James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
As I write (at 9:40pm EST in the US, 0240 March 8 GMT), things look bad for Malaysian Airlines flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, but nothing is known for sure.
The most illuminating information I have seen so far is this log from Flight Aware. It shows that the airplane had leveled off at 35,000 feet -- and then suddenly was not transmitting any more information about its location, speed, altitude, or rate of climb or descent.
[Update: Flight Aware is imperfect, as I've written here many times. Also, the Lat/Long of its last report for this flight is over the Malay peninsula and is less than one hour after takeoff, versus the 2 hours that we've heard in many news reports. This goes into the category of "All early reports about air incidents are contradictory, confusing, and often wrong." But still the indications are not good.]
It is hard to imagine a systemwide failure of the transponder and other reporting equipment that could have made the plane stop transmitting any information and yet still be flying along safely. And in that case, it would presumably have tried to land somewhere along the Malay peninsula or in Indochina.
The main insight I have to add for now is: Whatever happened, it is unlikely to reflect chronic shoddiness with Malaysian Airlines, which in my experience is a good, competent, and modern airline (I have flown MAS many times, including during the two years I lived in Malaysia in the 1980s, and more recently along this route), nor with the Boeing 777, a good and well-experienced airplane. Beyond that, we await further news with best wishes for all involved.
12-hours-later update: Flightradar24 has more detailed reporting on what appear to be the plane's last known positions, over the South China Sea.
[See update* below.] On our recent flight home in our small plane from Eastport ME, to Washington DC, we were listening, as we often do, to the air traffic controllers (ATC). They were talking back and forth with various aircraft in the usual manner:
Pilot: New York Center. American 935. fifteen thousand feet.
And the air traffic controller’s response is: Acknowledgment. Altimeter reading (necessary gauge for determining altitude)
ATC: American 935. New York Center. New York altimeter 30.14.
Then a little while later, we heard a callsign I had never heard before: Brickyard. It was an exchange something like this:
Pilot: Washington Center. Brickyard 215. nine thousand.
ATC: Brickyard 215. Washington Center. Washington altimeter 30.10.
I wondered about Brickyard, and learned that it belongs to Republic Airlines, a regional supplier that operates flights for major national brands. I know that airline as one that sometimes flies the daily nonstop as US Airways Express between Washington DC, where I live, and Sarasota FL, where my mom lives. Republic also operates service for a number of other airlines, like American Eagle and Frontier.
Reinvention and resilience across the nation Read more
But Brickyard? Well, according to Funtrivia.com, Republic is the regional airline out of Indianapolis, home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, nicknamed The Brickyard.
A few weeks later, I read my husband, Jim’s, post about the enormous 747 “dreamlifter” cargo airplane that landed at the wrong -- and much too small -- airport in Kansas. I heard on the recording between the ATC and the pilot that the big plane had the callsign Giant. Fitting, I thought, when I learned that Giant is the callsign for Atlas Air.
Many of the major airlines use callsigns of their standard company names, like American, United, Lufthansa, Alitalia, and Delta. But then there are the other creative and curious ones, which we hear regularly along the east coast through New England and MidAtlantic states. Ones like Citrus, Cactus, and Waterski.
Cactus? US Airways merged with America West Airlines, and based out of Tempe AZ, home to so many saguaro cacti.
Citrus? AirTran Airways, headquartered now in Dallas, but at one time in Orlando.
Waterski? Trans States Airlines, another regional airline which operates for United Express and US Airways Express. It was originally Resort Air, which ferried vacationers (and presumably waterskiiers) to Lake of the Ozarks.
So that got me wondering about all the callsigns. Who are they? What are their etymologies? Do they fall into categories? I did some digging and here’s what I discovered:
First, this can get overwhelming very quickly! As I look right now, I see live tracking of every airplane in the air. Delta has 388 planes flying. United has 351. Southwest has 345, and American 205, and on down the list of hundreds of individual airlines. Their callsigns are right there, too. And if that isn’t enough for you, go here to see a complete list of airlines, beyond those that have planes in the air right now. I can’t even count the total.
As a way to get a handle on this, I decided to see if I could find any interesting categories or patterns among the callsigns. Here is a makeshift taxonomy:
Animal names: Of course, bird names are well represented, but there are lots of other land creatures as well.
Speedbird, British Airways
Eagle Flight, American Eagle
Flying Eagle, Eagle Air from Tanzania
White Eagle, White Eagle Aviation from Poland
Twin-Goose, Air-taxi from Europe
Kingfisher, Kingfisher Airlines from India
Rooster, Hahn Air from Germany (Hahn is German for rooster!)
Jetbird, Primera Air from Iceland
Bird Express, Aero Services Executive from France
Polish Bird, Air Poland
Bluebird, Virgin Samoa
Songbird, Sky King from the US
Nile Bird, Nile Air from Egypt
Nilecat, Delta Connection Kenya
Flying Dolphin, Dolphin Air from UAE
Deer Jet, Beijing Capital Airlines
Dragon, Tianjin Airlines from China
Longhorn, Express One International from the US (Texas, I suppose)
Springbok, South African Airways
Bambi, Allied Air Cargo from Nigeria (At least I like to think it references Bambi)
Simba, African International Airlines
Go Cat, Tiger Airways, Singapore
Polar Tiger, Polar Air Cargo, Long Beach
Sky Themes, with many evocative references to space flight and fantasy:
Flagship, Endeavor Air from Minneapolis
Blue Streak, PSA Airlines from Ohio
Star Check, Air Net from Ohio
Air Thunder, Thunder from Canada
Sky Challenge, Challenge Aero from Ukraine
White Star, Star Air from Denmark
Mercury, Shuttle America from Indiana
Archangelsk, Nordavia from Russia
Something about the Country of Origin:
Glacier, Central Mountain from Canada
Shamrock, Aer Lingus
Bearskin, Bearskin Lake Air Service Ltd. from Canada
Sandbar, Mega Maldives
Gotham, Meridian Air Charter from Teterboro NJ
Vegas Heat, Corporate Flight International
Lucky Air, Lucky Air from China
Viking, Thomas Cook Airlines Scandinavia
Great Wall, Great Wall Airlines
Fuji Dream, Fuji Dream Airlines
Jade Cargo, Jade Cargo International from China
SpiceJet, SpiceJet from India
Salsa, SALSA D’Haiti
Delphi, Fly Hellas from Greece
And just for fun:
Lindbergh, GoJet from Missouri
Wild Onion, Chicago Air
Rex, Regional Express from Australia
Suckling, Scot Airways from the UK*
Yellow, DHL Aero Express from Panama
There are many, many more. But these alone are reason enough for passengers on commercial planes to request listening in on the chatter between the ATCs and the pilots.
ScotAir's mom-and-pop parent firm, before a lot of corporate chopping and changing, was a couple named Suckling. It's a common name in East Anglia. Sir John Suckling, poet and inventor of cribbage, came from those parts.
They ran off of a grass strip in Ipswich, to Edinburgh and Manchester. The in-flight meals were cooked in their kitchen and driven to the plane. A wonderful story, and a BBC documentary. But 9/11 and a bunch of mergers ended that. In Apri1 2013 the entity disappeared and its call sign went with it.
[See update below.] The planning behind, and consequences of, China's expansion of its Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, in the East China Sea remain obscure. Of the various attempts to explain it, for now I like Robert Kelly's on Asian Security Blog best. It emphasizes the contradictory possibilities -- expansionism, miscalculation, domestic posturing -- that might all simultaneously be true. Previous coverage here, here, and here.
Related question: Should we worry that the U.S. government, having quickly taken a "this is bullshit!" stance by sending B-52s through the new ADIZ, is showing contradictions of its own, in urging U.S.-based airlines to file flight planes with the Chinese authorities?
No. This isn't the airlines' battle.* They already file flight plans for every operation with various national and international authorities. It's no harm to them to copy the Chinese in too. The immediate danger of this ADIZ is that it will be one more occasion for national-pride chest-bumping among Chinese and other (Japanese, U.S., South Korean, Taiwanese) military aircraft, in an already tense region where an accident or miscalculation could have big and dangerous consequences. It makes sense to minimize the chance that passenger airplanes could be involved.
And to be clear: this is a potentially very dangerous situation. The build-up to it has involved animus from many players, but this latest move is all China's doing.
Now let's look on the brighter side, all still in the aviation theme.
1) Private pilots' licenses come to China. Huzzah! This is one more step down the path I examined in China Airborne. That is, China's determination to will itself into leadership as an international aerospace power, despite its lack of (a) airports, (b) airplanes, (c) an advanced aircraft or engine-building industry, (d) flyable airspace, and (e) pilots. Everyone knows about its efforts to address the first three shortages -- or would, if they'd read my book! Last week I mentioned a long-awaited move on the airspace front: reducing the amount under the military's control. And yesterday we hear: easier requirements for certification as a pilot.
