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January, 21, 2022.   Meanwhile in 1970.

Fifty-two years ago today, on January 21st, 1970, Pan American World Airways launched the Boeing 747 into commercial service. The inaugural flight departed New York that Wednesday evening bound for London-Heathrow, and commercial aviation was never again the same.

The photograph above, for which we thank the Pan Am Museum Foundation, shows some the predeparture fanfare inside the old terminal 3 at JFK. We notice the hats, the suits. No yoga pants or flip-flops.

We notice also, looking carefully through the window, that the 747 in the picture is the “Clipper Young America.” This is not the plane that wound up making the inaugural. It was removed from service at the last minute due to engine trouble, and replaced by the “Clipper Victor.”

In one of commercial aviation’s greatest and saddest ironies, the “Victor” would meet its fate seven years later in the Canary islands, where it was run over by a mad Dutchman in what is still the deadliest accident in airline history.

That’s pretty intense if you think about it: the very same plane had a starring role in two of aviation’s most momentous events, one a celebration and the other a catastrophe. It also was the first 747 to have a baby born on board (named Victoria), and the first to be hijacked to Cuba. “Her career reads like an opera,” says a Pan Am Museum representative. “Complete with her tragic end.”


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January, 20, 2022.   Know the Nose.

It’s been a while since I griped about the Boeing 737. With the beleaguered 737 MAX back in service, now’s as good a time as any.

There’s plenty I could rehash (see the story links below), but this time around I’m gonna let this photograph do most of the talking. It hardly needs describing. Notice the two airplanes. The one on top is a Boeing 707. America’s first jetliner, the 707 first flew in 1957. The plane at the bottom is a “Next Generation” 737. The MAX is one of these.

We see the same basic architecture, unchanged after nearly 70 years. And this is why, for example, the 737’s cockpit is so noisy and cramped. Notice the old-fashioned cockpit windows, the identical nose cones and rivet lines. Even the door hinges are the same.

But what we really see here goes beyond the superficial. We see a long and unfortunate story — one of corporate stubbornness, laziness, greed, and a depressing lack of vision. We see the 737, conceived in the 1960s as a 90-seat regional jet, stretched and hammered until it became the monsterized variant we have today. We see Boeing itself, once the world’s preeminent planemaker, with its reputation in tatters.

And we never got the 797, the all-new airframe that could have replaced the venerable 757 and 767, capturing the 180-220 seat market. Boeing opted to force-feed us more 737s instead. Then came the MAX debacle.

I don’t know that Airbus has done a whole lot better, to be honest. The A380 was an engineering marvel, if an ugly one. The A330, A350, the A321-XLWHATEVER. They all run together. Seems that nobody puts their heart into planes any more.

Speaking of the 737 MAX, after almost two years of being grounded, the jet has been back in service since December of 2020. This happened rather quietly, didn’t it, causing hardly a ripple in the news. At the height of the MAX’s post-disaster controversy, we heard all sorts of loopy predictions about how the plane’s future was doomed, and how the flying public would never set foot on one again.

Remembering the sagas of the Comet and, more recently, the DC-10, I had a feeling it wouldn’t turn out that way. Our attention spans aren’t that long, for one, and the traveling public simply doesn’t make decisions that way. People are by and large oblivious to what kind of aircraft they’re stepping aboard, and, as embarrassing as the fallout was both for Boeing and the FAA, they trust (correctly) that the MAX’s technical problems were ironed out. End of story, pretty much.

I found myself on an American Airlines 737 MAX a few months ago, flying from Miami to Medellin, Colombia. The carrier did nothing to shield the plane’s identity, and judging from the attitudes of those sitting around me, nobody gave it a minute’s worth of thought. The bigger issue, certainly for me, was the lack of a hot meal service, even in first class.


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Photos by Fergal Goodman and Pieter van Marion

December 20, 2021.   Lockerbie and the Solstice.

You can always count on me to conjure up this or that ghastly memory, usually on or near its anniversary. True to form, today’s post is a reminder that Tuesday, December 21st, marks the 33rd anniversary of the Pan Am 103 bombing.

Rather than having me re-hash everything, you can read my earlier posts on the disaster, here…


December 3, 2021.   Odd Angles.

This photo, snapped at LAX, shows a segment of that airport’s Tom Bradley Terminal. Now, I’m all for architectural flourish, but this manic convolution of angles makes my head spin. Have you ever seen such a complicated design?

The interior of the Bradley is equally disorienting. Arriving from overseas the other day, we endured an incomprehensible series of ups, downs, lefts, rights, switchbacks and escalators before finally reaching the immigration hall.

This is not unusual. I had a similar experience at Miami a couple of months ago. The journey — and it was very much a journey — from jetway to the passport kiosk was like finding one’s way through a topiary maze.

Why? Why are so many airport buildings constructed like this? Is it simply to drive the price up?

Strikes me that airport terminals should better resemble railway terminals, with a large central hall and offshoots for boarding and deplaning. Organized and simple, with a minimum of twists and turns. Such a blueprint, as many of the grander railway terminals have proven, still provides ample opportunity for the designers to show off.

Indeed many airports follow this model, to varying degrees. But many do not, and passengers are left to navigate their way through an origami of architectural excess.

October 13, 2021.   The Simplest Things.

What most people are curious about right now is the plight of Southwest Airlines, which was forced to cancel hundreds of flights over the past several days. I wish I had some special insights into what’s going. Alas, it’s as confusing to me as it is to you. Staffing issues, pilots upset over vaccines, bad weather, air traffic control snarls… it’s all of the above, maybe. Meanwhile it’s funny how the airlines continue taking their 15-minute turns of infamy. Delta, American, Spirit, Southwest; each has had its well-publicized spell of operational breakdown over the past year. Who’s next?

What I’d really like to talk about, though, is something even more frustrating and confounding: the lack of fold-down cup holders on U.S. carriers.

This photo was taken last week aboard an Avianca flight in Colombia. The plane was an Airbus A320, on a quick internal hop from Santa Marta to Bogota. One sees these nifty devices on foreign airlines all the time, but virtually never on American ones. Why? It’s nice to have your beverage there in front of you without having to deploy the entire tray. There’s more room to move around, and getting in and out of the seat is easier. As a bonus, you can use the thing as a hook for your headset cord or earbuds. The one above even has a little nook behind the ring, to store your milk and sweetener.

Speaking of trays, notice how the one shown is hinged in the middle, allowing you to deploy it only halfway, giving you additional space, if you want it. Another useful idea.

I know, I know, of all the things to complain about. And airlines, rightly, put the bulk of their cabin investments elsewhere. But considering the minimal costs involved, why the hell not? These are not expensive amenities.

August 25, 2021.   Packing it In

You probably caught the story — or at least saw the pictures — of the U.S. Air Force jet that left Afghanistan last week carrying 823 people.

For some context, a 747 carries around half that many people, with ten-abreast seating in economy. This time, the only seats were some benches along the sidewalls; almost everyone was on the floor, with more than thirty abreast in some spots. Worse, even, than Spirit. No word on how the lavatory situation was handled during the three-hour trip to Qatar.

The aircraft was a Boeing C-17 Globemaster, an ungainly-looking four-engined transport. The flight broke the previous C-17 record, set in November 2012, when 670 people were evacuated from a typhoon in the Philippines.

A military record, yes. But not the record. That belongs to a civilian airliner, believe it or not. On May 24th, 1991, as part of what was called Operation Solomon, an El Al 747 freighter evacuated more than one thousand Ethiopian Jews from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Tel Aviv. The exact total has been disputed and will never be known for sure. Some say it was 1,078. Others put the number at 1,088, or as high as 1,122. Two babies were born en route. The flight’s captain was Arie Oz, a Holocaust survivor who also piloted a C-130 Hercules during the famous Entebbe hostage rescue in 1976.

The C-17 Globemaster.

The C-17 was built as a replacement for the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter. Like its predecessor, the C-17 features a massive aft cargo ramp, high-mounted wings and four engines. It’s more capacious than it looks, as was proven the other day, and can take off or land on what, in aviation, we call “unprepared surfaces” — i.e. gravel, dirt, ice. There’s something scary/apolcalyptic about it, in the manner of all those old Soviet planes. Or maybe menacing is the better word; it looks like a big metal bulldog. The tail is especially peculiar in that appears top-heavy and frangible, like it was mounted upside-down and is about to come snapping off — which I’ll guess is not really the case.

The airport in Kabul is currently named Hamid Karzai International. How long will that last, we wonder, and what will the new name be?

August 17, 2021.   Afghan Blues.

There’s always an aviation angle to any international crisis. If you’ve followed the news from Afghanistan these past few days, that’s never been truer. The Kabul airport is getting its fifteen minutes of fame, that’s for sure. Maybe you saw the footage of the people clinging to the side of — and later falling from — the U.S. Air Force C-17; or the shots of the Kam Air A340 looking like a train out of Calcutta.

Startling as those images are, let’s focus instead on the older photo above. It shows a DC-10 in the colors of Ariana, the Afghan national carrier. Ariana received its first DC-10 in 1979, just prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, so presumably the picture dates to that year. The plane was used mainly on the route between Kabul and London.

It’s the cabin crew, though, that tells the real story. Do I need to explain why? Twelve flight attendants looking exactly as they would in Europe or the United States. Elsewhere on Google one finds a number of ’70s-era photos from the tarmacs at Kabul and Kandahar that show passengers and workers, men and women both, smartly dressed and smiling. Nothing like a little fundamentalism to set you back a few hundred years.

Ariana, owned by the Afghan government, was founded in 1955 and still exists. I saw one of their jets in Dubai a few months ago (they are banned from the European Union over safety concerns). The company managed to survive the Taliban’s first run, albeit after a prolonged grounding in the early 2000s, and is liable to survive this one as well. That’s maybe the extent of good news from Afghanistan.

I worked with a captain who had flown for Ariana back in the day. He retired a couple of years ago. He had some fantastic stories — as well as a bullet hole in his shoulder.

Mountainscape near Kabul.   November, 2020.  
Author’s photo.

June 22, 2021.   Flashback.

For some of us, few things get the nostalgia flowing like vintage airline advertisements. This one is from Gourmet magazine, of all places, in 1976.

There’s a lot to pull from here…

For starters, looking at the collage of tails, we spy three classic carriers that no longer exist: Sabena, Swissair, and of course Pan Am. Of all the many airlines that have gone out of business, few were more historically significant than these three.

The ad also celebrates the advent of the Boeing 747SP — the short-bodied, long-range 747 variant that debuted in the mid-1970s. This focus on aircraft type is a hallmark of older ads and something rarely seen any more. When was the last time an airline spent advertising dollars to boast about a particular plane? It made sense in the 1970s, when models were vastly different from one another and some, like the 747 or Concorde, were media stars. Nowadays, with jets so tediously similar, carriers don’t bother and passengers couldn’t care less.

With that in mind, notice that every tail in that panel except for one features a 747. The single exception is the Aeroflot image, which shows an Ilyushin IL-62. These were the days when you could be at Kennedy Airport and watch ten or more 747s take off in a row.

And, of course, the whole premise of the ad — Iran Air showcasing a new link between Tehran and New York — is itself striking. How things change. Iran in 1976 was still three years away from its revolution, and the country’s national carrier was a regular visitor to New York.

Neither did they shy away from including an El Al tail (top row, third one in) up there with the others. This implies that El Al offered a connecting service to Tehran from New York, presumably via Tel Aviv, which is maybe the most remarkable aspect of the entire page.

I visited JFK in June of 1979, when I was a seventh grader. I remember standing in the rooftop parking lot of the old Pan Am terminal and looking down at an Iran Air 747. (In a box somewhere at my parent’s house, a photo of that plane might still exist, snapped with an old Kodak pocket camera loaded with 110 film.) This was immediately after the revolution began, but about five months prior to the infamous hostage crisis that helped sour US-Iran relations for the next forty years and counting.

Plenty of vintage ads take us back, as the saying goes. The best of them also take in a little history, culture, and geopolitics along the way.

June 3, 2021.   Supersonic Hoopla

The future, or just a fantasy?

On Wednesday, United Airlines put out teasers about an important announcement to be made early the next day. Nobody seemed to know, and I went to bed wondering. Are they buying jetBlue? Are they launching another slew of long-haul routes to Africa? Are they reversing course on that abominable new livery?

The answer, which left me more than a little bemused over my coffee on Thursday morning, is a proposal to purchase up to 50 supersonic airplanes from an upstart manufacturer called Boom. The plane, under development, is intended to be a net-zero carbon-emission aircraft, and will run on 100 percent sustainable aviation fuel. It’s slated for test flying by 2025 and entry into commercial service by 2029. United will take 15 of them, with orders for up to 35 more.

The travel blogs were instantly abuzz with the news, as was the mainstream media. Which is maybe the whole point? Not to spoil the party, but the whole thing reminds me of the time in the late 1960s when Pan Am began selling tickets to the moon.

Okay, it’s not quite as far-fetched, but this is perhaps more of a publicity stunt, or a ham-handed attempt to inflate Boom’s stock price, than a hard and fast plan. Ordering a yet-to-exist supersonic plane is a lot more of a Hail Mary than, say, leasing some additional 787s, and the timeline that United and Boom have put out there is optimistic at best — assuming it happens at all.

Not that there isn’t a market for such a machine, if the costs, and subsequent fares, can be kept within reason. New York-London, Los Angeles-New York, Los Angeles-Tokyo; any number of pairings could support such a service. Potentially. Maybe. Possibly. Define “within reason.” You’re essentially cutting flight times in half. Are enough high-end passengers going to shell out thousands more to fly somewhere in three hours instead of six? Long-haul, premium-class travel is already exceptionally luxurious. How much are those saved hours worth?

And keep in mind, there’s a reason why commercial aircraft today — even the most expensive and most sophisticated ones — travel at more or less the same speeds as they did 50 years ago. Supersonic planes are vastly different than the subsonic kind, and the border between subsonic and supersonic is not an aerodynamic triviality. In a poor man’s version of Einstein’s speed-of-light conundrum, the required energy increases dramatically as you near the threshold. This requires some intensely serious engineering and, one way or the other, lots of fuel. That the Concorde, which took billions to develop, looked nothing like any other plane, was more than a quirk of design, as were its ghastly operating costs. And despite all of its promise, only two carriers ever took delivery of one.

More power to Boom, so to speak. But it won’t be easy.

May 12, 2021.   Six Months and Counting.

Six months from today will be the 20th anniversary of the crash of American Airlines flight 587. On November 12, 2001, the Airbus A300 bound for the Dominican Republic went down shortly after takeoff from Kennedy Airport, killing 265 people. It was the second-deadliest airline disaster ever on U.S. soil.

It also was the last serious crash involving a major U.S. airline.

There have been fatal accidents since 2001, don’t get me wrong. Deadliest of these were the Colgan Air crash outside Buffalo in 2009, and the Comair accident at Lexington, Kentucky, three years earlier. A US Airways Express turboprop crashed in Charlotte in 2003, killing 21 people, and in 2004 a Corporate Airlines turboprop went down near Kirksville, Missouri, killing 13. In 2005, a Southwest 737 slid from a snowy runway in Chicago and killed a young boy in a car. More recently, in 2018, a woman died aboard a Southwest flight after shrapnel from an engine caused a cabin window to burst.

To mark the 20th anniversary of flight 587 isn’t to ignore these other accidents. But these were smaller-scale mishaps, the worst of which involved regional carriers. Take a look through the accident archives of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, for a sense of just how frequent large-scale accidents involving the major airlines once were. Seldom would a couple of years pass without at least one disaster killing scores of people. Not all that long ago, the idea that our biggest carriers, each of which records thousands of departures every day of the week, could, combined, go the two full decades without a serious crash, would have been unthinkable. Even if the streak ended today, what we’ve seen is downright astonishing.

November 12th is certain to be a somber day for the loved ones of those who perished at Belle Harbor. But, assuming our luck holds out, we’ll be celebrating one of the most significant milestones in commercial aviation history. Six months to go.

March 15, 2021.   What You Wish For.

From the department of “What Was I Thinking?” I found this in my notes. It’s from August, 2019. I will add no commentary because it speaks for itself. It was something I jotted down with the intent of using later in a posting. That later turns out to be now, albeit in a context I never, ever anticipated…

I’m tired, jaded, frustrated. And if this summer is any indication, I think maybe we’ve stretched this aviation thing as far as it can go. Have you been to an airport lately? The crowds are glacial, the noise levels are insane, the lines and delays are eternal. My flight the other day from Boston to New York — a 35-minute hop — was delayed for four hours because of “flow control” into JFK. And heaven forbid a thunderstorm or two roll in. Our airspace is so super-saturated that the slightest meteorological ripple throws the entire system into anarchy.

As I type this I’m sitting in a terminal at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. There are so many people here, surging through the concourses, that you can hardly see the floor — a great, languid river of miserable-looking, stressed-out humanity. Where is everybody going? And why?
“Final boarding for Kigali.” KLM has a nonstop — an Airbus A330 no less — to Kigali, Rwanda, among dozens of other far-flung places. I love traveling, and I wish that I was stepping onto that very flight, right now. Just the same, I have to ask: are there really that many people who need to travel from Europe to Rwanda? Is all of this moving around necessary? All of these people — the innumerable businesspeople; the throngs of college kids with their hoodies and backpacks; the families with infants and the half-dead folks in wheelchairs — constantly on the move, by the tens of millions each week, across entire oceans and continents. In the old days people migrated. Today they simply churn.

For me there’s a troubling paradox: The more I travel, the more I see a system at its breaking point, and the more I’m of the mind that people ought to be staying the hell home.

February 27, 2021.   Engine Failure.

United Airlines flight 328.   (Photo by Hayden Smith)

Knock on wood, but in all my years of commercial flying, I’ve never experienced an engine failure.* Lord knows I’ve seen enough of them in simulators, but never one for real. I’ve been flying commercially since 1990, so that should give you an idea of how infrequently engines malfunction.

Should it ever happen to you, take comfort in knowing that all commercial planes are certified to fly with a dead engine. This includes the ability to climb away safely should a failure happen even at the moment of liftoff. Any engine failure is considered an emergency, but rarely if ever will it result in a crash.

When an engine does cease running, the process is usually undramatic. Passengers may not even notice. Other times, failures are accompanied by compressor stalls that result in loud bangs and even tongues of flame.

And then you have the kind in which the damn thing flies into pieces. This is the one we call an “uncontained” failure. Here, high-speed shrapnel from the engine’s internal fans, shafts or turbines, exits the cowling (the protective shell that surrounds the engine) and, in some instances, penetrates the wing or fuselage. Uncontained failures are rare, but they can be dangerous.

This was the misfortune that befell United Airlines flight 328 last Saturday. No doubt you’ve seen the cell phone footage, which, as these things go, enjoyed its fifteen (and then some) minutes of fame on YouTube and the major networks. I have to admit, the video is startling.

The engine involved was a derivative of the popular Pratt & Whitney series 4000 turbofan. It is believed that one or more of the engine’s forward fan blades, which in this particular variant are of an unusual, hollow construction, broke apart. The resulting imbalance destroyed the engine and tore the entire cowling off, leaving the powerplant’s innards scarily exposed to the full view of passengers (and, later, the rest of us).

This was at least the third similar incident, and the FAA quickly issued a so-called Airworthiness Directive, mandating inspections on all existing models of this engine. More than 120 Boeing 777s were grounded worldwide.

Although debris did penetrate the lower wing of flight 328, which was headed from Denver to Honolulu with 241 people aboard, there was no cabin breach or serious damage beyond the ripped-up engine itself. Nobody was hurt. The exciting visuals aside, getting the plane safely back to Denver would have been relatively easy for the crew. Planes maneuver quite well on one engine. While this was no ordinary day at the office, it was nothing they wouldn’t be expected to handle.

It could have been worse. In 2018, a passenger was killed after engine shrapnel took out a cabin window on a Southwest Airlines 737. In 1989, the center engine of United Airlines flight 232 disintegrated and knocked out all of the DC-10’s hydraulic systems, resulting in a crash at Sioux City, Iowa, that killed 112 people. The uncontained failure that struck a Qantas flight in 2010 nearly caused a worse disaster.

