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Joining Forces

February 8, 2022

THIS WEEK, Frontier airlines announced it would acquire Spirit Airlines, thus turning two of the nation’s biggest low-cost carriers (LCCs) into one.

What does this mean for consumers? Most importantly, fingers crossed, it means we won’t have to look at Spirit’s ugly yellow planes anymore. Beyond that, I really don’t know. Not a lot, probably. Maybe fares will go up in some markets. Maybe they won’t. Any time airlines combine forces, there’s a resulting media chorus about all the awful ways in which the merger will impact travel: higher prices, fewer flight options, and so on. The actual repercussions tend to be subtle.

Frontier’s main hub is in Denver. Spirit’s headquarters are in Florida, with a concentration on eastern cities, as well as numerous routes into Latin America and the Caribbean. In this respect the merger makes sense, with the two company’s route structures complementing one another. A “classic” merger, if you will. Once approved by regulators, the new carrier will be the fifth largest airline in the United States, just behind American, United, Delta, and Southwest.

Frontier was established in 1994, and operates about 110 aircraft. It’s not to be confused with the original Frontier airlines, which collapsed in 1986 after a boondoggled takeover by PeopleExpress. Spirit was founded in 1993, and currently flies 175 planes, all of them of the Airbus A320 series.


Mergers, acquisitions, takeovers. Consolidation is the story of commercial aviation in this country. Take a look at the lineages of American, Delta and United. Those three alone carry the DNA of at least twenty carriers absorbed over the years.

Today we have fewer airlines overall, but there’s plenty of robust competition. Fares remain historically cheap and there are flights going everywhere, all the time. Despite waves of consolidation, the fallout for travelers has been largely positive. The list below highlights the most significant mergers since Deregulation in 1979:

2016. Alaska Airlines purchases Virgin America
2013. American Airlines purchases US Airways
2010. United Airlines merges with Continental
2010. Southwest Airlines buys AirTran (formerly ValuJet)
2008. Delta Air Lines acquires Northwest
2005. America West Airlines purchases US Airways
2001. American Airlines takes over what’s left of TWA
1991. Delta buys the ailing Pan Am’s transatlantic network
1989. USAir takes over Piedmont Airlines
1988. USAir acquires Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA)
1987. American acquires AirCal (formerly Air California)
1986. United buys Pan Am’s transpacific and Asia network
1986. TWA takes over Ozark Airlines
1985. Delta Air Lines and Western Airlines combine
1986. Northwest merges with Republic Airlines
1980. Pan Am acquires National Airlines
1979. Southern and North Central become Republic

It’s unknown, for the moment, which name the new Frontier-Spirit enterprise will settle on. Will it be Frontier, Spirit, or something completely new? The Frontier name is nice enough, but it evokes a particular region — as it was designed to do. It makes you think of Colorado, the American West. The tails of Frontier’s planes feature a menagerie of great American wildlife: grizzlies, elk, salmon and the like. Spirit is more generic, and probably a better fit for a carrier whose routes reach into South America. Just please do something, anything, about that yellow paint job.


While mergers often appear uneventful on the outside, things can become quite contentious on the inside, among the employees. This especially true within the pilot ranks. Seniority controls everything for pilots, from which plane you fly to the quality of your monthly schedule, and when pilot groups are suddenly combined, the seniority list has to be rebuilt in a way that is more or less equitable to both sides. As the saying goes, good luck with that.

Sometimes, when one airline buys another, the airline doing the buying simply takes the entire roster of the airline being bought and moves it to the bottom. In other words, if airline A purchases airline B, forming airline C, all of the airline B pilots are now junior to all of the airline A pilots. Pilots call this “stapling.” This is what happened when American took over TWA, and is more of a concern when the groups are represented by different unions — or by no union at all.

The Delta-Northwest integration in 2008 was about as seamless and peaceful as the pilots (or their management) could have hoped for. In the cases of American-TWA, or Northwest-Republic, on the other hand, things didn’t go so smoothly. The “green book” pilots from Republic spent two decades clashing with the “red book” pilots of Northwest. To this day many former TWA pilots, some of whom spent years on furlough after their airline was bought by American, feel they were tossed under the bus.

 

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Tell Me About This Photo

February 1, 2022

I FOUND THIS picture on the Interwebs. It’s an aerial shot of Boston-Logan, my hometown airport. Judging from the liveries and aircraft types, I’d put the date at 1986, give or take a year.

What a time capsule. We see USAir’s red tails; a United DC-8; a pair of Piedmont 727s; a Delta TriStar; a United DC-8. And most obvious, maybe, is the old terminal A, home to Eastern Airlines. Three of the carrier’s Airbus A300s, which it used on Shuttle routes to La Guardia, are visible. You can’t make it out through the shadows, but the latticed façade and five-story archways of this building bore a likeness to the lower curtain wall of the World Trade Center in Manhattan — and not by accident, for both were the work of architect Minoru Yamasaki. And, standing sentry, there’s Logan’s unmistakable control tower. The 16th floor observation deck would still have been open.

But something else really jumps out at me. And it’s not something we can see. It’s something we don’t see. I want you to study the picture and tell me what’s not there. Air travel in 2022 is quite different from air travel in the 1980s, and a big reason for this difference is the thing missing from this photograph. What is it?

The answer appears on the next line. See if you can figure it out before scrolling.

Photo by Aerial Photography International.

What I’m talking about is the complete absence of regional jets.

No Expresses, no Connections, no Eagles, and so forth. No Canadairs or Embraers. Every single jet in the picture is a mainline jet. This was before the introduction of RJs, at which point the big airlines began the widespread outsourcing of their routes to small-jet contractors.

Small jets did exist in the 1980s (the F-28 for instance), but they burned a lot of fuel and had very high seat-mile costs. It wasn’t until the advent of more efficient planes like the CRJ-200 and the early Embraers that domestic codesharing really took off. By the early 2000s, depending on the airport, forty percent or more of the planes in a photo like this would be regional jets. Love them or hate them, RJs are everywhere.

Many travelers don’t realize it, but the majority of regional airlines have a livery-only affixation with their legacy carrier partners. Some are wholly or partly owned by a major; others are completely independent, but either way they are separate entities, with their own employee groups, pay scales, management structures, and separate FAA operating certificates. (There’s more about this, if you’re interested, in chapter four of my book.)

The term “regional airline” has always been around, but in the old days it meant something different. A “regional” was a major airline whose network concentrated in a particular part of the country. Ozark Airlines, for instance. Or Southern Airways. What today we think of as a regional was called a “commuter.” Commuters fed the majors’ hubs from outlying cities, using turboprops almost exclusively. Look closely at the photo and you can see a couple of turboprop planes. One of them is a Command Airways ATR-42. An independent commuter at the time, Command later became an American Eagle franchise.

The first airline I worked for was a commuter. This was the very early 1990s; maybe we were calling them regionals by then? Our planes flew under the banner of Northwest Airlink, a feeder into Northwest’s Boston hub. We had 15-seaters, 19-seaters, and later a handful 37-seaters. All props. Our network spoked out to places like Burlington, Bangor, Albany, down to Virginia and up into the Canadian Maritimes.

The balance has begun to swing back of late, with the majors taking over a bigger and bigger percentage of routes and frequencies. Driven in part by the pilot shortage, which has forced regional airlines to offer better salaries and working conditions, the cost advantage of RJs has diminished somewhat. For the time being, however, they still comprise a healthy chunk of our flying.

 

Photo credit: Aerial Photography International.

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Clipper Conclusion: The Fall of Pan Am, 30 Years Later

December 4, 2021

IT WAS thirty years ago, on December 4th, 1991, that Pan American World Airways ceased operations.

This is possibly, maybe, the most significant (and unfortunate) anniversary in airline history, marking the death of history’s most significant airline.

Pan Am’s firsts, bests, longests, mosts, and whatever other superlatives you might come up with, are untouched, and untouchable. Its achievements include conquest of the Pacific Ocean and launch of both the 707 and 747, the two most influential jetliners of all time. Founded and led by a visionary entrepreneur from New Jersey named Juan Trippe, the airline’s network would reach into every nook and corner of the planet, its blue globe logo among the world’s most widely recognized trademarks. It was the only airline to have its own Manhattan skyscraper — the Walter Gropius-designed Pan Am Building, soaring over Grand Central Terminal.

The carrier’s slow and ignominious decline, punctuated by the sales of its most valuable assets and — for a final coffin nail, the Lockerbie bombing — is a tale of hubris, poor management, the volatility of a deregulated airline industry, and plain old bad luck. Most agree that the final chapter began around the time of the disastrous merger with National Airlines in 1980. Six years later Pan Am would sell its Tokyo-Narita hub and Asian routes to United. Four years after that, its transatlantic network was handed over to Delta. The airline’s winnowed remains stumbled on for another year or so. It was just a shell of itself in the end, with dismal service and shabby old planes.

“Now the world is every man’s oyster,” Juan Trippe once said.

December 4th, 1991, was a Wednesday. I was laying over that night in a Sheraton in Burlington, Vermont. I almost never watch television in hotel rooms, but this time, for some reason, I had the news on. Suddenly the story broke. I remember some of the footage: panicky-looking employees rushing around a ticket counter, that sort of thing.

Pan Am’s final flight was a Boeing 727 from Barbados to Miami. Which was fitting, I guess. South Florida is where it all began, 64 years earlier, on a route from Key West to Havana.

For pilots, a job with Pan Am was once the most prestigious and glamorous job in aviation. By the end, though, they weren’t paying very much. I never had the chance to apply. On the day the carrier fell, I was a young Beech-99 captain still cutting his teeth. Working for a major carrier wouldn’t be a realistic option for several more years.

I was, however, lucky enough to have flown Pan Am a handful of times, including trips from Frankfurt to JFK on a 747, and from JFK to Rio de Janeiro on an L-1011. I also was a semi-regular customer on the Pan Am Shuttle between Boston and New York in the months before the shut-down. And, one of my most cherished memories is the day I spent plane-spotting on the roof of the Pan Am “Worldport” (later known as boring old Terminal 3) at Kennedy, as a seventh-grader in 1979.

Further reading…

There have been plenty — some would say too many — hardbound homages to the legacy of Pan Am. Most of these are pretty awful (crudely written flight attendant memoirs and such), but two are outstanding:

The first is Barnaby Conrad’s elegantly documented and superbly illustrated chronicle, Pan Am: An Aviation Legend. Not to detract from Conrad’s prose, but the photos and artwork are what make this volume special. The double-page spread of the flight attendants in the doorway of the “Clipper Freedom” is my favorite, along with the shot of the Beatles at Idlewild, coming down the stairs of the 707. This a fantastic book not merely for airline enthusiasts, but for any student of the history of 20th-century America.