This is good news. Though anyone familiar with road traffic in China will pause for reflection on reading this quote, via the NYT:
On Friday, The Beijing News carried the headline: “In the future, getting a private pilot’s license will be just as easy as getting an automobile driver’s license.”
2) World's shortest commercial flight: the apparent champ. Via the very interesting site of Matt Dearden, a UK-born bush pilot working in Indonesia, this clip of a 73-second flight from one hilltop airstrip to another. Between the two airstrips is a very deep valley. The dramatic part of the video starts about 30 seconds in, with an approach to one of the tiny airstrips.
Passengers pay $5 apiece to save the many hours the steeply down-and-up-hill journey would take on foot. In case you're wondering, the locale of this flight is West Papua -- which is on the western, Indonesian half of the island whose eastern half is the nation of Papua New Guinea.
Also in case you're wondering, the elevation at these airfields is around 4500 feet, which is high-ish; and the landing strips appear to be around 1000 - 1200 feet long, which is short. Impressive. (Photo at top of this post is from Dearden's site. And here is a sample dramatic entry from his Papuan flying adventures.)
A different pilot's video of landing on one of these airports is here.
3) World's shortest flight: runner up. It's from my ancestral homeland of Scotland, and it's about 90 seconds from takeoff to touchdown -- as you can see in the video of one entire flight, below. You'll note that about 40 seconds after takeoff the pilot is already reducing power to prepare for landing.
Compared with normal commercial journeys, this up-and-down flight path seems very odd -- but it's not that different from the routine training exercise of "flying the pattern" that all pilots have gone through. Pattern work involves taking off, climbing to 800 - 1000 feet above the ground, and doing a series of four right- or left-hand turns to make a rectangular path above the ground before coming in for landing again, a minute or so after takeoff. My point is simply that reducing power and speed very soon after lifting off is a familiar rather than an alien thing to do.
* Airlines have identifiable home countries -- American Airlines, All-Nippon, Singapore Air, etc -- but those with international routes truly do operate, like shipping lines, in a beyond-national-borders, international-commons regime. It would make a bad situation worse to bring airlines further into it, as players, or pawns.
Update I've heard online from a number of people who disagree about airlines and the ADIZ. Their main point is that China's goal is to change the status quo in the region, and any step that accommodates the new, unilaterally proclaimed Chinese rules effectively recognizes this new status quo. Eg:
The thing is we didn't have to issue guidance - the airlines could have complied on their own in order to deal with the potential safety issues - without the USG weighing in and undermining our position on the ADIZ and putting space btw Washington and Tokyo/Seoul in a really high profile way at an awful time. Major unforced error on our part.
I don't think "strategic ambiguity," in the form of letting the airlines comply but not saying so in public, would necessarily be a more forceful or sustainable position. And officially telling U.S. airlines not to follow the new Chinese rules would have raised the problem I mention, of putting normal businesses in the midst of an international struggle.
In any case, I think a U.S. goal should be to put airline operations to the side, as a minor, routine part of the drama. The real question is what the U.S. and other governments do to contain (and not stoke) the tension in the region, and to respond to this expansionary move on China's part.
Going on a trip tomorrow. Of the countless United flights I've taken over the aeons, for many millions of miles all around the world, not one has ever had Wi-Fi coverage. Unlike Alaska, Delta, American, much of US Air, etc. Just now the message above arrives. There is something I would actually be working on, online, during the daytime long-haul flight tomorrow if this actually functions. Will do an update on this post some time tomorrow to register results -- in flight, between noon and 6pm EDT if it is functional, sometime after that if not.
Here is United's chart about how Wi-Fi progress is going. To be clear, most of the time I welcome the opportunity to be dis-connected -- to read a book, to watch a movie, to think -- during a long flight. But there are times, like tomorrow, when it would be a plus. We'll see.
Update from aloft: To my surprise, I am sitting at 34,000 feet in a United A320 that has both Wi-Fi and one of those "EmPower" power outlets. Our modern world.
Update-update: At least on this flight, unfortunately the service doesn't work well enough to be to worth the $13 price. For about one hour of a five-hour flight, the United Wi-Fi worked at high speed. The rest of the time it was off line or so overloaded/troubled that most pages timed out before they loaded. For the record.
Three weeks after the crash, I hear from several travelers that debris from Asiana 214 is still visible at SFO, apparently as investigators keep working through the clues. I am entering my last day-plus in my current Internet-impaired environment, so a few text-only updates.
1) The landing gear succeeded; they failed. From a reader in the Seattle area:
One factor not mentioned in your posting was the "failure" of the landing gear. That is, in an impact beyond the strength of the LG, they are supposed to detach from the wing without breaking the wing off or ripping open the fuel tanks.
They worked! (before the frisbee pirouette )
Likewise the engines. Unfortunately, one of them came to rest snuggled up to the fuselage, and was the ignition source for the post-evacuation fire....
I work for a certain aeronautical enterprise, and actually sent a congratulatory e-mail to the 777 designers...
2) Credit to the airplane as a whole. From another reader in the industry:
I agree that fatigue & a little bit of culture are the broken links in this chain of events.
I have worked as an aircraft mechanic for United Airlines for [more than 25 years] at [a major US hub], and most of us at work believe the 777 is one of Boeing's finest achievements. The talk around the hanger has always been the 777 "is so smart it's a very difficult aircraft to have an accident in," and unfortunately without that technology engaged on the aircraft that is exactly what happened to flight 214.
3) Other airplanes are strong too. A reader says the crash is a good occasion to remember a previous unusual landing with a happier overall outcome. This was the flight of the "Gimli Glider," whose 30th anniversary occurred last week:
It's a shame that more people in the US aren't aware of that remarkable feat. I live outside of Detroit and was able to watch a short documentary about it on CBC the other night. Admittedly, I had never heard about this until watching it. The stories of the pilot, crew, and passengers on that flight was far more interesting than the perceived impending crash of Noah Gallagher Shannon's flight.
I'm including a link to the piece, it's about 20 minutes. You might need to use a proxy server in Canada to actually watch it.
Short version of this saga: because of various fuel-management miscalculations, an Air Canada Boeing 767 ran entirely out of gas over Ontario. The crew and passengers all escaped alive only because the crew glided the plane down safely, with no engine power at all, from an altitude of 35,000 feet. Eg:
Captain [Robert] Pearson was an experienced glider pilot, which gave him familiarity with flying techniques almost never used by commercial pilots. To have the maximum range and therefore the largest choice of possible landing sites, he needed to fly the 767 at the "best glide speed". Making his best guess as to this speed for the 767, he flew the aircraft at 220 knots (410 km/h; 250 mph). First Officer Maurice Quintal began to calculate whether they could reach Winnipeg. He used the altitude from one of the mechanical backup instruments, while the distance traveled was supplied by the air traffic controllers in Winnipeg, measuring the distance the aircraft's echo moved on their radar screens.
Lots more in the Wikipedia account and on the video.
4) Previous Asiana landing problems. A report on the SF Gate web site contends that even before the crash Asiana flights had a much higher-than-normal rate of "go-arounds," or aborted landing attempts, at San Francisco Airport. The sources for this claim aren't named, and FAA officials decline comment, although the Airport Director for SFO does go on-record as saying he had been concerned about Asiana's performance.
In itself, a decision to "go around" on any given landing can be a sign of a competent and safety-conscious flight crew rather than the reverse. When learning to land a plane, you're taught to be ready to go around at any moment before touchdown, rather than trying to save a landing that is shaping up the wrong way. But a pattern of frequently needing to go around can obviously be a bad sign.
5) More on Confucius in the Cockpit. A Western reader who has worked for years in China previously sent in an account of a Dutch soccer coach who greatly improved the Korean national team by (in this reader's view) shaking up some Confucian concepts of hierarchy and group effort. Another reader disagrees:
I'd like to send a brief note in response to your post - specifically, the anecdote about Hiddink [Guus Hiddink, the Dutch coach.] It is usually the case, in a situation in which a new authority changes the fortunes of a team (whether in sports or in business or wherever these inspirational movie theses appear), that some nugget of aphoristic truth can be gleaned from the turnaround, like so much dropping pitch. So it is with this one, in which Hiddink reverses the team's entire trajectory via an elemental ceremony that just so happens to represent the insertion of Western values into a team ruled by Eastern culture.
What instead turns out often to be the case is that this turnaround was actually managed through an intensive process of redesigning the team's (or department, or business, or what have you) strategy and tactical objectives, followed by an even-more intensive process of working with the team to relearn this new method of approaching competitors and the world at large. I'm sure one of the things you realize in these situations is that they rarely make for good cinema until they're condensed into the crystalline pitch-wisdom that we see in your anecdote.