Such is the inherent danger when dealing with jet engines, which are essentially an interconnected series of fans and turbines rotating at tremendous speeds and tremendous temperatures. Fortunately, these same engines are astonishingly reliable and seldom do things like this happen.

* One day in 1999 I was the second officer on an old DC-8 freighter going from Cincinnati to Brussels. Just as we were “coasting out,” as it’s called — entering the oceanic portion of the flight — a light flickered on indicating a fire in engine number three (the DC-8 had four engines). When I say “flickered” I mean it literally. The light blinked on, blinked off, blinked on, blinked off. Nothing else was abnormal, and none of us believed there was actually a fire. Knowing this antique barge of a plane all too well, we suspected either the sensor was faulty or the bulb itself was on the fritz. We were later proved correct, but we had no choice but to shut down the engine and divert. You can’t simply ignore and engine fire warning and head out over the Atlantic. So we followed the checklist and secured the motor. Then we went to Bangor and had lobster rolls.

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February 15, 2021.   Supersonic Regret.

At Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, a retired Air France Concorde sits on a platform, there to remind you of the all promises, both failed and realized, of the Jet Age. The supersonic transport, only about twenty of which were ever built, was the ultimate culmination of technology and imagination, science and art — one of the most beautiful and audacious pieces of industrial design ever conceived. The one in Paris is an impressive monument, but a misleading one too. The plane looks strangely unlike itself, frozen in a peculiar, stop-action pose that caricatures rather than accentuates its sleekness. That’s not how I remember it.

I’m fortunate — which is to say old enough — to have seen the Concorde during its flying days, on numerous occasions. I have no idea how many times I saw it take off or land. Two dozen? Four dozen? Usually it happened at JFK: the thunder of the afterburners, and that unmistakable, origami crane profile as it banked southward over Canarsie. You always stopped. You always watched. It was always a thrill.

But while I’m happy to have these memories, I have two regrets. The first is that the only photograph I ever took of the needle-nosed superbird is the one you see above, snapped at Kennedy in, I believe, 1998. So it was in the days before mobile phones, when getting a picture meant lugging a camera with you. Thus my only keepsake is this grainy, blurry, off-center picture.

The second regret is much worse…

I have a “life list” of every commercial jet, and every airline, I’ve ever flown on. Maybe you find the tally impressive. To me, it’s sorely incomplete. Several planes could be, and should be, on the list, but aren’t, either through lack of opportunity or laziness. The IL-62, for instance, or the 747SP. But of all the conspicuously absent models, that one that bothers me most is the Concorde.

Granted, Concorde fares ran thousands of dollars, keeping the experience well out of reach for anyone who wasn’t a celebrity, a dignitary, or a corporate flyer on the fattest of expense accounts. For most of the years when the plane was in service, I was a commuter pilot making a few hundred dollars a week, struggling to make my car payments and blowing most of my disposable income on records.

But here’s the thing: For a while in the 1990s, British Airways offered a special deal to airline employees. It was a round-trip package between New York and London, with one of the two flights aboard the Concorde. You could pick the direction, eastbound or westbound. The price was four-hundred dollars.

Wait, how much? That’s right. You can adjust for inflation all you want, but the sad truth is, $400 was almost comically cheap — an absolute steal even for a bottom-feeder like me. Not only that, the flights were positive space! That is, you had a confirmed seat rather than having to chatter your teeth on a standby list, as is normally the case for employees. Four hundred dollars for a positive space seat aboard the coolest jetliner of all time.

And I never did it. It was always something I’d “get around to,” as the saying goes. Maybe next month. Maybe in the summer. Maybe in the fall. Inevitably I had some excuse to put it off. And then one day it was gone. The offer disappeared, and not long afterward the airplane disappeared too. Looking back, I’m ashamed to call myself an airline geek.

I was asked once during a job interview what my greatest regret in aviation was, and that was my answer. They seemed a little taken aback. I sounded more like an enthusiast than a career-minded pilot. In fact I was both, and I was telling the honest to goodness truth.

Note: I’m aware that it was semi-official custom, at least British custom, to omit the “the” when speaking of Concorde. It was always simply “Concorde.” I avoid doing this because it feels snooty and pretentious. Also, more people would wonder why the article is missing than the number who’ll find it superfluous. Could be worse; I have a friend who pronounces “Concorde” exactly as you’d say the word “Conquered.”

Contest: The above photograph has four other airplanes in the frame. (Actually there are five, but four in which the tails are visible for a positive ID.) The first person to correctly identify the airline and aircraft of all four wins an autographed copy of my book. Submit your entries to

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January 19, 2021.   Remembering Eastern.

We’ve been doing a lot of anniversaries lately. Morbid ones. Here’s another.

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the demise of Eastern Air Lines. One of America’s most storied aviation franchises, Eastern had begun in 1926 as Pitcairn Aviation. After a devastating strike and contentious battle with the heartless Frank Lorenzo, its last revenue flight took place on January 19th, 1991.

What a year. December 4th, 1991 would mark the final flight of Pan Am. Amazingly, two of the most historic names in aviation disappeared within eleven months of each other.

For a stretch in the 1970s, Eastern had been the second-largest airline on earth, measured by passengers carried, topped only by the gargantuan (at the time) Soviet carrier, Aeroflot. I can remember Eastern’s television commercials at the time, in which CEO Frank Borman would say, “We built the largest airline in the free world, around you.” (Free world. That was was a Cold War way always staying one statistical step ahead of the Russians. How quaint it seems today.) Another Eastern slogan from around that period was the similarly old-fashioned, “The Wings of Man.”

Eastern was the launch carrier of the Boeing 757, and was also the first North American airline to operate an Airbus, putting the A300 into service on its famous Shuttle routes in 1980. (That was the same Shuttle it later sold to Donald Trump in order to raise cash.)

I flew Eastern a handful of times. Once, as a ninth-grader, my family and I flew to Puerto Rico on an L-1011 “Whisperliner,” as the airline nicknamed its venerable Lockheeds. The 727 was the “Whisperjet” — which was a little ironic, as they did anything but whisper. I rode a few of those as well, on the Shuttle between Boston and La Guardia. In those days the Shuttle offered guaranteed seats, with a backup plane in case the first one sold out. You could board without a ticket. Flight attendants came down the aisle after takeoff and collected fares.

Portion of a memo to employees from Martin Shugrue on Eastern’s final day. Appointed in 1990 to replace the hated Lorenzo, Shugrue tried in vain to save the carrier from liquidation.

This is all frustratingly apropos, because a new, Pennsylvania-based entity has started up using the Eastern name and trademark. You might spot an “Eastern” 767 at JFK or Miami. No, it’s not a ghost ship, and you haven’t passed through a time warp. It’s a startup company that has heisted the identity of the original. This practice, while somewhere between tacky and offensive, is not unheard of: we’ve seen at least three Pan Ams, two Braniffs, etc.

What’s especially ghastly is what the new Eastern has done to the livery. The old Eastern’s final colors, featuring the abstract falcon emblem and the double-blue “hockey stick” riding up the tail, were among the prettiest and most distinctive of all time. The new Eastern’s version, a swirl of nonsensical colors and patterns, is one of the ugliest paintjobs I’ve ever seen. There are a few different, equally nauseating versions. One of them has the pair of blue stripes splitting apart and dropping below the aft fuselage, rather than arcing upward into the tail. It looks like an abstract depiction of erectile dysfunction — a livery attempting to undo itself. Let’s behold the classic one instead…

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January 13, 2021.   And Good Riddance.

I knew there was a nugget of goodness buried somewhere in the destruction wrought by COVID-19.

Praise heaven, after thirty long and noisy years, CNN Airport News is going off the air. That’s right, effective March 31st, those infernal gateside monitors are shutting down. In a year with almost no positive news whatsoever, this one gets a gold star.

Few things are more offensive than those yammering hellboxes, hung from the ceiling in every nook and cranny of the concourse, blaring twenty-four hours a day. There is no volume control, no power cord, no escape. Not even employees know how to shut them up (I’ve asked). This isn’t a knock against the content of CNN or any other channel (I’ve been a guest on the network many times). It’s simply a plea to be left alone. Maybe if the damn things weren’t so pervasive I’d feel differently. But they are. You can’t get away from them. They took a somewhat useful idea and vastly overdid it, aggravating untold millions of people in the process.

At one point, some well-intended folks came up with a device called TV-B-Gone, a kind of universal remote that hooked onto your keychain and would silence the “chattering cyclops”* with the push of a button. They mailed me one, and lo and behold it worked… until CNN caught on and installed a blocking device. All hope seemed lost.

And the intent was what? Three decades of noise pollution masquerading as “news” has not kept passengers entertained or better informed. What it’s done is make an already stressful and nerve-wracking experience that much worse. So, good riddance. If it were up to me, the day those TVs fall silent would be declared a national travel holiday. Let us gather ’round the podium and savor the quiet. For once: quiet.

Maybe. I hate saying it, but this feels a touch too good to be true. Those monitors and their wiring comprise an awful lot hardware, and, much as I’d love to watch it happen, I just can’t envision it all being torn out and thrown away. Will another network swoop in and take over? Fox? MSNBC? CNBC? The Trump Travel Channel? I sincerely hope not. I know those things help pay the bills, but there has to be a better, more civilized way. Fingers crossed.

* Credit to Sideshow Bob in an old episode of The Simpsons.

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December 3, 2020.   Emotional Unsupport.

On Wednesday, after months of deliberation, the U.S. Department of Transportation ruled that airlines will no longer be required to recognize so-called “emotional support animals” as service animals. Instead, they’ll be considered pets, subject to whatever carriage restrictions and fees an airline chooses to levy.

This has been a controversial issue for a long time, with owners of elite, highly trained service animals claiming — not without legitimate reason — that countless passengers were taking advantage of a policy loophole in order to bring their pets along for free. We’ve all seen dogs wearing “emotional support animal” bibs at the airport. You can buy these, along with official-looking, effectively meaningless certificates, online.

And it’s not just dogs. Iguanas, parrots, miniature horses, and even a llama have been among the critters carried aboard commercial flights in the name of keeping their owners calm. No more. A service animal is hereby defined as “a dog, regardless of breed or type, that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of a qualified individual with a disability.”

This is terrible news for Randy, my emotional support eel. Still, while I’m among the “more animals, fewer people” crowd, this is probably a good thing overall.

The ruling is not a blanket ban. Rather, airlines will now be able to enforce their own rules and policies, which are certain to vary, carrier to carrier. Some will be more lenient than others.

I maybe shouldn’t admit this, but some years ago my own mother paid for one of those dubious online certificates for her pet miniature greyhound, to avoid consigning him to the cargo hold on a trip to Florida. As for me, I skipped the certification step entirely: I once smuggled a pet hedgehog onto a Continental Airlines flight to Cleveland. But that’s a story for another time.

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November 16, 2020.   Around and Around.

Go-arounds, missed approaches, aborted landings. Call them what you will; on Sunday, for the third time in my life, I was on board a plane that made two of them consecutively.

The first two times I was at the controls. In 1991 I was flying a 15-seater into Hyannis, Massachusetts, when twice the plane in front of us failed to clear the runway in time. Then, in 2008, I was flying a 757 landing into La Guardia when ATC twice misjudged our spacing on approaches to runway 22.

This time I was a passenger. I was in row 12, on a regional jet landing in Detroit. The winds were gusting to fifty knots, and the approach had been unusually turbulent the whole way down. I could see the treetops doing pirouettes. At about 500 feet the engines revved, the gear came clunking into the wells, and up, up, up we went. Whether it was crosswind issues or shears from the gusts — or both — I never found out, but something made the approach unstable enough to discontinue. The pilots did what they were supposed to do: break it off and go-around.

The second try was a carbon copy of the first one, and I was a little surprised when the captain let us know we’d be circling around for attempt number three. I assumed, after two good efforts, we were headed for Chicago or Cleveland. This time, he explained, we’d be switching to a different runway where the crosswind component wasn’t as strong. Still, I wasn’t optimist. From the window I watched the branches bending and the water rippling madly across the lakes and ponds, waiting for that tell-tale upward pitch and surge from the engines. Except this time it didn’t happen. We settled gently over the threshold and, plunk, we had arrived. The passengers broke out in applause.

Go-arounds can be abrupt and noisy, scaring the daylights out of customers. For airplanes, however, the transition from descent to ascent is perfectly natural, and a maneuver that pilots practice all the time. For more, see here.

November 11, 2020.   With Sam in Dubai

Three friends and I were vacationing in Dubai last week. In the lounge of the J.W. Marriott we ran into Sam Chui, aviation gadabout and airplane photographer extraordinaire. Sam was kind enough to join us for drinks and hors d’oeuvres.

If you’re an air travel nerd, chances are you know exactly who Sam Chui is. The rest of you can familiarize yourselves with his work here. I’ve been an admirer of his photography — and sorely jealous of his luxury travel experiences — for the past twenty years.

The crazy thing is, we’d been talking about Sam Chui earlier that day, with Itamar and Karim both doing hilarious impersonations. Suddenly, that evening, he’s sitting there in the lounge.


October 21, 2020.   Sign of the Times.

Taken at the airport in Boston.

And they say irony is dead.


August 12, 2020.   Midsummer Morbid.

The Japan Airlines “Tsurumaru” logo is, to me, the most elegant airline logo of all time. Created in 1958 by an American ad firm, it is still used. The emblem features a crane — the symbol of fortune and longevity in Japan — lifting its wings into the circular suggestion of the Rising Sun.

Regrettably, today, marks the 35th anniversary of one of the darkest days in aviation history — the crash of JAL flight 123. On August 12th, 1985, the Boeing 747 crashed into the mountains near Tokyo killing 520 people. It remains the second-deadliest air disaster ever, and the deadliest involving a single aircraft.

I hate bringing this up, but here we are into the dog days of summer, and there remains absolutely nothing positive or promising to write about. We may as well keep the negative energy flowing. A couple of weeks ago we “celebrated” July 17th, possibly the most jinxed day on the aviation calendar. A week later came the 20th anniversary of the Concorde disaster outside Charles de Gaulle airport — one of history’s most misunderstood crashes. And now this.

Twelve minutes after takeoff from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, flight 123’s aft pressure bulkhead burst, causing a rapid decompression. Air rushed up into the into the plane’s tail structure with such force that it ripped off a section of the fin and caused a total loss of hydraulics. Out of control, the plane went down twenty minutes later, slamming into a pair of ridges near Mount Osutaka and disintegrating.

The airplane was a short-range, high-capacity variant of the 747-200 called the SR (short range), built specifically for the Japanese domestic market. This accounts for the incredibly high death toll.

Despite how destructive the impact was, four people, all of them seated in the very rear of the cabin, remarkably survived. The accident occurred at twilight, and search teams weren’t mobilized until the following day; according to the four who were rescued, others had survived the crash as well, only to perish during the night.

Later, when investigators developed film found in cameras belonging to the victims, they discovered photographs taken from inside the cabin. The saddest of these, shot through a starboard window before things went wrong, shows the airplane’s wing approaching the coastline at sunset. In another, taken just minutes later, a flight attendant stands in the aisle cupping an oxygen mask to her face. Also unearthed form the wreckage were several farewell notes scribbled into notebooks and on pieces of paper.

The cause of the accident was traced to a faulty repair made to the aft pressure bulkhead seven years after after an unusually hard landing. In the aftermath, Japan Airlines, long-respected for reliability and safety, fell into a period of disgrace. Yasumoto Takagi, the airlines president at the time, resigned after visiting families of the victims to apologize in person. A JAL maintenance manager, as well as the engineer who had inspected the plane prior to its final flight, committed suicide.

And what a year that was, 1985.

Nowadays, large-scale air disasters have become so rare that even one or two over the course of a year is unusual. Back in ’85, the JAL debacle was one of twenty-seven — that’s correct, twenty-seven — serious accidents to occur that year, in which nearly 2,500 people were killed. Among the others were the Arrow Air crash in Newfoundland that killed 240 American servicemen, and, less than two months before JAL 123, the Air-India bombing over the North Atlantic that left 329 dead. It’s hard to fathom, but two of history’s ten worst air disasters happened within fifty days of each other.

That was an unusually bad year for any era, but throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, multiple major accidents were the annual norm. For all of the convulsions the airlines are going through at the moment, perhaps we can savor one positive: they don’t do crashes like they used to.


July 17, 2020.   Calendar and Coincidence.

Seventeenth of July. I’m unsure what has caused the forces of darkness to conspire against such an innocuous-seeming day on the calendar, but July 17th happens to be the anniversary of four — four! — major airline crashes.

The first and most infamous of them, in 1996, was the TWA 800 disaster. Bound from New York to Paris, the 747 fell into the ocean near Long Island after a short circuit ignited vapors in the jet’s center fuel tank, which was empty at the time. All 230 passengers and crew were killed.

On the same day in 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, a Boeing 777 flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was shot down over eastern Ukraine by a surface-to-air missile launched by pro-Russia militiamen who mistook the jet for a military plane. All 298 passengers and crew are killed, making it the seventh-deadliest aviation disaster in history.

The other two aren’t as well remembered…

On July 17th, 2007, an Airbus A320 operated by the Brazilian carrier TAM overshot the runway at Sao Paulo’s Congonhas Airport and slammed into a warehouse. With 199 fatalities, including twelve people in the building, this remains the deadliest crash ever in South America. I used to lay over in Sao Paulo all the time, and the ride from Guarulhos airport to our hotel used to pass Congonhas along the Avenue Washington Luis — directly past the spot where the TAM flight impacted, at the time still covered up with plywood barriers.

Last on the list is one that I barely remembered even after Googling it: the crash of Alliance Air flight 7412 in Patna, India, in 2000. Sixty people people died when the 737 crashed into a busy neighborhood during its approach.

Crashes three and four were the result of pilot error. The TAM pilots botched a landing on a stubby runway during a rainstorm, and the Alliance pilots stalled while maneuvering to land. The MH17 catastrophe resulted from a very different kind of human negligence, while TWA 800 owed its fate to mechanical failure on an aging aircraft. As a result of the TWA crash, commercial jets are now equipped with systems that pump inert nitrogen into their empty fuel tanks.

I’m flying to Amsterdam later tonight. Wish me luck?

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June 20, 2020.   Up, Up, and Away Back Down?

TSA has been tracking the number of daily passenger boardings at U.S. airports. And on Friday, just in time for Father’s Day weekend, that number hit nearly 600,000 — the most significant total since at least April, when the COVID panic took hold. That’s roughly 20 percent of what we saw a year ago on the same day.

On the one hand that’s a spectacular statistic. To have one in five passengers has already returning to the skies seems remarkably encouraging, 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 rock-bottom fares. Although 20 percent of passengers have returned, 20 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 comes in September, 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 reopen. Until then, “20 percent of normal” doesn’t mean what it seems.

June 3, 2020.   Back At You.

Air China 747 at Kennedy Airport.    Author’s photo.

Fallout from COVID has touched off a political spat between the United States and China over the resumption of commercial airline service. Effective June 16th, Chinese airlines will be blocked from serving any U.S. city.

This comes in response to China’s refusal to allow United Airlines and Delta Air Lines to restart flights into Beijing and Shanghai, intended to begin on June 1st. The reciprocal ban may take effect sooner than June 16th if the Trump administration chooses.

China says its decision was made to prevent COVID-infected travelers from entering China from U.S. cities. Yet its own carriers have been operating to and from those same destinations, including New York and Los Angeles, for the past several weeks.

Of the U.S. majors, United has the largest presence in China by far, followed by Delta and American. United also flies multiple routes into Hong Kong, which is not subject to the bans.

American carriers affected: United, American, Delta.

Chinese carriers affected: Air China, China Eastern, China Southern, Hainan Airlines, Xiamen Air, Sichuan Airlines.

Not affected: Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong), China Airlines (Taiwan).

It is unclear if or how cargo service will be impacted. U.S. airlines have been flying regular cargo charters into China, generating badly needed revenue.