The second is Matthias C. Hühne’s Pan Am: History, Design & Identity. So much of airline history has been told graphically — in the liveries, travel posters, promotional brochures and advertising copy of the world’s great airlines. It’s amazing, the level of attention and resources airlines once devoted to the finer points of their branding, and how spectacular so much of it was. This is particularly true with Pan Am.

huhne-pan-am-book

 

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Welcome to “Hidden Airport”

Unexpected Pleasures at a Terminal Near You.

WITH SCATTERED EXCEPTIONS, U.S. airports don’t have a whole lot going for them. They’re noisy, dirty, poorly laid out, and just generally hostile to passengers. As my regular readers are well aware, I’ve made this point in numerous prior posts — perhaps too many times. Now, so that I’m not accused of harping on the negative, here’s something different. “Hidden Airport” is a semi-regular feature highlighting little-known spots of unexpected pleasantness.

ALL PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR

 

UPDATE: Gateside Graffiti

Terminal Four at Kennedy Airport isn’t the most passenger-friendly building, but it has its spots, including the famous Calder mobile dangling from the departure hall ceiling (see earlier entry, below). Now, in the B concourse close to gate 25, you can enjoy this interactive wall mural. It was put in place last summer, presumably as a sort of post-pandemic morale booster for travelers.

It looks like most people just scribble their autograph, but some leave the names of whatever far-flung destinations they’re headed to — or wish they were headed to. You might get your clothes dirty, but grab a giant pencil and jump in there. Give us a “Bayonne, New Jersey,” or a “Smolensk.”

 

PREVIOUSLY IN HIDDEN AIRPORT:

— INDY KIND

Indianapolis International is the rare gem among U.S. airports. It’s spacious, clean, and splashed with natural light. Best of all, and unlike almost every other airport in the country, it’s remarkably quiet. According to Airports Council International, IND is the Best Airport in North America, and the readers of Conde Nast Traveler have dittoed that sentiment multiple times.

Tucked into the A concourse, between gates 14 and 16, is the KIND Gallery. Created in partnership with the city’s Arts Council, it showcases the works of Hoosier artists. The gallery is neither large nor — depending on your tastes in art — particularly breathtaking. But it’s exactly what it should be: an engaging and relaxing little sneak-away spot. My favorite of the current installation is “Cloud Study 1-4,” a four-frame series of cloudscapes by an artist named Kipp Normand.

What do we do at airports? We kill time. And here’s a way to do it that’s a little more fulfilling than staring at your phone or browsing the magazine kiosk.

And about that name, “KIND.” Chances are you’re familiar with the three-letter identifiers for airports, Indy’s being IND. What you probably didn’t know, however, is that airports also have four-letter identifiers. These are assigned by ICAO and used for navigation and other technical purposes. Airports in the United States simply add the letter “K” to the existing three-letter code. KLAX, for example. Or KBOS or KSFO or KMCO. Or, in this case, KIND.

PREVIOUSLY IN HIDDEN AIRPORT:

— KENNEDY CALDER

The next time you’re on the check-in level of terminal 4 at Kennedy Airport, look up. Suspended from the ceiling near the western end of the building is a sculpture constructed of balanced aluminum arms and trapezoidal panels. This is “.125,” the famous mobile made by Alexander Calder in 1957, back when JFK was still known as Idlewild Airport.

At 45 feet long, it’s supposedly the fourth-largest mobile in the world. For years it hung in the arrivals hall of the old Terminal 4, better known as the IAB (International Arrivals Building). Later it was moved to the departure level when the terminal was rebuilt. “People think monuments should come out of the ground, never out of the ceiling,” said Calder. “But mobiles can be monumental too.” The name “.125” comes from the gauge of its aluminum elements. What it evokes is, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder. One can detect a certain flight motif, though to me it looks more like a fish.

This wasn’t Calder’s only aviation-related project. In the 1970s he hand-painted two airplanes for Braniff Airways, including a Boeing 727 for the Bicentennial.

 

— UNDERGROUND ATLANTA

Atlanta. The Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has its negatives, to be sure. The low ceilings, beeping electric carts and endless public address announcements make the place noisy and claustrophobic. Many of the windows are inexplicably covered over, and the airport’s skinny escalators were apparently designed before the invention of luggage. On the other hand, ATL’s simple layout — essentially six rectangular concourses sequenced one after the other — makes for fast and easy connections. It’s one of the most convenient places anywhere to change planes. The neatest thing about it, though, is the underground connector tunnel. This is where you go to catch the inter-terminal train, but the better choice is to walk it. (If, like me, you purchased a Garmin Vivofit and have become obsessed with step-counting, note that it takes sixteen minutes and 1800 steps to cover the tunnel’s full walkable length.)

ATL’s history of Atlanta exhibit.

Along the way you’ll pass a series of art and photography installations. Between concourses B and C, is an excellent, museum-quality multimedia exhibit on the history Georgia’s capital. You could easily spend a half-hour here. My favorite section, though, is the forest canopy ceiling in the tunnel between concourses A and B. This installation, made of multicolor, laser-cut aluminum panels is the work of artist Steve Waldeck. Described as a “450-foot multisensory walk through a simulated Georgia forest,” it features an audio backdrop of dozens of native birds and insects. What a welcome change it is, listening to the calls of sandhill cranes and blue herons instead of some idiotic TSA directive. It takes only two or three minutes to pass beneath the length of it, but these are about the most relaxing (if a bit psychedelic) two or three minutes to be found at an airport.

 

— The 9/11 MEMORIAL AT BOSTON-LOGAN

The idea of building a memorial to the 2001 terror attacks, at the very airport from which two of the four hijacked planes departed from, ran a fine line between commemorative and tasteless. It needed to be done just right. What they came up with is superb, and ought to serve as a model for such memorials everywhere. Reached along an ascending pathway that twists upward amidst grass and trees, the main structure is a sort of open-topped glass chapel, inside of which are two vertical slabs, one for each of the two aircraft that struck the World Trade Center — and mimicking the shapes, one can’t help noticing, of the twin towers themselves — engraved with the names of the passengers and crew. There’s one for American’s flight 11, the Boeing 767 that struck the north tower, and the other for United 175, which hit the south tower a few minutes later. The glass and steelwork allow the entire space to be flooded with silvery light, creating an atmosphere that’s quiet and contemplative without feeling maudlin or sentimentalized. There are no flags or any of the crudely “patriotic” touches one might expect (and dread). It’s everything it should be: beautifully constructed, understated, and respectful.

Officially it’s called the “Place of Remembrance,” and it was built by the Boston-based firm of Moskow Linn Architects, as part of a public competition. The final design was chosen by airline workers, airport representatives, and family members of the victims. The engraved names are separated into columns of crew and passengers, and the names of off-duty United employees on the flight 175 plate include a small “tulip” logo of United Airlines. This might seem a strange touch, but this memorial was built primarily for the community of people who work at Logan Airport. Among the passengers and crew killed on the two jets were more than a dozen Logan-based employees. But anyone is welcome, of course, and I only wish the memorial were more easily accessible. If you’re at BOS and have some time, it’s worth seeking out. It sits on a knoll just to the southern side of the central parking garage, at the foot of the walkway tunnel that connects the garage with terminal A. Find the tunnel and follow the signs.


 

— SFO DRAGONFLIES

Airport art installations of one form or another are awfully trendy these days. Paintings, sculptures and mobiles are popping up all over the place. And good for that. Among the best is artist Joyce Hsu’s “Namoo House” sculpture at San Francisco International. It’s a huge, wall-mounted display of aluminum and stainless steel insects that, in the artist’s words, suggests the way the airport “fuses science, nature, and imagination, to become the transit home for all passengers” — whatever that might mean. To me, the metalwork moths and six-foot dragonflies represent both natural and human-made flying machines. And they remind me of the erector-set toys that I played with as a kid. Go to gate A3 in SFO’s international terminal, near the Emirates and JetBlue gates.


 

— RALEIGH-DURHAM’S TERMINAL 2

“Ah for the days when aviation was a gentleman’s pursuit, back before every Joe Sweatsock could wedge himself behind a lunch tray and jet off to Raleigh-Durham.” That’s from Sideshow Bob, in an old episode of the Simpsons (back when that show was still watchable), and we love the way he gives the words “Raleigh-Durham” an extra nudge of derision. I guess Bob hasn’t seen RDU’s Terminal 2. Home to Delta, American, jetBlue and United, this is possibly the most attractive airport building in America. Opened in 2008, it was the first major terminal with a wood truss skeleton. The design earned architect Curtis Fentress, whose firm also designed Denver International and Korea’s impeccable Incheon Airport, the American Institute of Architects’ Thomas Jefferson Award. “A blend of the region’s economy, heritage and landscape,” is how Fentress describes it. “Terminal 2’s rolling roofline reflects the Piedmont Hills, while the daylit interior provides the latest in common-use technology. Long-span wood trusses create column-free spaces that offer efficiency and flexibility, from ticketing to security.”

All true. And, unlike most airport facilities in this country, it’s quiet. Boarding calls and other public address announcements are kept to a minimum. This, together with the building’s architectural style and flair, will almost make you think you’re at an airport in Scandinavia.

 

— KANSAS CITY EASY

Kansas City? Yup, I’m talking about MCI, an airport I visited for the first time only a couple of days ago. Its “little-known spot of unexpected pleasantness” to borrow from this post’s introduction, is in fact the entire airport. There’s nothing pretty about MCI’s three semi-circular terminals, unless you have a thing for unadorned concrete, but it’s startlingly convenient. There cannot be a quicker-in, quicker out airport anywhere in America. Curbside to gateside is literally a twenty-foot walk! The MCI experience is quick, quiet, and no-fuss — three rarities among airports these days. Worryingly, there’s a movement afoot to replace MCI’s terminals with something more “modern.” In other words, the existing layout doesn’t provide enough floor space for those “retail and dining options” that have helped turn every other big American airport into a hellish sort of shopping mall. Please keep Kansas City the way it is.

 

— THE QUIET AREA AT MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL

MSP Quiet Area

On the whole, the Minneapolis airport is about as architecturally unexciting as a parking garage. It’s an older complex with low ceilings and endless corridors that reminds me of the ’60s-era grammar school that I once attended. And like most American airports, it has a noise pollution problem. But unlike most American airports, it has a place to escape the racket: an upper-level “quiet area” overlooking the central atrium of the Lindbergh (Delta Air Lines) Terminal. It’s difficult to find, but worth the effort if you’ve got a lengthy layover and need a place to relax. Look for the signs close to where F concourse meets the central lobby.The long, rectangular veranda has pairs of vinyl chairs set around tables. There are power outlets at each table and visitors can log in to MSP’s complimentary Wi-Fi. Delta provides pillows and blankets so that stranded passengers can nap. It’s a bland space without much ambiance, lacking the funky chairs, sofas, and other quirky accoutrements that you might find in Europe or Asia (Incheon Airport’s quiet zones are the coolest anywhere). But it does what it’s supposed to do. It’s comfortable, detached and peaceful. It’s a shame that more airports don’t set aside spots like this.