Apologies for the soccer pun.
While I am loathe to claim that a practice of giving up shots on goal didn't doom the Korean squad pre-Hiddink (as a player myself once upon a time, I know how precious SOG are), I regrettably cannot bring myself to believe that a) this practice was the only problem the squad had, or that b) the problem was solved in a single ceremonial display of Hiddink's authority.
6) The 'Asoh Defense.' Back in 1968, a Japan Airlines plane bound for landing at SFO had a problem somewhat like Asiana 214's. The crew guided it through a properly stabilized approach -- but "landed" two miles short of the runway, right in San Francisco Bay. The circumstances were worse than in the Asiana case -- bad weather, and a ceiling of only 300 feet (versus clear skies three weeks ago). The outcome was better, in that no one was killed. The episode is famous in aviation lore for the "Asoh defense," the explanation offered by captain Kohei Asoh: "As you Americans say, I fucked up."
7) It's a "cockpit management" problem, not a national-culture problem. Another reader writes:
On whether the crew's failure was a product of Korean "culture" or simply poor crew culture: Take a look at the NTSB report from the United Airlines DC-8 crash in Portland [Oregon] in 1978. One of the safety recommendations stemming from that accident was to direct all air carriers to indoctrinate flight crews in principles of flight deck resource management. It's my understanding that United took this recommendation to heart, and pilot Al Haynes credits that change with saving so many lives in the United DC-10 crash at Sioux City.
As Haynes later said:
"As for the crew, there was no training procedure for hydraulic failure. Complete hydraulic failure. We've all been through one failure or double failures, but never a complete hydraulic failure.
"But the preparation that paid off for the crew was something that United started in 1980 called Cockpit Resource Management, or Command Leadership Resource Training ...All the other airlines are now using it.
"Up until 1980, we kind of worked on the concept that the captain was THE authority on the aircraft. What he said, goes. And we lost a few airplanes because of that. Sometimes the captain isn't as smart as we thought he was. And we would listen to him, and do what he said, and we wouldn't know what he's talking about. And we had 103 years of flying experience there in the cockpit, trying to get that airplane on the ground, not one minute of which we had actually practiced, any one of us. So why would I know more about getting that airplane on the ground under those conditions than the other three. So if I hadn't used CLR, if we had not let everybody put their input in, it's a cinch we wouldn't have made it.
"I don't know if any of you remember the old movie Marty, I kind of refer to that, it was Ernest Borgnine, and a group of his cronies, trying to find something to do on a Saturday night, and they said, what do you want to do Marty, and he said, i don't know, what do you want to do Joe, and that's kind of the way we flew the airplane now."
8) A final thought from Nevil Shute. A reader who is an active pilot says the episode reminds him of this line from Nevil Shute's autobiography, Slide Rule:
"Aircraft do not crash of themselves. They come to grief because men are foolish, or vain, or lazy, or irresolute or reckless. One crash in a thousand may be unavoidable because God wills it so - not more than that."
Let me try to work through a few of the leads, responses, red herrings, and insights that readers have sent in since the crash two weeks ago.
1) An illuminating video recreation. Here is a useful animation of the difference between a normal "stabilized" approach to San Francisco's runway 28L, and what can be deduced about flight 214's path.
A professional pilot added this commentary about the clip:
This is the best video I've seen so far demonstrating the cost of a flat approach. The only misleading element is the airspeed differential, probably to keep the two images in close proximity. The dramatically slower approach speed of the aircraft would have better highlighted the flaw, not just in altitude above the ground but the equally dangerous decreasing airspeed. The properly positioned "ghost" aircraft would have left the doomed Asiana far behind - running out of altitude, airspeed, and options.
If your own flight instructor never told you - get on the proper descent profile as soon as possible. Being high or low is a formula for a more challenging landing. Waiting to correct for being high, low, slow, fast, or off center means "going to school" much too late - no rodeos required. With this international route, a good crew has been efficient for the last 12 to 14 hours and nine time zones of circadian shift, so a stabilized approach is the primary consideration during the final minutes of flight.
2) What's wrong with "Confucius in the cockpit" / "this is how Asians fly" hypotheses. If you've been following this topic, you've seen countless circulated emails from Western pilots alarmed at what they have seen at Asian, and especially Korean and Chinese, flight schools and airlines. I don't have time to fish these all out at the moment. I will say that if you'd like a bracing retort, the place to start is with the "Ask a Korean" site, notably this post (which goes right at Malcolm Gladwell-ism) and then this omnibus followup, including a reply from Gladwell.
When I can I will try to give a Solomonic pronouncement on winners and losers in this dispute. Two-sentence preview: Of course Asian-style education and culture can lead to distinctive dynamics in the workplace or in an airline cockpit. But I'm skeptical of moving directly to civilizational interpretations of events with more modest potential explanations. (OK, a third sentence: At face value it appears that for some reason there was a failure of basic flying skills here, but just the same appeared to be true in the 2009 Colgan crash in Buffalo, whose two home-grown American pilots had no known connection to Confucianism.)
3) The NASA view of culture in the cockpit. One of the seminal papers in this discipline, by a NASA official back in 2000, is available in a grainy but legible scanned version of the original printed pages, here. Worth reading in light of the Asiana discussions.
4) 'Children of Magenta.' In the piloting world, this crash has revived a perennial debate on whether pilots are becoming so dependent on automation that they have lost basic "stick and rudder" flying skills. This is the aviation analogy of the old debates about whether 1960s-era calculators were destroying people's ability to do math, or whether today's GPS systems are destroying a sense of direction. The difference is that pilots in most cases still actually have to land the plane.
A classic discourse on perils of automation is enjoying new popularity now. It's a 25-minute lecture called "Children of Magenta" (with autopilot and GPS systems, the plane is often programmed to follow a magenta-colored line). Here you go:
There's more in the queue, but that is what I have time for now.
Essay-question topic for bonus credit: precisely because commercial airline accidents have become so rare, with the "normal" causes of accidents being eliminated one by one, the accidents that do occur almost always involve improbable, complex, surprising, or puzzling combinations of circumstances. In much of life, the medical-diagnostic nostrum that "when you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras" makes sense. Accidents on major airlines these days are nearly all zebras.
[TL;DR Executive summary of what's below: Patrick Smith, of Ask the Pilot, has seen maintenance records from the flight described in a controversial NYT Magazine piece. These records show no evidence of the "landing gear failure" on which the entire story was based.]
Let's step away from NSA and Edward Snowden, and even from Pooh and Tigger, for a moment. Earlier I said I would not re-prosecute the case against the recent, fantasized NYT Magazine "Lives" story on what a writer felt when an airliner was (supposedly) about to plunge to its doom. For a refresher on the story, see this -- plus later details from Patrick "Ask the Pilot" Smith, from Clive Irving, from the Economist'sGulliver site, and from John Warner at Inside Higher Ed.
I have two new reasons to go back into this article. One makes me think more gently of the story and the author. The other, much more harshly. ___
1. I'll start with Mr. Nice Guy. The controversy over the story involved whether what was recounted by the author, Noah Gallagher Shannon, could have happened as described. To choose one notorious example:
The captain came out of the cockpit and stood in the aisle. His cap dangled in one hand. "All electricity will remain off," he said. Something about an open current and preventing a cabin fire. Confused noises spread through the cabin, but no one said a word. "I'll yell the rest of my commands from the cockpit." I could see sweat stains under his arms. "Not going to sugarcoat it," he said. "We're just going to try to land it."
I was not on that plane, but I can tell you: This. Did. Not. Occur. The dangling cap-in-hand; the sweat stains; the captain coming out of the cockpit and saying he would "yell" his commands; the "not going to sugarcoat it" and "just going to try to land it." No. But the explanation from the magazine's editor, Hugo Lindgren, was that the story aspired to describe what one writer "felt and heard," what he remembered, rather than what anyone else might recall. ("Naturally,
not every detail matches everybody else's experience. Surely even
people on that plane would remember it differently.")
At first, I thought this explanation was mainly artful in rendering the story un-falsifiable. I thought about it differently and more sympathetically after hearing, this weekend, a remarkable episode of the the TED Radio Hour, hosted by my former All Things Considered comrade Guy Raz.
The subject of the show was the unreliability of even the "strongest" and clearest memories. The first segment, with a legal authority named Scott Fraser, went into the very great likelihood of error, false certainty, and wishful filling-in of facts that accompanied most eyewitness recollections. The second segment, with the sociologist and economist psychologist (who won a Nobel prize in economics) Daniel Kahneman, was even more directly applicable to the NYT Mag case. It dealt with extremely "vivid" memories that might never have happened, or with details very different from what the rememberer became "sure" had occurred. Kahneman described one of the most powerful episodes from his childhood as a Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied France. And then he explained why he couldn't be sure the event had ever happened the way he "recalled." (The final segment was the writer Joshua Foer describing how he won the national trained-memory championship.)
