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Unmasked

April 19, 2022

IF YOU’RE headed to the airport today, you can leave your face covering at home.

Yesterday, a Federal judge struck down the Biden Administration’s extension of the TSA-enforced mask mandate for airports, airplanes, and public transit. By late afternoon, the White House basically threw in the towel, announcing that TSA would no longer enforce the rule. Already extended on two prior occasions, the mandate was set to expire in under three weeks. Apparently this wasn’t a fight worth taking on.

Within hours, the country’s airlines began informing passengers and employees that, effective immediately, masks are now optional.

The new policy will affect U.S. domestic flights and airports. Protocols on international flights will vary with the destination country.

Here’s hoping the pre-departure testing requirement for passengers returning to the United States is next to be eliminated.

Regardless of where I fall on the matter, what I fear is that the to-mask-or-not-to-mask question becomes a kind of binary political litmus: if you’re politically on the left, you’ll continue wearing a mask. If you’re a Trumper or politically to the right, you won’t. Ideological affiliations will thus be judged instantly, based on appearance.

This kind of non-thinking is bothersome and very unfair, but this is the nation we’re living in these days — and another of the reasons I’ve come to feel so politically homeless of late.

And that’s about all I wish to say. If readers feel like arguing the good and bad, have at it in the comments section.

It’ll be interesting to see this how this plays out. I imagine the percentage of people sticking with masks will, at first, remain quite high. I was at the Dublin airport a couple of weeks ago, where the policy has been optional for a while, and it was about 50/50. Will you wear a mask still? Why or why not? And talk us through the different scenarios. What if, for example, you prefer to be masked but find yourself seated in a row of unmasked flyers. Etc.

One thing that hopefully goes away forever are the mask selfies on Instagram posted by pilots and flight attendants. If, like me, you’re a fan of the various commercial aviation photostreams, you’ve seen them: picture after picture of airline workers cheerfully mugging in face masks. This seems wrong to me, and often smells sanctimonious.

And why do I get the feeling that most of these photos would never exist in the first place if not for the masks? Somehow the mask seems to be the entire point, which makes it all the more frustrating.

Yes, until now, everyone who flew needed to put a mask on. This was understood and accepted, as was any airline’s attempt to make the policy clear through advertising, promotional materials, on-board safety videos, and so forth. What’s driven me crazy, however, have been the constant attempts to cute-ify the wearing of masks. Because, in fact, there’s nothing cute about them. Masks are physical symptom of a society in pretty serious distress. This isn’t something to giggle at, normalize, or make light of.

 

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DEPARTURE TESTING MADE EASY

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Switched Off

April 14, 2022

I’M SUPPOSED to watch the much talked-about documentary, “Downfall,” about Boeing and the 737 MAX fiasco, and report back to you with my thoughts. The show keeps popping up in my Netflix stream. But I end up watching “Better Call Saul” instead.

As a general rule I shy away from aviation-related shows. Inevitably they’re over-the-top, misleading, or incomplete. They leave me annoyed and wanting to write letters to the producers. So, no, I haven’t seen “Downfall” and I have no plans to.

That’s not to say all such programs are poorly made. Comments I’ve heard from other pilots suggest they did a good job with this one. Which is nice to know, but still I’m in no hurry to find out. Plus, they didn’t invite me on the show.

Had they interviewed me, I would have voiced my opinion that central to Boeing’s boondoggle with the MAX was its decision to not build the 797. Instead of coming out with an all-new mid-sized airframe to replace its aging 757 and 767 models, they opted to force-feed the industry monsterized versions of the 737. Plans for the 797 should have been unveiled on the day the 757 went out of production, eighteen years ago.

Boeing claimed there wasn’t a big-enough market for such a jet, which is nonsense. The order backlog for advanced versions of the Airbus A321 proves it. The A321 isn’t half the plane the 797 would have been, but it’s the only one that sort of, kind of, fills that capacity and range niche. Hopefully “Downfall” at least touched on this.

Instead of me reviewing the program, I’ll let you do it, in the comments section below. Let us know what was good, bad, depressing, pleasing or disappointing. Maybe, even, you’ll convince me to watch it.

 

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Q&A With the Pilot

AN OLD-TIMEY QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS SESSION.