MSP Quiet Area 2

 

— THE La GUARDIA GARDEN

I’ve written at length about the Marine Air Terminal at La Guardia Airport in New York City. This historic art-deco building, in the far southwest corner of LGA, is one of the most special places in all of commercial aviation — the launching point for the Pan Am flying boats that made the first-ever transatlantic and round-the-world flights. Inside the cathedral-like rotunda is the 240-foot “Flight” mural by James Brooks. What few people know about, however, is the cozy garden just outside. Facing the building, it’s to the right of the old Art Deco doorway, set back from the street. It’s a quiet, tree-shaded hideaway amidst, grass, flowers and shrubs. Grab a sandwich from the Yankee Clipper and enjoy it on one of the wooden benches. To get there, take the A Loop inter-terminal bus to the Marine Air Terminal. The spot is best appreciated in the warmer months, of course. Like the Marine Air rotunda it is outside of the TSA checkpoint, so you’ll need to re-clear security if you’re catching a flight.

 

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The Day of the Cockroach

corridor-shot-1994

 

September 11, 2021

MY MOST VIVID MEMORY of September 11th, 2001, is my memory of a cockroach.

It was one of the biggest roaches I’ve ever seen — copper-colored and bullet-shaped, the length of my little finger — and it came crawling across the platform of the Government Center subway station at 7:00 a.m., as I stood there waiting for the train that would take me to Logan Airport. It scampered, stopped, then zigged and zagged, in that deliberate yet utterly directionless way of insects, its footsteps so heavy I swear that I could hear them, click-click-click on the greasy concrete.

It portended everything, this giant subway cockroach. Or it portended nothing. And as it came closer I drew my foot back — my right foot, I remember with absolute clarity — and nudged it, gently, off the platform and down into the dark and filthy space alongside the tracks, where it disappeared more or less instantly into the shadows and detritus.

This is how we remember things.

Once on the train, I would chat briefly with a United Airlines flight attendant, whose name I never got, and who maybe, possibly — I’ll never know for certain — was headed to work aboard the doomed United flight 175.

I was on my way to Orlando, where I’d be picking up a work assignment later that afternoon. My airplane would lift off only seconds after American’s flight 11, the first of the two jets to hit the twin towers. I had watched the silver Boeing back away from gate 25 at Logan’s terminal B and begin to taxi. United 175 would launch a few minutes later. My plane was in-between.

In an old briefcase here in this room, I still have my boarding pass from that morning. It shows me assigned to seat 11D, on the aisle, but there were empty seats and I slid over the window.

Elevens were wild that day. On the 11th day of the month, flight 11 would collide with the World Trade Center, two buildings that shaped an enormous “11” in the Manhattan sky. I looked down from row 11.

But there was nothing to see, yet. I recall an almost uncannily clear view of Manhattan, taking note, as I always do, of that graceful little bend that the island makes — the way it turns eastbound just below Midtown. There was no smoke, no fire. I was just a few minutes — a matter of seconds, maybe — too soon.

A short time later, about halfway to Florida, we started descending. Because of a “security issue,” our captain told us, we, along with many other airplanes, would be diverting immediately. Pilots are polished pros when it comes to dishing out euphemisms, and this little gem would be the most laughable understatement I’ve ever heard a comrade utter.

Our new destination was Charleston, South Carolina.

A bomb threat had been called in. That was my hunch. My worry wasn’t of war and smoldering devastation. My worry was being late for work. It wasn’t until I joined a crowd of passengers in Charleston, clustered around a TV in a concourse restaurant, that I learned what was going on.

And there I am. I’m watching the video of the second airplane, shot from the ground in a kind of twenty-first century Zapruder film. The picture swings left and picks up the United 767 moving swiftly. This is flight 175. The plane rocks, lifts its nose, and, like a charging, very angry bull making a run at a fear-frozen matador, drives itself into the very center of the south tower. The airplane vanishes. For a fraction of a second there is no falling debris, no smoke, no fire, no movement. Then, from within, you see the white-hot explosion and spewing expulsion of fire and matter.

And then, a bit later, the collapse. And this is the important part. Because to me, had the airplanes crashed, blown up, and reduced the upper halves of those buildings to burned-out hulks, the whole event would nonetheless have clung to the realm of believability. Had the towers not actually fallen, I suspect our September 11 hangover, which rages to this day, might not have been so prolonged. It was the collapse — the groaning implosions and the pyroclastic tornadoes whipping through the canyons of lower Manhattan — that catapulted the event from ordinary disaster to historical infamy.

As I stand awestruck in this shithole airport restaurant in South Carolina, the television shows the towers of the World Trade Center. They are not just afire, not just shedding debris and pouring out oil-black smoke. They are falling down. The sight of those ugly, magnificent towers, collapsing onto themselves, is the most sublimely terrifying thing I have ever seen.

Then I would go to a motel and spend the night. The next morning I would rent a car and drive all the way home to Boston.

This is how we remember things.

And pilots, like fire fighters, police officers, and everyone elsewhose professions had been implicated, had no choice but to take things, well, personally. Four on-duty airline crews were victims, including eight pilots. John Ogonowski comes to mind, the good-guy captain of American 11. Of the thousands of people victimized that day, Captain Ogonowski was figuratively, if not literally, the first of them. He lived in my home state; his funeral made the front pages, where he was eulogized for his philanthropic work with local Cambodian immigrants.

Maybe it’s melodramatic to say I felt a bond or kinship with these eight men, but it’s something like that. What they went through, these eight colleagues on the very front edge of the attacks, the very men whose airplanes would be stolen and weaponized, is something I can’t fathom yet, at the same time, I can imagine and visualize all too chillingly.

And yes, in the ten-second bursts it took the towers to fall, I knew something about the business of flying planes would be different forever. I just wasn’t sure what it would be.

Fast-forward. It’s hyperbole to speak of the world having been “changed forever” that day. I’m conservative and skeptical when it comes to these things. History is bigger than us. Try to take the long view, even if, all these years on, the dominos haven’t stopped falling. Heck, tens of millions of people died in World War Two — tens of thousands at a time, as the incendiaries rained down over Europe and Japan. A hundred thousand bodies one night in Tokyo alone.

Sure, things are different now. Albeit for reasons we don’t always own up to. I have to say, I’m discouraged — or should that be encouraged? — because more than any “clash of civilizations,” the real and lasting legacy of Mohamed Atta and his henchmen is something more mundane: tedium. Think about it. The long lines, the searches and pat-downs, the litany of rules and protocols we’re forced to follow — all this meaningless pomp in the name of security. Of modern life’s many rituals, few are marinated in boredom as much as air travel. “Flying” is what we call it. How misleading. We don’t fly so much as we sit and stand around for interminable amounts of time.

And most distressing of all, we seem to be okay with this. There’s the real legacy of September 11th. The terrorists have won, goes the refrain, and perhaps that’s true. It isn’t quite what they hoped to win, but they’ve won it nevertheless.

The irony that nobody talks about is that the hijackers’ ability to pull off the 2001 attacks so spectacularly had almost nothing to do with airport security in the first damn place. I’ve made this point many times, but never have I seen or heard it acknowledged elsewhere. As conventional wisdom has it, the terrorists exploited a weakness in airport security by smuggling boxcutters onto the airplanes. But conventional wisdom is wrong. What the men actually exploited was a weakness in our mindset — a set of presumptions based on the decades-long track record of hijackings and how they were expected to unfold: diversions to Beirut or Havana, with hostage negotiations and standoffs.

The presence of boxcutters was merely incidental — particularly when coupled with the bluff of having a bomb. The men could have used knives fashioned from plastic, broken bottles wrapped with tape, or any of a thousand other improvised tools. The only weapon that mattered was the intangible one: the element of surprise. And so long as they didn’t chicken out, they were all but guaranteed to succeed.

For a number of reasons, just the opposite is true today. The hijack paradigm was changed forever even before the first of the Twin Towers had dropped to the ground, when the passengers of United 93 realized what was happening and fought back. That element of surprise was no longer a useful device. Hijackers today would face not only an armored cockpit, but also a planeload of people convinced they’re about to die. It’s hard to imagine a terrorist, be it with a boxcutter or a bomb, making it two steps up the aisle without being pummeled. It’s equally hard to imagine that organized groups would be willing to expend valuable resources on a scheme with such a high likelihood of failure.

In spite of this reality, we are apparently content spending billions of taxpayer dollars and untold hours of labor in a delusional attempt to thwart an attack that has already happened and cannot happen again. Guards paw through our luggage in a hunt for what are effectively harmless items: hobby knives, scissors, screwdrivers. Meanwhile, even a child knows that a lethal implement can be crafted out of virtually anything, from a ballpoint pen to a shattered first class dinner plate.

A September 11th post isn’t anything I’ve looked forward to, and I’m wary of the maudlin sentimentalizing and over-the-top coverage this anniversary will bring. But something needed to be said, and so here it is. After all, nothing in my lifetime had a more profound effect on air travel than the events of that Tuesday morning twenty years ago.

Until now. Until COVID-19 came along. And as the legacy of September 11th troubles me, so do its eerie parallels with the ongoing battle against coronavirus.

Both crises were born of legitimately dangerous circumstances, but quickly became twisted by politics and hysteria. Curiously, this seems to have happened in opposite ways: After the 2001 attacks, it was mostly people on the right who bought into the hype and fear; who saw terrorists around every corner and were willing to sign off on things like the Patriot Act, TSA, the Iraq War, and so forth. Left-leaning people resisted. This time, it’s left-leaning people who are the more fearful and pessimistic, while those on the right advocate for a softer, more laissez-faire approach.

Why the difference? I suspect it’s because people who lean right are more naturally drawn to responses involving power and conflict; going after enemies, seeking revenge, etc. — all the things that came into play after September 11th. The pandemic, on the other hand, centers on concepts like compassion and “saving people.” Thus it has galvanized that mindset instead of the more reactionary one.

Regardless of where you stand, the big question is: how and when does it end? Or does it end at all?

When people are afraid they adjust rapidly, to almost anything, accepting ways of life that are ultimately harmful. Replace “war on terror” with “war on coronavirus” and feel what I mean. After 2001, we spent two entire decades — and counting — obsessed with the specter of terrorism. It never went away. Will the same thing happen again?

There’s been a lot of talk and prognosticating about “after.” People often talk of a life “after COVID” or “when COVID is over.” This is a nonsensical proposition. Just as there can be no “end of terrorism,” the virus too will stay with us, chronic and endemic. How we adapt will define the next decade. Will we do so sensibly, or, as we chose with terrorism, by waging a ruinously expensive and self-destructive battle that, to this day, has no conceivable end.

 

Author’s photo, taken from the cockpit of a 19-seater in 1994.

An earlier version of this essay appears in chapter six of COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL.