Who knows how long this drama will play on. How strange it is, in the meantime, for there to be no scheduled air service between the United States and China. Then again, what isn’t strange these days? In normal times the cessation of flights between the two most important countries in the world would be a huge story unto itself. Today it’s just a footnote.

UPDATE: Two days after this story ran, China backed down and announced it would allow American carriers to once again serve Chinese cities. Flights to Beijing and Shanghai should resume shortly.


May 26, 2020.   Killer Memories.

I’m little late with this, but earlier this spring marked the 50th anniversary of the hijacking of Eastern Airlines flight 1320. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1970, a mentally ill gunman commandeered the DC-9 on a flight from Newark to Boston. He forced his way into the cockpit and shot both pilots, killing the first officer.

1970 was smack in the middle of what I like to call the “Golden Age of Air Crimes,” when air piracy was rampant across America and the world. Between ’68 and ’72, U.S. commercial aircraft were commandeered at a rate of nearly one per week, including at least three instances of multiple aircraft being hijacked on the same day. Seldom, however, did the takeovers end violently, and airport security remained essentially nonexistent. That all changed after flight 1320.

Boston Globe reporter Neil Swidey chronicles the incident here. It’s an edge-of-your-seat read, and Swidey gets (most of) the airplane stuff right. Many of the participants of the drama are still alive, including Captain Bob Wilbur, who, despite being shot in both arms, subdued the hijacker by smashing him in the head with his own handgun, then landed the jet in Boston.

It boggles the mind to imagine something like that happening today. The saturation news coverage, the hysteria. Bob Wilbur, whose name even at the time few people recognized, would be an instant hero and darling of the talk show circuit for years.


Illustration by Brian Stauffer/Boston Globe

April 28, 2020.   Open Spaces.

In normal times, the nation’s airport terminals are among its most uncomfortable public spaces: crowded, claustrophobic, and noisy to the point of assault, filled with the racket of screeching kids and public address announcements. You would think, therefore, that a stroll through an airport in the throes of COVID-induced isolation would be a pleasant one — a chance for those few remaining travelers to savor some peace and quiet.

But for me, during a couple of recent airport visits, that’s not how it happened. I didn’t feel any sense of solitude or relaxation. What I felt was shock and horror: the full crush of the COVID fiasco manifest through desolation and emptiness. If you want an idea of just how massively this crisis has impacted commercial aviation, behold the airport in April, 2020.

Last week in Boston, on what ordinarily would be a busy Thursday evening, I walked from Terminal A to Terminal C. I did not see another person. Neither a passenger nor an employee. A few days later I found myself standing in the check-in lobby at JFK’s Terminal 4, gazing across row after row of empty kiosks and counters. Again, not one other person in view. It was eerie, haunting, and, from this employee’s perspective, terrifying. How any airline will survive this is beyond me. I took some pictures:


March 27, 2020.   In Case You Weren’t Depressed Enough.

In keeping with the bottomlessly shitty mood pervading all things aviation at the moment, allow me to remind you that March 27th marks the 43rd anniversary of the worst air disaster of all time. On this date in 1977, two Boeing 747s collided on a foggy runway in the Canary Islands killing 583 people.

The disaster at Tenerife, and all the beguiling weirdness that led to it happening, has fascinated me for most of my life. I had the fortune, if that’s the right word, some years back, to have met two survivors from the crash, including one of the pilots.



January 14, 2020.   Guy-America, Superhero and 707.

I was flipping through one of my old airline books — the 1980 edition of World Airline Fleets — when I came across the listing for Guy-America Airways. I’d forgotten about this company, and stumbling on the picture of their 707 brought back memories and made me smile. Even in the eighth grade I thought “Guy-America” was about the funniest name for an airline I’d ever heard. It sounded like the name for a knockoff superhero, or a game show host.

Based out of an office somewhere in Queens, Guy-America founded by a former Pan Am pilot named Anthony Tirri. It was around only for two or three years, and never had more than three or four jets in its fleet. It flew back and forth between Kennedy Airport and Georgetown, Guyana. Hence the “Guy.” The name was amusing enough, but what makes Guy-America the goofiest airline of all time was its livery. Check this out:

What you see is an old American Airlines 707. They’ve silvered out the “n” from the “American” titles and added a home-made “Guy-” to the front of it. “American” is now “Guy-America.” Up on the tail, where the “AA” logo stood, they simply painted over the first “A” and put a “G” in its place. For good measure, American’s red, white and blue fuselage stripes were painted over in red, black, and gold, making it look something like the German flag. Presumably these were the colors of some house paint left over in Tirri’s garage, as the Guyanese flag is red, yellow and green. Finished, done. Oh sure, we’ve seen many worse liveries over the years. But perhaps none so idiotically and lazily resourceful. What’s not to love about it? It makes me want to start an airline called “Deltam,” or maybe “Mouthwest.”

Along with Guy-America was the more conventionally named (and painted) Guyana Airways, which later flew 757s for a while before it, too, went bust (it was a Guyana Airways plane that got its tires shot out during the massacre at Jonestown in 1978, at a small airstrip called Port Kaituma, which is still there). Today, Guyana is one of the small number of countries with no national airline at all.

I’ve flown into Guyana many times. The capital, Georgetown, is served through the Cheddi Jagan International Airport (GEO), located in the town of Timehri (pronounced “T’merry”), about an hour’s drive away. The terminal building at GEO is one of the prettiest around. On holidays, a steel pan ensemble sets up on the tarmac, playing for passengers as they climb down the airstairs.

The colorful terminal at GEO.   Author’s photo.

December 5, 2019.   Avianca at 100

Gateside cake and pictures this morning at Kennedy Airport as part of Avianca’s 100th birthday celebration. The Colombian national carrier began flying on December 5th, 1919, and becomes only the second airline in the world to record a hundred years of continuous operation. KLM was the first, hitting the century mark back on October 7th of this year (see post further down).

Avianca was initially established as a joint German-Colombian venture under the name SCADTA (Sociedad Colombo-Alemana de Transportes Aéreos). The Avianca name (Aerovías Nacionales de Colombia) was adopted in 1940.

Photo by the author.

November 25, 2019.   Shalom, 747.

El Al’s first Boeing 747.

Earlier this month, Israeli carrier El Al became the latest customer to retire the Boeing 747. The final revenue flight, from Rome to Tel Aviv, took place on November 4th.

Every 747 retirement is a sad occasion; this one particularly so. For one thing, El Al was one of the few remaining airlines to have operated the 747 uninterrupted since day one. It was among the plane’s original 27 launch customers in 1970. Its first 747-100 arrived at the old Lod Airport (now Ben Gurion) in July the following year. (KLM, Lufthansa, Qantas and British Airways are on that list still.)

An El Al 747 also holds the record for the largest number of people ever carried aboard a commercial plane. On May 24, 1991, as part of the Operation Solomon airlift of Ethiopian Jews, one of the airline’s 747 freighters carried 1,088 passengers and crew from Addis Ababa to Tel Aviv. The flight’s captain, Arie Oz, was a Holocaust survivor who’d also piloted a C-130 Hercules during the famous Entebbe hostage rescue in 1976.

And on a personal note, the first 747 I ever rode aboard was an El Al model in, January of 1982. The route went New York-Montreal-Tel Aviv. Regrettably I have no souvenirs from that flight, but I remember it well, especially my first glimpse of the iconic spiral staircase that connected the upper deck to the main cabin.

El Al has transitioned to the Boeing 777 and 787 for its long-haul routes.

All around the world 747s are being put to pasture, and Airbus is shutting down the A380 line as well. This is yet more evidence, isn’t it, that the industry is turning away from large airplanes?

Well, sort of. The four-engined jumbo is dead, yes, but there are, and will continue to be, plenty of (very) big jets out there. The most common of them, for now, is the Boeing 777-300. This is the aircraft, not the A380, that most of the world’s carriers brought in to replace their 747s. It does the job with two engines instead of four, and with significantly lower operating costs. But it’s by no means a small aircraft. It’s almost the size of a 747, typically carrying around 350 passengers — with even more underfloor cargo space than a 747. Essentially, every 777-300 you see today — and there are nearly a thousand of them around the world — would, a generation ago, have been a 747. The upcoming 777-X will be larger and heavier still. The A350-1000 and 787-10 are of similar size and weight, with capacities approaching 400 passengers.

The name El Al means “to the skies” in Hebrew.

El Al’s 747s will be missed. Already missed is the airline’s old livery. It’s the 1970s-1980s version that I’m talking about, with the rare diagonal-reverse cheatline and one of the all-time class tails. El Al’s current uniform is one of the worst that exists and I won’t burden your eyes with a photo of it; here’s the old one instead:

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The A380 is Dead! Long Live the A380!

November 10, 2019.   Stairway to Headline.

The media has been agog the past few days over Southwest Airlines’ announcement that it will begin experimenting with dual-airstair boarding and deplaning at a handful of airports in California. The carrier will deploy drive-up stairs to both the forward and aft doors of its 737s in an effort to speed up the never-tedious process of getting over a hundred people on and off a plane.

The story is making the rounds in all the big travel sites and sections, including a splashy full-page feature in USA Today. You’d think this was the greatest thing to hit aviation since the advent of the seat-back video screen. It’s a good idea, but why so much buzz? This isn’t new. Carriers all over the world use this technique. It isn’t the norm, but you’ll encounter it any any number of terminals where jet bridges are limited or nonexistent. My own airline uses dual-stair boarding at several airports overseas. For years at La Guardia Airport, the Eastern, Pan Am, and Delta Shuttles allowed passengers to board and deplane simultaneously through a forward jet bridge and the aft airstairs of its 727s, DC-9s and MD-88s. United tried it for a while in Denver.

Jet bridges, too, are often used in pairs, or even triples. You don’t see it much in the United States, regrettably, but elsewhere it’s common for a widebody aircraft to be boarded and deplaned through two, and sometimes even three doors at once. (At Amsterdam-Schiphol, a handful of gates feature a unique suspension-style jet bridge that goes over the airplane’s wing and attaches to the aft-most door.)

Southwest, I’m sure, doesn’t mind the publicity. And good luck to them. The more stairs the better, as far as I’m concerned. I always prefer stairs over the jet bridge, just on principle. The benefits of boarding through an enclosed tube are obvsious, but there’s a certain thrill that comes from walking up those stairs: the ground-level approach along the tarmac followed by the slow ascent. The effect is like the opening credits of a film — a brief, formal introduction to the journey. The jet bridge makes the airplane almost irrelevant; you’re merely in transit from one annoying interior space (terminal) to another (cabin).


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November 5, 2019.   Et Tu, Gary Shteyngart?

Not long ago, in a complaint about the hellish proliferation of so-called spinner bags, I wrote of my disdain for use of the term “roller boards” in describing wheeled carry-ons. I’ve been hearing this sloppy mispronunciation more and more, usually from flight attendants: “Ladies and gentlemen, please place your roller boards into the bins handle-first.”

My what? We picture a wooden plank with wheels on it. What they’re attempting to say, of course, is roll-aboard. It’s a carry-on with wheels; you roll it aboard. This shouldn’t be difficult.

For a flight attendant to mess this up is one thing, but I’m shocked to discover one of my favorite novelists, Gary Shteyngart, has gotten into the act. In the opening pages of his latest book, Lake Success, the main character, Barry Cohen, is described hauling a “rollerboard” around the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Shteyngart has stylized it, turning it into a compound word, the casual-ness of which makes it even more annoying. He repeats it several times.

Few writers are funnier than Gary Shteyngart, and as one of his biggest fans, anger is about the last emotion I expect to come boiling up as I read. Yet every time that word appears I want to slam the binding against the hard edge of my desk. What the fuck, Gary? It’s roll-aboard!

Did his editors do this? Did he argue and lose? Or is there some irony or subtle meaning going on that I’m too tone-deaf to detect? No, I don’t think that’s it. Like everyone else he’s simply mis-hearing the term and not thinking about it. “Rollerboard,” meanwhile, has just enough of the right sound and meaning to be plausible, sort of (even if it’s completely stupid).

A part of me wants to believe that the author has done this by design, to annoy me. Allow me to explain…

Back in 2012, the New York Times published a funny but rather caustic piece by Shteyngart about a bad experience he’d had with American Airlines. Taking things much too seriously (imagine!), and probably desperate for something to write about, I authored a rebuttal that the good people at the Daily Beast were kind/bored/pitying enough to run. The rebuttal was a masterpiece of the kind of stick-up-his-butt humorlessness that only I could create. My conspiracy theory holds that Shteyngart remembered this, and “rollerboard” is his way of getting even.

Yeah, I know: like he’s ever heard of me, saw my spinner bag post, or would possibly give a shit enough to grammatically sabotage his own novel as part of some demented shout-out to a blogger.

But it’s fun to think about.

October 29, 2019.   Seeing Red.

Down we go, into the bottomless barrel of awful livery redesigns. What a run we’ve had. American Airlines, EgyptAir, El Al… so many travesties to choose from.

Our latest contestant is Air Mauritius, national carrier of the namesake island in the Indian Ocean. Most readers won’t be familiar with this one — the Air Mauritius fleet numbers only about 15 planes — but I see its A350s regularly in Europe.

For a logo the airline uses a stylized silhouette of the Paille-en-Queue, or white-tailed tropicbird (Phaethon lepturus). You can see it in the accompanying photos, mid-fuselage adjacent to the titles. It’s a very pretty emblem, and suitably evocative of the island the carrier calls home.

So why is it not on the tail? Instead we have a ghastly foursome of giant red slash marks. If it’s a national carrier’s duty to in some way reflect the country it serves and represents, this tail design is about as obnoxious a failure as exists. The marks might be distinctive, but they’re symbolic of, and evocative of, absolutely nothing. This looks like something a fifth grader would come up with with a red Sharpie.

Below is the original Air Mauritius uniform, displayed on a 747SP. Okay, so neither paint job is/was especially beautiful, but at least the old one put the bird on the tail, while the window striping gave the jet some dignity.

Air Mauritius began operations in 1972, with assistance from BOAC and Air France. Today it flies a predominantly Airbus fleet to 23 destinations, including long-haul routes to London, Paris, Shanghai, Mumbai and Singapore. The shot below, of an Airbus A340, gives you a good view of the tropicbird.

And since we’re talking birds… The name of that A340, stenciled below the cockpit windows, is “Pink Pigeon.” One of the rarest birds in the world, the pink pigeon (Nesoenas mayeri) resides only in Mauritius, with small colonies nesting in the Black River Gorges National Park, and on the tiny Isle aux Aigrettes, only a few miles from the country’s international airport.

I visited Isle aux Aigrettes during a vacation a few years ago, and was able to get this photo of a real pink pigeon. The species is highly endangered. We like to be optimistic, but Mauritius, remember, was the home of the dodo.


Pink pigeon photo by the author.
Other photos courtesy of Air Mauritius and Aiel, via Flickr.

October 22, 2019.   The Grail Route.

The media has been going a bit loopy over Qantas having completed the first of its “Operation Sunrise” test flights. Last week, the Australian airline operated one of its Boeing 787s on a 20-hour nonstop from Sydney to New York — a pairing that, not all that long ago, most airline execs would have considered unfathomable.

For more about these flights, see my earlier post here, or simply scroll down.

October 18, 2019.   Airlines by the Numbers.

This picture was taken not long ago at Bangkok-Suvarnabhumi (BKK). It shows 66 carriers serving the airport. That is, one must admit, a lot of airlines. And it got me wondering: which airport has the most? Is it Bangkok? Heathrow? De Gaulle? JFK? I’m too lazy to research it myself, but maybe there’s a reader up to the challenge.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. What about regional carriers operating in the colors of a major affiliate? They can be hard to keep track of, and an argument can me made they shouldn’t count. Subsidiaries and alter egos, too, are a gray area. Notice the BKK placard has “Thai Smile Airways” at number 59. That’s just the short-haul leisure division of Thai Airways, which sits right above it at 58. Does it deserve a slot of its own? Is Air Canada and Rouge the same thing? Air France and Joon? Is it the name or the livery? And how about nonscheduled carriers that sometimes pay a visit? Each case, maybe, deserves its own judgment call.

Or, how about any name with its own IATA or ICAO code, regardless of the paint job or affiliation?

At BKK I would kick Thai Smile off the list, seeing that is shares Thai Airways’ “TG” IATA tag. Also, India’s Jet Airways, number 32 on the sign, has since gone bust. That puts the Bangkok total at 64. Let’s start with that and see who can beat it.

As a bit of an aside, I’m a little startled that no American carrier flies to Bangkok. Delta and United, both which served the city for several decades (dating back to the Pan Am and Northwest routes those carriers inherited), recently pulled out. I realize that Thailand isn’t an easy market. It’s half a world away, and primarily a leisure destination with low yields and, as that sign attests, loads of competition. Still, the sheer number of Americans that visit the country — roughly a million each year, or 2,700 a day — convinces me there’s a way to make it work.


October 7, 2019.   Dutch Centenary.

It’s been fun over the past several months seeing the proud “100” decals on the side of KLM’s Boeings and Airbuses. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is the oldest airline in the world, and on October 7th it will celebrate its one-hundredth birthday. It’s hard to imagine, but the airline that today can take you to Jakarta or Quito or Mount Kilimanjaro in a state-of-the-art jetliner, is the same airline that once ferried passengers, seven at a time, across the English Channel in a rickety Fokker made of wood and fabric. As part of the celebration, three of KLM’s Monday arrivals at JFK will be given a water cannon salute.

The letters KLM stand for Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij, which in English means Royal Aviation Company. But you knew that.

Airline genealogies can be complicated. Many carriers have changed names and identities or have blurred their pedigrees through mergers and acquisitions. Here are the seven oldest majors flying under their original monikers:

• KLM (1919)
• Qantas (1920)
• Aeroflot (1923)
• CSA Czech Airlines (1923)
• Finnair (1923)
• LOT Polish Airlines (1928)
• Delta Air Lines (1928)

If we allow for name changes and mergers, Colombia’s Avianca would be up there at number two, having started out in 1919 as something called SCADTA. It’s a shame to see Mexicana (previously in third place) gone from the list. The airline ceased flying in 2010 after eighty-seven years.

If you’re surprised that places like Mexico, Colombia, Russia, or Australia have such a long aviation heritage, remember that rugged terrain, lack of roads, and vast distances made these countries natural spots for aviation to take hold.

KLM photos by the author.

October 3, 2019.   Word Shapes.

I want to know more about the Emirates typeface — the lettering the airline uses in its marketing, advertising, and so on. Who came up with it? Does it have a name? What is it meant to evoke?

It looks like this…

Or like this, as seen on a first class menu…

Typeface design has always been part of a carrier’s branding, but I’ve never seen an airline use a proprietary font with such devotion. At Emirates it’s everywhere: on the side of the plane, in its promotional literature, and on virtually every printed sign or notice. I was in the Emirates lounge in Johannesburg the other morning and even the little buffet placards used it.

It’s handsome and ultra-distinctive, with just a dash of — what can we call it? — exotic flair. Notice how the jaunty cant of the lowercase “e” and “a” synchs with the airline’s calligraphic logo. It’s a subtly powerful tool for communicating the Emirates identity, and I wish more airlines did this sort of thing.

Photos and thumbnail composite by the author.

September 25, 2019.   Unchartered.

U.K. holiday charter carrier Thomas Cook ceased operations on Monday. Failure of the Manchester-based airline leaves 150,000 people stranded in various countries around Europe, the Middle East, North America and elsewhere. Up to 21,000 jobs will be lost and 500 retail travel outlets closed. The country’s Civil Aviation Authority is putting together something called “Operation Matterhorn” for what will be, in effect, Britains’s largest repatriation effort since World War Two. No, Dunkirk this ain’t, but Thomas Cook was the largest U.K. charter operator and one of the oldest travel companies in the world.

Many saw this coming. Holiday charters are still big business in Europe and the U.K., but statistics show that people increasingly opt for shorter vacations and prefer to book on line. Thomas Cook emphasized longer holidays and relied on brick-and-mortar walk-in stores for reservations. A heavy debt load and Brexit worries were factors, and the 2018 U.K. heat wave reportedly cost the company tens of millions of pounds.