Eons ago, in 2002, a column called Ask the Pilot, hosted by yours truly, started running in the online magazine Salon, in which I fielded reader-submitted questions about air travel. (United Airlines later stole my name and began running a stripped-down version of the same thing in its inflight magazine.) It’s a good idea, I think, to touch back now and then on the format that got this venerable enterprise started. It’s Ask the Pilot classic, if you will.

Expect more of these Q&As in the coming months, if for no other reason than I enjoy putting them together. They’re geeky, but they’re fun. And I’ll probably never run out of fodder. It’s the nature of the business, I suppose: commercial flying is vastly misunderstood, and one of those things that everybody has a question about. That’s good for business, but it’s frustrating as well, because much of what the public presumes about commercial flying is based on bad information. If there’s a Golden Rule to this gig, it’s this: never, ever, underestimate the traveling public’s disdain for the airlines and its willingness to believe almost every false rumor, exaggerated story and conspiracy theory. I receive many emails beginning with the words “Is it true that…” and inevitably it’s my duty to politely informing the reader that the answer is no.


Q: Is it true that jetliners have windshield wipers?

No.

I mean, yes. This might strike you as quaint, but most airliners are indeed equipped with wipers. They’re used on the ground, and during takeoff takeoffs and landings if precipitation is heavy. They are effective at keeping the windscreen clear, but tend to be very noisy. Often there’s a speed restrictions (around 200 knots, give or take), above which they should not be turned on. Some planes use a system that instead blows engine bleed air across the glass. Cockpit windows are also electrically heated to prevent ice and frost accretion. The individual panels use separate circuits and heating elements so that a failure will affect only one section. Heating also increases flexibility, providing extra protection against bird strikes.

The glass is unbelievably strong — bank-teller thick and bolstered by high-strength frames. Somewhere on YouTube is a video of maintenance workers attempting — and failing — to shatter a discarded cockpit windscreen with a sledgehammer.

If that all sounds expensive, it is. Swapping out a single cockpit pane can run tens of thousands of dollars.

Q: I was on a flight from Prague to Madrid, and about halfway through, the captain announced that we needed to make an emergency landing in Marseilles because of a crack in the cockpit windshield. A short while later we were told that because we’d descended to a suitable altitude, there was no longer a need for an emergency landing, and we could proceed to Madrid as planned. I would think that if there was a crack in the windshield you would want the plane on the ground as soon as possible.

Strong as they are, aircraft windscreens occasionally do crack. In all but the rarest cases, however, cracking will not cause a shattering or rupture of the window. How to deal with the crack depends on its size, the location, and how many layers of the glass are affected (there are multiple layers). The checklist might call for a speed reduction, and/or depressurizing in order to reduce stress on the glass. Or it might call for nothing at all. Depressurizing requires a descent to no higher than 10,000 feet. Once at the appropriate height and speed, and so long as fuel allows, it may be possible to continue flying without further trouble.

This is the kind of thing that the flight crew would coordinate with maintenance personnel. Ultimately it’s the captain’s decision, but dealing with malfunctions is often a team effort between the flight crew and staff on the ground, with whom we communicate via datalink or radio.

Q: We were sitting at the gate, preparing to board a flight to San Francisco. The plane was a 757. I was amazed when I looked out and suddenly saw one of the pilots with his arm hanging out the cockpit window!

Another peculiarity of cockpit windows is that some of them can be opened when the plane is on the ground. It’s normally the side windows — never those in the front — that have this capability, and only on some aircraft. The 757s and 767s that I fly are two of those aircraft. It gets hot in the cockpit with all of the lights on and electrical equipment humming, and I often crank a window open for fresh air.

The apparatus that does the latching and sliding is strictly mechanical, and also allows the window to be used as an emergency exit. It’s a long way down, so an escape rope is usually tucked into an adjacent sidewall or ceiling panel. (When commandos stormed a hijacked Air France flight in Algeria in 1995, first officer Jean-Paul Borderie fractured an elbow and thigh after leaping 16 feet to the ground from the cockpit of an Airbus A300.) The window fits into the frame much like a plug, and similar to how an aircraft’s doors cannot be opened during flight, neither can its windows, so long as the plane remains pressurized.