Related Stories:

CONSPIRACY NATION
AIRPORT SECURITY IN THE NEW CENTURY
THE HIJACKING OF TWA 847
THE SKIES BELONG TO US

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COVID Casualties

Predictions, Observations, and Farewells Amidst Coronavirus.

What will air travel look like post-COVID? It’s still too soon to know. There are many moving parts to this. It’s happening globally, at different speeds, across a diverse range of cultures and economies and market environments. Things will be in flux for a long time, with no defined end. 

Much has already happened, however, and there are signs and signals as to what may lay ahead. Airlines have fallen, trends are emerging, protocols are being set. Below is a look at what we’ve seen, and some thoughts on what comes next, both for airlines and their customers.

This post will be updated periodically as events occur, and as the author’s aggravation levels rise and fall.

 

September 1, 2021. Mask Mania.

If, like me, you’re a fan of the commercial aviation streams on Instagram, you’ve seen them: photo after photo after photo of airline workers cheerfully mugging in face masks. I’ve had it with this.

Yes, everyone who flies needs to put a mask on. This is understood and accepted, as is any airline’s attempt to make the policy clear through advertising, promotional materials, on-board safety videos, and so forth. In other words, treat it seriously. What drives me crazy are the constant attempts to cute-ify the wearing of masks. Because, in fact, there’s nothing cute about it. Masks are a physical symptom of a society, and an airline industry, in pretty serious distress. This isn’t something to giggle at, normalize, or make light of, and we should want them to go away as soon as possible (ironically, by wearing them when and where it makes sense to).

It’s not just aviation galleries. The entire internet is awash in mask selfies. These pictures seem wrong to me, and often feel sanctimonious. Posting a photo with a mask on is a little like posting a photo with a bag over your head. Why do it unless, for some reason of policy or regulation, you have to? Nine times in ten there appears to be no reason the person couldn’t have slipped the damn thing off for the sake of a picture — especially in shots taken outdoors.

Or is that the whole point? If so, it’s not a helpful one. Turning masks into political statements or fetish objects doesn’t keep anyone safer or halt the spread of coronavirus.

 

August 19, 2021. Covering Up.

Earlier this week, TSA announced an extension of its passenger mask mandate. Flyers will now be required to wear approved face masks aboard all U.S. commercial flights until at least January 18th, 2022. Considering current case rates and the high transmissibility of the COVID-19 delta variant, this was neither unexpected nor unreasonable. And so my reaction is little more than a shrug.

The extension is unlikely to affect passenger volumes in any measurable way. Love them or hate them, masks are simply not a part of most travelers’ go/no-go criteria. They do, however, add to the levels of aggravation and frustration in the cabin, and the big issue for airlines now is how the ruling might affect levels of so-called air rage. Instances of passenger violence and belligerent behavior have risen sharply, and masks are a part of that.

I have no big issue with masks on planes in a general sense. One thing I wish, however, is that carriers weren’t so blindly aggressive in their enforcement. I’ve seen flight attendants literally scream at passengers because their masks momentarily slipped beneath their noses. Stepping onto a jetliner, the first words you hear are no longer “hello,” or “welcome aboard,” but a stern, “Sir, your mask needs to be all the way over your nose!” A few days ago I witnessed a flight attendant interrupt and berate a customer because he dared to partially remove his mask in order to ask a question about a connecting flight. (If he can remove his mask to enjoy a meal, why can’t he remove it for two seconds to ask a question?) To say nothing of the endless barrage of mask-related public address announcements that begin well before boarding and don’t end until you’re at baggage claim five hours later.

This sort of combative, absolute zero-tolerance approach is not in the spirit of the rule, and does nothing to keep people safer. All it does is create an atmosphere of intimidation and fear in a setting where tension levels already are high.

 

May 19, 2021. Thresholds.

Daily passenger volume in the U.S. is now about 70 percent of 2019 levels. Airlines are reporting positive cash flow, if not quite profit, and many flights are full. Passenger confidence is returning and there’s the smell of normal in the air.

Of course, a full flight isn’t necessarily a profitable one. It’s easy to fill a plane with cheap tickets, and it’s low-yield leisure traffic that, for the moment, is driving the recovery. Business traffic is what airlines count on, and here any improvement has been agonizingly slow to materialize. It will come, eventually; not to the levels we saw before, but enough to return airlines to the black. Another asterisk is geography. Southern and middle-of-the-country airports are bustling, while places like Boston and San Francisco lag behind. The differences are driven by local economies, culture, even politics. Regardless, almost all of the signs are positive, at least for domestic markets.

The international front, on the other hand, remains a mess. With vaccinations sporadic or even nonexistent in many countries, COVID cases are increasing across much of the world, resulting in paralyzed economies, lockdowns and border closures. Just as worryingly, even “open” countries pose a challenge. What’s lacking is any sort of consistency in entry protocols. Some countries ask only for a vaccination certificate. Others require a vaccination certificate and a so-called PCR test (which can be time-consuming and expensive to get). Others ask for a certificate and the easier kind of COVID test. Others want only one (or both) of these tests, and don’t care about your vax status. Some mandate quarantines on top (or instead) of all this, while others don’t. And so on. The rules are a tangle and constantly being revised.

Just this week the European Union announced a proposal to begin allowing in travelers from select countries, including the United States, without testing or quarantine — just a vaccination. While this is potentially great news, when it might actually happen is unclear. For the time being, they’re not making it easy. To enter Italy, just as one example, a passenger must first pass a PCR test within 72 hours of departure time. He or she must then take a second test at the airport. In case that’s not enough, the passenger is then required to take a third test on arrival in Italy. Three tests, not counting the one you need to return to the United States. No exclusions for vaccination status.

Travelers are not gonna book holidays or business trips when the requirements are this onerous or subject to change on short notice. The world needs groups like IATA, A4A, and USTA to press for more streamlined and standardized procedures.


January 22, 2021. Nowhere Fast.

Newly sworn in, President Joe Biden is unveiling a flurry of policy initiative to stem the spread of you-known-what. Among these is a rule that incoming international passengers must self-quarantine for ten days. This comes only days after a requirement that arriving passengers present a negative COVID-19 test result prior boarding any flight to the United States. There’s no provision for taking a second test after arrival in lieu of quarantine, neither is there an exception for passengers who are vaccinated. Whatever impact these measures may or may not have on COVID-19 cases, they’ll certainly be devastating for airlines and their workers, and will all but crush the small amount of international travel that has begun to rebound — most of it in the Latin America and Caribbean markets.

The U.S. Travel Association lauded the testing requirement, describing it as “the key to reopening international travel.” However, the group is understandably less enthusiastic about the quarantine. “We believe a mandatory quarantine requirement for international travelers could be extremely difficult to enforce—and unnecessary,” the organization said in a press release, “in light of required testing and the many other protections now in place.”

Everything is just a disaster.

 

January 14, 2021. Norwegian Would.

All right, where were we? It’s been a while. Which is maybe understandable, since so little has changed. Or, maybe more accurately, everything and nothing has changed.

This week, discount carrier Norwegian Air announced that it’s giving up its long-haul network. The airline will downsize from 140 planes to about 50, all of them short-haul Boeing 737s, sending its fleet of more than thirty 787s back to the lessors. The carrier will “return to its routes,” so to speak, focusing on low-cost intra-European flying.

This is no surprise. Norwegian never made money on its long-haul services. The long-haul LCC (low-cost carrier) model is exceptionally challenging under even the best of circumstances, never mind in the middle of a crushing global crisis. Once COVID hit, Norwegian never stood a chance.

History — both recent and distant — is littered with the carcasses of LCCs that tried and failed to make it in transoceanic markets. Laker, Tower Air, AirAsia X, WOW, Joon. And now Norwegian. The track record is a dismal one, yet it always seems like someone is willing to try. Indeed, as we speak, Lufthansa is looking into launching a long-haul LCC tentatively named “Ocean.”

 

October 15, 2020. Bordering on Madness.

The recovery, if we can call it that, has been handicapped by the recent spike in COVID-19 cases — and, in no small part, by a media that will not cease its fear-mongering. Yet the numbers are improving, little by little. In the U.S., daily passenger totals are closing in on the one million mark. Looking long term, it’s no longer the domestic front that worries me. Even with a shattered economy and a frightened populace, a return to normalcy is possible within a year or two. What scares me to death, however, is what’s going on internationally.

Across the world, borders remain closed or heavily restricted, with absurdly onerous entry requirements. Countries with few or no coronavirus cases remain closed off even to other countries with few or no cases. And those letting visitors in typically require expensive and logistically complicated “PCR” testing prior to arrival. That’s in addition to secondary testing after landing and, in some cases, a lengthy quarantine. It defies logic, but not having COVID-19 is no longer an adequate criteria to visit many countries. To enter Thailand, for instance, a traveler has to undergo three COVID-19 tests and quarantine for two weeks, after which point you are permitted to stay only in government-monitored hotels, with your whereabouts tracked daily. This in a nation that earns 20 percent of its annual GDP through tourism.

Why simple, on-the-spot instant testing hasn’t become an acceptable standard for entry I can’t understand. But it hasn’t. By and large there have been very few efforts toward developing a rational or reasonable means of reopening borders. Instead we have heavy-handed policies that make any return of tourism or business travel all but impossible, and will further decimate the many industries that support and rely on global travel. That includes airlines, more and more of whom are headed to the brink or beyond.

 

September 2, 2020. Boarding School.

TSA has been tracking the number of passenger boardings at U.S. airports. To the surprise of many, we’ve been seeing daily numbers in excess of 800,000. That’s close to 40 percent of what we saw a year ago on the same days.

On the one hand that’s a spectacular and encouraging statistic, especially with most states only partially reopened, and with an economy off the rails. But looking at it more closely leaves me less sanguine than many of my peers. What I see, rather than a sudden lurch to normalcy, is a limited number of people jumping to take advantage of low fares. Although 40 percent of passengers have returned, 40 percent of revenues have not. Cheap tickets to domestic vacation spots will help fill TSA lines, sure. But looking down the road — especially for the legacy carriers, which rely heavily on international and business traffic — this is hardly a recipe for success.

It’s a positive sign, don’t get me wrong, but the real test begins next week, after Labor Day, when summertime leisure flyers return to work (or to their Zoom meetings). Will boardings continue to rise, or will they plateau and taper off? This will also be the moment when the legacies need to begin separating themselves from their low-cost counterparts. And for that, they’ll need those high-yield business flyers to start coming back, and overseas markets to begin reopening. Until then, “40 percent of normal” doesn’t quite mean what it seems.

 

August 6, 2020. Branson’s Blues.

I wonder what the record is for the most number of airlines going bankrupt in a six-month span. The post-Deregulation period was pretty brutal, but that was spread over two or three years, from 1979 through 1982. The early 1990s were another dark time, with Eastern and Pan Am going under. Never, though, have we seen such carnage in such a brief amount of time.