By chance, immediately after that show I listened to a recent episode of Radiolab, which in one chilling segment reinforced the Memento / Inception / Matrix- like point that we can very rarely be sure what is "really" going on. So maybe that was the story with the New York Times. Something happened on an airplane; a passenger on that plane imagined and then remembered something else; and that something-else is what he, in all sincerity, described to us.
And then I saw an update on Patrick Smith's site. __
2. Smith, an airline pilot, has for many years written the celebrated Ask the Pilot chronicles, along with his excellent new book Cockpit Confidential. (Seriously: If there is anything you don't like, or do like, about air travel, you'll find this book fascinating.) Smith has ample reason to be believed on this topic, and no reason to risk his reputation by inventing facts. And today he says that he has come across maintenance records for that "doomed" flight that made an emergency landing in Philadelphia. What he has found is not convenient for the story Noah Gallagher Shannon told.
You can get all the details from from Smith, but here's the heart of it. Smith says that the flight crew's logbooks from the flight show this crucial notation: "ECAM HYD Y RSVR LO LVL"
Let's break this down. ECAM is the monitoring service for system-functions on an Airbus. HYD stands for the hydraulic systems for controlling the plane; Y stands for "Yellow," to identify one of the three color-coded hydraulic systems. RSVR LO LVL means "reservoir at low level" [see, you too can be a pilot], a warning signal about potential problems with that hydraulic system.
This was the "emergency." It was not a "problem with the landing gear," which was the entire premise of the NYT Magazine article. (The yellow hydraulic system does not control the plane's landing gear, as the pilots would beyond any question have known -- you're always drilled and tested on which systems control which functions, and what happens if they fail.) There is nothing in this circumstance that would have made a professional flight crew panic or try to prepare passengers for the worst. Moreover, after the plane landed in Philadelphia, a maintenance crew found (according to Smith) that this was purely a faulty-indicator problem. The hydraulic level had been fine all along. Let Smith spell it out:
An A320 captain I spoke to says that a shut-down of the yellow system would have meant, at worst, a slightly longer-than-normal landing roll (due to loss of the right engine thrust reverser and some of the wing spoiler panels), and, in newer A320s, loss of the nose-gear steering system, requiring a tow to the gate.
There were enough red flags [in Shannon's story] to begin with, but this puts it over the top, tilting the entire account from one of eye-rolling embellishment toward one of outright fabrication.
There was never a problem with the landing gear. There was never a reason for the pilots to come out, sweat-drenched, and say brave words to the possibly doomed souls aboard. Based on what Patrick Smith has learned, there was never a reason to shut off all the lights and electricity in the plane. Memory is unreliable. But the TimesMagazine story appears to be something more than that, and worth another look by the paper.
I am grateful to Hugo Lindgren for his response, as editor of the New York Times Magazine, to questions and doubts about Noah Gallagher Shannon's story, "The Plane Was About to Crash. Now What?" The response included time, date, and routing information for the author's flight, which had not appeared in the original story.
Before I heard from Lindgren, I was about to put up a large number ( > 20) of messages from pilots, flight attendants, engineers, etc on why they viewed details in the story as mistakes at best, technically implausible fabrications at worst.
In light of Lindgren's response, I don't think it's worth doing so -- though, thanks to those who wrote in. Here's how it settles out for me:
- I do believe that the author was aboard a flight two years ago that had an unexpected diversion to Philadelphia, and that this frightened him.
- I do not believe most of the detail, color, and sequence-of-events in the story. And it strikes me that Hugo Lindgren is not trying to convince me that I should. Look again at this central and extremely artful passage from his statement:
Naturally, not every detail matches everybody else's experience. Surely even people on that plane would remember it differently. The story was about the personal experience of a fearful moment....He only reported what he heard and felt, which is consistent with the magazine's Lives page, where the account was published.
So if you went to the trouble (as I have not done) of finding other passengers on that plane and asking them whether, in fact, a rattled-sounding pilot had left the cockpit during the emergency to yell instructions down the aisle, meanwhile dangling a cap in his hand; or if you found the radar tracks to see whether an airliner had actually circled for two hours over Philadelphia; or if you heard from an Airbus electrical engineer (as I have) that it would have been impossible for the cabin lighting or public-address system to have behaved in the way the story claims; or if you went to the FAA or NTSB and found that their records for that date didn't match this story; or if you did anything else of the sort -- it wouldn't matter. The writer was telling us "what he heard and felt," not necessarily what "happened."
OK. To me this is closed. I appreciate the quick response from Hugo Lindgren. Noah Gallagher Shannon is clearly a very talented young writer -- no one would have wondered about the story if it hadn't been so grippingly told. I assume he will think carefully about his choice of genre for future work.
A few minutes ago Hugo Lindgren, editor of the New York Times Magazine, sent me this official response to questions about the veracity of the back-page article it published two weeks ago, "The Plane Was About to Crash. Now What?" Earlier today I explained why points both large and small in the account sounded phony to me; since then, I've received a flood of mail from aviation authorities with similar concerns.
Lindgren answers the very important basic question of whether there ever was such a flight, whether the author (Noah Gallagher Shannon) was aboard it, and whether it actually got diverted to Philadelphia. That is very useful to know. As for other questions about Shannon's account -- I'll leave them for later. For now, and for the record, here is Lindgren's response on its own and in full:
Some commenters have seized on certain details of "The Plane Was About to Crash. Now What?" by Noah Gallagher Shannon in order to question whether this emergency landing happened (and perhaps even whether the author was on the flight). But there is simply no question. The author was on Frontier Airlines flight #727 on June 30, 2011, from Washington to Denver. It was an Airbus 320. The author sat in seat 12A. This flight was diverted to Philadelphia. The FAA reports that the pilot declared an emergency due to a low hydraulics indicator light and that upon landing the plane needed to be towed to the gate. Frontier airlines confirms that an Airbus A320 experienced "a maintenance issue on departure from Washington DCA. The flight diverted to Philadelphia due to easier access. The aircraft and all passengers landed safely."
Did the author's personal recollection represent an accurate picture of what he experienced on that flight? Well, only he can attest to his own experience. But the author did provide receipts and took notes after the flight to back up his account. And his recollection, when run by an aviation specialist, did seem entirely plausible to him. While some of the author's language may have been imprecise, his recollection of his experience was consistent with recollections of passengers in similar air incidents. Naturally, not every detail matches everybody else's experience. Surely even people on that plane would remember it differently. The story was about the personal experience of a fearful moment. The author did not present himself as an authority in airline technology or emergency procedures. The airline, in fact, refused his request for more information about what happened after the fact. He only reported what he heard and felt, which is consistent with the magazine's Lives page, where the account was published.
The basic fact that no one can dispute is that the author of the column was on a flight to Denver that was diverted after the pilot reported a problem. Details like whether the crew followed standard procedure -- or varied from it -- or whether the lights were dimmed or how that looked to him, cannot be credibly contested by people who were not on the plane, even if their own experience of an emergency situation might have been different.
The piece was fact-checked before publication, and after questions were raised, editors reviewed it again, with the full cooperation of the writer. All the key points appear to be corroborated, and we have not found any evidence to undercut any significant elements of the narrative.
Two weeks ago I read the NYT Mag's back-page story on a harrowing brush-with-death encounter when pilots had to land an airliner while thinking that its wheels had not come down. I was about to head off on a trip so I didn't take the time to write what I was thinking, which was: this doesn't sound right.
Now I see that questions about the veracity of the story have cropped up -- in Romenesko and Metafilter, in a Gene Weingarten's item for the Washington Post, and elsewhere. For the record, here are some things that seemed fishy to me.
1) The whole scenario. The plot line of the essay is that the pilots discovered, on a trip from some unnamed city to Denver, that the plane's landing gear didn't work. Thus they "circled for two hours over Philadelphia" to burn off gas before attempting a wheels-up landing.
Here's the problem: why would the pilots have discovered mid-flight that the landing gear had failed? Normally pilots would be paying attention to their landing gear exactly twice during the flight. One would be a few seconds after takeoff, when the flight crew would retract the gear into the plane's body so as to reduce drag as they climbed. If the wheels didn't retract then, the crew would know that right away -- and they could circle back (perhaps after burning off some fuel) for a normal wheels-and-all landing.
The other time is not long before landing, when the crew would put the wheels back down. If the wheels didn't go down, that would be a problem -- with various possible counter-measures. (Manual gear-lowering systems; flying by the tower so controllers can look at the plane's belly with binoculars and see whether the gear are actually down; and so on.)