The carrier operated 37 Airbus A321 and A330 aircraft. The original Thomas Cook Tour Operations dates back to 1841. It’s “sunny heart” logo had been used in one form or another from the beginning.

Most Americans probably aren’t familiar with the charter airline concept, but it wasn’t always this way. In the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, millions of Americans flew on non-scheduled services to cities around the globe. The big four U.S. companies were World Airways, Capitol, ONA (Overseas National) and Trans International (later Transamerica). When I was a teenager, Capitol’s DC-8s, World’s 747s, and Trans International’s DC-10s were a common sight at Boston-Logan. Later it was companies like Arrow Air and American Trans Air. Then it was nothing. All of these names are gone, the charter model no longer viable in an era of super-cheap tickets and flights going pretty much everywhere. Thomas Cook joins them.

August 30, 2019.   The Grail Route.

It’s fascinating how the challenges of long-haul flying are no longer technological. They are, instead, questions of flesh and blood. The newest long-haul jetliners can safely stay aloft for the better part of twenty hours. But can a person?

We’re about to find out. This fall, Qantas is planning to operate a series of experimental nonstops between Sydney and both New York-JFK and London-Heathrow, operated by Boeing 787-9 aircraft. Flight times will approach the twenty hour mark. Only a few dozen passengers — mostly Qantas employees and journalists — will be aboard, their vital signs and other biometrics carefully monitored.

The question isn’t whether such flights are survivable — obviously they are — but under what conditions are they bearable for a customer? Can a passenger be expected to tolerate economy class, as we know it, for such a marathon? Or will these flights, once they become regularly scheduled, need to be outfitted with special cabins, perhaps entirely with lie-flat seating? That’s one of the things Qantas will be evaluating, along with physiological issues such as noise and radiation exposure, hydration, and the matter of deep-vein thrombosis.

A Sydney-London nonstop, the so-called “Grail Route,” has been a dream of airline network planners for decades. (Qantas has nicknamed its endeavor “Project Sunrise.”) It’s finally on the verge of happening. If the experiments prove successful, Qantas hopes to move to scheduled flights starting in 2023, using either the 777X-8 or A350-ULR (ultra long range).

Indeed we’ve reached the point where virtually any two cities on earth are now connectable in a fell swoop. I have a collection of old airline timetables at home, mostly from the 1970s. Going through them, it’s remarkable how complicated it once was getting from continent to continent. Journeys that today take ten or twelve hours without a change of planes literally took days, sometimes with three or more stops along the way.


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August 27, 2019.   R.I.P. Al Haynes

Al Haynes, captain of United Airlines flight 232, passed away on Sunday after a short illness. He was 87.

On the afternoon of July 19th, 1989, Haynes and his crew were cruising over Iowa, headed to Chicago from Denver, when the center engine of their McDonnell Douglas DC-10 disintegrated, wiping out all three of the jet’s hydraulic systems. Using only thrust from the remaining two engines to steer, the pilots were able to guide the crippled jetliner to a crash-landing at Sioux City, where the plane cartwheeled into a cornfield and burned. Although 111 people died, 185 managed to survive, including the entire cockpit crew. That anyone survived was something of a miracle.

There were four pilots in the cockpit that day. Along with Haynes were first officer Bill Records, second officer Dudley Dvorak, and a 46 year-old training captain named Denny Fitch. All four faced a scenario that took them to, and beyond, the limits of their skill and training. If we have to do the hero thing, it was probably Fitch, more than anybody, who deserved the designation. Hunched over the center console, he deftly manipulated the two operative throttles, keeping the plane under some semblance of control. It was Haynes, though, who became the face of flight 232. He was the captain, after all. Always humble and deferential, he met with survivors and the families of those who perished, then spent much of his retirement lobbying for various air safety causes. The role of Fitch, who died in 2012, was frustratingly unsung. But Haynes, just as much, deserved his notoriety.

For years I never quite understood some people’s fascination with the 232 crash. The number of dead wasn’t all that high, and it seemed to lack the mystique, for lack of a better term, of many other crashes. What taught me to see it differently was the bookFlight 232: a Story of Disaster and Survival, by Laurence Gonzales. This wasn’t just the first commercial air disaster caught on video, it was one that unfolded slowly, over many minutes, in a manner closer to a Hollywood movie than to the template of most plane crashes, which happen unexpectedly with little or no warning. The suspense builds and builds, finally culminating not in some save-the-day happy ending but in a fiery catastrophe. It’s the nervous flyer’s worst nightmare and a hauntingly compelling drama for everybody else. Amidst it all was the fearlessness of the crew members, both the pilots and cabin attendants, most of whom survived to tell their unforgettable stories. Unlike most lay writers who tackle a commercial aviation story, Gonazles does an outstanding job on the technical side. There are very few miscues and only once or twice did I take the cap off my highlighter. His explanation of the inner workings of a jet engine is particularly eloquent, and his retelling of the accident investigation is as nail-biting as the finest detective story. Who knew metal fatigue could be so exciting?

The crash of flight 232 was one a string of disasters that befell the DC-10, each caused, in whole or in part, by fatal design flaws. Cargo doors, engine pylons, hydraulic systems. At one point, in 1979, all DC-10s were grounded by the FAA. The saga of the DC-10 reminds us, in no small way, of the ongoing trials of the 737 MAX.


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August 16, 2019.   Feathers and Fate

In chapter six of my book I talk about some of the scenarios pilots fear. This pilot, at any rate. They’re generally not things the traveling public would expect. A tire burst and takeoff abort at high runway speed, for example. Or a lithium-sparked cargo fire. Or birds.

Bird strikes are common, and the damage tends to be minor or nonexistent — unless you’re looking at it from the bird’s point of view. And as you’d expect, aircraft components are built to tolerate such impacts. I’ve personally experienced several strikes, and the result was, at worst, a minor dent or crease. I should hardly have to mention, however, that strikes are occasionally dangerous.

This is especially true when engines are involved. Modern turbofans are resilient, but they don’t take kindly to the ingestion of foreign objects, particularly those slamming into their rotating blades at high speeds. Birds don’t clog an engine but can bend or fracture the internal blades, causing power loss. The heavier the bird, the greater the potential for harm. Flying at 250 knots—in the United States — that’s the maximum allowable speed below 10,000 feet, where most birds are found — hitting an average-sized goose will subject a plane to an impact force of over 50,000 pounds. My big fear is such an impact causing power loss or engine failure at or near takeoff speed, requiring a high-speed abort. No less scary would be the same thing happening just after takeoff, potentially resulting in an off-airport landing or a crash.

That’s exactly what happened in 2009 when US Airways flight 1549 glided into the Hudson River after colliding with a flock of Canada geese. And, on Thursday, it happened again. Ural Airlines flight 178, an Airbus A321 with over two-hundred people aboard, went down seconds after takeoff from Moscow’s Zhukovsky International Airport. Mobile phone footage shot by passengers shows the jet colliding with a flock of seagulls as it becomes airborne. The impact severely damaged both engines, forcing the pilots to glide into a cornfield just off the runway.

As with the Sully-upon-Hudson splashdown in 2009, there were no fatalities. Also in both cases, pilot skill played a comparatively minor role. It was luck, more than anything, that saved the day: daylight, clear weather, and a smooth, obstruction-free spot for the pilots to aim for.

Your next question, then, is why aren’t engines built with protective screens in front?

Well, in addition to partially blocking the inflow of air, the screen would need to be large (presumably cone-shaped) and very strong. And should it fail, now you’re sucking in a bird and pieces of metal.

August 9, 2019.   Call Me Nostradamus.

“Why does no U.S. carrier fly to Poland?” I asked in a post on June 5th (you can scroll down to see it, or click here). “The largest community of Polish-Americans lives in and around Chicago,” I wrote, Chicago being a major hub for both United and American Airlines. “United and American have invested heavily in the Boeing 787 — a plane with exceptional efficiency and low seat-mile costs that make long, relatively thin routes profitable. Is it only a matter of time, maybe, before one of these airlines finally launches a Warsaw service from ORD?”

The airlines, you see, pay very close attention to my advice and complaints, as evidenced by American’s big announcement on August 8th. Starting next spring, American will offer nonstop service between Chicago-O’Hare and Poland. Flights will operate five days a week using the Boeing 787. It’ll be Krakow, not Warsaw, but either way American becomes the first U.S. major to serve Poland since the early 1990s. They should probably give me a ticket or something.

The announcement included four other routes as well; in addition to Poland, AA will be flying its tragic livery to Budapest, Prague, Tel Aviv, and Casablanca, Morocco.

At the moment, Delta is the only U.S. major serving Africa, with flights to Accra, Dakar, Lagos and Johannesburg (Cape Town, Abuja, Cairo and Monrovia have since been given over to code-share). United is set to launch a Cape Town route in December. That means that once American’s Casablanca service gets going, for the first time ever each of the “big three” will have at least one African route.

Also for the first time, all three airlines will share membership in the vaunted “Six Continent Club,” as I call it. That’s the short list of airlines (maybe a dozen globally) that offer at least one scheduled route to each of the six continents (no grief about Antarctica please).

I predicted TAM’s Boston to Sao Paulo flight, and Korean Air’s Boston to Incheon. What’s next in my crystal ball? Well, methinks it’s only a short matter of time before United gives us a San Francisco-Manila route, as well as one from LAX to Tel Aviv. Another possibility is United going SFO to Guangzhou, China, especially now that China Southern is joining the Star Alliance.

The game-changer here is the 787. The plane’s seat-mile costs are low enough that even a route like Newark-Cape Town, which relies heavily on leisure fares, can potentially be profitable. This leaves Delta at a strategic disadvantage, particularly in Asia. The carrier has no 787s and only a small handful of short-body 777s, leaving it with virtually no aircraft that can efficiently cross the Pacific beyond Korea or Japan. An investment in 787s could change that, allowing the airline to profitably operate longer and thinner routes, with or without a solid alliance partner in the region.


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August 1, 2019.   Easy On the Eyes.

The genericness of modern jetliners is unrelenting. Long vanished are the days when every aircraft had a distinct profile, and types could be differentiated even from miles away: a 707 from a DC-10, a DC-9 from a 727, and so on. Planes today are nothing if not nondescript. Which is what makes the new Airbus A220 so refreshing. It’s a feisty-looking thing, sleek and confident. I dare say it looks a lot like a scaled-down 787, minus the awkward tail. It’s a small jet — the baseline variant has seats for just over a hundred customers — but the oversized engines and sexy cockpit windscreen give it the powerful aesthetic of a widebody. And the extra-large cabin windows actually make the rest of the plane seem bigger, not smaller. The basic platform isn’t anything special; we see the usual two engines, and the requisite pair of winglets, and so on. But it’s got just enough pizazz to stand out.

The A220 was originally known as the “C Series”, designed and manufactured in Canada by Bombardier Aerospace. Initial models would be the CS100 and CS300. In 2018 Airbus took over a majority stake in the operation, rebranding the jet as the A220 (sort of how the McDonnell Douglas MD-95 became the Boeing 717).

In the United States, Delta is currently the only A220 operator, though JetBlue has a considerable number on order.

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Photo credits: Delta Air Lines, and Brad T via

June 26, 2019.   Justice and MH17.

MH17. No, that’s not the name of a deadly gang from Central America. It’s the airplane — Malaysia Airlines flight 17 — that was shot down by an anti-aircraft missile over Ukraine in July, 2014, while en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

The MH17 disaster has always played second fiddle to the disappearance of MH370, which occurred only four months earlier. This is understandable, I suppose. MH370 vanished into the ocean and has never been found, spawning years of searching and speculation. Circumstances surrounding the MH17 shoot-down, on the other hand, were pretty clear from the start: separatist forces fighting in Ukraine mistook the Boeing 777 for a military aircraft, and blew it up.

It’s unfortunate, though, because not only was the MH17 incident deadlier — it killed 298 people, including nearly a hundred children — but from an air safety perspective it was more significant and more worrying. A rogue pilot hijacking his aircraft and flying it into oblivion (if indeed that’s what happened to flight 370) is an outlier event of the most improbable kind. A plane getting shot down over hostile territory, on the other hand, is something that has happened on several occasions, and is liable to happen again.

Last week, after five long years, the Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) brought murder charges against four people — three Russians and a Ukrainian — who they believe were responsible for the MH17 downing. The men are Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky, Oleg Plato, and Leonid Kharchenko. The first three are current or former Russian military intelligence operatives, while Mr. Kharchenko was a battlefield commander for a Russia-supported separatist unit in Ukraine. An aide to Vladimir Putin was implicated but not formally charged.

While it’s doubtful any of these individuals will ever be extradited to stand trial, establishing at least a trail of culpability is important — for posterity, for precedent, and for the sake of the victims.

And you have to feel sorry for Malaysia Airlines. How many times has a carrier suffered the loss of two widebody jetliners in a span of four months? And best we can tell, neither disaster was in any way the fault of the airline itself, be it through operational error, neglect, or anything else. Talk about crappy luck.

With 298 fatalities, MH17 stands as the seventh-deadliest air disaster of all time. Of the eleven deadliest crashes in history, five of them were the result of bombings or shoot-downs:

5. In 1985, Sikh extremists bomb an Air India 747 flying from Toronto to Bombay, killing 329.

7. Russian-backed separatists shoot down Malaysia Airlines flight 17 in July, 2014.

8. In July, 1988, the U.S. Navy cruiser Vincennes shoots down an Iran Air A300 over the Persian Gulf.

10. Four days before Christmas in 1988, Libyan agents blow up Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

11. In 1983, Korean Air Lines flight 007, a 747 flying from New York to Seoul, is downed by a Soviet fighter after straying off course.


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June 17, 2019.   Mountain Madness.

Alpaca at Machu Picchu, 1994.   Author’s photo.

Your first view of Machu Picchu, the mountaintop Inca citadel in south-central Peru, is never forgotten. The scenery is almost comically dramatic — the Andean peaks and valleys as preposterously vertical as a child’s crayon rendering. It is, just maybe, the most staggeringly impressive tourist site on earth.

There are no roads to Machu Picchu. One must fly first to the regional capital of Cuzco, then travel onward by train or embark on a multi-day hike. Its remoteness, and the logistical challenges of getting there, are part of what make it such an exciting and enchanting spot. It takes some planning, and relatively few people bother. Indeed, Machu Picchu is one of a vanishing number of tourist icons that isn’t grossly overcrowded.

But if the Peruvian government has its way, this all will be changing. Ground has broken on a new airport that will permit tourists to fly directly to the ruins. Chinchero International Airport will become the nation’s second busiest, with the capacity to handle up to seven million passengers annually and a runway long enough to accommodate jets from the U.S. and Europe.

Currently about a million people per year visit Machu Picchu. That’s roughly 2,700 per day, which by global tourist standards is a small and manageable volume. The impact of a major nearby airport — the effects to the ruins themselves, and to the surrounding countryside and towns — capable of more than quintupling the number of visitors is almost too depressing to imagine.


What’s happening in Peru, of course, is part of a wider conversation and the great tourism conundrum of our time: how do we encourage people to celebrate and savor a destination without simultaneously ruining it?

How bad can it get? Have you ever been to Amsterdam, Prague, or Barcelona in the summer? In Thailand and the Philippines, entire islands had to be closed off from tourist throngs to save them from destruction. Today, thanks in no small part to cheap jet fuel and budget airfares, one can fly nonstop from major cities across Europe, Asia and the Gulf to places like Phuket, Krabi, Ko Samui and Cebu.

As a pilot and air travel advocate, I’m generally in the business of encouraging and promoting tourism by air. But this begins to feel unconscionable when such activities run counter to the whole point of travel, undermining the very things that make it special.

June 5, 2019.   Dlaczego nie Polska?

The Polish translation of my book was recently published. They sent me a copy, and as I was flipping through the pages, marveling at the Polish language’s impenetrable salad of consonants, something struck me: no American carrier flies to Poland. Nor has any American carrier flown to Poland since Delta in the 1990s, after Delta took over Pan Am’s European network — and I’m pretty sure they did it only from Frankfurt and Berlin, not as a direct flight from the States.


This isn’t a trick question. I don’t know the answer. But it seems odd. Not only are there millions of Polish-Americans, but the largest community of Polish-Americans lives in and around Chicago, a major hub for both American Airlines and United. Polish carrier LOT, meanwhile (one of the oldest airlines in the world, established in 1928), has flown to both O’Hare and JFK for decades. Is it a political thing? Is there simply not enough premium fare traffic to warrant such a route?

United and American have invested heavily in the Boeing 787 — a plane with exceptional efficiency and low seat-mile costs that make long, relatively thin routes profitable. Is it only a matter of time, maybe, before one or both of these airlines finally launches a Warsaw service from ORD? It seems more than overdue.

A LOT Boeing 787 at New York’s JFK Airport.

Related: the Israeli carrier El Al sometimes operates charters from JFK to the Polish city of Katowice. Can anybody explain this? My only guess is that these are remembrance tours of some kind, as the Auschwitz-Birkenau site is nearby to there.

While were at it, what other “missing routes” can you think of? Can you name another city-pair that seemingly should have airline service, but for whatever reasons does not?

Indeed, there are whole regions of the world currently untouched by American carriers. Take the Middle East, for example. With the exception of Israel, no U.S. major serves a single city in the region. As recently as six or seven years ago one could fly United, Delta or American into Egypt, Turkey, Dubai, Qatar, Jordan and Kuwait. All of those destinations have since been canceled and code-shared out.


March 28, 2019.   WOW Air Bites the Dust.

After struggling for months to stay afloat, WOW Air, the seven year-old Iceland-based low-cost upstart, has ceased operations. Earlier attempts to save the airline, including a proposed takeover by Icelandair, fell through, leaving WOW to flounder until finally it ran out of cash. The shutdown has left several thousand passengers stranded at airports across the U.S. and Europe.

The LCC (low-cost carrier) concept is something we’ve grown accustomed to, and includes some of the industry’s most familiar and successful brands — Southwest, Spirit, Ryanair, AirAsia, easyJet, and so on. What most of these companies have in common, however, is that they’ve stuck with small airplanes and short-haul, high-frequency services. What was different about WOW is they tried to grow this model into the longer-haul, transoceanic realm. This is a vastly different operational environment with vastly bigger challenges, and history has not been kind to the LCCs who’ve ventured here. WOW was merely the latest casualty.

Just ask Freddie Laker. The inimitable Sir Freddie, who passed away in 2006, was a high school dropout who showed the same kind of entrepreneurial panache that would later make Richard Branson famous (both received knighthoods). He launched the Laker Airways “SkyTrain” between London and New York in 1977. President Carter, prepping for his deregulation move, gave his blessing after Laker spent six years petitioning. Laker crammed 345 people into its DC-10s and charged $236 per round trip. Flight were packed, but margins were microscopic and the airline was bankrupt by 1982. PeoplExpress and Tower Air were two others that tried and perished in the no-frills, long-haul arena.

Norwegian Air, Scoot, and AirAsia X are three of the daredevils who, at least for now, have been semi-successful in this game. WOW hung on as long as they did in part because fuel prices have been so low. When prices spike — and they will — we wonder who might be next.

“WOW Air.” I always had trouble saying that. Is there not a shred of dignity left in this business? Not to be flip, and granted we feel terrible for the carrier’s employees, but maybe, too, this is fate’s way of getting revenge for airline bosses who insist on giving their companies stupid names. I’d have aimed first for Wizz Air, but this is a good start.

Incidentally, that $236 that Laker was charging in the late ’70s equates to about $988 in today’s dollars. At the time, that was considered so cheap that people stood in line for hours at the airline’s offices for the chance to grab a ticket. Gives you some idea of how cheap flying has become. Prior to its demise, WOW was selling tickets from the U.S. to Europe for as little as $69 each way. That’s $16 in 1977 dollars.

March 13, 2019.   Pilots and the President.

A version of this post is published in the New York Daily News. Click here to view.

From President Donald Trump, in response to the 737 MAX saga, via Twitter on March 12th:

“Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT. I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better. Split second decisions are needed, and the complexity creates danger. All of this for great cost yet very little gain. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot. I want great flying professionals that are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!”