While all that glass makes for a splendid view and the chance for some fresh air, it also has a downside. Namely, noise. Going nose first into 600 miles-an-hour of onrushing air produces an exceptional racket. Ambient cockpit noise levels average about 75 decibels. Over the course of a multi-hour flight, that induces fatigue. Over the course of a career, it induces hearing loss. Engineers have tinkered with active noise reduction technology and better insulation, but the easiest way of dealing with the problem is either with a noise reducing headset or, more routinely, a pair of foam earplugs.

Airbus A380 with open cockpit window.   Photo by the author.

Airbus A380 with open cockpit window.    Photo by the author.

Q: It has always puzzled me why airliners deploy their landing gear so long before landing, yet tuck it away almost immediately after lifting off. Dropping the wheels so soon must cause a lot of extra drag and fuel burn.

Sometimes that drag is helpful. Dropping the gear can be a useful tool when air traffic control sets you up too high or needs you down in a hurry. This causes a racket, however, and isn’t the most graceful way of descending or decelerating.

Normally we deploy the landing gear at somewhere around 2,000 feet on final approach. Mainly it’s just to be certain that everything is steady and stable at a reasonably early point. Lowering the gear has a significant aerodynamic impact — mainly in the adding of wind resistance, i.e. drag — thus requiring power and pitch adjustments to maintain speed, altitude, or rate of descent. It’s best to have that out of the way early on to help establish what pilots call a “stabilized approach.” Deploying the gear close-in to the runway could cause a sudden shift in airspeed and attitude exactly when it’s critical not to have a sudden shift in airspeed and attitude.

On takeoff, however, this works to a plane’s advantage. Remember, the moments just after liftoff are the most critical moments of any flight. The plane is making the transition from ground to air, and margins are relatively thin. The more help it can get — such as eliminating the drag caused by dangling struts, tires and doors — the better. On approach, by contrast, flight is well established and the margins much fatter.

All planes have maximum speeds for deployment and retraction. Airstream stress is more of an issue for the doors than for the gear assembly itself. For this reason, some of the doors will open as the gear comes down, then close up again.


Q: Whenever I have a window seat, I watch for the deployment of the wing flaps, especially during takeoffs. There have been crashes because pilots “forgot” to extend the flaps. Can you explain the process involved with the flaps?

Flaps help a wing generate lift at low speeds. Commercial aircraft will take off with the flaps extended to some intermediate position. The specific position, calculated prior to departure, depends on weight and runway length. On planes that are so equipped, leading-edge slats will also be deployed. These droop down from the forward part of the wing, and provide the same function as flaps. Flaps and slats work in concert, and are extended or retracted using the same control lever. In other words, moving the lever to a certain position will adjust both surfaces.

(On the 767 that I fly, setting the flap lever to position 1 drops the slats to the so-called midrange position while the flaps remain up. Moving the lever further, to the 5 position, which is the one most commonly used for takeoff, the slats remain in the midrange setting but the flaps extend slightly. On landing, setting the flaps to positions 15 through 30 moves the slats all the way down, while the flaps extend even further.)

Flap position is verified, re-verified, and verified again prior to takeoff. At my carrier, our checklists include no fewer than three challenge-and-response calls before reaching the runway. On top of that, commercial planes are equipped with a warning sensor that sounds an alarm if the flaps are not deployed at the moment thrust is advanced for takeoff. When using the checklists, we verify not only the flap handle position, but the indicator gauge also, to make sure the flaps’ actual position agrees with the commanded position. If or some strange reason they don’t agree, and for some strange reason we missed this, a separate warning system is triggered.

So, how it is that planes have crashed on takeoff because flaps weren’t properly set? I can think of three cases when this did indeed happened. In all three it was due to a combination of unusual circumstances: The pilots were rushed and neglected to verify position, and, for reasons that investigators could not decipher, there was a simultaneous failure of the warning system. Nowadays, however, improved checklist discipline makes a repeat of this type of accident extraordinarily unlikely.

Flaps and slats are very important during landing as well, but there’s more wiggle room here. Should they fail to deploy, either partially or at all, we can adjust by using a faster approach speed. This, in turn, affects landing distance, braking, and so on, sometimes to the point where a plane will need to divert to a longer runway. “No-flap landings” are a common simulator exercise.

 

EMAIL YOUR QUESTIONS TO patricksmith@askthepilot.com

Related Stories:

Q&A WITH THE PILOT, Volume 1
Q&A WITH THE PILOT, Volume 2
Q&A WITH THE PILOT, Volume 4

Portions of this post appeared previously in the magazine Salon.

