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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Review of Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know about Air Travel: Questions, Answers, & Reflections

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know about Air Travel: Questions, Answers, & Reflections:

I have been reading Patrick Smith's blog on Salon for several years.  He's a professional airline pilot and always brings sense and rational thinking to the often hyperbolic world that is so prevalent in a society that prefers the fearful over understanding. I was hooked from the start, especially by his enthusiasm for the journey  as opposed to just the destination when traveling.  I think he's also correct when he describes air travel as having become so commonplace it's now, by definition, tedious.  I found the information to be fascinating and useful. He's opinionated and sometimes pedantic (does one lead to the other?) but since I suffer from the same flaw, it's hard for me to be critical.

I remember my first sight of a 747.  I had just dropped off my wife at the Minneapolis Airport decades ago and I had just left the airport and drove by the end of a runway when I was confronted by this behemoth, resembling a ship in size, as it accelerated just a little overhead.  "Jesus H. Christ" (note the presence of the middle initial prevents it from being blasphemous - then again, blasphemy is a victimless crime)  was all I could come up with.  There is no way something that large could ever fly.  And now we sit (crammed, if you must know, in a tube called the  "Boeing 747, a plane that if tipped onto its nose would rise as tall as a 20-story office tower. I’m at 33,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, traveling at 600 miles per hour, bound for the Far East. And what are the passengers doing? Complaining, sulking, tapping glumly into their laptops. A man next to me is upset over a dent in his can of ginger ale. This is the realization, perhaps, of a fully evolved technology. Progress, one way or the other, mandates that the extraordinary become the ordinary."  What a shame when the extraordinary becomes the ordinary (the laptop being another example.)

Smith's goal (he's an active airline pilot and I suspect the name might be a pseudonym) is lofty. "I begin with a simple premise: everything you think you know about flying is wrong. That’s an exaggeration, I hope, but not an outrageous starting point in light of what I’m up against. Commercial aviation is a breeding ground for bad information, and the extent to which different myths, fallacies, and conspiracy theories have become embedded in the prevailing wisdom is startling. Even the savviest frequent flyers are prone to misconstruing much of what actually goes on. “

I loved his comments about airports and what they should be like.  I had no idea the difficulty foreign visitors have simply using an American airport as a transit point to other places. They have to go through immigration, get fingerprinted, suffer all sorts of other indignities, collect and recheck their luggage, not to mention go through TSA indignities  again.  Even if they are only passing through. This is why US airlines are losing business to airlines like Emirates and Singapore which fly through Frankfurt and Dubai, airports which cater to transit passengers.  Why can't airports have short-stay hotels inside secure areas? How about free wireless? Stores that sell something other than Mont Blanc pens? Multiple power ports? Play areas for children (the Kids' Forest in Amsterdam would attract even adults if no one was looking)?  Information kiosks that actually dispense information? Not to mention enough seats in the waiting area for the size plane at the gate (no more sitting on the floors.)  Airports in other countries have managed to do these things.  What's wrong with American airports?  I part company with him about airstairs however.  Give me a jet-way any day. Taking the bus from the terminal to the plane in Frankfurt and then climbing up a set of stairs in the rain was not what I signed on for.  *He* may think it's thrilling and a reminder of yesteryear;  not me.  And must we be bombarded with constant CNN at the gate which no one ever watches and can't be shut off (there aren't even power cords.)

If you've ever wanted to know what happens when lightning hits an airplane (frequently), what declaring an emergency really means, what planes dump fuel and why, (dumping toilet waste is impossible), and why when someone says the turbulence was so bad they dropped thousands of feet it was probably only 20 feet (I actually enjoy turbulence,)  what a walk-around accomplishes, the hidden but crucial role of dispatchers, why V1 is an important decision point, why losing an engine on takeoff is more of an inconvenience than a danger, then this book is for you.


And, of course, how could we discuss flying without mentioning the security theater run by the TSA. As Smith notes, maximum security prisons staffed by jack-booted guards who have total control can't keep knives or drugs out of prisons, so whatever gives the TSA the idea they can prevent box-cutters from getting on an airplane when they have to screen 2,000,000 people a day. And the premise is wrong. They are looking for "things" rather than "people." The success of the terrorists on 9/11 had nothing to do with airport security; it was a failure of "national security." The CIA and FBI failed us. And the terrorists benefited from a mindset that viewed hijacking as they had occurred in the seventies (when in one year there were 40(!) skyjackings, usually resulting in a brief layover in Havana. Armored doors on cockpits would have prevented all of them and what happened on 9/11 (airlines refused for decades to install them because of the cost and added weight.) So now everyone from age 2 to 95 (including pilots who could bring down a plane with a twitch of a thumb - he had a butter knife confiscated from his carry-on once) is considered a suspect even though even a moron knows how to craft a weapon from a ball-point pen. But we all love our delusions (and over 80% of Americans believe in angels.)

His comments on UFOs and the conspiracy theories that pilots have agreed not to talk about them. "For the record, I have never seen one, and I have never met another pilot who claims to have seen one. I had to laugh at the notion of there being a tacit agreement among pilots over anything, let alone flying saucers.... And although plenty of things in aviation are tantamount to career suicide, withholding information about UFOs is not one of them."

Happy flying.

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