Now, far be it from me to agree with much that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth, or from his fingertips, but there’s an element of truth in this.

There’s no denying that technological advances are a huge part of what has made flying so ridiculously safe. It’s also true, however, that some aircraft systems are over-engineered and more complex than they need to be. Some of the warning systems we have, for instance, with different colors and multiple aural alarms signifying different parameters, and so on, while they might look great on paper to the engineers who concocted them, they can leave a pilot stymied in the heat of battle, trying to ascertain a problem through layers of colors, codes and messages — or as William Langewiesche once described it, “drowning in technology.”

Where Trump goes wrong, however, is in the idea that the modern cockpit is so automated that pilots can’t, if the situation calls for it, fall back on old-fashioned flying skills. This simply isn’t so.

Cockpit automation is among the most widely misunderstood aspects of commercial aviation, and the average person has a very exaggerated sense of what automation actually does, with little understanding of its limitations and how pilots interact with that automation. The President seems to be tweeting from the common, erroneously held belief that airplanes essentially “fly themselves” with the pilots on hand merely as backup.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, computers don’t fly airplanes. Pilots do. Flying remains a lot more hands-on than people think, albeit in a somewhat different way than was the case in, say, the 1930s. We don’t fly with our hands on the control wheel or stick for the entire flight, manipulating every maneuver by hand in the way one steers a car. But, we are still in control, and the automation only does what the crew tells it to do: what to do, when to do it, and how. Pretty much anything an airplane does is input, one way or the other, by the crew. Moreover, takeoffs and landings, the most work-intensive and inherently dangerous portions of any flight, are almost always flown by hand.

For pilots, technological savvy and fundamental airmanship are both still essential, and even on the most sophisticated jetliner, a pilot can always, if necessary, revert to seat-of-the-pants flying.

Further, is the Donald not mixing his messages? In a Twitter dispatch last year he was eager to take credit when 2017 ranked in as the safest year in commercial aviation history. Now he’s suggesting that jets are dangerously complicated and that pilots can’t figure out how to fly them. Aren’t these things a bit mutually exclusive?

Meanwhile if there’s one area of flying where complexity really hinders progress, it’s on what we might call the administrative or procedural side. This realm of aviation is absolutely buried in regulatory gibberish and mind-paralyzing minutiae. Take a look some time at the book of Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), or some of the charts and manuals that we use. The time and brain energy spent on what should be simple tasks can be absurd. My god, at some airports in Europe there are three pages of procedures on how to use the docking system at the gate, or how get a push-back clearance from ATC. It’s fair to say that flying is more difficult for pilots than it used to be. But the most challenging parts of the job are often on the ground, not in the air.

February 26, 2019.   The Guts of a Gust.

The big story this week has been wind. First we had an unusually strong jetstream that was pushing planes across the country, and across the North Atlantic, at record-breaking groundspeeds — as discussed here. Now, powerful low-level winds have been wreaking havoc at airports around both the U.S. and Europe.

The first thing people are asking is whether these two phenomenon are connected. The answer is not necessarily. Hey, it’s winter, and things tend to be colder and windier across the board. Certain patterns and systems do affect both high and low-altitude weather, but with wind there’s usually a pretty clear distinction between the goings on at higher altitudes and those close to the ground. Abnormally strong winds at 35,000 feet do not not, by themselves, foretell abnormally strong winds at 350 feet.

The other thing people want to know is how dangerous windy conditions can be when taking off or landing. Yesterday at airports in the northeastern U.S., gusts were topping 60 knots, causing widespread delays and cancellations. And maybe you caught the video of the British Airways A320 flailing overhead as it attempted a landing in Gibraltar before diverting to Malaga, Spain.

Most of the logistical snarls we’re seeing are due to runway alignment. Aircraft take off and land into the wind. There’s some flexibility here — crosswinds and even tailwinds are tolerable to some extent — but if the wind is blowing hard enough, certain runways become unusable. This can vastly restrict the number of arrivals and departures an airport can accommodate. That’s mostly what we’ve been dealing with. If your flight is delayed or canceled, it’s not because conditions are dangerous. It’s because of congestion.

When the wind comes at you from the side, that’s a crosswind. All planes are certified to a maximum crosswind component, and these tend to be quite high. The 767 that I fly has a max allowable crosswind component of 40 knots.* With respect to headwinds, meanwhile, it’s the more the merrier, from a pilot’s perspective. A strong headwind keeps your groundspeed low and allows you to use less runway. Rarely, though, is the wind perfectly stable or consistent from a particular direction. As anybody can feel when outside on a blustery day, it can shift around and intensify unpredictably. Seldom is this a problem; planes are surprisingly stable even in very rough air, and on landing we calculate buffer speeds to account for gusts and small shears. But, every so often, things become so gusty, and so unpredictable, that yeah, conditions can be unsafe. Powerful low-level gusts can bring on windshear or severe turbulence. On landing this can make it difficult to maintain what a pilot calls a “stabilized approach.” There’s no fixed number, in terms of miles-per-hour, when this might happen — but if an approach becomes unstable or windshear is an issue, you’re liable to find yourself diverting to another airport.

As for that British Airways video from Gibraltar, winds that afternoon were reportedly no more than about 20-30 miles-per-hour, which is fairly tame, with no significant crosswind. So why was the plane rocking back-and-forth like that? Most likely it had something to do with the famous, 1,400-foot “rock” that rises nearby. So-called “mountain waves” can form when cold, dense air spills from a peak, alternately sinking and rising again, creating significant turbulence. There’s also an unusual phenomenon called “Von Kármán vortex shedding,” whereby a mountain can spin off alternating, upward/downward whirlpools of air — vortices that may have caught the Airbus as it flew past.

* That’s right, you can land a 767 with a direct crosswind of up to 40 knots. I’ve seen this in the simulator several times, but in the real world it’s something I’ve experienced only once, about eight years ago in Madrid. I can’t remember the runway, but the wind was almost exactly 90 degrees from our left, at 35 knots. It was the captain’s landing, and he nailed it. Luckily the wind was very steady, with only a slight gust factor. Had it been more blustery, we’d probably have needed a different runway.


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February 20, 2019.   Olde Tyme Colours.

Photo courtesy of Mark Szemberski.

If you’re like me, and the palette of modern-day airline liveries brings you to the point of nausea, here’s some relief. Take three deep breaths and feast your eyes on this British Airways 747. As part of its one-hundreth birthday celebration, BA has repainted one its Boeing 747-400s in vintage BOAC colors. This one rivals Lufthansa’s similar 747 as the best of the many retro schemes out there. It’s gorgeous.

Notice the way the fuselage stripe, or “cheatline,” expands as it curves below the nose. I don’t know if there’s a name for this particular flourish, but I’ve always loved it and wish more carriers used it. TAP’s (Air Portugal) 1970s-era livery had a nose like that, in red, that was exceptionally pretty.

This specific plane, registered G-BYGC, will keep the BOAC uniform until its scheduled retirement in 2023. BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) was formed in 1939. In 1974 it merged with British European Airways (BEA) to form today’s British Airways. The delta-winged symbol on the tail, which dates back to Imperial Airways, one of BOAC’s forerunners, is nicknamed the “Speedbird.” This is where BA’s radio call sign comes from.

Speaking of long-lost abbreviations, if you’re thinking you’ve heard the name BOAC but can’t remember where, try singing it. It’s immortalized in the Beatles song, “Back in the USSR.”

Photo courtesy of Misael Hernandez.

A BOAC 747-100, circa 1972.

Of all the novelty paint jobs crowding the taxiways, these retro schemes are probably the most welcome, if at times a little depressing. Not all of them are attractive, but the better ones remind us how good airline liveries used to be, in painful contrast to today’s overwrought, swoosh-obsessed designs.


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January 30, 2019.   Cold Facts.

Record-breaking subzero temperatures are wreaking havoc in the midwestern United States this week. Already more than two thousand flights have been canceled and thousands more delayed, as airports from Chicago to Atlanta grapple with a once-in-a-generation cold snap expected to push temperatures as low as 20 degrees below zero.

How, exactly, are airplanes affected?

In fact airplanes love cold weather. Cold air is denser than warm air, which, at a given altitude, allows the engines to produce more power and the wings to produce more lift. And at a typical cruising altitude, temperatures are somewhere around 40 degrees below zero, so obviously a jetliner can handle temps like we’re seeing at O’Hare or Midway.

Planes do have limitations that prohibit operation when temperatures on the ground fall below a certain point. The complications involve cold-soaked oil and such. At higher altitudes, fuel temperatures are a factor. But that’s not really the issue here. The problems airlines are facing this week aren’t about a plane’s ability to fly. They’re about the weather’s impact on the support infrastructure. That is, the effects on airport personnel and the ground support equipment — the various people, vehicles and machinery that go into supporting an airline’s operation. You can’t load and unload the luggage, fuel the tanks or cater the cabins if the baggage carts and belt-loaders aren’t working, the trucks aren’t starting, and employees are so cold they can hardly move. It’s about people more than planes.

For additional info about winter operations generally, including the hazards posed by snow and ice, see this post.

The culprit behind this unusual weather is something called a “polar vortex.” Actually it’s global warming, but more immediately it’s the polar vortex, which you can Google for an explanation. This is a term that we began hearing circa 2014. The phenomenon isn’t new, but the language is. Funny how everything has a name now. Polar vortex, bomb cyclone. Even the snowstorms, both the big and small ones, have names. It’s not just for hurricanes anymore.

I think I liked it better the old way. The names only add to the hype.


January 5, 2019.   R.I.P. Herb Kelleher.

Herb Kelleher, the visionary cofounder of Southwest Airlines, passed away on January 3rd. He was 87.

A Texan who attended New York University Law School, Mr. Kelleher teamed up with a client named Rollin King, who had the idea of staring an intra-state airline based out of Love Field in Dallas. Their company, first incorporated as Air Southwest, began operations in June, 1971, with flights from Love field to Houston and San Antonio. The rest, as they say, is history.

As a leader, Kelleher was brash, outspoken, funny and eccentric. This was a man who chain smoked, rode a Harley, and once arm-wrestled a rival to settle a trademark dispute. Together with the likes of Freddie Laker, Richard Branson, and even the ornery Michael O’Leary of Ryanair, he was among the colorful group of what we might call “celebrity” airline CEOs.

But more than that, he was smart. Nobody — nobody — saw more clearly, and would more successfully exploit, the opportunities put forth by Jimmy Carter’s Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. It was Kelleher who essentially invented what we call the “low cost carrier,” and no individual is more responsible for the democratization of air travel.

Consider: In 1980, Southwest Airlines had 22 airplanes and a route network almost entirely within Texas. Today, the airline operates more than seven hundred Boeing 737s, and carries more passengers than any other airline in the world. No offense to Juan Trippe, or to the Wright Brothers themselves for that matter, but that’s a legacy.

So, to borrow a line from my book: Let’s all have a drink — something domestic, cheap, and served in aluminum — to the genius of Herb Kelleher and the unpretentious, get-what-you-pay-for glory of Southwest Airlines.

Southwest’s heart logo, and its “LUV” stock ticker, harken to the carrier’s origins at Love Field, in Dallas.

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January 14, 2019.   Shutdown Follies.

As the partial shutdown of the U.S. government continues into week number four, its effects on air travel are becoming more widely felt. Sick calls among unpaid TSA security screeners have skyrocketed; up to 10,000 air traffic controllers haven’t been paid; FAA inspectors have been off the job. Is the system still safe? Should flyers worry? Let’s take a brief look at each of these…

1. FAA inspectors. There’s been a push to get most inspectors back to work. In any event, a large percentage of what these specialists handle can be best described as bureaucratic oversight. It’s important work, but it’s not the hands-on, day-to-day stuff. The people directly responsible for flight safety are pilots, mechanics and other on-site airline staff. They are not affected by the shutdown, and they by and large do an outstanding job. Despite what a lot of people think, airlines face enormous liability should any sort of malpractice or negligence cause an accident. They are not, I assure you, using this as an opportunity to let things slide.

2. Air Traffic Controllers. They’ll get their back pay. In the meantime, while their morale has certainly taken a hit, and the effects of stress are impossible to quantify, I expect that any ATC professional, no matter how disgruntled, will continue working to the best of his or her ability. Controllers are very good at what they do, and they know what the stakes are. I don’t see this changing. For as long as they’re on the job, they’ve earned your trust.

3. TSA screeners. Okay, this is the one that travelers are going to see and feel. More than 51,000 TSA employees have been working without pay since late December, and sick calls are up 55 percent. Fewer screeners means longer wait times — sometimes much longer. Miami International Airport has been forced to shut down one of its terminals for several hours each day. If the sick-out worsens, other airports might be forced to do the same. At the outset, I was hoping that the agency’s response would be to temporarily relax some of its more tedious and heavy-handed concourse policies. How about selecting certain passengers for expedited screening — or allowing them to bypass it altogether? But, no real surprise, this didn’t happen. All of the rules, no matter how senseless or redundant or unnecessary, remain in place. Except now the lines are longer. Is security being affected? Not really. Is flying more annoying and tedious? Of course. And hasn’t that been the story with TSA from the start?

So, at least in the short term, while the government’s problems mean delays and greater frustration, this isn’t yet a measurable safety issue. But let’s revisit this should things drag on.

December 14, 2018.   Winglets, Why?

“Winglets,” as they’re affectionately known, are the upturned fins commonly seen at the ends of an airplane’s wings. They improve aerodynamic efficiency (fuel burn, range, climb performance, etc.) by smoothing the airflow around the wing’s tip. For a more detailed explanation, including the reasons why some planes have them and some don’t, see chapter one in my book.

What I don’t understand about winglets is why, when you’re buying a ticket or scoping out itineraries online, the various airline sites and search engines insist on telling you when an airplane happens to have them. Have you noticed this? You’re on Kayak or Travelocity hunting for fares, and it shows you the following…

Notice the “Boeing 737-800 (winglets).” You’re thinking, Who cares? And that’s my point. Whether a jet has winglets has absolutely no bearing on schedule, price, flying time, comfort, or anything else a passenger could possibly be concerned about in a million years. Of all the information that could come up, why this?

And it seems only to apply to those model aircraft for which winglets are optional components, or retrofits, rather than standard, from-the-factory appendages. All Airbus A330s have winglets; as do all 747-400s, A340s and A350s, among others. When these planes come up, there’s no mention of winglets. If it’s an old 757 or 767, however, some of which are winglet equipped while others aren’t, there it is…

This all started, if I remember right, back when winglets became a retrofit option for the Boeing 737. Suddenly the “(winglets)” suffix began popping up in online searches. There was a certain novelty aspect to winglets in those days — albeit one, even then, that would primarily be of interest only to airplane geeks. For consumers it made no meaningful difference, but there it was, and it has since become a permanent, completely superfluous part of the aircraft description. Do flyers care what kind of aircraft they’re flying on? Absolutely. It can make a significant difference in terms of amenities and comfort. Do they give a damn if the plane has winglets? Not any more than they’d care what brand of hydraulic fluid the jet uses, or how many rivets are in the flap fairings.

The aesthetics of winglets, meanwhile, is something we can argue separately. They add grace to some planes, and look awkward on others. I am especially un-fond of the curved, cattle horn, top-and-bottom style winglets on the latest 737 variants. The tall, skinny winglets on the Airbus A320neo series are more attractive, but have been given the annoying marketing term “sharklets.” Annoying because it makes no sense. The term “winglet” is a diminutive. It means a small or baby wing. Thus, a “sharklet” is… a baby shark. All planes have wings, but none that I know of have sharks.

Except this one…


October 12, 2018.   Maximum Flight.

This week, Singapore Airlines launched the world’s longest-ever nonstop flight. Flights SQ21 and SQ22 now operate in both directions between Singapore’s beautiful Changi Airport and Newark, New Jersey’s less-than-beautiful Liberty International. Actual flying times will vary, sometimes considerably, but published times are 18 hours and 45 minutes for the westbound leg, and 17 hours and 50 minutes for the eastbound leg.

I say “eastbound” and “westbound,” but really this is more of a north-to-south route, up over the top of the world and down the other side, covering a whopping 8,285 nautical miles, as the crow flies. Or, in this case, an Airbus A350 ULR (ultra long range). The specially configured jetliner has 67 lie-flat business class suites, and 94 premium economy seats. That’s a total of only 161 passengers, on an aircraft typically configured for three-hundred or more. No regular economy class on this one. Indeed, the challenges of long-haul flying are no longer technological so much as human. We’re basically at the limits of what people can physically endure. A nine-abreast row with 32-inch pitch simply isn’t tolerable for nineteen hours.

Back to the future: it’s barely been mentioned, but this isn’t the first time Singapore Airlines has flown nonstop between EWR and SIN. The same flights SQ21 and SQ22 operated from 2004 until 2013, using an Airbus A340-500 in an all-business class layout. The state-of-the-art, twin-engined A350 promises better economy than the older, four-engined A340, which failed to turn profit on the route.

History’s most award-winning carrier, Singapore Airlines was the Skytrax winner of “World’s Best Airline” for 2018. It was formed in the early 1970s when Malaysia-Singapore Airlines split into two carriers: today’s Singapore Airlines (SQ) and the star-crossed Malaysia Airlines (MH).

Both SQ and MH flight attendants continue to wear the sarong kebaya, arguably the best-looking flight attendant uniform in the world, designed by Pierre Balmain in 1972. Google it.


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September 26, 2018.   Local Long Haul.

Hawaiian Airlines plans to begin nonstop flights between Boston and Honolulu. The route will launch on April 4 and run five times weekly, using the Airbus A330. At 4,427 nautical miles, this will be longest scheduled domestic flight in U.S. history.

Hawaiian is scheduling the westbound leg at 11 hours and 40 minutes, and the eastbound leg at 10 hours and 15 minutes — though actual flying times will likely be less than that. The carrier’s A330 is configured with 278 seats, including 18 lie-flat seats in business class.

It’s tough to make money on a long-haul route that caters primarily to leisure flyers, but Hawaiian has done fairly well on its almost-as-long JFK-Honolulu service, which began in 2012. The carrier partners with JetBlue, which has major hubs both at BOS and JFK, providing feed from many nearby markets.

This is yet another accolade for my hometown airport, Boston’s Logan International. In the past I’ve highlighted the massive amount of international expansion at Logan over the past few years. This is a slightly different wrinkle, but still very cool.

I’m not sure where Cape Air’s flight from Logan to Hyannis sits on a list of the country’s shortest routes, but Boston has just about bookended the longest and shortest domestic nonstops.

The longest route overall out of Boston is Cathay Pacific’s nightly flight to Hong Kong, clocking in at 6,926 nautical miles.

Hawaiian Airlines business class on the A330.


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September 12, 2018.   Pilot Snooze.

So maybe you saw the story: a passenger on board a United Airlines flight from Newark to Glasgow was alarmed to discover the plane’s captain taking a nap in one of the 757’s business class seats. He snapped a picture and, as these things go nowadays, touched off a scandal.

Or thought he did. The pilot, it turns out, hadn’t done anything wrong.

As described in chapter four of my book, all long-haul flights carry augmented cockpit crews that work in shifts. They aren’t napping because they’re lazy. They’re napping because, by regulation, they have to.

The specs on how this works vary a bit, country to country and airline to airline (a carrier’s in-house union rules are sometimes more restrictive than the government rules). At my airline, flights scheduled to be over eight hours long, but fewer than twelve, carry three pilots: one captain and two first officers. We rotate; all pilots are in the cockpit during takeoff and landing, but each spends roughly a third of the en route portion on break. On flights greater than twelve hours we bring four pilots: two captains and two first officers, and we work in pairs. Either way, there are always at least two pilots in the cockpit at any point.

Pilots on break retire either to a bunk room — squirreled away somewhere on, above, or below the main passenger deck — or to a designated first or business class seat, usually cordoned off with a curtain.

Flight attendants, too, take required breaks and have their own separate bunk rooms (or seats) for resting.