Earlier this week, Virgin Atlantic became the latest victim of the COVID panic, filing for bankruptcy protection in both American and British courts. Virgin joins Thai, Avianca, LATAM, and several other major carriers (see earlier entries below) victimized by the collapse in global travel. Virgin was especially hard hit because a high percentage of its revenues comes from routes between London and the United States, all of which have been scaled back significantly or canceled outright. More than 3,000 employees have been laid off. Co-owner Richard Branson was angling for a bailout, and offered up his private Caribbean island as collateral. It wasn’t enough.

This is actually the second Virgin franchise to hit the skids. Virgin Australia Airlines, co-founded by Branson twenty years ago, filed for bankruptcy back in April.

 

July 19, 2020. Going Dutch.

I survived the curse of July 17th, and find myself in Amsterdam the following morning.

Subdued, is how I’d describe it here. On a normal midsummer weekend, for better or worse, the central part of Amsterdam would be a virtual wall of tourists. On a midsummer weekend in 2020, however, it’s predominantly locals. Looks more like February than July. But otherwise routine: shops and restaurants are open, people are milling freely. And almost nobody has a mask on. The only place I saw masks was at the airport, where it looked about 50/50.

Meanwhile in America.

 

July 16, 2020. The List Gets Smaller.

Less than two weeks after I wrote about Qantas’s early retirement of the 747 (see the installment below), British Airways has announced it too will cease all 747 flying, effective immediately. This will leave Lufthansa as the only 747 launch customer still operating the jet in scheduled service — assuming it doesn’t follow suit.

Every day brings more and more good news.

I flew in the upper deck of a British Airways 747 once, way back in 1987, from Heathrow to Nairobi. It was an old -200 model with the spiral staircase. Sitting upstairs in a 747 was always special — a private, hangar-shaped mini-cabin distinctly separate from the rest of the aircraft, with its own lavatories and galley. And who couldn’t love those sidewall storage lockers? You were three full stories above the ground, and the view through the windows gave you a sense of the 747’s size. Parked at the gate, you’d be looking over the rooftops of many terminals.

 

July 3, 2020. Decline and Fall.

A lot has been made about carriers — Emirates in particular — having mothballed their A380 fleets. What’s sadder is the worldwide grounding of the 747. Only a handful are currently in service, and regardless of how or when this all pans out, few will take to the air again. History’s most influential jetliner becomes just another casualty of the hideous global panic touched off by coronavirus. More than anything else in aviation, the 747 deserved a more dignified end.

Later this month, Qantas will say farewell to its last remaining 747. The sendoff will include a hangar commemoration for employees and a series of sold-out scenic flights. KLM’s retirement took place in April, more than a year ahead of schedule. That leaves British Airways and Lufthansa as the largest operators. Their fleets sit idle at the moment, and may or may not reenter service. Each of these carriers had a phase-out plan already in place, but COVID-19 has changed everything.

All four of these airlines were among the 747’s launch customers, and have (or had) operated the aircraft uninterrupted for nearly fifty years, beginning with the -100 variant in 1970.

For what it’s worth, I did spot an Air China 747-8 at Kennedy Airport the other day. There’s an irony in there somewhere.

 

July 1, 2020. Going South.

Let’s welcome Aeromexico to the Chapter 11 bankruptcy list. Established in 1934, the carrier operates an all-Boeing fleet of 60 aircraft.

Depressingly, if somewhat predictably, it’s the older and more historic airlines that are biting the dust faster than the newcomers and LCCs.

 

June 23, 2020. Political Masking.

After the 2001 attacks, it was mostly people on the right who bought into the hype and fear; who saw terrorists around every corner and were willing to sign off on things like the Patriot Act, TSA, the Iraq War, and so forth. Left-leaning people resisted. This time, it’s left-leaning people who are the more fearful and pessimistic, while those on the right are advocating for a softer, more laissez-faire approach.

Both crises are similarly sinister in the way they they’ve warped people’s thinking and behavior, but they’ve attracted opposite crowds. Why? I suspect it’s because people who lean right are more naturally drawn to responses involving power and conflict; going after enemies, etc — all the things that came into play after 9/11. This particular crisis, on the other hand, centers on concepts like compassion and “saving people.” Thus it has galvanized that mindset instead of the more reactionary one.

Regardless of the reasons, the more this becomes politicized into a left/right conflict, the longer it’s likely to drag on. Often unfairly, people are being put into two camps. Those in favor of harsh quarantines are Democrats. Those in favor of easing them and opening the economy are pro-Trump. This prejudice extends to the wearing of masks. I live in West Somerville, Massachusetts, one of the most progressive neighborhoods in America. Mask compliance is virtually 100 percent, whether indoors and outdoors. It’s common to see people wearing masks even in isolation, well apart from others: sitting alone in a park, in their yards, or on their porches. Anyone who shows up maskless is immediately pigeonholed as a Trump supporter, regardless of their actual affiliation. Masks aren’t merely a practical tool against the virus; they’re are also a signal and a symbol. The crisis has become a social movement, a cause, and political sentiment is absolutely part of it.

Politicizing COVID discourages people from thinking clearly or freely about what’s happening. Instead you’re assigned a “side” and expected to follow along. Never before has the nation needed to be more united around a cause, and instead we’re being wedged apart — on an issue that requires tough decision-making and bravery, not partisanship. Nonsense like this could postpone any meaningful recovery until after the election. For some, I imagine that’s the intent.

 

June 14, 2020. Creep.

Masks. Social distancing. Remember when taking off your shoes at airport security was just a “temporary” measure put in place after Richard Reid attempted to ignite his sneakers on a flight from Paris to Miami in 2001? Remember when the liquids and gels limits were a “temporary” restriction that came about after the London bomb plot in 2006? We have a habit of growing acclimated to even the most time-wasting inconveniences, long after they cease making sense. And rarely do the regulators or policy-makers enjoy undoing what they’ve done. It’s always a lot harder to rescind a rule than it was to put that rule in place.

Just saying.

 

May 26, 2020. Dominoes.

The newest addition to the 2020 bankruptcy flying circus is LATAM. Crippled by lockdowns and global quarantines, the carrier has filed for Chapter 11 protection. By far the largest airline in South America, LATAM traces its origins to the founding of LAN Chile in 1929. It was formed eight years ago when the LAN group, with operations mostly in Chile, Peru and Ecuador, joined forces with TAM of Brazil. The airline flies passenger and cargo services to 30 countries with a fleet of approximately 300 aircraft, including Boeing 787 and Airbus A350. LATAM is 20 percent owned by Delta Air Lines, with Qatar Airways controlling another ten percent.

 

May 19, 2020. Coast to Coast.

This past weekend I flew from New York to Los Angeles and back. The plane was about half full in both directions. That’s a hundred people, give or take, on a route that has been heavily consolidated (seven or eight daily flights reduced to one or two). It felt good to be back in the seat, though as happened last time I was left a little shaken by the spectacle of two of the world’s busiest airports almost utterly void of people.

The captain and I discussed books, travel, and airline history. I don’t think we mentioned coronavirus more than a couple of times. Like me he’s a bit of an airline trivia buff — a highly unusual trait among pilots, believe it or not — which provided some pleasant distraction.

If you haven’t flown in a while, brace yourself for a whole new onslaught of public address announcements. As if the PA cacophony wasn’t obnoxious and nerve-wracking enough before COVID; it’s been taken to the next level. Curbside to curbside, it’s blah blah blah masks, blah blah blah social distancing, blah blah blah aircraft cleaning, blah blah blah in accordance with the CDC, blah blah blah for the safety of crew and passengers. Boarding and deplaning are now longer and more complicated affairs, with every step of the way accompanied by some noisy and patronizing announcement.

I understand that passengers take comfort in an airline’s efforts to keep them safe. This is important. It’s also important not to scare them half to death or drive them crazy.

 

May 18, 2020. The Hits Keep Coming.

Colombia’s Avianca and Thai Airways are the latest major carriers to declare bankruptcy.

Avianca is the second-oldest airline in the world, and celebrated its 100th birthday this past December. Imagine making it through the Great Depression, World War II, and every other crisis to have come and gone over the last century, only to get knocked out by COVID in fewer than 90 days.

Thai, grounded since late March, dates to 1960 and operates a fleet of approximately 80 aircraft. The airline had been floundering for years until coronavirus broke its back.

Both companies hope to reorganize and resume flying. Thai is government-owned, giving it some hope, but could still go the way of South African (see below) if a bailout isn’t forthcoming.


May 8, 2020. That Didn’t Take Long.

Forty-eight hours, give or take. See my update below on temperature checks at airports. Just today Frontier Airlines became the first U.S. airline to require the infrared fever-screening of passengers. If your reading is 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, you cannot travel.

It’s just a short matter of time before the other carriers follow suit, and at some point TSA (or a whole new agency) will take control of the operation, setting up checks at a centralized location at or near the security checkpoint. Just a “temporary measure,” of course. Sure.

And that’s the scary part. Twenty years after September 11th and we’re still doing liquid confiscations and taking our shoes off. Nobody can really explain why. Is it crazy to think that twenty years from now we’ll still be wearing masks and having our temperatures checked?

More lines to stand in, temperature scans, mandatory masks, no onboard service, higher fares, scared passengers… I’d say the airlines are just about screwed.

 

May 7, 2020. Normal Nothing.

If I hear the phrase “new normal” one more time, I’m going to need medication. I understand that certain measures are necessary and helpful under the circumstances. One thing they are not, however, and should never be, is normal. Nothing about this is normal. Yet there are elements of society, both cultural and political, that appear troublingly eager to make a lot of what we’re doing permanent.

Other terms and phrases that have worn out their welcome include “abundance of caution,” “Zoom,” and “front lines.” Did you know that supermarket cashiers are now called “Front line food distribution workers.”

 

May 6, 2020. Grounded.

Several readers have asked if I’ve been flying. The answer is yes and no. Mostly no. In mid-March I worked a four-day trip to Ghana. Since then, the only thing I’ve done was a simple domestic out-and-back one day about two weeks ago. I bid and received normal schedules for April and May, but every assignment was quickly canceled.

Like many pilots, I’m effectively being paid to sit home. I realize there are far worse fates, but almost nothing about it has been enjoyable. We’re protected through the end of the summer. After that, who knows. Best case is that I’m looking at a significant pay reduction in the fall. Worst case… I’d rather not talk about it. I spent almost six years out of work after 9/11. The thought of having to go through that again is too much.

To repeat something I brought up in an earlier post: What a lot of people don’t realize is that for pilots, should you find yourself laid off, or if your airline goes out of business, you cannot simply slide over to another airline and pick up where you left off. The way airline seniority systems work, there is no sideways transfer of benefits or salary. If you move to a different company, you begin again at the bottom, at probationary pay and benefits, regardless of how much experience you have. You lose everything. So any threat to our companies makes us nervous.

And for any near the bottom of any seniority list, disaster is coming. Thousands of those pilots are about to lose their jobs, possibly for years.

