Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Southwest 737 Good Samaritan or Good Grief?

UPDATE April 20, 2011:
Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood tells Gwen Ifill of PBS NewsHour, that the air traffic controller discussed below has been fired.

LaHood: Where the controller had guided a 737 Southwest flight to take a look at a small plane that was out of radio contact to see if something was going on. Completely violates procedures. You can't guide a big plane over to look at a small plane. That's not the way that's done."

The air traffic control profession just can't get a break and this was supposed to be such a happy time for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Every Spring, the union holds its annual awards ceremony a splashy event - this year in Las Vegas - in which controllers and pilots are honored for  spectacular, sometimes lifesaving acts over the past twelve months that may or may not have made news but certainly have made them heroes among their peers.

Cha ching, cha ching, emptying your pockets on the airplane

Like passengers on the emergency evacuation chute, money is sliding from the pocketbooks of travelers to the bottom lines of airlines, as described in my story in today's New York Times. The article was not intended to exacerbate an already volatile relationship between air travelers and airlines, but I suspect that will be the result. 

Monday, March 28, 2011

Championship Basketball and Sleepy Air Traffic Controllers

With a caveat that I know little about sports - something about the story of Virginia Commonwealth University's upset victory over University of Kansas in the NCAA basketball tournament on Sunday started me wondering, "When does a trickle of lapses and errors grow to a course-changing stream significant enough to cause champions to falter and underdogs to prevail?"

Undoubtedly everyone associated with the Kansas Jayhawks is asking the same question.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Potty Break Puts Airline Passengers on the Ground During Quake

See the update on this post here

Shortly before the earthquake struck Japan on Friday afternoon, a jumbo jet pushed back from the gate at Narita Airport, preparing to depart when a passenger got up to go to the bathroom. As my friend, pilot Jim Karsh tells the you've-got-to-be-kidding tale,

"Of course you can't take off with anyone out of their seat, so the purser called the cockpit and the flight was held until the passenger finished in the restroom and was reseated."

Sendai Airport in better days photo courtesy Sendai Airport
Unfortunately, that potty break couldn't have been more ill-timed. The delay kept the 747 on the ground which was now rockin' and rollin' and another 300-400 passengers were added to those stranded in Tokyo, one of the world's busiest air hubs.

Reinforcing Ernest Gann's Fate Is The Hunter philosophy is the story of lovely Sendai Airport in Miyagi Prefecture, which is much closer than Tokyo to the center of the 8.9 quake.  View these before and after photographs to see the power of the tsunami that followed the quake as it washed across the Sendai Airport airfield, sweeping heavy tugs along like toys. Note the people standing on the roof as the wave rolls through.

You may find yourself asking, "Where are the airliners?"  I know I was. So I asked my intrepid correspondent Takeo Aizawa to do a little sleuthing and he discovered the answer was once again, the whimsy of fate.

"It was kind of lucky there were no planes at the time of the earthquake," he told me via skype this morning, because there should have been. JAL Flight 2209, an Embraer 170, was scheduled to land  nine minutes before the quake hit but it was delayed on departure from Osaka. "It takes 76 minutes from Osaka to Sendai, so 50 minutes late departure means very safe distance from the quake," Takeo-san explained. Flight 2209 was in the air when the earthquake hit and the pilots were instructed to return to Osaka. Some very lucky passengers were delivered from the teeth of disaster.

Photo courtesy Kyoto Communication
Sendai Airport operates eighty commercial flights a day and in the fifty minutes prior to the quake, three airliners, a regional jet and two B737s took off. The quake and the tsunami that followed an hour later did wicked damage to the airport but not a single jetliner appears to have been lost.

"The tidal wave was more dangerous than the quake itself," Takeo-san said via skype this morning. When I first heard about the quake, I worried about my friend Takeo-san even though we've never met in person, I feel I know him from working on a story about the Goodwill Guide program following my visit to Japan last fall. I was delighted to hear that he and his wife were okay with no greater damage to their home than a lot of broken glass to clean up.

After seeing the destruction at Sendai, its clear that while the city of Tokyo and the two international airports that serve it; Haneda (Tokyo International) and Narita International were places of drama on Friday afternoon, as this You Tube video shows, for the most part the quake was not much more than a very scary, very messy inconvenience in this part of Japan.

U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Samuel Morse

The news today from Tokyo's big airports is that congestion in the terminals is thinning as airlines move back to their regular flight schedules. My friend Jim, who flies a B747 for a U.S. carrier and who had a 96-hour layover in Tokyo (read his story here) tells me he's killing time talking to the excellent employees at the Raddison Hotel Narita Airport, (I've stayed there, he's right, they're great.) And hangar flying with the other flight crews staying there.

"Some of the pilots I talked to at breakfast were on the way into Narita when the earthquake happened and were diverted," Jim told me in an email. The U.S. Air Force says eleven planes were diverted to the base at Yokota, but not all were permitted to stay.

"One went to Yokota then flew from there to Haneda, then on to Narita." Jim said that he was told, "Japanese customs would not let the passengers off the airplane in the first two airports, so the passengers and crew were on the aircraft for 32 hours until they deplaned in Narita."

I hesitate to bring this up, since I know the passenger bill of rights crowd is always looking for new recruits, but the 529 passengers and 29 flight crew members who did get off the plane at the air base were fed, treated to entertainment by Staff Sgt. Anthony Schmaus from the U.S. Air Force Band of the Pacific and put up for the night.