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What the War in Ukraine Means for Air Travel

March 4, 2022

THE RUSSIAN invasion of Ukraine is impacting commercial aviation on multiple fronts — as wars tend to do. It remains to be seen how long the effects last, or how deeply they’ll be felt. Will NATO countries join the fight? Will tourists shy away from European destinations in general? Even in a best case scenario, this is the last thing the airline industry needs, just as the coronavirus pandemic appears to be winding down.

Oil is knocking at $130 a barrel as nations discuss ratcheting up sanctions, possibly banning the import of Russian petroleum. Although jet fuel prices have been higher in the past, the problem, right now, is that airlines lack the pricing power to stay in synch. Business travel is still down considerably, especially in transoceanic markets, and passing these costs to the customer is more difficult than it was in, say, 2008, when oil was last this expensive. The price could skyrocket further; it could stabilize or fall. Nobody knows.

Meanwhile, Russia has closed off its airspace to foreign carriers. The big issue here isn’t so much the cancellation of flights to and from Russian cities, but rather those routes overflying Russian territory, especially the country’s northern areas, including Siberia. Russia is a gigantic piece of land, and hundreds of long-haul flights overfly these regions weekly on routes connecting Europe and North America with Asia.

This might not make sense if you’re looking at a flat map or atlas; you need a globe to better visualize it. The shortest distance from the U.S. to India, for example, goes more or less due north, up over Siberia and down through the very heart of Russia. A flight from the U.K., France or Germany headed to Japan, China or Korea, similarly relies on Russian airspace.


United Airlines has suspended its flights to Delhi, but on the whole it’s the Asian and European airlines who are feeling the pain. Most flights between the U.S. and Pacific Rim cities can be re-routed without much trouble. This isn’t so for flights between Asia and Europe. Alternate routings are possible — down through the Gulf, across India and such — but they’re substantially longer, in some cases requiring a stopover. Not only does this increase fuel costs, it wreaks havoc with logistics, crew staffing and scheduling. Longer travel times mean that passengers can no longer make onward connections, and so on. It’s a very expensive problem, with disruptions rippling through an airline’s operation.

JAL and All Nippon have cancelled all of their flights to Europe. Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and British Airways have been canceling or re-routing dozens of departures. This simply isn’t sustainable.

To say nothing of the airspace over Ukraine, which has become a no-fly zone for pretty much anybody (though, as of a few days ago, Air India’s flights to and from Europe were still passing overhead). The skies above Ukraine are obviously dangerous, but this isn’t new. People have largely forgotten about it, but eight years ago, pro-Russian forces shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over the country’s disputed Donbas region, killing 298 people. (In 1983, a Soviet fighter jet shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007 after it strayed into restricted airspace over Sakhalin Island, killing all 246 on board. And in 1988, the Navy cruiser Vincennes shot down Iran Air flight 655 over the Persian Gulf, killing 290.)

Reciprocally, many nations have banned Russian-registered planes from their own airspace. This includes the European Union, Canada, and the United States. The big loser here is Aeroflot, which had been flying to dozens of European capitals, as well as to New York and Los Angeles. Aeroflot’s routes to Caribbean holiday destinations are affected as well.

Even worse for Aeroflot, Boeing and Airbus have cut ties with the carrier (as well as with other Russian airlines), and will no longer offer support or supplies. Aircraft lessors have rescinded their leases, and Sabre, which acts as Aeroflot’s online booking agent, will no longer allow customers to book seats. This will severely cripple Russian’s commercial aviation sector, if not ground it completely.

One of the oldest airlines in the world, Aeroflot began flying 98 years ago. In its Cold War heydays, it was by far the largest airline in existence, roughly the size of all the U.S. carriers combined. Numerous smaller airlines splintered off following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Aeroflot itself carries on, still using its elegant, Soviet-era hammer and sickle logo.

Aeroflot has never had much of a reputation either for service or safety. Some of that is deserved, some not. Flipping through the crash records from the 1960s through the 2000s, the Aeroflot name does appear more than any other. But you have to consider its size at the time. Add up all of the crashes involving American carriers during the same span, and now the totals are a lot more equal. Since the Soviet breakup it has had only four fatal accidents, one of which involved a subsidiary.