The rest of the time, the wheels just sit there. They don't fail mid-flight. They're just in their bay inside the plane's fuselage. The pilots pay zero attention to the landing gear until they're going through the descent-and-landing checklists. So, maybe this happened. But it doesn't resemble any "failure mode" I have ever heard of. Unless the gear didn't retract after takeoff to begin with, and the pilots circled but didn't say anything to the passengers (who also didn't notice anything) for the next two hours.
2) The pilots' Airplane! style behavior. According to this story, the pilots are opening the cockpit door and yelling encouragement and safety instructions to the terrified passengers, because they've turned off the cabin electric system (to avoid sparks on landing) and therefore can't use the public-address system.
Really? Try to envision the scenario of the pilot yelling down the aisle, as "his cap dangled in one hand." I can't. Including the part about the cap, which pilots don't wear while sitting at the controls.
3) The mood of impending doom. The whole emotional tone of the essay turns on the pilots' preparing everyone for a brush with death. It's easy for me to believe that some passengers might be terrified. Not the pilots. Gear-up landings are bad for the airplane -- the belly of the plane obviously gets chewed up. But they are more common than other airline mishaps -- one happened just last week at Newark -- and they rarely kill people. The pilots would know that.
4) The engines "spooling down." This passage caught my eye when I first saw the piece: "You can actually feel the air holding you up when a plane's engines power down. Like when you're riding a bike downhill and you stop pedaling, there's noiselessness in its speed."
Well, yes. The air holds you up the entire time the plane is flying. But let's concentrate on the engine. The author never explicitly says that the engines were turned off, but several times he talks about the "noiselessness" as they "power down." To which I say again, Really?
Any plane reduces power as it descends for a landing. An airliner would need to slow down from its 400+ knot cruising speed to the low-100-kt range for final approach -- and do so even as it is descending, which speeds the plane up. Pilots manage that transition through reduced power. But for a wheels-up landing the pilots might maintain more power than usual just before touchdown, not less, so as to make the final contact with the ground as gentle and gradual as possible.
5) The Philadelphia disaster team. According to the story, the plane circled over Philadelphia because its airport had the best disaster-response team. Reportedly the author heard this judgment from another passenger who worked for FEMA rather than directly from the pilot. Still, it sounds odd.
All big airports have on-scene fire squads and equipment to spread fire-retardant foam over the runway to protect an inbound wheels-up plane. It is 100% believable that pilots of a such a plane would be looking for a nearby airport that had the longest runways, or the ones best aligned with the wind. Choosing this airport on the basis of EMT teams sounds strange. No offense to Philly, but what would be wrong with Boston -- site of the miracle trauma-treatment scenes after the Marathon bombing? If the plane needed to burn fuel for two hours, it could easily have gotten there.
6) When did this happen, anyway? Practically the only specific reference in the story was to Philadelphia. Otherwise there is no mention of: which airline this was, or when it occurred, or on what kind of plane, or where the trip began. Any of these, of course, would make the story easier to verify.
So, maybe this all happened. I know, from experience, that the NYT Magazine has good fact checkers. But a lot of details sound very unlikely to me.
Last month we went 15 rounds over the saga of the United flight from Denver to Baltimore that made an unscheduled stop in Chicago, so that a family could be taken off the plane by police. The parents' offense was to complain about a violent/sexy PG-13 movie that was being shown on the cabin's overhead screens in front of their two little boys. Even the movie's director wrote in to say that he never imagined that the film, Alex Cross, would be shown in general-viewing circumstances like this. You can get all the detail you want here or here.
Two reasons to follow up. First, a parents' group that has been petitioning United to change its movie-choice policy claims victory. Here's a note I received from one of its organizers:
We won! ...Our voice combined with other voices of journalists, traveling parents, and organizations like the Campaign for a Commericial Free Childhood made this happen.
I hoped to get the full policy from United Airlines to share with you. But I am satisfied with this for now:
The policy change is that the standards are in line with guidelines of
PG-rated movies. More review may be underway, however this is internal
Now who wants to contact American Airlines and Delta?!?"
Congratulations to the families that asked for the change. Apart from revising its movie policy, as best I can tell United has never apologized for or acknowledged the original over-reaction -- that of humiliating the family by turning them over to the police. I've had no followup beyond the opaque statement I quoted a month ago.
Next, a very interesting dispatch from another United pilot. This note is actually in response to an incident reported by someone else: Matthew Klint, who was kicked off a flight from Newark to Istanbul after a flight attendant (falsely) told the captain that he was disobeying orders to stop taking photos. The whole tale is almost too bizarre to be believed, but you can scroll through the follow-up accounts here. The essential point is that a number of other passengers later confirmed that the flight attendant had over-reacted and misled the captain about what Mr. Klint was doing, but the captain nonetheless made him leave the plane (and miss connecting flights and meetings) before it took off.
I know the real name of the pilot who sent in the note below, but he (or she) has understandably asked me not to use it. Worth reading:
I am a Captain with United Airlines. I have been with UA for over 25 years. There is no excuse for the way you [actually Matthew Klint] were treated on your Newark Istanbul flight.
Let me tell you how the incident should have been handled. I had a very similar incident on a Las Vegas-Dulles flight. A flight attendant told me of a disruptive passenger that would not move his underage son out of the exit row. I went out of the cockpit to see what was going on. I went to Customer Service and had them come back to the airplane. I spoke with the man. I wanted to hear his side of the story. He began to tell me how UA had put his special needs son in a different row than him. He had moved the child to the row because the FA had not listened to him, but ordered him to move the boy. While he was telling me his side the FA immediately tried to interrupt. I told her to let the man speak. When he was through I told him not to worry the Customer Service person would re-seat them so that we could get on our way.
I wanted to point out the difference in approach to the situation. The flight attendant had told me what she thought was going on. She told me how they had to move or be thrown off the airplane. As a professional I wanted to get all the facts before just arbitrarily removing someone from the airplane. The situation was defused and we went on our way.
I did not come out of the cockpit with the preconceived notion that I was going to throw someone off the ac. In your situation I would not have overreacted over pictures. I did not know such a rule even existed. I am confused about the picture thing anyway. I would have listened to you before I made a determination whether you had to leave.
You need to know that United was not always so anti passenger in the past. Since continental took over our management they have brought in all kinds of rather strange and illogical rules.
1. You cannot take pictures, I assume because of security, but they are paying to have the secondary barriers that protect the cockpit removed from our aircraft.
2. You cannot pay cash for your food or drinks in coach.
3. You can order special meals such as Hindu, but you will most likely get a burger because management is from Texas and everyone likes beef right? (Didn't work out so well with a group of Indian Hindu engineers in First Class coming from London. You know the sacred cow and all. I apologized to them, but the damage was done.)
We are supposed to speak to our CEO like he is a close friend or something. If you don't call him Jeff he becomes upset. [JF note: This is Jeff Smisek, well known to all United travelers because of the video ads featuring him that precede the safety instructions on each flight.] They call everyone co-workers. They setup a human resource complaint system so that anyone can file formal complaints against their fellow workers for the littlest thing. You can be terminated. We have over 200 complaints being investigated just for the pilots so far.
My point is the new UA management is anti-employee as well as anti-passenger. It puts a tremendous amount of pressure on everyone. Some people handle it differently than others. I think your case is a perfect example.
I on behalf of all United Airlines employees would like to apologize to you to your ordeal. Management might think they are too important to apologize, but I think you would find the people that make the airline work don't think that way.
I appreciate the care that went into this note, and want to take the chance to say again that when there is a troubled corporate culture, the tone is almost always set at the top. I'm also grateful to the other United employees with whom I've had interesting and revealing talks in the (many) trips I've taken in the past month.
Recently I posted a couple of pictures illustrating the role that airport-terminal floors play in the Atlantic's article-production process.
My friend Matt Broder, son of the late Washington Post columnist David Broder, reminded me that floors have long played an important role in journalism. He said that the LAX photo made him think of the one below, showing his father at work. From various clues in the photo I would guess it was taken in the mid-to-late 1970s or the early-to-mid 1980s.
Matt Broder adds:
The category, I guess, is "It Was Ever Thus for Journalists, Even Before The Internet."
This is, by the way, my all-time favorite photo of my dad. How happy I am to find it on The Atlantic's own website! [In an item about David Broder by Ron Brownstein.]
In turn, one lovely detail in this photo made me think of a famous shot from the historical archives. It's of Adlai Stevenson, during his 1952 presidential campaign:
There is a related great picture of Obama-and-shoes, from the 2008 campaign, that I'll let you find. Working hypothesis: three striking photos of politically involved figures who are too busy to tend to their shoes all involve people from Illinois. Discuss.
I mentioned earlier how the travel day began yesterday, at the only working socket in a corridor at LAX.
