Monday, November 29, 2010

Why are you so sexy?

Several years ago I wrote a story for The New York Times about a flight attendant who was wing-walking on the dangerous side, that would be leading edge side of the blog-o-sphere. Ellen Simonetti was your cleverer-than-average, blonder-and-taller-than-average flight attendant with a wicked sense of humor and a propensity in her blog, to refer to herself in the third person, (Her Mile Highness, being my personal favorite).

Then one day, Ellen made the mistake of perching her chassis on an airliner seat belonging to her employer and having her photo taken while wearing her uniform unbuttoned just enough to reveal a tiny sampling of her brassiere. She posted the photo as part of the blog which was a ground level view of her life as Queen of Sky, working for Anonymous International Airlines and flying out of Bustling Base City.

As amusing as they were, none of her hijinks would have been worthy of a story in the Gray Lady, had Anonymous International not decided to fire Ellen and the truth emerged that all that stuff she wrote was about ... tada... Delta Air Lines.

We approach the end of the first decade of the 21st Century and that story sounds as prudish as life in the times of Hester Prynne, tell-all blogs being as ubiquitous as airline ancillary fees. But back in 2004, well, an employee just didn't pen lines about the bosses, the co-workers and the clients and push it all out on the web.

What hasn't changed is the innate sexiness of the airline business, and Ellen's little outing was really just one stop pretty far down a path that has been unrelentingly titillating since Alberto Santos-Dumont's days in Paris. Hopscotching over the brothers Orville and Wilbur, brilliant (and even attractive from my perspective) but for purposes of this essay, providing the exception that proves the rule, our next stop would have to be the incontestably sexy early and mid-century aviation icons Amelia Earhart and Antoine St. Exupery.

As we stroll  into the sixties we find two stewardesses who wrote the memoir Coffee, Tea or Me, and incited three more books and a movie based on their antics.

And is it just me, or is the visual metaphor equating shapeliness and style being used to good effect in this fabulous photo produced and distributed by Boeing forty years ago to showcase the then-brand-new 747?  The more things change, the more they stay the same. View this ad by  Virgin Atlantic and tell me I'm wrong.

Enough has been written about the covey of contemporary hotties who pulled fat out of the fire on New York's Hudson River in 2009 and half a world away on an Airbus A380 in Singapore earlier this month. (Great looking pilots, Qantas, but about that airplane...)

What I'm saying here is that the entire aviation enterprise is innately enticing and always has been. And for just as long this quality has been both positive and negative. Terrorists can't resist aviation for drama, and neither could assorted hijackers and bank robbers before them. Politicians can't keep their hands off the airlines either and that's been the case since the thirties when the most frequent thing flying was the U.S. Mail.

Mention air travel these days and lots of folks will say they're hot and bothered, alright, and not in the way I'm suggesting.  But we are good hot and bothered and bad hot and bothered at the same time. Aviation, captivating and thrilling is like the too-perfect prom date. Five o'clock shadow eventually forms, bouffant hairdo eventually flattens. The passion crests but never quite recedes.

Good thing, too. Queen of Sky has parlayed the allure that made her too-hot-for-Delta-to-handle into a project just right for Hollywood. Variety reports her blog-turned-book will soon turn into a television series.  The self-deprecating Ellen is wont to describe her writing adventure as a "career ending blog." Wrong. Sex appeal like this girl's got, the intelligent, wise-cracking, irreverent kind, belongs in aviation. Whether she's flying the line or recreating it to feed the appetites of the rest of us who just cannot get enough of this heat-generating industry, I'm glad we haven't heard the last of Her Mile Highness.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fuzzy body contours and a clear picture of conflict

A few thoughts on the ire I've stirred by accusing my fellow Americans of being cry babies. The response from so many people whose opinion I value (Don, Frank, Brian...) had me doubting how well I expressed myself in my previous post

Let me make this clear. I am not a proponent of full body scan screening. Neither do I oppose it. The best summary of my attitude comes from a Tanya, a commenter on Patrick Smith's Ask The Pilot column this week in Salon. She wrote...

I can't figure out whether we're having a collective adolescent moment, ("you can't do that to me!")--blended with Puritanical modesty -- or legitimate push-back. I mean, where were all these passionate defenders of civil rights when we started torturing other human beings? NOW they're upset?

Where, in your opinion, is a good place to put the line between safety, and privacy? What actually can help save lives? How do we factor in the very real desire to save lives, even if it means some sacrifice/inconvenience/ooginess?" (Ooginess? Search me, its her word, not mine.)

Like Tanya, what I find offensive about this debate over advanced imaging technology is the nagging sense that despite all the talk of constitutional rights and the right to privacy, there's something far more self-serving going on. Because she's right, if so many Americans were preoccupied by threats to the principals of our founding fathers, what about our role in the torture of terrorism suspects? And worse, where the heck were these civil rights advocates after 9-11 when the Bush administration's Attorney General John Ashcroft went about rounding up Arabs and Indians right here in the U.S. and throwing them into detention centers as material witnesses?  

But coming back to the present, I'm no legal scholar but the constitution never granted us the right to fly. We make a choice to travel by air. We purchase airline tickets in full knowledge of the restrictions that go along with it. These days that includes paying for checked luggage, squeezing into cramped seats and agreeing to levels of security deemed - rightly or wrongly - necessary for public safety.

In Patrick's column, he concludes he also has ambiguous feelings about airport security from the user perspective. Whether its "resistance against TSA" as Patrick calls it, or Tanya's "push-back" (or my less than sensitive characterization of whining) there are larger questions. Patrick writes that the heart of the matter isn't the pat downs.

