorities the world over — mostly at major international hubs — for the rights to put its name on the boarding bridges. (We might also note that in 2012, HSBC paid the largest fine in commercial banking history — $1.9 billion — for laundering money from drug cartels and terror groups.)

There’s a tie-in, too, with the Swire Group, which owns most of Cathay Pacific Airways, the airline of Hong Kong. Notice HSBC’s red-and-white, double-semaphore logo. The Swire Group’s logo is almost the same. Look closely and you’ll see this mark appears on the back of every Cathay Pacific jet, on the rear fuselage near the plane’s registration, along with the word “Swire.”

Air India & HSBC

Cathay Swire

August 4, 2016.   Long-Haul, Small Plane.

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) is the latest in a seemingly endless parade of carriers launching service from Boston-Logan to points overseas. What’s curious, though, is the choice of aircraft. Boston to Copenhagen in a little old 737! At around seven hours and thirty minutes flying time, the westbound leg of this service has to be one of the longest 737 routes anywhere in the world. There’s a wrinkle, though. The flight is actually operated on behalf of SAS, by a Swiss company called PrivatAir. And, the airplane is the small-bodied, long-range “BBJ” (Boeing Business Jet) variant of the 737, configured for only 86 passengers, with 20 business class seats and a spacious, 66-seat economy cabin. Still, that’s a long time to be sitting in a 737. This is yet another example of the venerable 737 being pushed into roles it was never intended for. This picture was taken at terminal E. SAS uses the gates at the eastern end of the building — those once used by Northwest, and Braniff before that.

SK 737

July 27, 2016.   What’s In a Name?

Photo of a KLM 747 — the “City of Melbourne” — at Kennedy Airport, taken a few weeks ago after a rain shower. I wish that more airlines named their planes. KLM is one of a small number of carriers who do this. (JetBlue is on that list as well, but their choices tend to be insufferably annoying.) Most memorable, of course, were the old Pan Am “Clipper” designations — a tradition tragically immortalized in 1988, in the famous photo of the crushed nose section of the “Clipper Maid of the Seas” lying in the grass in Lockerbie. There’s a segment about plane names in chapter seven of my book.

KLM was established in 1919, and is the oldest airline in the world. Three years from now it will celebrate its one-hundredth anniversary! The letters stand for Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij, which translates to “Royal Aviation Company.” KLM is one of a handful of truly “global” carriers, flying just about everywhere from its hub at Amsterdam. It operates 24 Boeing 747s, plus a sizable fleet of 777s, A330s and 787s. Intra-Europe routes are flown by 737s. The carrier recently introduced its first Airbus A350.

KLM at JFK rainshower

July 12, 2016.   TWA 800 Redux.

Next week will Mark the 20th anniversary of the TWA 800 disaster. The Boeing 747 crashed after takeoff from Kennedy Airport when its empty center fuel tank exploded, killing 230 people. The investigation into the explosion was one of the most thorough and expensive in aviation history, but from the beginning there have been people who haven’t accepted the findings, convinced instead that the jet was downed by one or more missiles launched accidentally from a nearby U.S. Navy ship. Among the most vocal of the conspiracy mongers is Jack Cashill, who whose new book is called, The Crash, the Coverup and the Conspiracy. Those of you in the conspiracy camp might first want to read Christine Negroni’s take-down of Cashill before shelling out for his book.

Fuel tank explosions, uncommon as they are, are not unprecedented. According to Christine Negroni there have been at least 26 such explosions of one form or another, on both civilian and military aircraft. Most occurred in the 1960s or 1970s, and they’ll be rarer still now that the FAA has mandated tougher wiring inspections and the installation of nitrogen inerting systems for empty tanks. A tank explosion once destroyed a Thai Airways 737 parked at the gate in Bangkok, killing a flight attendant.

crash Flight 800 plane crash  accidents aviation

The full report on flight 800 is long and daunting, but among the more compelling bits of evidence is this: according to the black boxes, there had been intermittent problems affecting the plane’s cockpit voice recorder and number four (the 747 has four engines) fuel-flow indicators just minutes before the crash. These anomalies would seem unrelated, but it so happens the wire bundle to both components passes just above the center fuel tank, and is the same wire bundle suspected of having caused the explosion (investigators found the wires crimped and cracked, and suspect they’d been damaged during repairs that had taken place two weeks prior). The problems with the gauge and the CVR were consistent with the wires short-circuiting, and this short-circuit would ignite the fuel vapors moments later. This is about at close to a smoking gun as you’ll get. Additionally, there had been water leaks reported in and around the center section galley in the days leading up to the crash. This galley sits directly on top of the wire bundle.