And if you’ll allow me to digress a minute…

If I’m not tired enough to sleep, I’ll often spend my break eating dinner and watching TV or a movie. I seldom watch television at home — I don’t even have cable — and it’s through my job, oddly enough, that I came to love and binge-watch some of my favorite series: “Boardwalk Empire,” “Breaking Bad,” “Flight of the Conchords,” “Mr. Robot,” and so on. I would never have discovered these shows if not for my long-haul rest breaks.

Indeed, it was on one of those breaks that I watched what, to this day, is the most brilliantly hilarious thing I’ve ever seen on TV. I’m talking about the four-minute, Russian Tea Room scene starring Louis C.K. and F. Murray Abraham in the “Dad” episode of the show “Louie.” You can view it here.

That sequence is so consistently and intricately funny that it’s hard to pinpoint the best part. I’m especially fond of the moment when Louie, flustered and helpless, says, “That’s… that’s a question?”


September 5, 2018.   Getting the Point.

All these long years after September 11, 2001, and we still haven’t figured out airport security. And it’s not just TSA. In plenty of places around the world we encounter policies and procedures that fail to make sense. Case in point, if you’ll pardon the pun:

It’s the other day and I’m going through security in Bogota, Colombia. The screener stops the belt and calls to me, “Is this your bag?” What she’s spotted, buried in my amenities case, is a pair of kiddie scissors. They’re an inch-and-a-half long, with rounded tips. I carry them everywhere. Or I used to, at any rate, because now they are in a “dangerous items” bin at El Dorado airport.

I try and fail to reason with the screening supervisor. That I’m an airline pilot is of no consequence. Neither is the fact that dozens, even hundreds of metal knives will be handed out to customers on the very plane that I’m about to board. Nor is the obvious reality that even a blindfolded, one-armed passenger could improvise a potentially deadly weapon from any of a hundred things found in the typical cabin.

I spare him any deeper contemplations. Such as the fact that the successes of the September 11th hijackers had nothing to do with weapons, or even with airport security. What hardware the men used was irrelevant. It wasn’t about that. It was about the element of surprise — exploiting our understanding of what a hijacking was, and we’d expect one to unfold. They didn’t need boxcutters. Sharpened sticks would have done the job nicely. No, none of that is worth getting into.

And so the line is held up for a good four minutes, so that a tiny pair of scissors can be confiscated from an airline pilot. How many people, I wonder, in how many lines, go through this every day? How much cumulative wasted time is that? And don’t such measures actually undermine safety rather than enhance it?

Of course they do. And no sane person could argue otherwise. And this is part of the reason I have such little faith in humanity getting itself out of the various messes that its in. And stakes-wise, airport security is nothing compared to, say, climate change or nuclear proliferation. We can’t help ourselves. I’m all but certain that if I sat down with that supervisor over a cold cerveza, he’d agree with me about the senselessness of what was done. As individuals, people tend to be rational and sensible. Collectively, however, the decisions we make, and the policies we enact, are totally bananas. This does not bode well. Our big brains won’t save us. Bees in a hive, birds in a flock, fish in a school… as individuals they aren’t much, but together they work instinctively to protect themselves. People, it seems, work instinctively to screw themselves.


August 21, 2018.   Summer of Our Discontent.

It’s a rainy afternoon at La Guardia. It’s chaos in here: endless queues, screaming babies, people camped on the floor. Public address announcements blare constantly, one on top of the other in a great squall of noise. The departure boards flash red…


It’s time to call Uber. Fortunately I’ve found three other riders to split the fare with, but that’s little consolation. Two-hundred miles and four-hundred dollars to Boston. By the time I’m home, a trip that takes 36 air minutes will have taken an entire day. This is what it comes down to. Again.

And the reason for all of this? A terror attack? A bomb threat? A blizzard? A hurricane? Hardly. The culprit is nothing more than some rain and a line of thunderstorms.

Sadly, for air travel in the northeastern United States — and other regions too — this is the new normal. We’ve pumped so many airplanes into the sky that the slightest wrinkle in the weather causes the entire system to come crashing down. It’s been this way for a while, but this summer, impacted by a weeks-long spell of storms, has been particularly bad.

Author’s photo.

And when you look across the tarmac in places like New York, Newark, Boston and elsewhere, what do you see? Regional jet after regional jet after regional jet. Peculiar, isn’t it, that although more Americans are flying than ever before, they’re doing so in smaller and smaller planes, making more and more departures. With our airspace and airports stressed to (or beyond) the breaking point, this simply isn’t sustainable.

As my Uber inches its way through Queens, I get to thinking. I’m nostalgic for the day when Eastern flew 260-seat Airbus A300s on the Shuttle, and the lineup at LGA included DC-10s, L-1011s and 767s. And so I say to the airlines of our great nation: instead of running sixteen flights a day between, say, Boston and New York, using regional jets, all of which will be canceled or delayed on all but the sunniest days, how about, I don’t know, eight or nine instead, using widebody planes? Consolidate flights, improve your reliability, and stop driving customers to the highways or to Amtrak. Just a thought.



August 16, 2018.   Alcohol Aloft.

Have you been following the story about the woman who was jailed for having a glass of wine on an Emirates flight? After arriving in Dubai from London, 44 year-old Ellie Holman admitted to an immigration officer that she’d consumed a complimentary glass of wine during her flight, at which point the officer reminded her that alcohol possession is illegal in the United Arab Emirates. She was arrested and spent three nights in the clink before being released on bail.

Well, that’s the water-cooler version. What really happened is more complicated. The woman tried entering the UAE using an expired Swedish passport, then an Iranian passport. Reportedly she became irate when informed that her stay, per Iranian visa rules, could not exceed 96 hours. She was arrested after pulling out a mobile phone and attempting to film the immigration officer. A UAE government statement says Holman was charged not with alcohol possession, but with using profanity and photographing an official in a restricted area. The charges have since been dropped, however, and the UAE apologized to Holman on behalf of the immigration officer.

The best and most thorough explanation of the affair that I’ve seen is in, of all places, People magazine.* Few other sources, though, have bothered to elaborate. “Woman jailed for drinking on flight” is one of those scandalous little teasers that Americans love to play up and share, regardless of the details.

If people were really be arrested for drinking on flights to Dubai, the airplanes would be empty. Believe me, there’s more liquor on an Emirates 777 or A380 than you’ll find in a distillery. The A380s have an onboard bar, for heck’s sake. Make that two bars: a serve-yourself bulkhead bar at the front of first class, and a lounge in the lobby behind business class, staffed by a bartender. Departing from Dubai, champagne is served prior to pushback — on most carriers, not just Emirates — and the airport’s premium class lounges are home to several bars.


* I need to go easy on People. They once had a picture of me in one of their issues.


August 6, 2018.   Formosan Swoosh.

Maybe you’ve read in the news how the Chinese government has been bullying airlines into not using the name “Taiwan.” Beijing does not recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, and it wants the world’s carriers to follow suit. Most, including the big three U.S. majors, have acquiesced, scrubbing the name from their timetables, route maps, and so on. You can still book flights to the city of Taipei, but as to what country that’s in, well, it depends who you ask.

The whole thing is silly and boring, so let’s not talk about it. Let’s talk instead about the revised color scheme unveiled by EVA Air. Founded in 1989 by the Evergreen shipping group, EVA Air has grown to become Taiwan’s (sorry!) second-largest carrier, serving over sixty destinations in Asia, Europe, and North America. And they’ve got a new look.

What makes this one especially disappointing is that they ruined one of the few good liveries that was still out there. I loved the solid-color bottom and the traditional, good-old horizontal accent stripe. But no, they couldn’t leave well enough alone. What was missing, of course, was a swooshy thing. Heaven forbid there be an airline without a swooshy thing — a curve, a twist, a swirl — somewhere in its branding. And so this has become this…

That being said, the curves here aren’t the problem. It’s the color change that wrecks it. Had they stayed with the original green — or any green; just not two of them — bending along the fuselage and tapering into the tail, they’d have a winner, an A-plus. Instead, that dark, swampy bottom is like a puddle of muddy water that weighs the entire design down. It’s viscerally depressing to look at.

EVA’s planes were a refreshing, somewhat old-fashioned break from the eye-deadening palette of swoosh that is the tarmac in 2018. They were bold, distinctive, and unpretentious. Now they’re just part of the crowd. I haven’t been this disappointed since KLM added that infernally annoying dippy-do to its livery a few years ago.

July 20, 2018.   Hummingbirds and Falcons.

Just when you thought the airline livery do-over trend had hit rock bottom, I bring you the latest look for Kuwait Airways. The best way of savoring this disaster is with a quick, 1-2-3 before and after.

In the beginning we had this. Handsome and dignified, with the window stripe and silver bottom:

Then, in the 1990s, we got a cheapened, watered-down version of the above. This is what happens when you tinker with something that isn’t broken:

Still, they hadn’t yet jumped the shark. Behold the Kuwait Airways of the 21st century:

See, there are worse things in the world than kale smoothies and Donald Trump.

That creature tumbling down from the tail is the latest rendition of the carrier’s stylized bird logo, which dates to 1958. It was designed by the company’s CEO at the time, Harry Pusey. Pusey had been inspired by a bird he’d seen preparing to leap from a tree branch outside a cafe in Beirut. One of the prettiest marks in aviation, in its proper form it looks like this:

They’ve jammed the poor thing’s nose in the air, and, well there’s no denying it… it looks like a hummingbird. And I don’t know about you, but when I think of Kuwait I think of hummingbirds. Notice too the dreadful texturing, the strange pixillations, and the childishly angled engine cowls. And that typeface, which we’ll call “psycho serif.” No other word will suffice for this livery: disaster. It’s one of the worst that exists.


All right, let’s stay along the Persian Gulf but move to something slightly less ruinous…


Gulf Air, the national carrier of Bahrain, also has a new livery. Created by the Saffron Brand Consultants group, it’s definitely an improvement, if on the bland side. Here’s another before and after, the bottom two photos showing the new one:

I love the gold engines, and I was about to say that I love the typeface — until I took a closer look and realized that, for absolutely no good reason, it’s done in a textured two-tone.

Up on the tail, the airline’s long-time emblem, the “Golden Falcon” is rendered here too abstractly. Feathery and complicated, it’s exactly what an airline logo is not supposed to be. And the gold-on-gold motif sort of puts one to sleep. Not that the prior tail was any better, but it seems like they missed an opportunity here to come up with something special. With a proper tail they’d be getting an A grade. Instead they’re getting a C-minus. Because tails are important. A carrier’s entire identity, in a lot of ways, revolves around the tail.

To Saffron’s credit, the rest of the branding, which you can view here, is outstanding. The seats, the pillows, even the inflight magazine, are exceptionally sleek and stylish.

Gulf Air is the oldest commercial carrier in the Middle East, with a route network that once reached New York, but has been eclipsed by the rise of the big three: Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways. Their revamped look is part of a “reawakening,” as Saffron pitches it, to help the airline better establish itself among the region’s heavy hitters.


Photo credits:; Airplane;; JaffaPix; Chris Evans; Mark Kwiatkowsky


June 30, 2018.   Getting the Boot.

Photo by Shaquille Khan and


So, Alitalia has its back against the wall. Which is a funny thing to type, because Alitalia always has its back against the wall. The carrier has been in a state of dire financial distress, it seems, pretty much perpetually for the past forty years. This time, though, it’s serious, because breathing down the bankrupt carrier’s neck is a Qatar Airways-funded project that has launched both short and long-haul flying from a base in Milan.

The carrier, dubbed Air Italy, isn’t exactly new. It’s a reinvention of Meridiana, which has been around since 1964 and was already the country’s second-biggest airline. Now, with the support of Qatar Airways, they have not only a new identity, but are undergoing a substantial expansion, taking on up to fifty new aircraft. Earlier this month, Air Italy began Milan-JFK and Milan-Miami flights using Airbus A330s.

There are those who feel the Italian government will never let its beloved flag carrier bite the dust. That’s been the case in the past, but the industry has undergone drastic changes, and it feels different this time. There’s little justification in propping up a bloated, inefficient entity whose long-term survival creates more problems than it solves; just the same, I hope Alitalia makes it. I hate seeing old-guard European carriers fail. We’ve already lost Swissair, Sabena, and Malev, among others. Alitalia has been around since the 1940s and is a globally recognized brand.

And that name: “Alitalia.” A portmanteau of the words ali (wings), and Italia (Italy), it’s such a beautiful word. Losing it to such a crass-sounding replacement would be more salt in the wound. “Air Italy” has all the poetry of a lavatory service truck.

To say nothing of the livery issue. Alitalia’s tail, in the red, white and green of the nation’s flag, is one of aviation’s enduring classics. Its typeface, too, is one of the prettiest in the industry. The Air Italy paintjob is a mishmash of shapes and colors that say anything except Italy. As one of my readers aptly describes it: “It looks like a design for a wrapper on a bar of soap you’d find in a two-star hotel.”

Now that’s Italian.    From the author’s postcard collection.

May 20, 2018.   Crash in Havana.

Just a few quick notes on the disaster in Havana. On Friday, a Cubana 737 crashed seconds after taking off from Jose Marti International Airport killing over a hundred passengers and crew.

First and foremost, as these things go, speculating on a cause is a bad idea. It’s simply too early, and there’s little to go on, evidence-wise. This one could be almost anything.

Much is being made of the fact that plane was a comparatively ancient Boeing 737-200. With few scattered exceptions, this is model long ago retired from the world’s passenger-carrying fleets. The media can’t get away from this talking point, which, while it may turn out to be relevant, makes me a little uneasy (articles I’ve read have included the words “aging,” “ancient,” and “decrepit,” among other colorful terms). Planes are built to last more or less indefinitely, and rarely does age, in and of itself, have much of a bearing on safety. The intensity and frequency of inspections will increase, of course, but so long as a jet is maintained properly, it can remain in service for decades.

That said, this particular 737 was almost forty years old, which is unusually elderly for a commercial jet, and was owned by a small Mexican outfit flying on Cubana’s behalf. Was it appropriately maintained? Was the crew appropriately trained? There’s a lot in play here, and, well, who knows.

Established in 1929, Cubana de Aviacion is one of the oldest airlines in the world. In 1932 the carrier became a subsidiary of Pan Am, and was one of the founding members of both IATA and ICAO. For decades Cubana relied mostly on Soviet-built aircraft, but has since integrated various Boeing and Airbus models into its fleet, mostly via third-party leases.


April 14, 2018.   Names and Places.

Here are four pictures. The first two, showing a pair of KLM 777s, I took in Amsterdam. The second two show the real things.

I dig it when airlines name their jets, and here we see some of the “crossover” that so endears me to aviation. It’s not just about planes and the act of flying. The beauty of aviation is ultimately about culture, geography and travel.

Iguazu Falls straddles the border between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. The photo above was taken from the Argentinean side. I’d already been to Victoria Falls and Angel Falls, and I was expecting to be underwhelmed by Iguazu. As I hope the picture reveals, this was the wrong thing to expect. Perfect weather and light crowds may have heightened the impact, but I was blown away. What you see here is the main section of the falls. There are smaller sections scattered through the forest, and you can tour the site at your own pace along a set of wooden causeways. If you’re ever in Buenos Aires, I’d strongly recommend adding a couple of days to your itinerary and flying up to Iguazu. In BA, flights depart from Aeroparque, the domestic airport just a few minutes from downtown.

The bottom photo was taken in 1994. Machu Picchu is impressive enough that it’s one of the few places I’ve visited twice — the second time in 2003. Just be sure to arrive at the ruins as early as possible, and/or stay there until closing time. The midday crowds can be a little overwhelming.

I’ve always wanted to open a Peruvian-Italian restaurant that I could name “Macchu Pizza.”


April 1, 2018.   “Cleared to Land,” “Floor Area,” and Other Public Address Nonsense.

The bombardment of public address announcements on planes is one of air travel’s most vexing discomforts, but it can sometimes be funny. Funny through the sheer madness of it. The ways in which airline workers can bend, twist, and otherwise convolute the English language is nothing if not astonishing. For reasons unknown, it is impossible for a crew member to simply say, for instance: “I am driving my car to work.” Instead, he or she must say, “At this time, I am operating my vehicle to my location of employment.” This stylistic overkill is designed, I think, to get your attention, and to make a particular statement sound extra-important. All it actually does, though, is burden your synapses by forcing them to deal with far more words than they need to. The phrasing is often so strained and heavy-handed that you can almost hear the sentences crying out in pain. Flying is tedious and stressful enough. Just get on with it already.

Some of the most humorous examples are found in my Air Travel Glossary but I keep discovering and adding new ones. The latest addition is “floor area.” You’ll hear this from the flight attendants as part of the after-landing spiel. “Please check the floor area for your personal belongings before deplaning.” Also known as the floor. Who talks like this? When you’re at home, do you say, “I need to vacuum the floor area”? Or, “Look at that, Brendan, you’ve spilled cereal all over the floor area!”

Pilots also make peculiar use of “area” during their before-landing announcement. “Folks, we’ve begun our descent into the Chicago area….” Well, yeah, I guess, but we’re not landing in “the Chicago area,” we’re landing in Chicago. What’s wrong with, “We’ve begun our descent into Chicago.” Or better still, “We’ve begun our descent.” I’m pretty sure everyone on the plane knows where it’s going.

And so on.

In the meantime, can the cabin crew please — please — knock it off with the “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve been cleared to land…” announcement that is made during descent. I don’t know when or how this habit got started, but it’s become routine. Some airlines actually train their flight attendants to say it. The problem is, it’s not true. Actual landing clearance normally occurs within one or two minutes of touchdown — often less — and this information is not relayed to the flight attendants. They have no idea when the plane is cleared to land. The second set of chimes that you hear during descent has nothing to do with landing clearance. It’s a generic signal that means little more than, “We’ll be landing shortly.”

This is maybe something only a pilot (who is also a pedantic crank) might get upset about. Because, really, who cares and what difference does it make? But I can’t help myself.


March 24, 2018.   787 Weekend.

Two significant kickoffs this weekend.

First, Qantas has launched its milestone London-Perth service. Qantas captain Lisa Norman was at the controls of flight QF9, which departed Perth for Heathrow on Saturday. The 17-hour flight is the first-ever scheduled nonstop between Europe and Australia. The jet that makes this marathon flight possible is the ultra long-range Boeing 787-9, which Qantas will operate in a 236-seat, three-class (business, premium economy, and economy) configuration. That’s not a lot of capacity, but the remarkable efficiency of the 787 can make such a long flight profitable. The airline reports heavy demand. Business class is nearly sold out through April.

At 7,829 nautical miles, London-Perth is currently the world’s second longest flight. Still out there, for now, is the so-called “grail route” that would connect London with Sydney. That one pushes the performance envelope of any existing jetliner, but don’t be surprised if Qantas or British Airways closes the gap soon.

And on Sunday, at the Boeing plant in South Carolina, Singapore Airlines is scheduled to take delivery of the first 787-10, the latest, largest, and possibly the best looking variant of the 787 family. The carrier has 49 787-10s on order, and will configure the plane with 337 seats in three classes. Regular passenger service will commence in May on the Singapore-Osaka route after a month or so of tests and proving flights. Flights to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur will follow.

The 787 has been the fastest-selling widebody jet in history, and is on track to become the most successful overall (though the 777 could challenge that if its newer generation models sell as well as they’re predicted to). The baseline 787-8 is a smallish widebody with seating for about 220 passengers — a replacement for 767-sized planes. Chief competitors for the larger -9 and -10 variants are the Airbus A350, which has met with so-so success thus far, and the upcoming A330neo, which has sold poorly thus far.


February 2, 2018.   Lufthansa Blues

The devolution of airline liveries continues unabated. And it’s especially depressing when a stalwart like Lufthansa joins in. Here you see the carrier’s new look, unveiled this week.

The template, i.e. the diagonal tail band, isn’t the trouble. What sinks this one is the lack of color. Yellow, specifically. Lufthansa without yellow is like sky without blue. Yellow — some would call it gold — has been part of the Lufthansa livery for the better part of a hundred years, and they’ve bleached it away. The result is both anemic and disrespectful to the company’s proud history.

Not everyone will agree, and you’ll be hearing words like bold, handsome, crisp. What the carrier should have done, instead, is brought back its ’70s-era paint job, fuselage stripe and all (see photo below). That would’ve been bold.