One of my biggest thrills was riding aboard Aeroflot in 1986. We flew from Moscow to Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was still called at the time, on a Tupolev Tu-154 — the Russian version of the 727. A few days later, on the quick hop from from Leningrad to Helsinki, it was a Tu-134. The babushka cabin attendants served us a cup of tasteless, urine-colored apple juice and what appeared to be a hamburger bun stuffed with newspaper.

Next to me on the plane out of Moscow sat a Muscovite about my age –- a blond kid with a jawline like the villainous commie boxer from Rocky IV. This was 1986, remember, with the Cold War still on, and my seatmate was aghast at the novelty of encountering an actual American. He was thrilled to shake my hand and try out his English. He’d just gotten a new camera, and he took it from the overhead bin to show me proudly. At least I think it was a camera. Oversized and clunky, the device looked like a blender held sideways. He kept calling it “my apparatus.”

Our high-altitude détente continued all the way to Leningrad. “I can show you of America,” said my friend. And with that he took out a piece of paper. Beaming, he proceeded to draw me a picture of the World Trade Center, accurately placing the north tower’s cloud-popping rooftop antenna. Pointing to the buildings he said, “One hundred and ten stories!”


Ukraine, by the way, is the home of Antonov, which has been building commercial airplanes since 1946. Formerly known as the Antonov Design Bureau, the company is named for its founding designer, Oleg Antonov, and for decades was a supplier of passenger and cargo planes for the Soviet Union.

Last week, at Hostomel Airport outside Kiev, Russian forces destroyed the only example of the Antonov An-225, the six-engine behemoth originally built to carry the Soviet space shuttle, “Buran.” It was the largest airplane ever made.

I once saw the An-225 at Bradley Airport outside of Hartford, Connecticut, of all places. It had been chartered there to pick up medical equipment, we were told, for the treatment of victims of the Chernobyl disaster.

 

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The Rolling Report Card

AS MY REGULARS know, critiquing airline liveries is my favorite thing in the world — especially the ugly ones, which nowadays is pretty much all of them. Just go to the search bar up above and type in “livery.”

From now on, rather than grading them individually in separate articles, we’ll compile them here, one at a time. This post will act as a sort of rolling report card, updated with every new reveal.

Click on the BOLD LINKS for photos…

 

THE CONDOR BEACH TOWEL

Condor is a Frankfurt-based charter carrier. The airline was set up in 1955 by Lufthansa, and for years its markings were handsomely reminiscent of that carrier’s: blue stripe, yellow tail, Lufthansa-esque condor logo. Later the Thomas Cook Group took control, and Condor adopted the group’s mostly inoffensive yellow and gray.

Today the airline is controlled by a European investment company, and in April, 2022, a bold new rebranding was unveiled, timed to coincide with delivery of Condor’s new Airbus A330-900s, which will replace a fleet of antique Boeing 767s. Each jet will feature a nose-to tail pattern of vertical candy stripes, in one of five colors. This, we are told, is to keep things more in synch with the leisure charter vibe: fun, friendly, easy, inexpensive and all that.

The main problem is, vertical stripes really don’t belong on a plane. The very shape of an airplane, in all its horizontal-ness, suggests motion, speed, and the traversing of distances. Vertical stripes suggest the opposite of that. The visual effect is one of negative motion, almost as if the plane is being held back and made to stop.

Officially, according to the people who were paid to concoct this nonsense, the color representations go like this: blue for ocean; green for island; beige for beach, gold for sunshine, and red for “passion” — whatever that might mean. At least, for a change, there’s nothing here about the northern lights. I’m not seeing sunshine or passion. I’m seeing a picket fence, or maybe a couch cushion.

“Unmistakable,” is how Condor CEO Ralf Teckentrup describes it. And it certainly is — for the wrong reasons.

Grade: F

 

PRETTY IN PURPLE

Lets ignore for a minute the question of whether we need another low-cost airline. Let’s also ignore the wisdom of operating 737s from the stubby runways at New Haven, Connecticut, one of Avelo Airlines’ intended hubs (the other is Burbank, where the runway isn’t much longer). Instead, let’s focus on their paintjob, which is rather pleasant.

The use of purple is unusual for an airline, but here it’s quite attractive. As is the typeface, which together with the engine nacelles and tail swoop, combine just right in a handsome, three-point balance.