"It distracts us from asking important questions about the agency's approach to security overall."

Yes. Right you are, Patrick. Let me beg John Pistole, the TSA chief to be the leader here. Don't cave on the small stuff and leave the larger issues unaddressed. It is not possible, not logical, not sensible, not safe to approach security with the idea that we are all potential terrorists until the hourly workers at the check point prove otherwise. 

Effective counter-terrorism starts at the top. Or as Richard Bloom, the Embry Riddle Aeronautical University professor explained to me last month and expanded on even more eloquently in a New York Times blog post last year; security is multi layer process; heavily reliant on intelligence gathering and analysis of how our transportation systems work, analyzing global trends and risks and keeping an eye on the rest of the world and our role in it. But of course, Mr. Pistole, you already know this. In our heart of hearts, we do too. 
The most thought-provoking thing the TSA chief said lately, however, is that "security is a shared responsibility" and he doesn't mean shared among government agencies. He's talking about all of us.

So can we please, Please, PLEASE, put the kabosh on our national inclinations to demonize the government, hunker down into the rightness of our position and paint the controversy as an irreconcilable us-versus-them conflict? If we could only.....we'd have so much to be thankful for.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Full Body Scanner Reveals American National Character

Forgive the whipsaw, but I'm right back to annoyed and this time it is by the if-you-touch-my-junk protester who has become the American air traveler's new spokesmodel. I've written twice about the uproar over airport security and advanced imaging technology. First I criticized the ExpressJet pilot who refused to submit to the full body scan at at Memphis International Airport, then I semi-apologized a week or so later when it appeared that his not-gonna-take-it-anymore approach had the effect of prompting his fellow pilots to take a more unified and responsible position. They've written the chief of Homeland Security to review 21st century airport security. 

Negroni predicts the full-body scanners now in use at 65 airports around the country that allow TSA workers to detect what's underneath travelers' clothes are on their way out. And their rapid rise and fall present a high resolution picture of an American character flaw. Forget the fuzzy genitalia, what the full body scan is revealing is Americans as a bunch of cry-babies.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Bullets Dodged on Qantas Flight 32 - Much To Be Thankful For

Trent 900 engine being removed from Qantas A380
photo courtesy ATSB
I know its only us Americans who are poised to celebrate a day of thanksgiving later this month, but may I suggest that the 466 people on Qantas Flight 32 - whatever nationality they are - express their gratitude to the Almighty for the bullets they dodged two weeks ago? 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Helicopter Ambulances - The better-safe-than-sorry scare tactic

The grounding of Airbus A380 airplanes sporting Rolls Royce Trent 900 engines was certainly warranted following the in-flight disintegration of an engine on a Qantas flight from Singapore. But what has made global news for more than a week now, also demonstrates a dramatic disparity in aviation safety. The Airbus near-disaster is being treated with tremendous respect. 
Yet, across the United States, another sector of the aviation industry is crashing aircraft at a rate equal to an airline disaster every day and unbelievably, this carnage is accepted as the cost of doing business.
I'm talking about business of medical transport and the price paid by patients who are moved by air.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Balls of Steel Required for Investigation of A380 and Its Engines

Damage to the left wing of Qantas A380
The grounding of Airbus A380 airplanes sporting Rolls Royce Trent 900 engines was certainly warranted following the in flight disintegration of an engine on a Qantas flight from Singapore a week ago. The Airbus near-disaster is being treated with the kind of respect and attention not usually given to events in which everybody goes home unscathed.

Air travelers from Auckland to the Big Apple are watching, anticipating that investigators will determine not just what happened to cause the engine to come apart at 6,000 feet, but what the event demonstrates about how the world's largest airliner holds up in such a scenario. So far, the answer appears to be, not well.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Choice of Airbus A380 engines comes home to roost

This photograph is reproduced with the permission of
Rolls-Royce plc, copyright © Rolls-Royce plc 2010
Many, many factors come in to play when an airline decides what engines will go on the brand new airplanes it purchases. But right about now, I'm guessing that executives at Qantas, Lufthansa and Singapore are casting a wistful eye at Emirates  and Air France, both of which opted not to put Rolls Royce Trent 900 engines on the Airbus A380 airplanes they operate, selecting the Engine Alliance GP7200 instead.

But the Rolls Royce engine customers are probably too busy thinking about their own decisions. Certainly much of their time these days is consumed trying to keep up with the investigation into why the left inboard engine on a Qantas A380 deconstructed in flight shortly after takeoff from Singapore last week. (I've blogged about some of the airplane-related issues that are coming to light, here.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

New engine, new airplane, new jumbo-sized worries

A380 arrives in New York 2008
It is dramatic and it plays hell with how comfortable passengers feel with the airplane, but the short-term grounding of the super jumbo Airbus A380 was a good thing. Its not about the size of the airplane or the number of people it carries. It is about finding out what caused the apparently unprompted deconstruction of the Rolls Royce Trent 900 engine on a Qantas flight from Singapore last Thursday.

New engine, new airplane, new worries about whether there's some design flaw and the disaster-that-didn't-happen is the free pass investigators get to figure it out without anybody having to die.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Pilots take their security complaint to the right folks

I won't claim credit, but I will praise pilot Dave Bates of American Airlines for taking pilot complaints about whole body scanning to the right place. He did not take on lowly TSA officers just trying to do their jobs like ExpressJet pilot Michael Roberts did at Memphis International Airport last month.

In a letter to the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, the president of the Allied Pilots Association, American's union, explains that pilots in uniform find the process of undergoing "pat down" security checks demeaning and he asks that some accommodation be made for a private pat-down for pilots who refuse the controversial full body scan