 

May 5, 2020. On the Horizon.

Whats that in my crystal ball? It’s masks. Several carriers now require passengers and crews to wear face coverings. Don’t be startled if regulators step in and make them mandatory. And whether it’s the law or not, they won’t be going away. Expect many passengers to keep wearing them long after the COVID crisis subsides.

And coming soon to a checkpoint near you: temperature checks. You often see these machines when passing through immigration at airports overseas. I have a feeling you’ll be seeing them in the U.S. as well, giving you the infrared once-over before you’re allowed to board. This is great news, because if passengers want anything, it’s another line to stand in.

Overseeing these new measures will be the Transportation Health Administration (THA), to be formed early next year by President Biden.

That last one is facetious. Right?

 

May 3, 2020. Let’s Catastrophize.

You know what would really suck right now for a U.S. carrier? An accident. A crash.

On our side is the fact that airlines have slashed their timetables more than 90 percent, vastly decreasing the likelihood of a disaster. Still, and much as I hate saying it, we’re overdue for one. There hasn’t been a major crash involving a mainline U.S. carrier in almost twenty years — by far the longest such streak in aviation history. Carriers are in dire straits as it is. A mishap could put one under. Airline workers are under a lot of stress right now. It’s important we keep our heads in the game.

 

April 26, 2020. Knockout Number Two: Virgin Australia.

Virgin Australia, the second-largest carrier Down Under, has gone into receivership. The company, co-founded by Richard Branson as Virgin Blue twenty years ago, operated close to a hundred aircraft to over 50 cities throughout Australia, Asia, and the United States. On April 20th the airline entered voluntary administration and filed for bankruptcy. Supposedly a couple of Chinese banks are eyeing VA’s assets with plans to resuscitate the brand, but details are unclear. For now, Virgin Australia becomes the second of what we might call “major” airlines to be punched out by the COVID panic. Others will follow.

 

April 10, 2020. Knockout Number One: South African Airways.

South African Airways has ceased operations after 86 years. The company had been struggling for some time, and in early April the South African government announced it would cut off any further assistance, forcing the airline close its doors and and lay off all remaining staff. This is a very depressing one. South African Airways was one of the world’s “classic” legacy carriers. In the 1970s and 1980s, its 707s, 747s, and 747SPs helped pioneer ultra long-haul flying (albeit during the apartheid years, when airspace bans often forced its planes to take circuitous routings). Its demise is no less sad than the fates that befell Swissair, Sabena, and some of the other great airlines. Gone too is the carrier’s legendary radio callsign: Springbok. Its “flying springbok” logo from 1971, pictured below, was one of the all-time best.

I flew South African Airways three times, aboard 747, 737, A330 and A320 aircraft, on routes between Johannesburg and New York, Windhoek, Lusaka and Victoria Falls.

There’s talk of a new national carrier emerging from the ashes. Chances are it’ll be given some awful-sounding name like “Sunjet.com,” a low-budget paint job and some goofy-sounding callsign.

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Hotel Room Madness

May 4, 2021

Mexico City, Mexico

HOUSEKEEPING: Good evening.

PATRICK SMITH: Hola. Can you help me? The door to my mini-fridge is locked.

HOUSEKEEPING: Yes, sir.

PATRICK SMITH: I need somewhere to store my leftovers. The fridge is locked.

HOUSEKEEPING: Yes, it is locked. For COVID-19.

PATRICK SMITH: What?

HOUSEKEEPING: The fridge is locked. Because of COVID.

PATRICK SMITH: I don’t understand. What does COVID have to do with my mini-fridge?

HOUSEKEEPING: I am sorry sir.

PATRICK SMITH: But… what about my sandwich?

HOUSEKEEPING: The fridge must be locked. Because of the sanitary condition.

And so on.

I spend a lot of time in hotels. Witnessing the various ways they’ve responded to the ongoing pandemic has been equally amusing and frustrating. The focus on cleanliness has been relentless, spawning an arms race of extreme and often bizarre measures. Although different chains have come up with different gestures, there are certain constants: the remote-control handset encased in plastic, for example, and the ubiquitous QR placard in place of a room service menu. The Gideon’s have been scooped from the drawers; pens and notepads have disappeared.

How effective these measures might be isn’t my expertise, but suffice it to say I’m skeptical. The idea, so far as I can tell, is to reduce the number of so-called “touchpoint.” In a hotel room, of all places, this feels a bit absurd. Not to mention, health organizations say that the chances of COVID spreading via surfaces are tiny.

Usually the effect is merely comical, but occasionally it’s maddening. One night in Los Angeles I was forced to drink tap water out of my hand because the room had been stripped of cups and glasses. “Yes, we’ve removed all beverage-related items,” was the response to my complaint. There’s still a bed, and a shower, and toilet for that matter. But nothing to rinse with after brushing your teeth.

In a hotel near Kennedy Airport, “per order of the governor,” according to the sign, the 24-hour continental snack buffet — a small cabinet of pastries and fruit — is now available only from 5 a.m. until 10 a.m. Did I miss something about people contracting coronavirus through donuts? If so, from this point on you can only catch it in the morning.

Cynics will wonder how much of this, misguided as it might be, is truly in the interest of safety rather than opportunistic cost-cutting. We’ll see what returns and what doesn’t. When companies start throwing around words like “streamlining” to describe their customer experience strategies, that’s a euphemism for scaling back.

Meanwhile, I’m convinced that one of the byproducts of the pandemic has been a tenfold increase in the manufacture — and subsequent discarding — of single-use plastics. Everything now is wrapped in plastic, from hotel silverware to the food on airplanes.

Have you flown in first or business class lately? On many airlines, each course of the meal service — salad, entree, dessert — comes plated in its own little polystyrene house. Indeed, each individual roll or bread slice is wrapped in cellophane. Mind you this wrapping is done by hand, which would seem to undermine the whole endeavor, but in a world drifting ever deeper into dystopian madness, never let reason stand in the way of pointlessness and waste.

The morning after that mini-fridge episode, I was passing through the crew security checkpoint at the Mexico City airport. I was subjected to repeated pat-downs and was asked to proceed twice through the body scanner. The culprit was — wait for it now — a slip of paper in my shirt pocket. A man ordered me to stand before him with my arms outstretched. He slipped on a pair of sanitary gloves, touched me lightly on the breast pocket, then took off the gloves and threw them away. Off to the side, at the x-ray belt, my colleague was having his suitcase eviscerated by two guards who’d spotted a tiny corkscrew inside — the kind that attaches to a keychain.

Am I the only one who sees the parallels here? Am I the only one getting nervous? We are all familiar with the phrase “security theater.” Will “virus theater” be next?

Twenty years after the attacks of 9/11 and we’re still confiscating pointy objects from pilots, wasting billions of dollars and immeasurable amounts of time on security protocols that nobody can justify or explain. And it’s doubtful they will ever go away. Once such things become policy, with entire bureaucracies constructed to support them, they are often impossible to march back. The traveling public simply gets used to them.

Although the COVID crisis will not last forever, don’t be surprised if aspects of it — even, or especially, the silliest and most illogical ones — are still with us for years to come.

PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR.

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A Night at the TWA Hotel

January 24, 2021

THANKS TO SOME terrific rates offered to airline workers in these times of low occupancy, I’ve been staying regularly at the TWA Hotel at New York’s Kennedy Airport. It’s become my go-to layover when I’ve got an early-morning sign-in or a night to kill between trips.

The 512-room property, set between terminals 4 and 5, incorporates the famous “Flight Center” — Eero Saarinen’s swooping, soaring, masterpiece TWA terminal completed in 1962. The most architecturally significant airport terminal ever built, the Flight Center was also the first one designed expressly for jet airliners. After the takeover of TWA by American Airlines in 2001, its fate was bounced around between preservationists and Port Authority bureaucrats, its survival in doubt until it was saved from the wrecking ball thanks mainly to the efforts of New York City’s Municipal Arts Society. The initial plan was for the terminal to serve as a lobby and ticketing plaza for JetBlue, whose Terminal 5 sits directly behind it. This fell through, however, and the terminal sat in a state of semi-dereliction until the hotel plan came together.


When it opened in 2017, the travel blogs went giddy, binging on terms like “retro,” and “throwback,” with the obligatory references to “Mad Men” and so forth. This made me nervous. Aware that such endeavors have a tendency to go aesthetically awry, I was worried the renovators had spoiled the place.

I’m happy to report this is not the case. They understood what made the terminal special, and have kept it that way. The building’s beauty rests in its continuity. “All one thing,” is how Saarinen, a Finn whose other projects included the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the terminal at Washington-Dulles, once said of it. It’s a fluid, unified sculpture of a space, at once futuristic and organic; a carved-out atrium reminiscent of the caves of Turkish Cappadocia, overhung by three cantilevered ceilings that rise from a central spine like huge wings. And, bless their hearts, they’ve left it alone. It speaks for itself, free of any architectural gimmickry.

The hotel is not exactly “inside” the terminal, as some have stated. The Flight Center is too small a structure for that. It’s merely the check-in lobby and central atrium. Which, essentially, is what it’s always been. Now, however, the two long pedestrian tunnels, through which passengers once walked to the boarding gates, connect instead to a pair of multi-story hotel blocks. Along the lobby’s left side, at the long counter where in 1962 you would have received your boarding pass for Rome or Paris or Athens, guests pick up their keys and head to rooms in either the “Saarinen” or “Hughes” wing — the latter in honor of Howard Hughes, who controlled TWA from 1939 until the 1960s. Along the right side is a 24-hour bistro for pizza and panini, and, on the floor above, a very expensive sit-down place called the Paris Cafe. On the rooftop level of the Hughes wing is an all-season infinity pool overlooking the runways — it’s small, but the view makes up for it. In the warmer months, a bar with open-air tables serves drinks and sandwiches.

Out back, photographed and Instagrammed no fewer than eighty billion times, is a brilliantly restored Lockheed Constellation, wings and all, with an onboard cocktail bar. Few people would notice or care, but in fact this is a touch anachronistic: the Connie was a propeller-driven plane and mostly obsolete by the early 60s. A 707 would have been better. But we shouldn’t quibble. It’s a beautiful installation and it does the job it’s supposed to, taking us back to another age and time — even if not quite the correct one.

Mixed in with all of this are several displays featuring 60s-era ephemera, period photographs, vintage TWA uniforms and so forth. Indeed the entire place has the feel of a museum, which I suppose it is.

On the negative side, the front desk is understaffed, with check-in times often hitting twenty minutes or more. The tilework is grubby and could use a power wash, and, for some confounding reason there’s no luggage ramp between the upper and lower levels of the lobby. The levels are staggered only slightly, but guests have no choice but to carry their bags up and down the stairs.

The rooms themselves have the same time capsule vibe, outfitted with Saarinen-designed furniture and other period touches. Things wobble just a bit along the fine line between nostalgia and kitsch — the martini glasses and the Western Electric rotary phones — but the feel overall is elegant and smart. The travel posters are wonderful, and I love the cordless phone chargers (every hotel needs these).