Because of luggage complications, it turned into an unexpectedly long day and night en route. Here is how it all ended, as I am checking article-revisions in the baggage area at that epitome of elegant travel, Dulles airport. The other sockets in the vicinity had been covered over or disabled, as had those on the plane itself so that my computer battery was dead.
Hmm, for some reason I can't quite pin down, I am reminded of a recent international survey of airport quality around the world, which found that U.S. airports held exactly zero of the top 25 places in the rankings. [Update: as Obama pointed out just this moment in his press conference.] America's best is the (actually nice) Cincinnati - Northern Kentucky regional airport, at number 30. Next is Denver, at 36. Neither LAX nor Dulles, respectively the beginning and ending of my air journey yesterday, shows up among the top 100 airports for overall convenience, comfort, efficiency, and so on. I wonder why that could be.
More on the glamorous life saga here. And before you write in, yes I do realize that I am extremely fortunate to have spent so many years in a line of work I love -- including what seem like the years spent sitting on airport floors. I even encourage the adventurous young to consider this career path.
In a day or two I will resume normal programming here.
In the meantime, many people have written to ask whether I was being literal and sincere in saying that Nancy Sinatra's "Boots" video was "the best part of the 1960s."
For clarity: No.
If Andrew Sullivan hadn't already patented the concept of the Hathos Alert, I would have applied it here. By those terms, the video is pretty great.
Also, as several readers have pointed out, "Boots" had in its time a distinct political connotation, beyond just being an object of hathos. Details below*.
Let me now switch to completely sincere mode in endorsing this classic parody video, via the Atlantic's own John Tierney. If you see nothing else, watch the part from time 0:26 to 1:12, which is taken from a Nicoderm commercial that made a star of Anna Silk. But you probably should see other parts too. For instance, starting at 4:24, or 2:28, or ...
Now back to work, including filing that tax extension.
>>During television news coverage in 1966/67, the song was aired as a soundtrack as the cameras focused on US Infantrymen on patrol during the Vietnam War. Later, during that same time frame, Sinatra traveled to South Vietnam to perform for U.S. servicemen. It was used on the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987). Sinatra also sang it on an episode of China Beach in the late-1980s. In 2005, Paul Revere & the Raiders recorded a revamped version of the song using Sinatra's original vocal track. It appeared on the CD Ride to the Wall, Vol. 2, with proceeds going to help Vietnam veterans.
In addition, the Fembots were introduced to the strains of the opening and closing notes of the song in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.<<
The crunch time is at hand for a "real" article, so I will be away from this space for a number of days. Much like a python sending a whole pig through its system as long-term sustenance, I offer here a bolus of material, for digestion over a sustained period, concerning the saga of that diverted United flight. (Previous installments: one, two, three, four, and possibly others I have missed.) The replies below are not all the messages that have come in -- far from it -- but they represent the main theories and points of view.
1) 'To be fair' dept: I was on yet another long-haul cross-country United flight yesterday, and it couldn't have been more pleasant or upbeat. Everything I have said about a resentful or put-upon workplace culture was the opposite of what I experienced on this trip. Plus, the pre-safety-briefing Jeff Smisek video was the new "we believe in customer service" one mentioned here and shown below. Whether or not bigger changes are underway at the company, as suggested by this video, I thank the cabin crew of UA 574, SFO-IAD on April 8, for attitude fully matching the claims in the video. I have sent a "great job" message about them to United's customer-support site.
2) 'Actually, you're not being fair.' Here is one sample rebuttal, from a member of the extended United family. Others follow it, from United pilots. A reader writes:
>>I am a United brat - my dad was a pilot with them for 20 years and I grew up traveling only on them. Clearly I have flown United more than any other airline. That said, as I have grown up and graduated from my flight benefits, I have begun traveling for business with other airlines, primarily with American, so I'm not completely inexperienced.
Maybe I'm feeling defensive, but I really think you are using your position as a national journalist to pursue vendetta of opinion against United. I genuinely do not understand why you think it's professional to publish 4 or 5 articles about how terrible they are, based off of biased and anecdotal evidence and pass it off as journalism - when it is clearly opinion.
Traveling is no longer a luxury experience. As people demand and airlines come under increasing pressure to lower the costs of their flights, any costs that can be cut will. In order for airlines to be cost competitive, employees have seen their benefits and pensions cut, threatened with furlough, and been generally asked to do more with less. If people want that luxury experience they need to pay for it - like paying for a business for first class seat. Every time I fly in a premium class my experience is unctuous and overwhelmingly decadent. And I like it! You get what you pay for.
We live in a post -9/11 world, and this has infused every aspect of the flying experience. As someone who still lived at home post-9/11, I can give a firsthand account about the pervasive fear of flight attends and pilots after. They were literally worried about their lives You and other may think that the captain from the Baltimore flight made a poor judgment call - but that's what it was - a judgment call. The captain is ultimately responsible for the lives and safety of his passengers and crew, and he did what he thought was best. Also, it doesn't shock me that the airline stood behind the captain and crew. That's what they should do. When there are 230 people rocketing through 30,000 feet, there needs to be some sense of hierarchy and leadership.
I genuinely think your article showed shoddy journalism. You only presented only one side of the situation - although I grant that you did reach out to United, but unequivocally accepted their story, without exploring other explanations. Do you really and honestly believe that the pilot grounded the flight because two parents coolly and collegially voice rational complaints? Clearly there are other elements to this story and I should think, as someone how has "millions upon millions of accumulated miles, and super-elite status", you should be able to provide some critical thinking and insight to the situation.
Yes, there are heinous airline employees but there are also awesome employees. How about mentioning every incident when an airline employee goes out of their way to accommodate, because in my experience, that is by far more common. I mean, the guy from the dress code story obviously a bit over the top - he wanted to claim assault on the pilot for poking him and he's listed at least two other incidents when he's formally complained to the airline. So while I'm not defending the pilot from his dress code story, you have to admit that this person has no problem complaining (and is clearly an asshole - who takes a photo and sends it to corporate, a fucking tattletale?). You're publishing these horror stories from people who obviously have a bone to pick - and it's fantastical journalism and completely biased towards the person complaining. A little objectivity and research might do you some credit.<<
On the "research" front -- hey, I have been trying to get lots of people at United to explain more about what has been going on. For the rest, hold on.
3) From a United pilot, short version:
>>I fly for the "Continental" side of United as a line pilot. My wife, though, is a pilot for the United side. This story is very incredible indeed. There is NO WAY this is a normal occurrence. I don't know any pilots that would react that way. I think the story needs further context. Although United, like most airlines, have cranky bad seeds that bloom into bad customer experiences once in a while, this kind of behavior is unheard of. I am very skeptical of the story. Nearly all of the flight crew members I deal with every day I go to work are professional and indeed, pleasant.<<
Yes, I agree that this cannot be a normal episode. As we follow the message trail, there are some attempts to explain it.
4) From a different United pilot, long version:
>>As a pilot for United Airline's with more than 2 decades of industry experience, I am saddened by your experiences on United and even more saddened by your public attempt to shame the employees at United. My defense is three fold. First, your sample rate is tiny in comparison to the number of workers and daily flights. Second, the public's insistence on cheap fairs is driving the quality of employee down, and third, you fail to realize that employees react to their management more than they do to the customer. If there is a failure to be found then why not look at management and it's policies of demoralizing workers at every turn.
[JF note: I am going to step in here. On point (1) I agree about the sample rate, but I have flown enough through the decades to observe a "general corporate culture." And, for instance, a recent "America's meanest airlines" survey unfortunately gave United the worst rating, a dead-last result that prevails in some other surveys too. On point (2) I agree that the cheap-fare mania is a central factor in the race-toward-sardinehood in modern air travel. More on that below. On point (3), about the responsibility of corporate leaders to set an overall tone, I totally agree. That is why my leitmotif has been to ask: what is it about the current United corporate structure that -- on average, and in my observation -- leaves so many of the employees seeming so unhappy at their jobs? This pilot suggests some answers.]
To begin with, there are over 11,000 pilots at United and 30,000 flight attendants. I am aware that the number of disgruntled and under performing workers in our industry has increased over the last decade, but to impugn the behaviour of all United workers based on the half dozen examples in your blog is to me shameful. How about the hundreds of "orchid letters" United receives every day? How about when I give up my meal so the Purser can create a vegetarian meal that wasn't boarded? How about the fact that nearly every flight has a disruptive passenger like the one I had yesterday that demanded the pilots use the cockpit fax machine to fax paperwork for him because he'd had that done before?