Meanwhile, numerous witnesses claim to have to seen what looked like a missile streaking toward the 747. Or, that’s what they think they saw. What they likely were looking at was the outward trajectory of the explosion — flaming pieces of the airplane moving rapidly away from the initial blast. It’s very common for people to misinterpret the relative motion and other details of fast-moving things in the air, particularly when their attention is drawn to them suddenly — missiles, meteorites, airplanes. Many of the TWA eyewitnesses who heard something and then looked up, were 50-60 seconds behind the event due to speed of sound. Moreover, as any crash expert will tell you, eyewitness accounts in general are notoriously unreliable.

And beyond the wreckage forensics and witness testimony, accepting the friendly fire missile theory means we have to accept the idea of a complete, utterly seamless coverup that has lasted two decades. When the Navy accidentally shot down an Iran Air jet in 1988, killing 290 people, it took approximately five minutes for the truth to come out. Isn’t the idea of such an airtight conspiracy just a little bit unrealistic?

July 6, 2016.   Observation Decks

I took this photo from the cockpit about a week ago. That’s the observation deck at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport (yet another of Schiphol’s numerous little conveniences). What a great space. Once upon a time, every big airport had a deck like this. Where they still exist, they remain popular. You don’t need to be an airplane geek to appreciate the view and a chance to escape the noise and in-your-face retail onslaught of the terminal. Schiphol’s is an outdoor deck, which is maybe not ideal considering the Dutch weather, but it allowed them to install that old KLM Fokker 100 as part of the scenery. The dearth of observation decks these days no doubt ties into our obsession with security — a conversation too aggravating to have at the moment, so let’s not have it.

The greatest observation deck of all was the old 16th-floor platform in the control tower at Boston-Logan. This was my home-away-from-home pretty much every weekend from sixth grade through high school. Sadly, it’s been closed for over two decades now, converted into an operations room for the Massachusetts Port Authority. From my book: It featured opposing sides of knee-to-ceiling windows and the best view in town. It’s a scant two miles from Logan’s perimeter seawall to the center of downtown, and you observed the city and its airport in a state of working symbiosis. Passengers relaxed on carpeted benches while kids and families came on the weekends, feeding coins into the mechanical binoculars and picnicking on the floor. It made the airport a destination unto itself, like a park or a museum, and encouraged a kind of civic togetherness rarely seen at airports.

Schiphol Observation Deck

June 24, 2016.   Clamping Down on the Pilot Threat.

TSA is having a bad summer, and I feel a little guilty piling on, but sometimes they deserve it. Yesterday at Kennedy airport there were five — count them, five — TSA guards stationed in front of the doorway to my carrier’s operations room, doing random baggage checks on… pilots. This was in full view of passengers, in the middle of the afternoon at one of the country’s busiest airports. The security lines were not short. You would think, with all of the bad press and controversy surrounding this summer’s interminable checkpoint lines, TSA would, if only for public relations purposes, avoid making a spectacle of its otherwise well-established lack of common sense. The pilot checks were random, and the five “officers” spent the vast majority of the time just standing there talking to each other.

June 23, 2016.   Back to Belgrade.

Air Serbia is the newest livery at New York’s Kennedy Airport. The carrier has begun nonstop service to Belgrade using an Airbus A330. This is the first New York-Belgrade flight in, well, ages. Back in the day, the former Yugoslavian carrier JAT flew the route using DC-10s. This picture was taken yesterday at Kennedy’s terminal four. The plane is named “Nikola Tesla,” in honor of the famous Serbian-American inventor. In the background, with the blue and yellow paint job, you can see an Uzbekistan Airways 767, preparing for that carrier’s departure to Riga, Latvia, with onward service to Tashkent. This flight is the only same-plane service between the United States and Central Asia, and the Riga portion is the only nonstop between the United States and the Baltics. JFK remains the most global of U.S. airports. It’s always a thrill, at least for dweebs like me, picking out the tails of the more exotic carriers.

Air Serbia

June 8, 2016.   Getting Freaky.

In what is sure to go down as one of the most historic moments in broadcast history, Patrick Smith is interviewed by Freakonomics guru Stephen J. Dubner in the most recent “Freakonomics Radio” podcast, produced with WNYC in New York City. The conversation includes his petulant responses to a series of listener-submitted questions.