This is one of those rare designs that works well even with a mostly bare fuselage. And unlike the looks of many LCCs, it’s not trying to be whimsical or amusing; it’s dignified.

While I’m not thrilled with the three-color, lightbulb filament tail, I don’t hate it, either. It’s conceptually interesting, so far as abstract logos go, though I’m not sure it was executed quite right. Maybe two colors instead of three, with slightly thicker lines?

Grade: A-minus

 

UBERBLUE

This one, on the other hand. Were they having a hangar sale on blue paint? David Neelman is the founder of Breeze, which is opening a slew of routes from coast to coast, focusing mainly on secondary cities. Previously of jetBlue and Azul, blue has always been his thing. But come on, Dave, do you have to drown us in it, a light blue and a darker one?

The checkmark motif is an effective one for an LCC — and affirmation of sorts, suggestive of ease and simplicity — but the rest of it is dead weight. Here’s a case where the fuselage isn’t painted white for a change, but probably should be.

Grade: D

 

NORTHERN NONSENSE

Northern Pacific is a low-cost upstart out of Anchorage with plans to open routes within the western United States and to Asia.

Black is their go-to color. That’s not a bad thing, by itself, and we dig the raccoon-style shading around the cockpit. It’s a trendy flourish these days, but it’s cool. Can we stop there and award them a top grade? Alas, our survey of the wreckage must continue.

Let’s focus on that strange “N” logo. Except we can’t focus on it, because it’s vibrating uncontrollably. That’s not a shadow or a camera blur; that’s actually how it’s painted. Though maybe it’s better this way, seeing how, in its non-vibrating state, it resembles the logo for an amateur sports team.

On the engine nacelles, meanwhile, they’ve applied a completely different logo — a pair of offset thingies that remind us, painfully, of the American Airlines box-cutter. Then, up on the tail, we have yet another design. Isn’t that a black hole, or a special effect from “The Matrix”? The airline says its livery is meant to “evoke the natural beauty of Alaskan wilderness.” What I see here is a bending of time and space.

And sure, why not, go ahead and throw another “N” up in the corner, but this time make it turquoise. While you’re at it, paint the wingtips in turquoise too, because the northern lights or something.

What a garble of elements and patterns — a good example of a livery trying to out-clever itself at every turn.

Grade: F-minus

 

SPANISH FLY FLOP

My plan is to start a Spanish charter carrier. Step one is to think up the stupidest name possible. I like “Iberojet,” as it sounds like it came from a third-grader. On the tail I want three bands. Mute the colors, and have that same third-grader do the painting, so that the bands are warped and pinched, diverging/converging in bizarre random directions. If there’s any paint left over, add a navy blue arc to the underside of the aft fuselage. Do the same thing, more or less, on the engine nacelles, and then write “Iberojet” on the side. Use lowercase letters, because why not.

Grade: F-minus

 

BOREAL BOREDOM

So, Icelandair has a new look, featuring, guess what, a Eurowhite body with blue titles. How novel.

The tail, though, is the exciting part, because each will boast one of five highlight colors apparently inspired by the people who make Sharpies. Wait, don’t tell me, the colors are meant to suggest… the northern lights! Which every smart tourist knows are best viewed in Finland or Norway, not Iceland.

Officially, according to a company press release, each of the accents “represents a different phenomena in Icelandic nature.” If true, they should include a gray, a black, and maybe a fiery volcanic red. What we get instead is lemon yellow, a magenta, a cyan blue. You could hunt around Iceland for a month and not see those colors. (Two additional colors are yet to debut. Surely they’ll be lovely.)

I’m being a wise-ass. In fact I don’t hate it. If they’d chosen only one accent color, the effect would be annoying and banal; the grab-bag keeps it lively and interesting. The problem isn’t the tail, it’s the lettering. Sure, billboard-style lettering is meant to be big, but in this case it’s too big.

Still it’s a balanced design, mostly, and better than the one it replaces. Also they’ve hung on to their logo, which for decades has been one of the most distinctive in the industry.

Grade: I’d have given a solid B if the titles were smaller. As it stands, it’s a C.

 

UNITED BLUES

After its merger with Continental Airlines in 2010, United came up with an amalgamation blending the United typeface with the Continental globe. Bland and ultra-corporate, it looked like something you’d see in a PowerPoint slide. A refresher was maybe inevitable. Unfortunately, they’ve gone way too far in the other direction. They’ve stayed with the 2010 template; except, now, they’ve sucked away whatever dignity it had.

