NYT Mag Editor Responds on the 'Terror in the Skies' Article

The editor of the New York Times Magazine gives further details about this controversial account.
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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.

Hugo Lindgren
Editor, New York Times Magazine

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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. More

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.
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