To listen, click on the image below. As these things typically go, they edited the conversation and omitted one or two of what I thought were fun questions. Overall, though, the interview went pretty well.

Freakonomics Podcast

May 30, 2016.   DXB: The World’s Megahub.

DXB Departures

Each time that I pass through Dubai International Airport, it knocks my socks off. DXB is now the world’s biggest and busiest international transfer hub. Emirates’ massive Terminal 3 is the largest airline terminal in the world, and the lineup of aircraft is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Try to imagine the sight of 50 or more A380s, and dozens and dozens of 777s, all parked side-by-side. Here’s a shot of the DXB departure board that will give you some idea of what I mean. This shows just a three-hour window, between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. And keep in mind that almost every one of these departures is an A380 or a 777-300. (My flight was EK 701, seen lower right, one of Emirates twice-daily A380 departures to Mauritius.) There are flights to six continents and across every ocean. Throughout the long history of commercial aviation, nothing like this has ever existed.

The growth of Emirates and the other Persian Gulf carriers, Qatar Airways and Etihad (together they are frequently referred to as the “Gulf 3” or “G3”) has been controversial. Lavish government subsidies, many argue, have permitted these airlines to take a huge and unfair advantage over our own carriers. Is this true? Sure. But it’s also true that these airlines’ hubs — Dubai, Qatar, and Abu Dhabi — are ideally situated, geographically, to connect the world’s biggest population centers. More critically, though, the governments of these countries understand that the commerce generated by air travel is something to be nurtured rather than hindered. This isn’t government subsidizing, it’s government investment in something that everybody benefits from. As a result, transferring at Dubai is a breeze: security takes about 25 seconds; everything leaves on time; everything is big and clean and fast and efficient. Here in the U.S., our airports are undersized and dirty, security screening has gone off the rails, and consider the misery we put international connecting passengers through. You ask if the complaint of government subsidies is valid. Yes, but it’s less a complaint against their governments than a complaint against ours. Once upon a time, we were commercial aviation’s global leader. That was then.

Emirates’ advertising slogan is “Hello Tomorrow,” which sounds to me like the slogan for a theme park. They should change it to “The Airline of Planet Earth.” Because it sounds better, and because it is. (In exchange for the use of this slogan, I ask for unlimited complimentary first class travel.)

May 3, 2016.   Memories of Widebodies Past.

NationalTimetable

This old National Airlines timetable from 1973 — part of my timetable collection — makes me nostalgic for the days when widebody planes were the norm on U.S. domestic flights. When I was a kid in the late 1970s and into the 80s, coast-to-coast flights were always on DC-10s, L-1011s, or, in many cases, 747s, with seating for up to 500 people. Even on shorter trips widebodies were common. I grew up in Boston (where I live still), and American Airlines flew DC-10s between here and Chicago, and even to Bermuda; Eastern flew L-1011s to Orlando and San Juan; Delta L-1011s would take you to Bermuda, Atlanta, and Miami. Northwest used DC-10s between Boston and Minneapolis, Detroit, and at one point even to Washington, D.C. I once flew from Boston to JFK on a TWA L-1011. Eastern operated its famous Shuttle between BOS and LGA using Airbus A300s with more than 250 seats! And so on. Nowadays, on pretty much all of these routes, you’ll find yourself on a much smaller 737, an A320, or even a regional jet. A 757 if you’re lucky. More people are flying than ever before, it’s true, but the average aircraft size has been steadily shrinking. What’s happened is that the U.S. airline industry has fragmented. There are more airlines flying between more cities. Also, starting in 1979, Deregulation meant that carriers could no longer fly around huge planes with only half of the seats taken and still make money. And nowadays, frequency has become the name of the game. Why offer three daily nonstops to LAX using 300-seat planes, when you can offer six flights using 150-seat planes? Among the downsides of this evolution is that it’s clogged up our airspace and airports. Sure, there are more flights to more cities. There also are more delays.

April 25, 2016.   Route Map Envy.