We start with the “United” title, which has gone big. Big for big’s sake, unbalanced and oddly spaced, as if it were painted over some other name. The gold accenting is gone from the tail now, and the blue has been amped up, turning the old Continental globe into a fluorescent spider web. Is this the airline’s excuse for a logo? Do they even have a logo? It’s a tail that manages to be gaudy and boring at the same time.

And, needless to say, you can’t have a livery these days without some annoying “in-motion” theme. United obliges with a mandatory curvy thing along the lower fuselage. Is it a worm? A garden hose? Worst of all it’s black.

Granted this isn’t as terrible as what American Airlines did a few years ago. It’s bold, I’ll give you that, and you can marvel in the simplicity of it. Or, you can call it what it is: an immature scheme that evokes the downmarket cast of a budget airline — hardly the look that a preeminent global carrier should hope to project.

Grade: F

 

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Twenty Years and Counting

November 12, 2021

WE MADE IT. I had my doubts, but we pulled it off.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the crash of American Airlines flight 587 in New York City. We have now gone twenty full years since the last large-scale crash involving a major U.S. carrier. This is by far the longest such streak ever.

On the sunny morning of November 12th, 2001, American 587, an Airbus A300 bound for the Dominican Republic, lifted off from runway 31L at Kennedy Airport. Seconds into its climb, the flight encountered wake turbulence spun from a Japan Airlines 747 that had departed a few minutes earlier. The wake itself was nothing deadly, but the first officer, Sten Molin, who was at the controls, overreacted, rapidly and repeatedly moving the widebody jet’s rudder from side to side, to maximum deflection. The rudder is a large hinged surface attached to the tail, used to help maintain lateral stability, and Molin was swinging it back and forth in a manner it wasn’t designed for. Planes can take a surprising amount of punishment, but airworthiness standards are not based on applications of such extreme force. In addition, the A300’s rudder controls were designed to be unusually sensitive, meaning that pilot inputs, even at low speeds, could be more severe than intended. In other words, the pilot didn’t realize the levels of stress he was putting on the aircraft. The vigor of his inputs caused the entire tail to fracture and fall off.

Quickly out of control, the plane plunged into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, a skinny section of Rockaway only a few blocks wide, with ocean on both sides. All 260 passengers and crew were killed, as were five people on the ground. It remains the second-deadliest aviation accident ever on U.S. soil, behind only that of American flight 191 at Chicago, in 1979.

Flight 587 was well known among New York City’s Dominican community. In 1996, merengue star Kinito Mendez paid a sadly foreboding tribute with his song El Avion. “How joyful it could be to go on flight 587,” he sang, immortalizing the popular daily nonstop.

This was a catastrophe to be sure. It was also the last multiple-fatality crash involving a legacy American airline, and the last on U.S. soil with more than 50 fatalities.

To be clear, there have been a number of post-2001 tragedies involving regional carriers and freighters. The worst of these were the Comair (2006) and Colgan Air (2009) crashes, in which 50 and 49 people were killed, respectively. In 2005 a young boy in a car was killed when a Southwest Airlines 737 overran a runway in Chicago, and in 2018 a woman on a Southwest Airlines 737 was killed after being partially ejected through a blown-out cabin window.

What we haven’t seen, however, is the kind of mega-crash that was once brutally routine, year after year. Take a look through the accident archives from 1970s through the 1990s. Seldom would a year go by without recording one or more front-page mishaps, with 100, 200, sometimes 300 (or more) people killed at a time. In the eighteen years prior to November, 2001, and not counting the September 11th attacks, the American legacies, which at the time included names like Pan Am, TWA and Eastern, suffered ten major crashes. The idea that we could span two full decades without such a disaster was once unthinkable.

It’s especially remarkable when you consider there are nearly twice as many planes, carrying twice as many people, as there were in 2001. Since then, the mainline American carriers have safety transported more than twenty billion passengers. Today they operate over four thousand Airbuses and Boeings between them, completing tens of thousands of flights weekly. The streak also takes in those dark years of the early 2000s, when pretty much all of the big carriers were in and out of bankruptcy, fighting for survival. Not to mention the dire challenges of the last twenty months, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Best of times, worst of times. All it would have taken is one screw-up, one tragic mistake. Yet here we are.

