Saturday, January 29, 2011

Airline Safety Rankings Like Baloney All Flavor - No Substance

My middle-school teacher Paul Wesche once told me that the word assume could be broken down to into three parts ass – u – me, as in -  to assume is to make an ass out of you and me. The truth behind this clever wordplay was made abundantly clear in the article just published by U.S. News and World Report, America’s Safest Airlines

Look, I know that everything associated with the word “airline” is out-of-control sexy, and that the fact that US airlines have completed a year of fatality-free flying is frustrating for journalists who see the airlines as a source of juicy news when they are

a) crashing airplanes
b) annoying passengers and
c) embarrassed by the antics of pilots and/or flight attendants.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Qantas Depressurization Event Not Unique


these are the kinds of phrases lavishly attached to the newspaper stories about the decompression on Qantas flight 670 on Tuesday. The Boeing 737 traveling from Adelaide to Melbourne was forced to make a rapid descent after losing cabin pressure at cruise altitude. 

Sure, the pilots wanted a rapid descent. The period of time that average healthy individuals can remain in a robust state at 36,000 feet is less than a minute, according to tables on the time of useful consciousness. Smokers, people with heart and other health problems may have even less time than that.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Grocery Store offers Food for Thought for the Airline Industry

Regular readers of Flying Lessons may have discerned a theme: what aviation knows about how to improve human performance can and should be applied to a host of other endeavors. My trip to the Fairway supermarket in Stamford, Connecticut yesterday made me realize that this remarkable grocery store can teach something to the airline industry.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What Pin heads Point Lasers at Airplanes?

FAA tests effect of lasers on pilots on a 737 simulator
Technology givith and technology taketh away, that’s the only way to look at today’s aviation news coming just a day after my story in The New York Times - now reverberating around the globe (and even plagiarized in London’s Mail for a day but that's another story) - that personal electronic devices can interfere with cockpit instruments. 

Now comes word that newer, more powerful laser pointers are being used more frequently against airplanes flying at low altitudes. The Federal Aviation Administration released the numbers on Wednesday with the disturbing characterization that 2010 set an all-time high for laser attacks on airplanes in the United States with a whopping 2836 cases reported.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Raise Your Hand Held if You Use Your Gadget on the Plane

Gadget firmly in hand at 30,000 feet

 Well in all my years writing for The New York Times, I've never found my email inbox filled with so many disgruntled reader comments first thing in the morning.  One reader claimed to be "dismayed" by my story suggesting that use of portable electronic devices on airplanes could be a safety hazard. Another reader suggested that I was "a liberal left-wing news reporter" too saturated in college with left wing communist views," (a Baptist college in Georgia?) And anyway, didn't I know that the television show MythBusters debunked the effect of EMI on airplane instruments?

Monday, January 17, 2011

American Airlines and Customer Service High Hopes for a Marriage Like That

Masaru Onishi  and Tom Horton photo courtesy American Airlines
I had to laugh at something American Airlines executive Tom Horton said at the news conference last week announcing the new relationship between American and Japan Airlines. I even started to wonder if American's bosses were taking one of those get-in-touch-with-your-authentic-self courses.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Pilot Error and a Whole Lot More in Polish Presidential Air Crash

The headlines are already out there, attributing to pilot error the April 10, 2010 crash in Russia of the Tupolev 154 carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski his wife and 94 others. Certainly there's much to suggest that the captain of the flight didn't exercise the best judgment in choosing to continue into the Smolensk airport which air traffic controllers and other pilots had described as foggy and unsuitable for landing. 

Monday, January 10, 2011

Elevation of Rhetoric Unsafe at Any Altitude

Much is being said today about the elevated temperature of discourse in American politics in light of the apparent attempted assassination of newly elected Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on Saturday. Readers of Flying Lessons may remember that I've been writing, writing, and writing some more about how the increasingly hostile us-versus-them tone has seeped into aviation. 

In a nine-minute lecture on MSNBC, commentator Keith Olbermann waxed with a fury on the subject of the shooting, including quoting the Pima County Sheriff investigating the mass slayings at a Tucson shopping center as attributing the violence in part to the "black cloud of violence that has enveloped our politics." 

"When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous," the sheriff, Clarence W. Dupnik, said. I'm with Olbermann and Sheriff Dupnik.  

Sarah Palin's cross-hairs are, in retrospect, an ill conceived image for targeting political opponents, forgive my use of the word "target". 

But there's a fine line between seeing the color black and being the pot that calls it. Liberals don't get a pass. Hurtful hyperbole, reckless ranting, trash talk define contemporary discourse from all quarters and in many parts of the world.

No less a political stateswoman than the late Golda Meir of Israel opined famously, "Peace will come when Arabs love their children more than they hate us." She's been dead more than thirty years. Similar messages intended to reduce complex issues to a simple "I'm right and you're wrong" continue to generate rancor. Ten months ago, the Wall Street Journal told the story of a young American Muslim who posted the home addresses of Trey Parker and Matt Stone online along with the suggestion that death was the likely outcome for the two producers of the "blasphemous" television show, South Park

Some people who I love are big fans of partisan television. On a recent visit to their home, I joined them in the living room to watch it for a while. As the carping rolled forth, my friends' fury expanded, as if the words being broadcast had actual mass. It was like viewing the inflation of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons. I fear the consequences when acrimony exceeds our emotional ability to process it. I think I know what the consequences are. 