It’s depressing that America has no such thing as a truly “global” airline. Once upon a time there was Pan Am, but nowadays our biggest carriers seem content to pull back and let their code-share partners do much of the heavy lifting. Not that “global” has any specific definition, but it’s the likes of British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, and, of course, Emirates, that although they don’t carry as many people overall, have the most expansive route networks. Or how about Turkish Airlines, which flies to more countries than anybody in the world. United Airlines is, maybe, the closest thing we’ve got. United’s Pacific network, most of it inherited from Pan Am and Continental, is bigger than that of some Asian carriers. The airline is huge across Europe, and flies to a solid number of South American cities as well. United has a single destination in Africa, but it’s also the only U.S. airline to maintain a presence in India, operating nonstops to both Delhi and Mumbai from its Newark hub. But these routes aside, there’s an enormous swath of real estate extending from, essentially, Eastern Europe all the way across to China, that is pretty much untouched by the American “big three” of United, American, or Delta. For example, aside from Tel Aviv, there is not a single city in the Middle East served by any of these airlines. Pan Am has been gone for 25 years, but TWA was operating to Riyadh and Cairo until 2001. As recently as 2009, Delta was flying to Cairo, Amman, Dubai, Istanbul and Kuwait (yes, IST is more Europe than the Middle East, but still). All of these routes are gone. Sure, geopolitics has something to do with it, as does simple geography and the relative isolation of our continent, with huge oceans on either side. But that can’t be the whole story. After all, the big European airlines fly to as many cities in South America as United or Delta do. With our carriers as profitable as they are, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more expansion. United is opening up markets in Xian, Auckland, and Athens, but its competitors have mostly been quiet. I’m sure that it’s naively romantic to say so, but what I wish our industry had was a modern day Juan Trippe — a visionary airline leader eager to put our country back on the map, so to speak. The red areas in the graphic below show the regions not served by an American carrier (the borders are an approximation, so don’t get too picky). The circular cutouts are for Tel Aviv and United’s two Indian cities.

Missing

April 13, 2016.   Jet Bridge Blues

Ah, the jet bridge, that strange, too-often troublesome umbilicus connecting terminal to fuselage. The other day I was stuck on a regional jet for twenty minutes longer than I should have been because the gate agent couldn’t get the damn bridge into the right position. If only I had a dollar for every time this has happened. Part of the problem, I think, is that these devices are so monstrously over-engineered. Take a look at the typical jet bridge. The things are enormous. They must weigh hundreds of thousands of pounds and cost millions of dollars. The wayward bridge at JFK the other day was twice the size of the plane. As the agent fumbled with the thing, it looked like she was trying to steer a battleship. Hydraulic arms flexed and groaned, machinery wailed, lights flashed and bells rang. Finally the tires began to turn — like the wheels of those huge mobile barges that NASA once used to position the Apollo moon rockets. All of this so that fifty people could walk the negligible distance from the aircraft to the terminal. I realize the bridges are multifunction. The air conditioning and power connections used by the plane during its downtime are part of the assembly. But does the passenger tunnel part really need to be so big and heavy, with all of this Rube Goldberg machinery? It’s just a gangway for crying out loud. You sometimes see simpler, lightweight jet bridges in Europe and elsewhere around the world — with windows! — but here in the U.S. we rely on these ponderous, lumbering contraptions.

Of course, I’m opposed to jet bridges on principle. I prefer the classic, drive-up airstairs. Some of the international stations I fly to still employ those old-timey stairs, and I always get a thrill from them. There’s something dramatic about stepping onto a plane that way: the ground-level approach along the tarmac followed by the slow ascent. The effect is like the opening credits of a film — a brief, formal introduction to the journey. The jet bridge makes the airplane almost irrelevant; you’re merely in transit from one annoying interior space (terminal) to another (cabin).

My friend Harriet Baskas recently penned this interesting story for USA Today on the history of the jet bridge.

March 29, 2016.   Blowin’ in the Wind

This just in: passengers survive crosswind landing! Oh the humanity. At least one TV news station decided to devote several minutes of air time to an otherwise routine crosswind landing the other day in Oklahoma City. Well, okay, that’s a bit disingenuous; this was maybe rougher and gustier than normal, and the touchdown of the United Express Embraer regional jet wasn’t the most graceful. Still it was well within the capabilities of the airplane and its pilots. Watch it here. Videos like this one always make things look more dramatic than they actually are. It’s a perspective thing. The typical viewer sees a plane that looks to be in distress. What I see are the pilots using proper technique for dealing with an unusually strong crosswind — hardly an “epic” landing, as one source hilariously describes it. The correct technique in a crosswind is a skewed alignment. The pilots will “crab” during the approach, with the jet pointed into the wind, in order to maintain a straight track. Then, on touch down, a combination of rudder and aileron control is used to align the plane with the runway’s centerline, ideally with one set of tires (left or right landing gear) hitting the ground before the other. As to how much of a crosswind you can correct for, this isn’t subjective. Every plane has a maximum allowable crosswind component. If the winds are beyond this value, you aren’t allowed to land. The takeaway here is to ever, ever, underestimate the media’s ability to to turn a nonevent into a spectacle. What would we do without YouTube, right?