When we expand the context globally, the trend is even more astonishing. Between the 1980s and the mid-2000s there were dozens of air disasters worldwide — sometimes five or more in a year. In 1985 alone, twenty-seven major crashes — twenty seven! — killed almost 2,400 people.

How we got here is mainly the result of better training, better technology, and the collaborative efforts of airlines, pilot groups, and regulators. We’ve engineered away what used to be the most common causes of accidents. Yes, we’ve been lucky too, and the lack of a headline tragedy does not mean we should rest on our laurels. Complacency is about the worst response we could have. Air safety is all about being proactive — even a little cynical. Our air traffic control system needs upgrades, our airports need investment. Terrorism and sabotage remain threats, and regulatory loopholes need closing. The saga of the 737 MAX has been a cautionary window into just how fortunate we’ve been, and exposed some glaring weaknesses.

Duly noted, but a congratulatory moment is, for today, well earned. This isn’t a minor story.

Almost nobody in the media is paying attention, trust me. Crashes, not an absence of them, make the news. Call it the silent anniversary, but there’s no overstating it: we have just passed one of the most significant milestones in commercial aviation history.

 

U.S. Airline Accidents With 50 or More Fatalities, by Year

1970: 1
1971: 1
1972: 1
1973: 2
1974: 4
1975: 1
1976: 0
1977: 2
1978: 1
1979: 2
TOTAL 1970s : 15

1980: 0
1981: 0
1982: 2
1983: 0
1984: 0
1985: 3
1986: 0
1987: 1
1988: 1
1989: 2
TOTAL 1980s: 9

1990: 0
1991: 0
1992: 0
1993: 0
1994: 2
1995: 1
1996: 2
1997: 0
1998: 0
1999: 0
TOTAL 1990s: 6

2000: 1
2001: 5

Since 2001: 0

 

History’s Ten Worst Disasters Involving U.S. Carriers

1. 1977. Two Boeing 747s, operated by Pan Am and KLM, collide on a foggy runway at Tenerife, in Spain’s Canary Islands killing 583 people, 335 of them on the Pan Am plane. The KLM jet departed without permission and struck the Pan Am jet as it taxied along the same runway. Confusion over instructions and a blockage of radio transmissions contributed to the crash.

2. 1979. As an American Airlines DC-10 lifts from the runway at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, an engine detaches and seriously damages the wing. Before its crew can make sense of the situation, the plane rolls 90 degrees and disintegrates in a fireball beyond the runway, killing 273. The engine pylon design and airline maintenance procedures are faulted by investigators, and all DC-10s are temporarily grounded.

3. 1988. Two Libyan agents are later held responsible for planting a bomb aboard Pan American flight 103, which blows up in the night sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people, including 11 on the ground.

4. 2001. American Airlines 587 goes down outside JFK airport in New York killing 265.

5. 1985.  An Arrow Air DC-8 crashes after takeoff from Gander, Newfoundland, killing 256 people, most of them U.S. military personnel returning from Egypt. The disaster is blamed on ice contamination of the jet’s wings.

6. 1996. Shortly after departure, a fuel tank explosion destroys TWA flight 800, a 747 carrying 230 passengers and crew from JFK to Paris. There are no survivors.

7. 1995. A navigational error causes American Airlines flight 965, bound from Miami, to Cali, Colombia, to wander off course during arrival. The 757 hits a mountain 25 miles from its destination. There are four survivors of the plane’s 163 occupants.

8. 1987. A Northwest Airlines MD-80 crashes on takeoff at Detroit. The pilots had neglected to properly set the flaps and slats, and for reasons unknown the jet’s warning system failed to alert them. A four year-old girl was the only survivor among the 155 passengers and crew.

9. 1982. A Pan Am 727 goes down seconds after departing from New Orleans, Louisiana. There are 153 fatalities, including eight people on the ground. The plane had taken off into a rare and deadly microburst — a localized, high-power windshear produced by a violent thunderstorm.

10. 1978. A Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) 727 collides over San Diego with a small private plane. A total of 143 people die including seven on the ground.

 

Related Stories:

AMERICA’S DEADLIEST AIR DISASTER, 40 YEARS LATER
THE HORROR AND ABSURDITY OF HISTORY’S WORST CRASH

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