Though at least the crane is still up there, and there are no meaningless curves or swishy things. It’s a disappointing look, and it could have been a lot worse. What a sad combination that is.

Lufthansa in classic blue and gold.   (Photo by Udo Haafke.)


January 30, 2018.   Who Said What Now?

One of the newsfeeds on my phone comes from something called Luxury Travel Diary. As the name suggests, the articles on LTD focus mostly on high-end airline stuff — the latest business class seats, the fanciest inflight meals — as well as destination reviews of hotels, lodges, safaris, and so forth. It’s good guilty pleasure reading, but there’s a sensationalist tone to many of the stories, and everything is strangely anonymous. There are no bylines, no editorial headers, and no contact information. Who, exactly, is writing this stuff, and who is responsible for its accuracy?

On January 21st, Luxury Travel Diary ran a short piece about the Pegasus Airlines incident. Earlier that week, a Pegasus 737 skidded off the runway in Trabzon, Turkey, coming to rest on the slope of a cliff. Chances are you saw photos of the jet, its landing gear scraped away, clinging to the dirt on the edge of the Black Sea. Here was LTD’s headline…

“It remains unclear,” the story explained, “whether the cause of the disaster was runway conditions, pilot error or failure of landing equipment.”

There are, of course, two things glaringly wrong with this. First, the airplane was a 737, not a 787. While I’d like to tell these two models are easily confused, the two could scarcely be more different.

More egregious, though, is the wording. How, exactly, can an accident in which not a single person was killed or seriously hurt be described as a “disaster”? The closest thing to justification here, which isn’t really saying much, is that large-scale plane crashes have become so infrequent that we’ve started using the lingo of catastrophe in reference to minor mishaps. I’m not sure what that says about us.

Or are we just being stupid? And is this what passes for news these days: poorly written alarmism zapped anonymously to our smartphones?


January 16, 2018.   Matters of Size.

We’re always hearing about air travel has grown over the past few decades. The number of flyers, and the number of planes carrying them, has doubled, tripled, quadrupled or quintupled since [insert year here]. And this growth will continue. But while the statistics are impressive, they’re just numbers, abstractions. It wasn’t until I was able to track down a nearly forty year-old book that I was able to get a more tangible and qualitative sense of just how much air travel has expanded since the days of my childhood — suddenly I could see it, right there on the page.

That book is a copy of World Airline Fleets from 1980. As the title suggests, this was an annually published, comprehensive summary of the global commercial air fleets, broken down country by country, airline by airline — a list, in other words, of pretty much every commercial plane that existed at the time. Flip to a particular airline and you can see a listing of each airplane on its roster (registration, construction number, etc.) arranged in vertical columns, one aircraft to a line, like entries in an old telephone book.

In 1980 I was an eighth grader and an airplane geek. I had a copy of this book (as well as versions from 1979 and 1982). On weekends I’d carry it, along with a pair of old Bushnell binoculars, up to the observation deck at Boston’s Logan Airport. I’d note the registration of every plane that I saw, look up the plane in my book, and mark it off using an orange highlighter. Planespotting, this was called. It was birdwatching of a sort. My annual World Airline Fleets was my version of a Peterson’s guide. Those crossed-off jets were my “life list.”

Page spread from “World Airline Fleets, 1980.”

I long ago lost those books, but I was able to track down a copy of the ’80 volume from eBay. The photographs, the blotchy typesetting, the old carrier logos, everything came rushing back to me. But most astounding was realizing just how tiny most the world’s major carriers were, compared to today. The entire fleets of airlines like Pan Am, TWA, British Airways or Lufthansa took up no more than two or three pages. This was a year after Jimmy Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act, which was one of the catalysts for the growth that would follow, but I can’t imagine that anyone had an inkling of just how stupendous that growth would be. Consider:

In 1980 Southwest Airlines had fourteen airplanes and did not fly beyond the state of Texas. Thats right, fourteen. Today Southwest operates more than seven hundred planes and carries 150 million people each year. In 1980, Alaska Airlines had eleven planes. Eleven. Today that number is 160. FedEx — or Federal Express as it was known at the time — had 55 planes, the majority of them tiny Falcon jets. That total now is 360, most of them widebodies. Delta’s fleet was a whopping 250. Four decades later it’s 860.

Lufthansa had 140 planes in 1980. They have 330 now. Korean Air’s fleet was all of 35 strong. In 2018 it’s 160. Cathay Pacific had eighteen jets. It’s all-widebody fleet now numbers 145.

The biggest carrier in the world at the time, by far, was Aeroflot, the Soviet state airline. Second biggest was something called the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC). Eastern was the largest airline in the United States. Companies like Emirates or Qatar Airways did not yet exist. Neither did jetBlue, AirAsia, or Ryanair. Ditto for regional airlines, as we know them today. Instead we had “commuter” airlines, which operated independently, in their own colors. Not like now. And so many vanished names. Not just Eastern and Pan Am, but Braniff, Ozark, Western, CP Air, Ansett, Air Afrique and so on.

Southwest Airlines in 1980.


December 14, 2017.   Long Haul Mania.

Our list of the world’s ten longest flights seems to be changing on almost a weekly basis as carriers add one ultra-long haul route after another. So it goes, I guess, now that planes like the 777LR, 787 and A350 have made it possible to connect virtually any two major cities on the planet. It’s no longer a technological challenge so much as one of simple human endurance.

United Airlines is the latest carrier to shake things up, announcing a Houston-Sydney nonstop that will span 7,470 nautical miles. Flights are set to begin in January, using a Boeing 787-9, with a flying time of around 17 hours.

The route will take the number five spot overall (it’ll hold at number four until Qantas opens its Perth-London service in 2018), and nudges Emirates’ LAX-Dubai flight out of the top ten. See here for the full list and discussion.

November 19, 2017.   Bumps and Bunk.

If you’re one of the millions of flyers made nervous by rough air, maybe you’ve wondered: when is the smoothest time of day to fly? Or, better still, is there a time of day I should avoid? The answer is no, not really. Turbulence is too unpredictable for such blanket cautions.

A recent online story, however, claims otherwise. First run by Business Insider magazine, and picked up again this past weekend by Condé Nast Traveler, the story features an interview with a Professor of Atmospheric Science named Paul Williams, who tells us that early morning flights are the worst, and should be avoided. “The first flight of each day on a particular route tends to be particularly turbulent,” Williams says. He recommends anxious passengers “Avoid flying the first departure from any airport on any route … because that airspace has been unexplored overnight and we generally have no idea how turbulent that atmosphere has been.” Williams explains that pilots, who often rely on reports from other aircraft to help pinpoint and avoid the bumpiest areas, have little to go on so early in the morning. “We don’t have prior knowledge from the previous flight that flew through that route,” he says.

The problem with this advice is that it’s complete bullshit. Airline meteorology departments have become very good at forecasting the where, when, and how bad of rough air, and there are plenty of reliable, real-time reports available from other aircraft, regardless of the time of day. Air travel is very much a 24/7 operation, and commercial airspace is surprisingly busy even in predawn hours. And if anything, the air tends to be slightly smoother, on average, first thing in the morning. Professor Williams claims to have spoken to pilots who back up his contention, but he obviously misconstrued or misunderstood whatever it was they told him.

Aviation can’t be an easy beat for a journalist, but this is yet another example of one turning to the wrong source. I’ve seen so many articles just like these, where instead of seeking out front-line professionals who deal with the topic as a matter of routine (a pilot, perhaps?), the reporter will instead turn to this or that professor, researcher, or other aviation academic. And time and time again their stories suffer for it. I have no doubt that people like Paul Williams are bright, well-trained, and highly knowledgable in their fields (indeed, I enjoyed watching some of Williams’s other online lectures, including one detailing the atmospheric impacts of climate change). Unfortunately, they tend to have very limited knowledge about the day-to-day realities of commercial flying. Understanding atmospheric science, and understanding turbulence in the context of airline operations, are extremely different things.

If you’re one of those nervous flyers, see my essay here, instead.


October 31, 2017.   Delta Welcomes the A350.

On October 30th, Delta Air Lines put the Airbus A350 into scheduled service, launching the jet on its Detroit-Tokyo route. Following a brief celebration and media event, flight DL275 took off just before 2 p.m., marking the first revenue A350 flight by a U.S. carrier.

The twin-engined A350, an ultra long-range widebody, is the newest and most sophisticated of any Airbus or Boeing aircraft. Size-wise, it fits somewhere between the A330 and 777-300, with typical seating for around 300 passengers.

Delta’s A350s feature the new, Delta One all-suite business class cabin, with each sleeper capsule fully enclosed by a nearly six foot-high sliding privacy door. This is the first such product ever marketed by a U.S. carrier. Although Delta’s widebody fleet is considerably smaller than those of its main competitors, it can now boast what might be the single best premium cabin of any North American airline. In addition to the Tokyo route, A350s will be used by Delta on flights to Seoul-Incheon, Beijing, Shanghai and Amsterdam. The airline will be retrofitting its 777 aircraft with the all-suite cabin as well.

The A350 is most easily identified by its curving, scimitar-style winglets and raccoon-mask windscreen. Like the 787, it’s not a beautiful plane, but it’s a futuristic-looking one, with a certain idiosyncratic sleekness.

Approximately fifteen airlines now operate the type. Delta has up to 25 on order (though 15 of those are in question). American is on tap to receive 22, and United 45. The standard A350, designated the A350-900 will soon be joined by the stretched -1000 variant, currently undergoing pre-delivery test flights.


October 3, 2017.   Ryanair’s Woes.

Becoming an airline pilot takes a certain degree of self-sacrifice, and always has. Flying, it has been said, is much like acting, painting, or playing minor league baseball: it’s a pursuit born of passion, and with it comes a willingness to suffer for one’s art. What else can explain why so many young pilots are able to endure long years of low pay and stressful working conditions in a notoriously unstable industry before maybe, hopefully, if he or she is lucky, scoring a slot with a major airline? Along the way, we expect to be taken advantage of. But if there’s one airline that has exploited this dynamic to the extreme, it’s Ryanair, the low-cost European giant that is now the fourth-largest carrier in the world measured by passenger boardings. Ryanair pilots must pay for their own employment interview, their own training — even their own onboard bottled water. They effectively work as independent contractors, and must register themselves as “companies” under Irish law before joining with third-party staffing agencies who then contract them to Ryanair. The carrier’s CEO, Michael O’Leary, is notorious for making hostile and derogatory comments about his pilots. If you have a few minutes to spare, check out this radio interview with one of those pilots.

As you may have heard, it’s been a tough couple of weeks for Ryanair, after a “rostering” error caused the cancellation of thousands of flights that stranded nearly half a million passengers. More than just a scheduling snafu, this is a symptom of serious, underlying problems that Mr. O’Leary will have little choice but to finally reckon with. The media has been sniffing around, and some of what they’re discovering, while it’s common knowledge to many of us in the business, has left the flying public startled.


July 27, 2017.   No, That’s Not a Runway. (Update)

On July 7th, an Air Canada jet nearly landed on a busy taxiway at San Francisco International Airport, apparently mistaking the taxiway for runway 28R. Taxiway C, as it’s designated (“Charlie,” pilots would call it, using the phonetic alphabet), runs parallel to the runway on its north side. At least four other planes were on the taxiway at the time. At the last minute, the pilots of flight AC759, an Airbus A320 with 140 people aboard, broke off the approach and climbed away.

This could could easily have been disastrous — something akin to the USAir crash in Los Angeles in 1991. Luckily the Air Canada crew, aided in part by startled pilots on the taxiway, realized in time that they were lined up incorrectly.

What happened in 1991 was an air traffic controller’s deadly mistake. What happened the other night in SFO appears to be straightforward crew error, the million-dollar question being how the pilots got into this situation in the first place. Runway 28R is equipped with the standard electronic landing aid (ILS) and fancy approach lighting found on most major runways. The aiming point should have been pretty obvious.

That said, San Francisco has its quirks. Only about three-hundred feet separate runway 28R from taxiway C, and approaches into SFO are often busy and very high-workload. Also, non-precision approaches to this runway are common, and sometimes the ILS isn’t used. I land on runway 28R all the time, and the most common approach is something called an “RNAV visual,” a hybrid procedure in which the final segment is flown visually, with no runway-specific guidance from the instruments. You can transition to the ILS in those final seconds, but this isn’t always done. And, it was midnight. Maybe fatigue played a role.

Another factor is that the parallel runway, 28L, was closed that evening, with its approach lights turned off. Pilots landing at SFO normally expect to see a pair of runways, laid more or less next to one another. Perhaps they mistook 28R for 28L, which would have been dark, and saw taxiway C as 28R.

I landed on runway 28R two nights ago, right about at dusk. Runway lighting and taxiway lighting are very different, and this, among other things, should have been a huge clue For Air Canada. They should have broken off the approach a lot sooner. But as we descended toward the threshold, I couldn’t help thinking: taxiway C does indeed resemble a runway!

Those aren’t excuses, but under the right set of circumstances, what happened isn’t totally beyond the pale. And there had to be some external contributing factors aside from pure recklessness on the part of the pilots.

How close a call was it? That would mostly depend how far out the A320 was — distance from the threshold, and altitude — when the crew began the go-around maneuver. Early on, reports said the plane didn’t get any lower than 350 feet above the ground. That’s the height of a 30-story building and would represent fairly adequate clearance. The voices on the recordings, meanwhile, show concern, as well they should, but remained measured and calm, suggesting a catastrophe was never imminent. However, investigators are now saying the Air Canada crew flew a full quarter of a mile along the taxiway before beginning a climb, and came within 55 feet of a taxiing United jet’s tail. If so, that’s downright alarming, and about as close a call as you can have. How and why the crew got to that point is unclear.

Also unclear is why air traffic control didn’t notice the pilots’ mistake and alert them sooner. In the controllers’ defense, however, the taxiway and the runway are close together, and they would’ve been watching from a considerable angle, throwing off the perspective. I’m not sure their radar would have shown anything too worrying either, at least until the final seconds. Planes sometimes zig and zag a bit on final approach. And, after a clearing a crew to land, you more or less take it for granted they will know the difference between a runway and a taxiway.

As they approached the airport, the pilots queried air traffic control about traffic on the runway. They saw something that concerned them. The tower’s reply, that the runway was clear, may have given them a false sense of security and encouraged them to continue. They should not have gotten as close as they did, but it can be very difficult to see other aircraft on the ground at night, even when those aircraft have all of their appropriate lighting on. Just ask the USAir crew than landed on top of that plane at LAX.

Runway numbers correspond to the strip’s magnetic orientation. Just add a zero. Runway 28 is aligned 280 degrees — just a smidgen north of due west. The opposite end would be runway 10, pointing 100 degrees. Runways laid in parallel also carry a left or right — “L” or “R” — suffix. SFO’s runway 28L was the one on which an Asiana Airlines 777 crash-landed on July 6, 2013 — four years before Air Canada, almost to the day.


June 6 , 2017.   To Privatize or Not to Privatize?

Donald Trump has unveiled a plan to privatize our beleaguered, government-run air traffic control system. Such a scheme, he says, will result in a more modern and more smoothly run system like those in Canada or Europe. He’s not alone in pushing for this. Most of the country’s major airlines have called for privatization as well. So, is this a good idea?

I really don’t know. I’m the wrong person to ask. There’s too much about the issue that I don’t understand to have an informed-enough opinion.

What I can tell you, though, almost for certain, is that even the most sophisticated ATC system is not going to solve the chronic delay problem that plagues much of the country. “It’s time to join the future,” says the President, “and make flights quicker, safer, more reliable.” A nice idea, but would privatization actually do that? As I see it, you can privatize, modernize, upgrade, and otherwise overhaul air traffic control all you want; while it will help in some respects, we’ll continue suffer delays and congestion. Why? Because ultimately this is not an airspace issue; it’s an airports issue. Our ATC infrastructure is sorely old-fashioned. Moving to a satellite-based system, be it privately or publicly funded, is a terrific idea that will improve efficiency and, to an extent, safety. However, a runway can only handle so many flights in a given amount of time, and many of our airports are simply too small and/or poorly designed for the amount of traffic we funnel into them.

The problem won’t be solved until two things happen: First, airlines need to be better rationalize their schedules. This means reducing frequencies in some markets, and consolidating flights with larger aircraft. Frequency is a huge selling point for airlines, but while fifteen flights a day from city A to city B looks great on paper, reliability collapses when the weather gets bad. And, second, we need more runways and larger, better-designed airports. That second one is a pipe dream, of course. It takes decades just to get a single new runway built in this country, never mind opening new airports or redesigning existing ones.


May 11, 2017.   Pets on a Plane.

R.I.P. Simon, the Giant Rabbit.

The death a couple of weeks ago of Simon the giant rabbit (who knew there was such a thing?), on board a London-to-Chicago United flight, has a lot of people anxious about shipping their pets with the airlines.

How are pets treated below deck? A lot of people are under the impression they are kept in unheated, unpressurized sections of the plane.

Not true. At 35,000 feet the outside temperature is about 60 degrees below zero and there isn’t enough oxygen to breathe. That’s worse than economy, and transporting animals in these conditions would rightfully displease pet owners and animal rights groups. So, yes, the underfloor holds are always pressurized and heated. On most planes there’s a particular zone designated for animals. This tends to be the zone with the warmest and most consistent temperature. Maintaining a steady, comfortable temperature while aloft is relatively easy, but it can be tricky on the ground in hot weather, and for this reason some airlines embargo pets during the summer months.

Of the two million or so animals carried in the United States each year, a small number perish, whether due to stress or mishandling. How well a pet endures the experience depends a good deal on the individual animal’s health and temperament. If your dog or cat (or rabbit or macaw) is elderly, ill, or easily stressed or spooked, perhaps sending him or her through multiple time zones in a noisy and confined space isn’t the smartest idea. My best advice is to consult with a veterinarian.

The flight crew is always told when animals are aboard. Passengers are known to send handwritten notes to the cockpit asking that we take special care, but this isn’t really necessary, and, in any case, there’s not a lot we can do. There’s no access between the main deck and the lower holds, so we can’t carry treats to your friend below.

Someday, maybe, I will share the story about the time I carried a pet hedgehog onto a flight to Cleveland.


May 8, 2017.   Worst Headline Ever.

Aviation mishaps have a way of generating some pretty awful reporting. Here, in a story that I discovered in my mobile phone news feed, CNN’s headline writers have really outdone themselves. It’s hard to unpack this one. First, I’m unsure what we’re supposed to make of the fact that passengers were inside the plane, rather than somehow outside of it. Then we have the matter of the “crash landing,” which this most categorically was not.

What actually happened seems to be that a business jet — it looks like an old, Israeli-built Westwind jet — lost a portion of its left main landing gear, then made a somewhat telegenic, if not especially dangerous, touchdown (the kind of superficial nonevent that social media, and in depressing turn, the real media, can’t get enough of). “Landing gear,” though, was apparently too jargony a term for the editors, who opted to go with “wheel” instead, thus equating the components of a jet aircraft with those of, say, a child’s toy wagon. Beyond that, I’m not certain what happened. I confess that I never clicked on the story, and neither will I be researching it now, for the simple reason that it looks really boring and unimportant. A small plane has a landing gear snafu… some sparks… oh, the humanity.

People tend to get worked up over landing gear malfunctions. In fact, if something is going to go wrong with your plane, the landing gear is one of the least hazardous places for it to happen. Provided you aren’t blowing tires at 150 knots on takeoff, gear problems are pretty easy to manage. Worst case, there’s the possibility of a fuel tank rupture or loss of directional control, but anything disastrous is highly unlikely, even in the case of a totally collapsed gear.


April 7, 2017.   Things That Go Bump.

It stands to reason that as global warming intensifies certain weather patterns and creates stronger storms, inflight encounters with strong turbulence will increase. Until recently, however, there haven’t been any formal studies linking climate change with rougher flying. Now there are. A new paper published by atmospheric scientist Paul Williams from the University of Reading suggests that instances of strong, potentially dangerous turbulence will increase significantly by the middle of the century. The study is an expansion of an earlier, 2013 analysis of wind patterns in a busy section of North Atlantic airspace between the U.S. and Europe. That analysis showed a marked increase in both the severity and frequency of all grades of turbulence, from “light” through “severe.” You can read more details here.