What’s sorely lacking, however, is some counter and closet space. The standard rooms have barely enough space for a roll-aboard bag, and no closet whatsoever. The four-point peg-and-hanger contraption in the alcove is useless; I was forced to hang my coat and shirt over the floor lamp. There’s plenty of open wall that could be outfitted with additional hangers or storage nooks, making the lack of them all the more frustrating.

The bathrooms, on the other hand, are oddly enormous, with wide vanities and walk-in showers that could fit an entire 747 crew. Why they opted for oversized bathrooms while skimping on the rest I’ll never understand. Above the mini-fridge is an equally wasteful serving ensemble with two each of martini and champagne glasses, the point of which, other than to use up precious square footage, escapes me. Here, the hotel becomes a little too full of itself, sacrificing practicality in order to make some pretentious aesthetic statement.

There’s also a peculiar “no wake-up calls” policy. People have flights to catch, do they not? And if you’re like me, a backup to your mobile phone alarm is important.

All criticism aside, there’s that phrase: I love what they’ve done with the place.

In 1996, Saarinen’s building was still a functioning airline terminal. As a young pilot for TWA Express, I was one of the employees who worked there. Into its fourth decade and home to a financially struggling carrier, it was neglected and forlorn. I remember sitting in the space now occupied by the Paris Cafe, eating shitty cafeteria food while clutches of sparrows swooped from the yellowed overhangs to snatch up crumbs. The red-carpeted tunnel that now leads to the Hughes wing once took me to the TWA Express operations room, where five-gallon buckets were spaced along the floor to collect rainwater that dripped from holes in the ceiling.

To see it today is heartening. It almost feels miraculous. Watching people mill around the lobby — businesspeople, a family of four, a Singapore Airlines crew taking selfies — I wonder how many of them have an idea what this place even is, or was. I imagine to most folks, not being airport buffs or historians, it’s just a cool hotel with a funky old lobby.

For it have become a trendy hotel — rather than a museum, or even a working terminal again — is maybe not the ideal outcome, but it’s a welcome alternative to demolition — as befell two other iconic JFK structures: I.M. Pei’s National Airlines “Sundrome,” which was cleared away so that jetBlue could expand its hideous Terminal 5, and the former Pan Am “Worldport,” a.k.a Terminal 3, torn down in 2013. The Flight Center narrowly escaped a similar fate. Fortunately it lives on, a place both old and new, restored with commitment and care.

Not every iconic airport building deserves to stay standing forever — Terminal 3 for example, was beyond rehabilitation and overdue for the wrecking ball. What I wish, though, if we’re not preserving these structures, is that we put a little more imagination and vision into the ones that take their place.

In this regard, JFK sets a best and worst example. It kept Saarninen standing, but has otherwise has lost most of its character through a long series of tear-downs and replacements. Worst of the new terminals is without a doubt JetBlue’s aforementioned, wildly overrated Terminal 5. Let’s dip into my book for a description

“‘T5’ as the carrier likes to call it — is a $743 million, 72-acre structure that opened in 2008 to considerable promotion and fanfare. Inside, the fast-food outlets and shops conspire to make yet another airport look and feel like yet another mall. But it’s T5’s exterior that’s the real tragedy. Although the street-side facade is at worst cheerless, the tarmac-side is truly abominable — a wide, low-slung, industrial-brutalist expanse of concrete. Once again it looks like a shopping mall. To be more specific, it looks like the back of a shopping mall. All that’s missing are some pallets and dumpsters. The facility’s only visual statement is one of not caring, a presentation of architectural nothingness, absolutely empty of inspiration — precisely what an airport terminal should not be. Is this the best we can do?”

T5 sits directly between Saarinen and the spot where Pei’s Sundrome stood. There’s something troublingly ironic about that.

ALL PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR.

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Flying in the Age of Coronavirus

MOSTLY, this has been an exercise in stress. I suppose that’s an ambiguous term, so constituently we’re talking about fear, dread, and uncertainty. Not a fear of the virus. Coming down with COVID-19 isn’t what scares me. What scares me is what the airline business might look like by the time things settle out — whenever that might be.

Particularly astonishing was the speed at which things went to hell. In February, three friends and I were relaxing around a swimming pool in the Philippines talking about the size of our profit sharing checks and contemplating which aircraft we might bid in the months ahead. Within days — days! — the entire industry would be avalanched by panic and brought to a virtual halt.

The first three months were the worst. March, April, and May. Scant few flights were operating, and nobody had the slightest idea what lay ahead. These were some of the most stressful days of my life. Since then, things have settled into a certain routine. It’s not a happy routine by any stretch, and little about it feels normal. It’s just a routine.

If nothing else, I’ve kept busy. You might be surprised to hear that I’ve been spending more time aloft than ever. I’ve flown more in the past four months than in any four-month period of my entire career. Since June I’ve been to Europe twice, Africa five times, and back and forth across the country more times than I can count.

Normally I’m not the most ambitious pilot. The ancillary hassles of the job — the delays, the hellishness of airports, and the stress of commuting between the city I fly from (New York) and the city where I live (Boston) — encourage me to keep my schedule light and my blood pressure low. I might be on the road for twelve days in a month, logging around 70 pay hours. The average pilot aims closer to 80 and is gone for two weeks. But these aren’t normal times. Suddenly airports are quiet, delays are nonexistent, commuting is a breeze. It’d be perverse to say that flying is “better” than ever, but certainly it’s easier. Easier for all the wrong reasons, but it’s a way to keep my head up and maintain a sense of normalcy. So I’ve been doing it as much as I can.

Besides, there’s little else to do. What is life now but a sad morass of masks and placards and agitated people. So much of life has come undone that I dread the most innocuous of tasks and errands, like a trip to Trader Joe’s or a walk to the Post Office. And the extent to which the American public seems to have acquiesced to all of this leaves me fearful of the future. I’m not talking about wearing masks or following restrictions; I’m talking about accepting as normal a world that is anything but. More than once I have heard people shyly admit they are enjoying this. Hence, I’m happier on the job, where I feel engaged and useful, than I am at home, where I’m apt to stew and wallow.

Though here too, the damage is visible at every turn: the empty planes, the desolate concourses and shuttered shops. A stroll through an airport in the COVID era is, on the one hand, a relaxing one, free of the usual ruckuses and long lines. On the other hand it’s a way of beholding just how massively this crisis has impacted aviation. There’s a fine line between peaceful and haunting. It’s nice to be free of the noise and crowds, but for an airline employee it’s also a little terrifying.

Then we have the small things, the obstacle course of petty annoyances that now litter the travel experience. Like the endless stream of COVID-related public address announcements. Or the fact that every hotel room amenity now comes wrapped in plastic (because this somehow “saves lives,” and because if the world needs one thing it’s more plastic waste). Or needing to strategize over how to score food during layovers in locked-down cities.

There’s little to feel optimistic about, though at least I’m busy.

Not all pilots have this opportunity. Huge swaths of the pilot ranks have been sitting idle. Seniority is everything at an airline, and I’m high enough on the roster to avoid this fate, but many of my colleagues haven’t set foot in a cockpit in weeks or even months. Airlines are utilizing different fleets at different rates; at a given carrier, 767 crews might be busier than A320 crews, for example, or vice-versa. Some airlines have been operating long-haul cargo charters, which is keeping their biggest planes — and their pilots — surprisingly busy. Other fleets, meanwhile, have been shut down almost entirely, meaning those pilots are doing nothing.

The job itself is little different, but now has the added challenge of keeping focused in a time of angst and worry. Before every takeoff is a crew briefing, where we talk through any threats or difficulties that might lie ahead. Most of these spiels now include a line or two about concentration. “We’re all a little distracted, so let’s remember to follow procedures and stay disciplined…”

In the rows behind us, the customers savor those empty adjacent seats they always dreamed about. People are afraid, we’re told, and you read about the guy or woman who causes a commotion over masks and gets hauled off by the airport cops. But I’m not seeing this. On the contrary, passengers seem blithely content. There’s room to spread out, the flights are on time, and it’s a cinch through TSA. If you’re concerned about getting sick, a Department of Defense study released in October says the risk of catching COVID-19 on an airplane, as long as everyone is masked, is just about nonexistent. The air on planes has always been cleaner than people think, and it’s even cleaner now. In addition, cabins are being deep-cleaned after every flight, including a wipe-down of all trays, arm-rests, lavatories and so on. Those fancy business class menus have been curtailed — or “modified” as many airlines describe it — but otherwise there’s little not to like. Flying hasn’t been this comfortable in decades.

There’s a facetiousness in my voice when I say that, of course. For the workers, it’s hard to enjoy the ride when your company is losing twenty million dollars a day.

My take on this whole mess is no doubt tempered by earlier career hardships. I’ve been through two airline bankruptcies, one of which resulted in the company liquidating, and in the wake of the terror attacks of 2001 I spent five years on furlough. That’s airline talk for being laid off. I was in my mid-thirties at the time, in the middle of what customarily would be a pilot’s “prime-earning years.” Instead of saving money and making a good living, I scraped by as a freelance writer. This was, in a sense, an adventurous and successful half-decade; had I not lost my flying job, it’s unlikely the “Ask the Pilot” enterprise, or my book along with it, would ever have come to be. But despite the accolades, the book tour to Rome, the TV crews that often came to visit and the satisfaction of having used my improvisational talents to spin a little gold from a rotten situation, this was a long and financially bleak hiatus.

And when a pilot is out of work, for whatever reason, he or she cannot simply slide over to another airline and pick up where they left off. The way airline seniority systems work, there is no sideways transfer of benefits or salary. If you move to a different company, you begin again at the bottom, at probationary pay and benefits, regardless of how much experience you have. You lose everything. So any threats to our jobs or companies make us very nervous.

Five years on the street left me in a career no-man’s land, and upended my whole sense of self as a professional. Was I even a pilot any more? When I finally was called back, early in 2007, all I knew for sure is that I never wanted to live through that again.

And I didn’t expect to. Oh, sure, for any airline worker who endures a crisis — a furlough, a merger, a bankruptcy — nothing is ever again certain or taken for granted. No matter how rosy things are the moment, there’s always a hum of dread, a shoe waiting to drop, in the back of your mind. But this? This? Nobody foresaw a cataclysm of such speed or magnitude.

I have my ways of dealing with it. Others have theirs. On and on it goes.

 

PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR.

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This article appeared originally on The Points Guy website and is being used with permission.

 
 
 
 
 

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Thirty Years On

The author and the “Spirit of Moncton,” in 1994.

 

August 28, 2020

HOW LONG have you been a pilot?

I’m never sure how to answer that question. I had my private pilot’s license at nineteen, but is that the proper benchmark? For a number of years after that, building time as an instructor, I flew nothing bigger than a single-engine four-seater. Define “pilot,” I guess.