Most pilots began their career with a decade or more of service to their country fighting in foreign countries or 4 years of college with a B.S. or higher degree, and came to United expecting a bright upper middle class future. Instead, what we got was a 60% pay cut, thousands of lay offs, lost pensions, and zero career advancement all because our industry is structurally flawed. The airline industry is structured with few barriers to entry such that it constantly creates new carriers that have younger employees and newer planes with costs far below their Legacy competitors so ultimately the older workers lose their jobs and pensions at the expense of the younger, and so far this has been the case for nearly every carrier, Pan Am, TWA, Eastern, Braniff, and countless others. Each company employed tens of thousands of employees who lost their jobs and pensions at a point in time they could least afford it and all because the public demanded a $79 ticket from New York to Florida. As a result of this history, the education and experience level of new pilots is plummeting. I challenge you to collect data on JetBlue pilots and compare the number of pilots there who have had a DUI and no college experience versus that average at United, Delta, or American.
The best run corporations in America have managers that inspire their employees to work better and harder. Even in the face of adversity many corporations have found a way to rally their workers and put the best face forward. Why is it then that the major airlines seem so utterly incapable of the same? The answer and root cause of disgruntled airline employee behaviour has more to do with the actions of management than any other single item. When employees have to fight for water to be boarded on flights or to fight for the right go to their parents funeral without being penalized after they have lost so much else you can imagine how frustrated they become. United's new management has failed at nearly every level of integration. Time and again, they have chosen the cheapest option available and the results show. Whether it's the reservation system, the baggage system, the coffee vendor, the new seat formation, or the training materials for employees, United's new managers have gone with the low cost alternative. In some cases the cheaper alternative may have been better, but for a corporation that hopes to charge a premium price for a premium product, isn't it possible that a corporate philosophy of lowering costs at the expense of service is not what makes a world class airline. In short, the employees at United have had to fight tooth and nail for the most basic rights, and the adversarial atmosphere this has created is disastrous for the company. If United's management were quickly to resolve the outstanding contract negotiations and then just as quickly implement them and treat their employees with a modicum of dignity and respect, you can rest assured that the number of "incidents" like those you have highlighted would all but disappear. Workers act and react in a manner equal to how they are treated. Treat them respectfully and show them their value and they will respond in kind. Treat them as chattel and you can expect them to behave the same.
Finally, a note on the particular instance involving the family traveling to Baltimore. I am not personally aware of the specifics, but I will say that flight attendants have been given very particular direction on how to communicate disruptive behaviour to the pilots. If the flight attendant told the pilots that she felt personally threatened by the passenger, then the pilots would be left with absolutely no alternative but to divert. The rules are very specific and not open to interpretation and are centered on the flight attendants interpretation and explanation of the passenger behaviour. It is more than likely that the information given to the captain was of a nature such that it precluded any other choice.<<
I'll keep things moving here but again ask you to note the pilot's mention of messages from the cabin crew. We'll pick up that theme in the very next item. Also, for the record, I've flown millions of miles, and therefore paid what has to be hundreds of thousands of dollars, to United over the decades, so I'm hardly trying to do it harm. We move on to:
5) Let's stroll into the land of logic. As everyone has noted, at face value the story of UA flight 638 does not make sense. Parents complain about a violent movie-- and the pilot repsonds with an unscheduled landing, delaying a planeful of people and costing unknown thousands of dollars in fuel and salary?
Logically speaking, one of these things must be true -- or some combination of them:
The parents are misremembering, or sugar-coating, how much of a fuss they put up;
The pilot grossly over-reacted; or
The flight attendants exaggerated or hyped the problem in describing it to the pilot.
Obviously I don't know what happened on this flight. But in a previous similar episode, described here, a more complete set of evidence did come in, and it heavily favored explanation #3. In that case, a flight attendant told the captain that a passenger "would not stop" taking pictures in a plane; the passenger flatly denied it, and said that he'd stopped, with just one picture, as soon as he was warned; the captain believed the attendant and kicked the passenger off the plane. But later many other passengers wrote in to confirm the original passenger's story and deny the claim of the fight attendant.
I have my own guesses about how the dispute under discussion evolved, but they will remain guesses -- unless I hear from anyone else who was on the flight that day. (Including the captain, whom I tried to contact.) So if you were on United flight 638, on February 2, 2013, please let me know.
6) What other pilots are saying. A pilot with decades of flying experience writes:
>>I subscribe to a professional-pilot paysite forum, ProPilotWorld--you have to be commercial-or-ATP-licensed to be allowed to join--and I've been following the Chicago diversion story there. Surprisingly (since there are so many airline pilots who are members), nothing solid has emerged so far; usually these things get explained in a matter of hours by somebody very close to the situation in question. Everybody is saying, "There -has- to be another side to this story," but one thing that has emerged, and that I wasn't aware of, is that many situations of this sort are totally controlled by the FAs [Flight Attendants].
For one thing, if an FA reports to the flight deck that he or she feels there is a security threat in the cabin, the flight deck immediately goes into automatic lockdown: NOBODY is allowed in, NOBODY is allowed out, not even if there's a fire in the cabin or a riot in progress. The pilots can't even come out to take a piss. ("You done with that coffeecup, Bob?")
At that point, all the captain knows is what he's being told over the phone by the FA, and he or she could well decide to divert because that person is telling him that they're scared of a situation. This could explain the delay between the turn-off-the-movie discussion and the captain's decision to go to ORD: he has talked it over with the FA, he has called the company, somebody in Denver is trying to make a decision, Denver finally calls back and tells him to go to Chicago...
So before we blame the captain...<<
Here is a sample post from that professional-pilots' forum:
>>Many times FA's get it in their minds that a passenger is a problem and will stop at nothing until the flight crew believes them.
I can't leave the flight deck to deal with the issue, so I have to rely on what I'm being told. Generally other FA's will not go against the problem FA while airborne.
My choices are limited... If the FA continues to call up and complain, at some point I have to put faith in what she/he is telling me and report it to the company. They're generally the ones (unless it's an obvious threat) that will tell me to divert and where to go.
All it takes is a look sometimes to set off these FA's.<<
7) The parents speak. I got this wrap-up message from them, which they asked me to share:
>>Thank you, once again, for enabling us to tell our story, which you kindly posted on your blog. As we indicated originally, we prefer to remain anonymous to protect the privacy of our children. We appreciate the fact that you, and many of your readers, accepted our story despite our anonymity. To any doubters, we point out that we did reveal to you our identity, and that of the Chicago Police officers and United officials who can attest to the veracity of our story. Further, United's somewhat empty response confirms our story.
We would like to apologize again to our fellow passengers on flight 638 for the hardships they must have incurred after the diversion of the plane. We thank the many passengers who supported us and agreed with our complaint, and we thank Rob Cohen, the director of the Alex Cross, for his personal response. We were told on the plane by the FA that the movie had been edited for language (!), but it seems no amount of editing can ever make a PG-13 movie child-friendly.
The story has now appeared in a large number of national and international media outlets, blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Therefore, we feel our goal has been mostly achieved: to foster a discussion on the issues we raised: Exposing children to patently inappropriate content without parental consent, and the capricious and irresponsible behavior of the United pilot, whose anonymity we are also protecting.
Of course, we would have preferred a more comprehensive response from United regarding their handling of this incident, and regarding the outcome of their purported in-flight media policy review. A personal response to our original letter would have been preferable and might have prevented the generation of such bad press for them.<<
8) Passengers 'want' better service, but not enough to pay for it. From another traveler, confirming what some of the United pilots said earlier on:
>>I just caught up with your most recent series on airline service and your search for a "United Field Theory." I have what might be a relevant data point.
I was a United frequent flyer for many years (although hardly "elite") until I finally got tired of writing them letters of complaint... Sometime probably in late 2002, when I was still plenty steamed with United, I was invited to be a member of a focus group in Los Angeles on airline service. As usual, they didn't tell us who the client was, but from the timing I think it might have been part of the market research aimed at launching "Delta Song."
I went in and vented about United and about the generally bad experience we were all getting from airlines. (We got paid extra for cutting up magazines and making a collage -- no kidding, just like in grade school -- that expressed our views on this topic. Mine included a United plane that was part Tyrannosaurus and was chomping on some hapless guy. But I digress.)
It became obvious from the questions that the focus group was intended to test how much more people would pay for better service. At one point, we were given three one-page descriptions of a flying experience: one that sounded like Southwest, one that seemed to be based on the normal service on major carriers, and one that sounded fabulous, like flying the QE II. Then we were asked this: If a normal LA to New York fare on the regular carrier was $300, how much more would you pay for that luxury service? We were supposed to raise our hands, listen while the market researcher raised the price in increments, then drop our hands when the price passed our dealbreaker point.
Well, it seemed like my hand was up for the next half-hour. I was by far the last holdout, agreeing to pay something approaching $500 for what they'd described. Now, I was a nontenured college instructor and not anything like wealthy. Granted, I also wasn't raising a family. But an extra $100 or $150 to be treated like royalty instead of herded like cattle? Yeah, sign me up.