What does all this have to to with aviation? Really, I didn't forget that's how I got started this morning. We can't change the entire world, but we can start in our little corner. I propose we look at the Tuscon shooting as our opportunity to get a little altitude on the dialogue right here in our industry. We can and do disagree on many issues, airline customer service, airport user fees, crew rest, security. Yep security. We may not like what that's become but we can do better than the woman who wrote the letter below.

The excerpt is part of a two-page diatribe sent to the TSA from an unhappy air traveler. The middle-aged Virginia matron who wrote it - and who I will not name, don't ask - was displeased that the TSA confiscated and later wrote her a warning letter about the empty firearms magazine she accidentally toted into the security checkpoint in Colorado Springs.

"If I were on a plane and Osama bin Laden tried to hijack it with an empty firearms magazine, I would kick that son of a bitch right in the balls and wait for someone in better physical condition to choke the jihad out of his worthless ass.

Considering this issue took over 5 months to work its way through the plumbing over at DHS/TSA and amidst all the non-consensual balls and titty grabbing you guys are guilty of these days, I hardly think this is an issue. I’m going to go ahead an issue DHS/TSA with a WARNING NOTICE for being completely retarded in every aspect of air travel, especially lately."

I'm just sayin' do we really need to talk this way? If the answer is yes, then crank up the TV and fasten your seat belt because more news like what happened in Tuscon is bound to be the result.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Loaves, Fishes and a Prayer for Better World in 2011

Photography by Benson Goh
Ask anyone about their holiday and inevitably the subject of travel comes up. Except for the how-long-I-was-stranded-at-the-airport-or-on-the-airplane stories, these are usually happy tales because they are about meals and spending time with loved ones. The conversation usually doesn't end without mention of some regret that time or distance keeps people from getting together more often.

As an aficionado of travel and aviation I love hearing these accounts. Listen, I'm the oddball who actually asks to see my friends' vacation photos. This post is about a gathering I've been blessed to be part of over the past fifteen years. It involves lots of people, complicated logistics, food, food, food, and travel, albeit by car and within the city limits of Stamford, Connecticut.

From left Bernadette and Benson Goh, Kyle and Lisa Urbino
The get-together is a nightly dinner at a place I know as Pacific House, but in fact it is officially called Shelter for the Homeless. This charitable organization works with men who are in need of temporary housing, meals, counseling or other assistance. Pacific House has cleverly arranged to provide a hot meal to its clients by enlisting at least 30 religious or community groups and making each responsible for preparing one dinner a month. Since my church, First Presbyterian Church of Stamford started back in the nineties, we've been assigned to cook the first Saturday night of every month and the number of men with whom we've shared a meal has ranged from a low of 40 some nights to a high of nearly 100.

Okay, so on the surface the goal is to help folks get a nutritious, delicious meal. But to those of us involved in the event, it has become so much more. Through the preparation of food we learn about each others' cultures and family rituals. Through the serving we get the opportunity to make connections and even practice rusty 2nd languages like French and Spanish. By joining the men at the table we've come to understand a bit about the circumstances of people who are often little more than an ignored part of the cityscape.

Photography by Benson Goh
If you were to ask any of us involved in this mission  if we want to be doing this, the immediate answer would be "no". The men served don't want to have to depend on charity to eat, who does? Those of us who cook would rather live in a world without hunger. That's not the world we live in. However, thinking of the meals shared with folks who were down-on-their-luck or battling demons, I know I've learned valuable lessons from them.

Photography by Benson Goh
Over the years supermarkets have donated food. Volunteers have turned up with steaks purchased with their own money. Cooks come armed with personal kitchen implements, bearing home-baked goods or veggies from their gardens. 

Last night for example, the owner of New Wave Seafood, decided that for the first day of the new year, nothing less than fresh fish would be appropriate, so he kicked in with salmon for 78. We cooked it two different ways. We also prepared spicy fried chicken, southeast Asian rice and peas, grilled garlic kale, mixed spinach and cranberry salad, peach upside down cake and apple spice cake along with ice cream. This was the feast loading down the tables as the first day of 2011 came to an end.  It was hearty, delicious, abundant and beautiful, an experience any diner would appreciate, any restaurant would have been proud to have hosted. Lord knows, I was astonished it came from the work of our hands.
Robin Mattice made apple spice cake

But this story is not to praise my church, though our members (Bobby Anderson, Robin Mattice, Elizabeth Wheeler and Diane Dischino) sure can cook! Some of the volunteer chefs worship elsewhere, like Lisa Urbano and her son Kyle, Chris Mayglothing and her son Joe. Benson and Bernadette Goh were visiting from Singapore. 

No, today I just want to share with you a holiday story  - complete with luscious photographs - of food and friendship. And to acknowledge that this kind of activity is being repeated around the globe by people who have figured out that each one of us can contribute to making the world a better place. One afternoon in the kitchen, one fish, one cake, one hungry mouth, one willing heart, one shared table at a time.

Happy New Year