Some folks had it easier than others. Ernie Gann nods knowingly.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Stuck in Narita - An Airline Pilot's Story from the Quake

Its like a scene from those old movies where monsters invade Tokyo, only these photos are real. Tokyo residents watch with horror as a construction crane sways "like a big metronome" over the Tokyo station.

Photos by Jim Karsh
This photo and the others in this post were were taken by my friend, Jim Karsh, a 747 pilot who frequently flies to Japan and had the misfortune to be playing tourist in the city of Tokyo when the earthquake hit on Friday. I say misfortune, but of course that is relative. With the death toll rising, Jim's scary afternoon and uncomfortable evening sleeping on the floor of the train station with hundreds of others is barely a blip on the scale of tragedy, as he would be the first to acknowledge.

But his account of what it was like in downtown Tokyo when the quake rattled everything is worth sharing and I have to add that it takes a special kind of resourcefulness to work through a disaster with grace and calm when one does not understand the language or even know the extent of the destruction.

It was 2:50 in the afternoon and Jim, on a 96-hour layover at Narita International Airport was waiting for the bus to take him from Tokyo station back to the hotel where airline crews are housed about 40 miles away.

"I have experienced maybe 5 or 6 much smaller quakes here over the years and they all start the same way, which is that you hear or feel a rumble that is like a big truck or a train, and then suddenly you realize that the ground or floor is moving and it's really an earthquake.That's how this was," Jim writes. Then the ground started shaking hard and with a collective "oooh" people started running out of the train station, and out from under the bus boarding area, as awning supports and the florescent lights began to swing, bang and creak. What could they do but watch, pray and wait?

The travelers moved inside to outside and then back in, as the tremors continued but with less intensity. Several hours later, an English speaking gentleman told Jim that the roads to the airport were closed, Neither the buses nor the trains were operating. For a while, he tried to find a hotel room. But that was hopeless.

"It was cold and dark out by now, and I had no knowledge of the area or the language, no guidebook, no Internet access, no cell phone, no
nothing. I figured I was screwed and it would be dumb to just wander the street looking for hotels which were going to be full anyway, so I went back to the train station and spent the night there along with thousands of others. There were stranded people everywhere."

Saturday morning, Jim still had little information about what happened. He heard the highway was closed, the "train not safe". But by afternoon he'd found a cab and another traveler with whom to share it and got far enough out of Tokyo to find a train line with service.

"You ever seen the pictures or movies of Japanese commuter trains where the conductors are packing people in? That's exactly how this was. The train was so full there were literally guys with their faces and hands and chests plastered against the door glass when the train rolled in. When the door opens people start fighting their way off and shortly thereafter people start fighting their way on. It is a total free for all."

Six and a half hours later, after hitching a ride from the Narita train station to his hotel with woman he recognized as an employee of the hotel restaurant, part one of his adventure ended. Jim describes the woman as "one of the happiest and friendliest people I have ever met." Certainly she's got to be among the most dedicated, after all she had a great excuse not to go to work. And for Jim, back in his warm room the information vacuum has been filled. In his email to me, he wrote,
My photo of Narita boarding gate taken last year

"It wasn't until I got back to the hotel and my laptop and started seeing news reports that I knew how serious this was."

There are a few good videos on You Tube  showing what the earthquake was like at Narita Airport though there was no damage to the runways.

"Narita airport's runway is not damaged," United Continental Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek said from Houston. "The problem is the railway lines aren't functioning so our employees and the passengers can't get to the airport." United Continental, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, China Southern, Delta Air Lines and other airlines canceled some flights out of Tokyo, home to Narita and Haneda two of the busiest airports in the world.

Which means that Jim's experience sleeping on the floor of the train station is being repeated at the cities' airports where travelers are undoubtedly eager to get out, but well advised to be patient.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Handhelds on Airplanes a Bigger Problem Than You Think


So what would you think if you were the B777 pilot who's radio communication with air traffic control was interrupted by a passenger's cell phone call?  Or if you were the captain in command of a B747 that unexpectedly lost autopilot after takeoff and did not get it back until 4, count 'em four passengers turned off their portable electronic devices? 

Well I'm guessing that these pilots would probably be leading the chorus of voices calling for some drastic change in the practically unenforced policy restricting the use of portable electronic devices on airplanes.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Funny Even if it is So "Fecking" True

Knowing I have little tolerance for grumbling airline passengers who don't yet get it that there's no such thing as a free lunch, my dear friend Ira Rimson sent a very funny link to me today. The Irish/Scottish (Lord, I can't tell!) singing story-tellers featured in this music video have had an epiphany.

Cheap flights, cheap flights, I think you must agree
That only fecking gopshites think there's flights for fifty p.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Killer Engines or Jaws Syndrome?

My husband, Jim, is the man behind the "Jaws syndrome" theory. If you haven't heard about it you haven't read all of my blog posts.  (No worries, even he doesn't hang on my every word.) The "Jaws syndrome" refers to what happened after the 1975 hit movie  featuring a very hungry great white shark terrorizing swimmers on Long Island. After the movie, the number of shark attacks in the newspaper jumped. Were more people being attacked or were shark attacks just more newsworthy?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

American Airlines Deceptive - Government Penalty Unfair

American Airlines told the Department of Transportation its policy of not informing passengers who gave up their seats on oversold flights that they would have to pay  $30 to redeem vouchers for future travel was not unfair or deceptive. That clever dodge was based on the fact that the practice wasn't explicitly forbidden