I’ve been flying across the North Atlantic since 1997. My observations are just that, and are purely anecdotal, but what I’ve experienced more or less meshes with the research. It’s become bumpier and windier, on average, and storms seem to be larger and more widespread. Most notably, it’s no longer uncommon to encounter thunderstorms even in the colder months.

More extreme weather will have impacts both aloft and on the ground. Turbulence isn’t the only concern. Pilots will also face an increase in things like hail, low-level windshear and microbursts, while more frequent and powerful storms, both in summer and winter, will wreak logistical havoc at airports. The bottom line repercussions for airlines could be in the tens of billions annually. There is mounting concern that extreme temperatures could render major airports in parts of the Middle East, India and Africa unusable during certain summer periods.


April 2, 2017.   Department of Imaginary Nostalgia.

Retro liveries, in which an airline paints up one or more planes in a color scheme from decades past, are trendy nowadays. It’s a fun idea, at least when applied sparingly. Among the best are American’s “Astrojet” throwbacks, and Lufthansa’s gorgeous, 1970s livery redone on a brand-new 747-8. Some of them, like Lufthansa’s, make you wonder why they ever changed liveries in the first place. Others, like American’s revival of TWA’s clunky red-and-white scheme from the 1980s, were better off left in the dustbin.

American has a whole series of these tributes — shout-outs to the various carriers that, through a long series of mergers and acquisitions, were folded into today’s American Airlines: TWA, America West, Allegheny, PSA, and so on.

That TWA scheme isn’t something we needed to see again, but even worse, they’ve assigned it to a Boeing 737, a plane that TWA never flew. This is maybe getting too geeky, but if you’re going to do this, shouldn’t it be aircraft-appropriate, when possible? American has plenty of 767s that it could have offered up, or an old MD-80 series jet, both of which were flown by TWA.

The latest carrier on the bandwagon is JetBlue, who’ve decorated an Airbus A320 in an old-timey scheme featuring an ochre and blue cheatline and the titles “New York International.” It’s a nostalgic-looking uniform that screams late ’60s or early ’70s — though for some reason they’ve stayed with a modern tail, which sort of unbalances the whole thing. But what really makes it funny is that it’s completely made-up. JetBlue has only been in operation since 2000, and this livery never existed!

They do have a gift for self-promotion, that jetBlue, and this time they’ve been especially clever. For what it’s worth, had the company been around in, say, 1973, its planes probably would have looked like this.

March 27, 2017.   Tenerife at 40.

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the deadliest aviation disaster of all time. On March 27th, 1977, on the Spanish island of Tenerife, two Boeing 747s collided on a foggy runway, killing 583 people. There’s a surreal, almost mythical aura that surrounds the accident, due in no small part to the almost unbelievable cascade of ironies and coincidences that led to it — beginning with the fact that neither plane was supposed to be at Tenerife in the first place. There was KLM, the oldest airline in the world, and Pan Am, the most famous and influential carrier of them all. Both aircraft were 747s, then and now the most iconic jetliners in existence. In the KLM cockpit sat Captain Jacob Van Zanten, the company’s exalted instructor pilot, whose face appeared in KLM’s magazine ads, and whose misunderstanding of an air traffic control clearance would result in a catastrophe. There was the terminal bombing at Las Palmas, the sudden fog bank, the crowded tarmac that blocked the normal taxi routes, and on and on the weirdness went. And if not for a single occluded radio transmission, the whole thing may have been avoided.

I was only ten years old, but I clearly remember the day it happened, watching the news in our downstairs living room — the choppy, black-and-white footage from a place I’d never heard of. See the full story here.

The photograph below is probably the eeriest aviation photo ever taken. It shows the two doomed aircraft — the KLM 747 in the foreground and Pan Am behind it — parked adjacent to one another on the Tenerife apron, shortly before the disaster that Sunday morning. Just last month, Bob Bragg, the last surviving pilot from the crash, passed away at age 79.

March 15, 2016.   Winglet Fatigue.

A happy winglet is an unadorned winglet. I’ve had it up to here with carriers that feel compelled to turn their little upturned fins into billboards, festooning them with stripes, logos, or text. The surface isn’t big enough, and the result is too often cluttered, tacky and contrived. Not to mention redundant. You’ve already got the fuselage and tail to work with. We don’t also need to see your name or trademark painted across the winglet.

There are scattered exceptions. Virgin Atlantic’s Union Jack motif is handsome, and Hawaiian Airlines has an unobtrusive floral pattern that makes for a pleasant accent. Turkish Airlines’ winglet logo is similarly understated and attractive, as is the oryx head used by Qatar Airways. Generally, though, the idea is to keep it as modest as possible — a solid color or, if you must, something with just a touch of highlighting. See Delta and United, respectively. Those are dignified winglets.

In case you missed it the first time.

There’s a special place in airline hell, meanwhile, for carriers that insist on using this space to advertise their Web addresses. I’m not sure it’s necessary to have this anywhere on the plane — as if there’s a person alive who doesn’t know that airlines have online sites, and that you can go there and purchase tickets — but it’s especially garish when it’s crammed onto a winglet. Have a look at VietJet Air, in the photo below. Never mind for a minute what a hideous name that is: VietJet Air. The simple “VietJet” would have been perfectly sufficient, but no, instead they have to shove the “Air” done our throat as well. (JetBlue does this too, insisting that we call them “JetBlue Airways,” in case maybe you thought it was a bank or a furniture company.) The bigger problem is that the carrier’s Web address appears no less than three times — most gratuitously, of course, on the winglet.

The true purpose of a winglet is aerodynamic, not promotional. At a wing’s tip, the higher pressure beneath the wing meets the lower pressure above it, sending out a turbulent discharge of air. Winglets help smooth this mixing, decreasing drag and, in turn, improving range and efficiency. Because planes have different aerodynamic fingerprints, winglets aren’t always necessary or cost-effective. For instance, the 747-400 and A340 have them, while the 777 does not, even though it too is a long-range widebody. Because fuel economy wasn’t always the priority that it is today, and because the advantages of winglets weren’t fully understood until fairly recently, older models were designed without them. For these planes — a list that includes the 757 and 767 — they are available as an option or retrofit. An airline considers whether the long-term fuel savings is worth the cost of installation, which can run millions per plane. It depends on the flying. Aesthetics are a personal thing. I find winglets attractive on some jets — I love the scimitar tips on the new A350 — and awkward on others, like those on the 767. You see them in different forms. Some are large and jaunty, while others are just a tweak. With a “blended winglet,” the wing tapers gradually with no harsh angles. Planes like the 787 and 747-8 use amore integrated style, sometimes referred to as a “raked wingtip.” I am especially un-fond of the curvy, steer-horn, top-and-bottom winglets that are becoming common now on 737s. They’re quite garish.

Airbus has nicknamed its next-generation winglet — a taller, thinner fin designed for the A320 series — a “sharklet.” This, we take it, is in reference to its dorsal-esque shape, but grammatically it makes no sense. “Winglet” means a small wing, or an appendage to one. A “sharklet” would be a small shark. No part of an airplane is called a shark.


March 5, 2017.   Air Canada’s New Colors.

At last, a livery to love. Rising above a tarmac jammed with meaningless swooshy things, pretentious patterns and too-fancy textures, comes the new Air Canada. Our friends to the north have done a smart thing, finally moving on from that strangely pixelated maple leaf and soapy blue fuselage — a hue that, at least to me, made every Air Canada jet evoke the tiling in an airport men’s room. On the tail, the maple leaf roundel is back to its old proud self, set strikingly in red against a glossy field of black. I’d have fattened the black underside just a touch, but still it gives the jet some nice horizontal definition. Up front, the raccoon-face windscreen is both a roguish flourish and a throwback to the liveries of old, when cockpit windows were often masked to reduce sun glare. Airline liveries almost never employ the color black, but this might change once designers get a gander at this one. All together, it’s a proud design that says one thing and says it nicely: Air Canada. That might seem redundant, but the trend over the past fifteen years, relying on hoary “in motion” themes and overly tangled motifs, has left many a carrier’s identity muted. Here is a brash, in-your-face refutation of these hackneyed themes, and it’ll hopefully inspire others to follow suit. It gets an A-grade. And I never give As.

Photos: Air Canada

Related stories:


February 22, 2017.   R.I.P. Bob Bragg.

Robert Lee Bragg, of Harrisonburg, Virginia, passed away on February 9th. He was 79. He was the last surviving pilot of history’s worst plane crash.

On March 27th, 1977, on the Spanish island of Tenerife, he was the first officer on Pan Am flight 1736, a charter from New York, when it was struck on a runway in dense fog by a KLM 747 that had begun its takeoff roll without clearance. The collision killed 583 people, and remains the deadliest airline disaster of all time. Bragg was among the sixty-one people who survived, including the entire Pan Am cockpit crew (captain Victor Grubbs died in 1993; flight engineer George Warns died two years earlier). For his bravery in assisting survivors, Bragg received the President’s Award for Heroism.

He returned to flying shortly after the crash. In 1987, United Airlines purchased Pan Am’s Pacific routes and several of its aircraft, and Bragg moved to United, where eventually he retired as a 747 captain. He captained several of United’s inaugural international flights, including its Los Angeles-Beijing and Los Angeles-Frankfurt services.

He is survived by his wife, Dorothy Boyd-Bragg, Professor of History Emerita at James Madison University in Virginia. He also leaves two children from a previous marriage.

In 2006, in California, I spent the better part of a day with Bob and Dorothy while working on a TV documentary about Tenerife. I remember when the producer called me at home, inviting me to help with the show. “Bob Bragg is going to be there as well,” he explained. “Bob is…”

He didn’t need to finish that sentence. I knew exactly who Bob Bragg was. I’d known who he was since the sixth grade. And getting to meet him would be one of the great thrills of my life. Not for his bravery or heroics. Unlike captain Sullenberger and the “Miracle on the Hudson,” for example, Bragg and his colleagues didn’t save the day. On the contrary, they were helpless. It was never about that. It was about the sheer momentousness of the event — the almost unbelievable chain of events that led to it, and its subsequent place in history. To have been a being witness to that — no, to have been part of it, right there in the cockpit! Bob Bragg was a giant.

An account of the Tenerife crash, and the story of my day with Bob on the film set, can be read here.

What happened at Tenerife is part of the greater story of the Boeing 747, history’s most influential jetliner. Sadly, we’ve now lost two of the most iconic characters from that story. Joe Sutter, the 747’s visionary creator, died last August at 95.

Mojave, California, 2006.   Bob Bragg talks about Tenerife.
Photo by the author.


February 9, 2017.   Boarding Blues.

It never ceases to amaze me, traveling in other parts of the world, how much quicker and smoother the boarding process seems to go. In Asia, for instance, I’ve seen them board 500 passengers onto an A380 in under thirty minutes. How do they do it? Here at home, it takes 45 minutes to get 70 people onto a damn regional jet, and it’s chaos the entire time.

Well, how they do it is, for one, by using bigger planes. In Asia, even a 45-minute hop is often aboard a widebody 777 or A330. Widebody planes, with multiple aisles and all-around greater spaciousness, are by their nature easier to get on and off. In the U.S., aircraft size has been steadily shrinking over the past two decades. More people are flying than ever before, it’s true, but we’re doing it on smaller planes: regional jets, A319s, 737s and the like. The reasons for this are a subject for another time, but the narrow aisles and limited bin space on these planes mean longer boarding and deplaning times.

Another thing is that most airports outside the U.S. will board and deplane a widebody jet through multiple doors using multiple boarding bridges — at least two, and sometimes even three. (In Amsterdam, KLM boards its 747s using two forward bridges, plus a unique, over-the-wing bridge that connects to the rear fuselage.) This makes a massive difference in how long it takes to move hundreds of people, and their hundreds of bags, between the terminal and the cabin. Dual-bridge boarding does exist in the United States, but it’s uncommon.

Overwing jet bridge, Amsterdam.   Author’s photo.


January 9, 2017.   The Airport-Fortress.

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

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

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

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

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


December 29, 2016.   Coincidence of the Macabre.


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

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

In no special order…


Pan Am 103 (Blown up over Lockerbie in 1988)

Pan Am 1736 (Collides with KLM 747 at Tenerife in 1977. History’s worst air disaster)

KAL 007 (Korean Air Lines 747 shot down by the Soviets in 1983)

American 587 (Airbus A300 goes down seconds after takeoff from JFK airport in New York)

Swissair 111 (MD-11 crashes off Nova Scotia after an onboard fire)

TWA 800 (Fuel tank explosion destroys 747 headed from JFK to Paris)

Air France 4590 (A chartered Concorde crashes near Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris)

Avianca 52 (Boeing 707 crashes in Cove Neck, New York, in 1990, after running out of fuel)

EgyptAir 990 (Pilot intentionally crashes a 767 bound for Cairo, killing all aboard)

Eastern 66 (Watershed disaster in 1975 ushers in the study of windshear and microbursts)


And the answer is…

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


November 15, 2016.   The New Roo.


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

New tail left; old tail right

New tail left; old tail right


October 20, 2016.   The Miracle Over Baghdad.

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

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

DHL A300

DHL damage

October 5, 2016.   American Revisionism.

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

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

AA Livery How It Should Be


September 1, 2016.   Remembering Joe Sutter.

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

SK 737

July 27, 2016.   What’s In a Name?

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

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

KLM at JFK rainshower

July 12, 2016.   TWA 800 Redux.

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

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

crash Flight 800 plane crash  accidents aviation

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

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

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


July 6, 2016.   Terminal With a View.

Schiphol Observation Deck

I took these pictures in Europe recently. That first one is the observation deck at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport (yet another of Schiphol’s numerous little conveniences). The second is a billboard for a similar deck at the airport in Zurich.

Once upon a time, every big airport had decks like these. Where they still exist, they remain popular. You don’t need to be an airplane geek to appreciate the view and a chance to escape the noise and in-your-face retail onslaught of the terminal. The ones at Schiphol and Zurich are outdoor decks, which is maybe not ideal considering the Dutch or Swiss weather, but in temperate months it’s refreshing to be outside. And, at Schiphol, it allowed them to install that old KLM Fokker 100 as part of the scenery.

The dearth of observation decks these days no doubt ties into our obsession with security — a conversation too aggravating to have at the moment, so let’s not have it.

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


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

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


June 23, 2016.   Back to Belgrade.

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

Air Serbia

June 8, 2016.   Getting Freaky.

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

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

Freakonomics Podcast

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

DXB Departures

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

The growth of Emirates and the other Persian Gulf carriers, Qatar Airways and Etihad (together they are frequently referred to as the “Gulf 3” or “G3”) has been controversial. Lavish government subsidies, many argue, have permitted these airlines to take a huge and unfair advantage over our own carriers. Is this true? Sure. But it’s also true that these airlines’ hubs — Dubai, Qatar, and Abu Dhabi — are ideally situated, geographically, to connect the world’s biggest population centers. More critically, though, the governments of these countries understand that the commerce generated by air travel is something to be nurtured rather than hindered. You can call it government subsidizing, and you can call it government investment in something that the economy and society benefits from. As a result, transferring at Dubai is a breeze: security takes about 25 seconds; everything leaves on time; everything is big and clean and fast and efficient.

Here in the U.S., our airports are undersized and dirty, security screening has gone off the rails, and consider the misery we put international connecting passengers through. You ask if the complaint of government subsidies is valid. Yes, but it’s less a complaint against their governments than a complaint against ours. Once upon a time, we were commercial aviation’s global leader. That was then.

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

May 3, 2016.   Memories of Widebodies Past.


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


April 25, 2016.   Route Map Envy.

It’s depressing that America has no such thing as a truly “global” airline. Once upon a time there was Pan Am, but nowadays our biggest carriers seem content to pull back and let their code-share partners do much of the heavy lifting. Not that “global” has any specific definition, but it’s the likes of British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, and, of course, Emirates, that although they don’t carry as many people overall, have the most expansive route networks. Or how about Turkish Airlines, which flies to more countries than anybody in the world.

United Airlines is, maybe, the closest thing we’ve got. United’s Pacific network, most of it inherited from Pan Am and Continental, is bigger than that of some Asian carriers. The airline is huge across Europe, and flies to a solid number of South American cities as well. United has a single destination in Africa, but it’s also the only U.S. airline to maintain a presence in India, operating nonstops to both Delhi and Mumbai from its Newark hub. But these routes aside, there’s an enormous swath of real estate extending from, essentially, Eastern Europe all the way across to China, that is pretty much untouched by the American “big three” of United, American, or Delta. For example, aside from Tel Aviv, there is not a single city in the Middle East served by any of these airlines. Pan Am has been defunct for 25 years, but TWA was operating to Riyadh and Cairo until 2001. As recently as 2009, Delta was flying to Cairo, Amman, Dubai, Istanbul and Kuwait (yes, IST is more Europe than the Middle East, but still). All of these routes are gone. Sure, geopolitics has something to do with it, as does simple geography and the relative isolation of our continent, with huge oceans on either side. But that can’t be the whole story. After all, the big European airlines fly to as many cities in South America as United or Delta do.

With our carriers as profitable as they are, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more expansion. United is opening up markets in Xian, Auckland, Tahiti and elsewhere, but its competitors have mostly been quiet. I’m sure that it’s naively romantic to say so, but what I wish our industry had was a modern day Juan Trippe — a visionary airline leader eager to put our country back on the map, so to speak. The red areas in the graphic below show the regions not served by an American carrier (the borders are an approximation, so don’t get too picky). The circular cutouts are for Tel Aviv and United’s two Indian cities.


April 13, 2016.   Jet Bridge Blues.

Ah, the jet bridge, that strange, too-often troublesome umbilicus connecting terminal to fuselage. The other day I was stuck on a regional jet for twenty minutes longer than I should have been because the gate agent couldn’t get the damn bridge into the right position. If only I had a dollar for every time this has happened. Part of the problem, I think, is that these devices are so monstrously over-engineered.

Take a look at the typical jet bridge. The things are enormous. They must weigh hundreds of thousands of pounds and cost millions of dollars. The wayward bridge at JFK the other day was twice the size of the plane. As the agent fumbled with the thing, it looked like she was trying to steer a battleship. Hydraulic arms flexed and groaned, machinery wailed, lights flashed and bells rang. Finally the tires began to turn — like the wheels of those huge mobile barges that NASA once used to position the Apollo moon rockets. All of this so that fifty people could walk the negligible distance from the aircraft to the terminal.

I realize the bridges are multifunction. The air conditioning and power connections used by the plane during its downtime are part of the assembly. But does the passenger tunnel part really need to be so big and heavy, with all of this Rube Goldberg machinery? It’s just a gangway for crying out loud. You sometimes see simpler, lightweight jet bridges in Europe and elsewhere around the world — with windows! — but here in the U.S. we rely on these ponderous, lumbering contraptions.

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

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


March 29, 2016.   Blowin’ in the Wind.

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


March 23, 2016.   Inaugural Controversy.

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

QR Boycott

March 15, 2016.   Security Mania.

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


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


March 2, 2016.   Aviophonics.

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


February 24, 2016.   The Iranian Griffin.

Man, deadheading Iran Air crews really have it tough. It must get claustrophobic in there. (Photo taken at Amsterdam-Schiphol, where Iran Air operates an Airbus A310 on flights to Tehran.) Seriously, though… I’m old enough to remember when Iran Air’s 747s still flew to the U.S. I remember taking pictures of one at Kennedy in 1979, from top of the old Pan Am terminal, when I was in seventh grade. Iran Air’s peculiar logo is inspired by the character of Homa, a kind of bird-horse-cow griffin, seen carved on the columns at the ancient Persian site of Persepolis. The symbol was designed 1961 by a 22 year-old Iranian art student named Edward Zohrabian, and has been used ever since. It’s just a matter of time, I worry, before this enduring mark is dustbinned for some stupid swooshy thing.

Iran Air LD-3

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