March 23, 2016.   Inaugural Controversy

Qatar Airways began Boston-Doha flights last week using the brand-new Airbus A350. Qatar joins Emirates, Turkish, Cathay Pacific, El Al, Copa, JAL, Hainan Airlines and whichever other names I’m forgetting, all of whom have added long-haul routes out of Boston-Logan in the past few years. The new service is not without controversy, however. A group called the Alliance for Workers Against Repression Everywhere (AWARE) has been running full and half-page ads in the Boston Globe, accusing Qatar Airways of exploiting its workforce — particularly its female employees. Such accusations are not new for the Persian Gulf carrier, and have dogged airlines like Emirates and Etihad as well. Hostile conditions faced by their employees, some argue, is one of the reasons these airlines are able to offer such affordable fares. AWARE lays out its case here.

QR Boycott

March 15, 2016.   Security Mania

A plug, if I may, for a new and important book, Playing by the Rules: How Our Obsession With Safety Is Putting Us All at Risk, by Tracey Brown and Michael Hanlon. The publisher, Sourcebooks, is also the publisher of Cockpit Confidential, and I’m quoted a few times in the text, which I hope doesn’t taint my praise. My biases notwithstanding, it’s a book that simply needed to be written. Security mania has invaded almost every aspect of life, from air travel to parenthood. Brown and Hanlon artfully expose a fixation that has become wasteful and, ultimately, self-defeating. 

Rules

It’s not for the squeamish, exploring an obsession at times so illogical that it leaves the reader bewildered and deeply concerned about our collective sanity. This includes a sobering teardown of the foolishness and overreach of airport security. The stop-you-in-your-tracks moment is this line on page 21: “Remember, for example, that not a single one of the restrictions that have been put in place for travelers since 9/11 would have prevented those atrocities.”

March 2, 2016.   Aviophonics.

“Aviation music” is maybe one of the stranger musical non-genres. I’m not talking about lyrics that happen to reference airplanes — of which there is no shortage, from the Steve Miller Band to Brian Eno to Husker Du — but music in which flying, be it planes, airports, or the act of flight itself, is the very theme (is theme the right word?) around which the composition (is composition the right word?) is built. Of the artists who attempt this, one of the most interesting is Bruno Misonne, a Belgian composer of classical-influenced techno odes to airplanes and airports. Misonne manages to be simultaneously cliched — most of his beats and melodies are standard techno/trance — and pleasingly ambitious. His incorporation of actual jet and propeller noises, air-to-ground communications, and in-flight mechanical sounds, help lift his music beyond its own stylistic limitations. His newest piece, and maybe my favorite of his efforts so far, is The Sound of Flaps. Listen to it here.

February 24, 2016.   The Iranian Griffin.

Man, deadheading Iran Air crews really have it tough. Can’t they give them a seat in the cabin, instead of making them ride in one of these LD-3 containers? It must get claustrophobic in there. (Photo taken at Amsterdam-Schiphol, where Iran Air operates an Airbus A310 on flights to Tehran.) Seriously, though… I’m old enough to remember when Iran Air’s 747s still flew to the U.S. I remember taking pictures of one at Kennedy in 1979, from top of the old Pan Am terminal, when I was in seventh grade. Iran Air’s peculiar logo is inspired by the character of Homa, a kind of bird-horse-cow griffin, seen carved on the columns at the ancient Persian site of Persepolis. The symbol was designed 1961 by a 22 year-old Iranian art student named Edward Zohrabian, and has been used ever since. It’s just a matter of time, I worry, before this enduring mark is dustbinned for some stupid swooshy thing.

Iran Air LD-3

February 21, 2016.   Saarinen in Repose.

Eero Saarinen’s masterpiece TWA terminal at New York’s Idlewild Airport — today called JFK International, which maybe you’ve heard of? — looking neglected and forlorn under a leaden sky a few weeks ago. Though at least it’s still standing, right? The same can’t be said for I.M. Pei’s National Airlines terminal, which sat next door until only a few years ago. Intentions are for the building to become part of a hotel complex. More here. The hotel plans have been firmed up since I first ran that post. Let’s hope that Saarinen’s design is incorporated tastefully. (Photo taken from the connector hall between the AirTrain and JetBlue.)

Saarinen TWA

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