What most people are getting at, I think, is how long I’ve been an airline pilot. And the answer to that one is easy: thirty years. Thirty years to the day, in fact. There couldn’t be a worse time for the marking of such a milestone, what with the entire industry bleeding at the jugular. But that’s aviation for you. In this weird business, the forces that shape your career are usually those beyond your control.

And here we are.

I vividly remember “the call.” Nowadays it’s more likely to be a letter, or an email, but in those days it was always a call. It was the summer of 1990, and I remember the phone ringing. I remember standing in the kitchen of the house I grew up in, where I still lived at the time, and picking up the receiver, hoping it was the airline at the other end. And I can recall, pretty much verbatim, the entire conversation between me and a secretary named Vanessa Higgins, as she told me I’d been selected for class. I should report for training on Monday, August 28th, Vanessa explained. The adrenaline rush almost knocked me to the floor.

I date my 30th anniversary not to the moment of that phone call, or to the day, a few months later, when I lifted off the runway with passengers for the first time. To me, it’s the day that I showed up for classroom training, in a rented schoolroom in downtown Bangor, Maine. That was the day I became an employee. Our instructor was a young pilot named Ubi Garcez, who today is a captain for Delta Air Lines. He welcomed us, allowed us to dispense with our neckties, and issued our ID badges, which in those days were little more than pieces of laminated cardboard on which Vanessa had hand-typed our names. My employee number was 421. And typed across the bottom was my date of hire: August 28, 1990 — probably the most significant day of my life, save for my birthday.

The company was an upstart outfit called Northeast Express Regional Airlines. We were one of the feeder affiliates for Northwest. Our planes, painted in red, said “Northwest Airlink” on the side. The company had been started in Maine, and kept its offices there, but its hub was in Boston, where our small turboprops would bring passengers in from outlying cities and connect them to Northwest’s Boeings and Douglases headed around the country and overseas.

This was the shittiest of shitty airlines. The planes were old and working conditions dismal. My starting salary was $850 per month, gross, and my first aircraft, the Beech-99, was a relic from the 1960s. It had no pressurization or autopilot, and most of its instruments and radios were the same ones I’d seen in the cockpits of the Pipers and Cessnas I’d flown as a novice. But none of that mattered. Salary, working conditions — those things meant nothing to me. All that mattered was to be sitting in that room, with that stupid-looking ID clipped to my pocket.

Page from the author’s logbook, 1991.

Pilot jobs in those days were exceptionally competitive. At twenty-four I was the third-youngest in our class of about a dozen. And with 1,600 or so flight hours I was one of the least experienced. I was fortunate to be there at all. I would study the others, wondering where and how I fit in. To this day I remember most of their names and can still hear their accents. One guy had flown business jets, another had flown 727s at Eastern. No, this wasn’t the major leagues. To make a baseball analogy, it was like getting to play for a last-place team at Triple-A in front of about 35 fans. But it was pro ball, so to speak. I’d made it. I was an airline pilot now.

My first “revenue flight,” to use a common if charmless aviation term, didn’t come for another three months. It would take place on October 21, 1990, a date promptly immortalized in yellow highlighter in my logbook. This cherished day involved, among other misfortunes, a drive to Sears at 9:30 in the morning, an hour before my sign-in time, because I’d already lost my tie. (And then the clerk’s face when I told him, “plain black” and “polyester, not silk.”). Then the big moment, in a thickening overcast just before noon, when I would depart on the prestigious Manchester, New Hampshire, to Boston route — a fifteen-minute run frequented, as you’d expect, by Hollywood stars, sheikhs, and dignitaries.

The plane was too tiny for a flight attendant, and I had to close the cabin door myself. Performing this maneuver on my inaugural morning, I turned the handle to secure the latches as trained, deftly and quickly in one smooth motion. What I didn’t see was the popped screw beneath the fitting, across which I would drag all five of my knuckles, cutting myself badly. The door was in the very back, and so I came hobbling up the aisle, stooping to avoid the low ceiling, with my hand wrapped in a bloody napkin.

It was oddly and improbably apropos that my inaugural flight would touch down at Logan International. Airline pilots, especially those new at the game, tend to be migrants, moving from city to city as the tectonics of a seniority list dictate. It’s a rare thing to find yourself operating your very first flight into the airport you grew up with. And I mean that — “grew up with” — in a way that only an airplane nut will understand. As I maneuvered past the Tobin Bridge and along the approach to runway 15R, I squinted toward the parking lot rooftops and the observation deck from which, as a kid, I’d spent so many hours with binoculars. Looking down, I was watching me watch myself, in a sense, celebrating this weird, deeply emotional culmination of nostalgia and accomplishment. If only my hand wasn’t bleeding so much.

A Beech 99 of Northeast Express.

Noisy and slow, the Beech-99 was a ridiculous anachronism kept in service by a bottom-feeder airline and its tightfisted owner. It had rectangular cabin windows that gave it a vintage, almost antique look, like the windows in a 19th-Century railroad car. Passengers at Logan would show up planeside in a red bus about twice the size of the plane. Expecting a 757, they were dumped at the foot of a fifteen-passenger wagon built during the Age of Aquarius. I’d be stuffing paper towels into the cockpit window frames to keep out the rainwater while businessmen came up the stairs cursing their travel agents. They’d sit, seething, refusing to fasten their seat belts and hollering up to cockpit.

“Let’s go! What are you guys doing?”

“I’m preparing the weight and balance manifest, sir.”

“We’re only going to goddamn Newark! What the hell do you need a manifest for?”

And so on. But this was my dream job, so I could only be so embarrassed. Besides, the twelve grand a year was more than I’d been making as a flight instructor.

In addition to just enough money for groceries and car insurance, my job provided the vicarious thrill of our nominal affiliation with Northwest. Our twenty-five or so little planes, like Northwest’s 747s and DC-10s, were done up handsomely in gray and red. Alas, the association ran no deeper — important later, when the paychecks started bouncing — but for now I would code-share my way to glory. When girls asked which airline I flew for, I would answer “Northwest,” with a borderline degree of honesty.

Our uniforms were surplus from the old Bar Harbor Airlines. The owner, Mr. Caruso, had also been the owner at Bar Harbor, and I suspect he had a garage full of remainders. Bar Harbor had been something of a legendary commuter airline in a parochial, New England sort of way, before finally it was eaten by Lorenzo’s Continental. As a kid in the late ’70s I would sit in the backyard and watch those Bar Harbor turboprops going by, one after another, whirring up over the hills of Eastie and Revere. A dozen years later I was handed a vintage Bar Harbor suit, threadbare at the knees and elbows. The lining of my jacket was safety-pinned in place and looked as if a squirrel had chewed the lapels. Some poor Bar Harbor copilot had worn the thing to shreds, tearing the pockets and getting the shoulders soaked with oil and jet fuel. I’m fairly sure it had never been laundered. Standing with my fellow new-hires in our new (old) outfits for a group picture, we looked like crewmembers you might see stepping from a Bulgarian cargo plane on the apron at Entebbe.

A Metroliner of Northeast Express, 1994.

My second plane was the Fairchild Metroliner, a faster and somewhat more sophisticated machine. It was a long, skinny turboprop that resembled a dragonfly, known for its tight quarters and annoying idiosyncrasies. At the Fairchild factory down in San Antonio, the guys with the pocket protectors had faced a challenge: how to take nineteen passengers and make them as uncomfortable as possible. Answer: stuff them side by side into a 6-foot-diameter tube. Attach a pair of the loudest turbine engines ever made, the Garrett TPE-331, and go easy on the soundproofing. All of this for a mere $2.5 million a copy. As captain of this beastly machine, it was my duty not only to safely deliver passengers to their destinations, but also to hide in shame from those chortling and spewing insults: “Does this thing really fly?” and “Man, who did you piss off?”

The answer to that first question was sort of. The Metroliner was equipped with a pair of minimally functioning ailerons and a control wheel in need of a placard marking it “for decorative purposes only.” It was sluggish and unresponsive, is what I’m saying. Somewhere out there is a retired Fairchild engineer feeling very insulted. He deserves it.

Like the 99, the Metro was too small for a cockpit door, allowing for nineteen backseat drivers whose gazes spent more time glued to the instruments than ours did. One particular pilot, whose identity I’ll leave you to guess, had doctored up one of his chart binders with these prying eyes in mind. On the front cover, in oversized stick-on letters, he’d put the words HOW TO FLY, and would stow the book on the floor in full view of the first few rows. During flight he’d pick it up and flip through the pages, eliciting some hearty laughs — or shrieks.

Northeast Express route map, 1994.

In the spring of 1993 I graduated from the Metro to the De Havilland Dash-8. The Dash was a boxy, thirty-seven-passenger turboprop and the biggest thing I’d ever laid my hands on. A new one cost $20 million, and it even had a flight attendant. Only thirteen pilots in the entire company were senior enough to hold a captain’s slot. I was number thirteen. I went for my checkride on July 7th, shortly after my twenty-sixth birthday. For the rest of the summer, I would call the schedulers every morning, begging for overtime. Getting to fly the Dash was a watershed. This was the real thing, an “airliner” in the way the Metro or the 99 could never be, and of all the planes I’ve flown, large or small, it remains my sentimental favorite.

I flew the Dash only briefly, and Northeast Express would be around only for another year. Things began to sour in the spring of ’94. Northwest, unhappy with our reliability, would not renew our contract. We were in bankruptcy by May, and a month later the airline collapsed outright.

The end came on a Monday. I remember that day as vividly as I remember my bloody-knuckle inaugural in New Hampshire four years earlier. No, this wasn’t the collapse of Eastern or Braniff or Pan Am, and I was only twenty-seven, with a whole career ahead of me; still it was heartbreaking — the sight of police cruisers circling our planes, flight attendants crying, and apron workers flinging suitcases into heaps on the tarmac. Thus the bookends of my first airline job were, each in their own way, emotional and unforgettable. That second one, though, I could have done without.

Dash-8 at Kennedy Airport, 1993.

I have only a few mementos from that job. A few scraps of paper, a set of wings, a coffee mug, and a tiny number of poor-quality photos, not one of which, for better or worse, shows the Beech-99.

From that final day at Northeast Express through today, it’s been both an uphill and downhill journey. Many years and five airlines later, I finally made it to the major leagues — to the New York Yankees, as it were, to revisit my baseball analogy. Along the way I’ve endured bankruptcies, multi-year furloughs, and now the COVID-19 debacle that, for all I know at this point, could end the game completely. Highlights, lowlights, life-defining thrills and crushing disappointments, it’s all packed in there.

And it continues. I judge my career as a successful one — I made it further than most pilots do — and it remains a work in progress. However and whenever it reaches its conclusion, at the beginning of it all — and really at the heart of it all — is that first day of class in 1990. Thirty years ago today.

Photos by the author, except Beech-99 courtesy of Rich Morgan.

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