But I was the ONLY person who was so price-elastic. One other guy held out to $375, as I recall, but most of the dozen or so other focus-ees said they wouldn't pay more than an extra $25. I'm still kind of astonished when I think about this. I pointed out to everyone that $300 was already not very much money for the amazingly complex, high-tech operation of flying someone in near-perfect safety from one coast to another, while also managing hundreds of other flights at the same time. (They might even have said round-trip, I don't remember.) I got the impression that some of my fellow panelists had never thought of it that way, but also that I wasn't changing anyone's mind.
The point is, United is dealing with a public that would board a flying concentration camp if it would save them a few bucks. What's amazing, really, is that some airline service for non-elite coach passengers is still decent, that there hasn't been more of a race to the bottom already.<<
9) More on the mentality of entitlement. A reader writes:
>>The plane that the parents were surely on was an A320 series airplane, which has drop-down screens. The flight attendants can only make all of the screens go up or down, they have no control over individual screens. Moreover, I find it highly unlikely the flight attendants are allowed to simply stop showing movies to everyone on the plane at the request of one set of parents. The parents should complain to United about their movie choices (although the movie was PG-13 and already edited for content, as are all mainscreen movies), not insinuate that the flight attendants are lying.
It sounds more like your correspondent was being over-entitled and potentially repeatedly harassed flight attendants about something which they made clear at the start they had no control over.
In general, it is this kind of attitude - that the airline should make heroic accommodations just for them - that I've sadly seen much too much of as a long time 1K.
One of the things about elite status is that it gives certain fliers the right to feel like self-centered jerks around airline staff - to put on airs and treat staff as their lessers. I'm not saying I can excuse poor airline staff behavior, but I feel a certain amount of sympathy for airline staff (flight attendants, etc.) that must continually put up with over-entitled yahoos bossing them around and making unreasonable requests.
In a way, I feel like the rise of airline elite status and the decline of the flying experience for the "regular person" has only been a bad thing. It used to be there were few elites on airplanes and everyone was treated reasonably well. Now, a select group of people (me included sometimes) get pampered by the airline while the rest get treated poorly. The pampering goes to some people's heads while the experience of being treated poorly makes the rest resentful and unhappy about flying.<<
10) That old favorite, the ratchet of 'security'. A reader writes:
>>As a million miler with United I'd ask you to please continue to investigate the story around the family that were ejected from the plane for complaining about the movie. The airline industry in general is known for the low quality of customer service. However post 9/11, and as a frequent traveler, I see more and more abuse from airline personnel who are empowered to use "security" as an excuse for what often amounts to pettiness.
In this case, law enforcement determined that an obvious mistake was made that victimized the innocent and wasted tax payer dollars. Someone was either incompetent or malicious. Either way, they should be held accountable.
Please keep after United and do not let the story drop. They care nothing for consumers but you in the media, you they fear. Please make them explain what happened. Nothing would make me happier than to see this story go viral. If nothing else, some "heat" might make the individuals involved behave better in future.
I'd also be interested in the view of law enforcement of the issue ? if I as an individual, deliberately waste the time of law enforcement, that in itself is a crime.<<
11) Let's get back to the topic of movies. A reader writes:
>>Thank you for publicizing how United Airlines has dealt with parental concerns over showing violent movies on shared screens. I have written to United about this twice. I received a brush off both times. Here is my most recent letter in case it is of interest. I would be extremely interested to know if and how United changes their movie policy based on the incident you report. My son's comment to me during the flight (full context below), "Mama, it is nicer to watch dancing than people being shot" was especially poignant as this was the day after the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings (of which my son knew nothing, thankfully).
Content of letter to United:
"I am writing to request a change in your in-flight movie policy. Please stop showing violent films on all flights with shared movie screens. My family and I are in the Foreign Service and thus fly regularly. I have written to your company about this issue once previously and our most recent travel has brought it up again.
"On December 15, 2012 we flew from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to Denver Colorado. On the leg of the trip from Seoul to San Francisco, our plane had a shared movie screen. The first movie screened was the Bourne Legacy. I was flying with my 7 year old son. This movie was not only violent, but contained a scene in which multiple individuals were hiding in their workplace being stalked and shot and killed one by one by a co-worker. When the screen is shared there is no way to shield my son from these images without literally covering him with a blanket. As this was the first movie screened and during meal service this was impossible. I did my best to distract him but he, of course, witnessed the violence. The next morning while breakfast was being served a movie about dancing was being screened. It was quite sad to hear my seven year old state, "Mama, it is nicer to watch dancing than people being shot."
"As an attorney and a strong supporter of the First Amendment, I do not see the answer to this problem in regulation of your ability to show these movies nor of Hollywood's ability to make them. I see the answer in individual and corporate responsibility. As a matter of corporate responsibility, please do not force me to subject my child to these violent images.
"As you know, Foreign Service personnel are required to use American carriers as their first choice for business related travel. Although I do not feel it is appropriate to legislate your choice of movies, my choice of airlines is legislated. I will be bringing this issue up with AFSA (the American Foreign Service Association) if I do not receive a satisfactory response.
"My first e-mail to you about violent movies being screened was answered with "Thank you for your input. Please see our in-flight magazine for all our great movie selections." Please do not send a similar response to this correspondence.<<
12) Why the movies matter. From another reader:
>>An interesting thread. I just had one comment. To this day I vividly remember seeing the movie "Manhunter", the first appearance of Hannibal Lecter on screen as an in-flight movie. It must have been 1986 or 1987. I was twelve or thirteen. Suffice it to say, not really appropriate for a mass audience on a plane.<<
13) Similarly about the movies:
>>I had a similar experience on United a few years ago, when my youngest son was about 4 or 5. I looked up from my book to see my son, who had been coloring, staring at the movie screen. I don't know what movie it was because I wasn't watching, but onscreen (for several minutes), a man was holding a knife to a woman's throat, speaking with a menacing expression on his face and her backed up against a wall. When I complained to a flight attendant I was told that she could do nothing about movie content and that business passengers would complain if they only showed "Disney" movies.
Fortunately, I wasn't removed from the flight. (Even though I may not have been quite as cordial as your correspondent.) I did complain online to United customer service. Like your correspondent, no response.
Anyway, I appreciate you putting some light on this problem. It's tough enough traveling with kids -- this kind of thing makes it far worse!<<
14) Adventures in PR. From our last reader for now:
>>I am far, far outside my realm of competence here, and surely this is either (a) unfounded or (b) obvious to you, but the PR statement from United strikes me as rather odd.
First, it does nothing at all beyond confirming facts you have already published. It does assert that "[we] have since conducted a full review of our inflight entertainment." But the incident took place in February, only 60 days before; allowing some time for reporting, how complete could such a review be? If any aspect of the review could be construed in the airline's favor - participation of senior management, consultation with noted authorities -- why not mention it? And what sort of review could not feature some aspects that a top-shelf PR staff could construe favorably?
Second, if for some reason the statement could not be cast to reflect some credit on the airline, why make it at all? Yes, it would be good not to annoy an influential journalist. But surely there are ways to placate James Fallows without issuing a statement, and it's not really a statement that's going to delight any writer. Why not plead an ongoing investigation, threat of litigation, threat of a pending union grievance, or insist that security regulations prevent public discussion?
Another easy target for the PR person is the question of fact which remains unaddressed so far: could the individual screen in fact have been retracted? As far as I can see, any response to this question makes the airline look better. Either the flight attendant was right and nothing could be done, or the flight attendant was regrettably mistaken about the capabilities of this particular aircraft, having extensive experience in another time where this could not be done. Either way, it shifts the discussion away from "lazy, unhelpful flight crew" and toward the hardware.
Finally, diversions are costly. There might have been an investigation into the entertainment, but there must have been an investigation into the diversion. An extra airframe cycle, the lost time, the fuel expenditure, landing and takeoff at ORD -- that's got to add up to many thousands of dollars, doesn't it? The circumstances invite scrutiny: however scary the angry passenger might be, they're flying with their child. If my subordinate spent thousands of dollars over this (and called down the wrath of The Atlantic on my head), I'd want to ask whether they were really a threat to the aircraft? Or to neighboring passengers? Since such an investigation, formal or casual, involves so many moving parts - the chief pilot, the pilot's union, probably the flight attendants' union as well, conceivably the FAA or Chicago Police -- why wouldn't the PR person try to indicate vaguely that Something Was Done?
How often are flights diverted due to passenger disturbance, anyway? My impression was that most of these incidents, since 9/11, still merit a brief mention in major newspapers.<<
With that, I wish you well for the next few days. And as I said, my latest United trip was a pleasure in all ways -- within the range of "pleasure" allowed in modern air travel -- and I compliment everyone involved. And why am I invoking Rashomon? Something else for readers to look into these next few days.