Monday, November 2, 2009

"Look, ma! No hands!" A pilot's story

I have yet to write United Airlines complaining about mistreatment during a recent free flight because I’m fearful they might respond with another free flight.

And I don’t think I could take that again.

The airline industry is today thrilled they can scapegoat Northwestern pilots Richard Cole and Thomas Cheney for using personal lap tops while they should have been devoting their full attention to the confounding sorcery required to keep 350-tons of tin aloft.

Their high profile carelessness allows airlines to boast they’re working hard to ensure pilots stick to business.

We’re already seeing declarations from airlines execs saying, in essence, “Fly with us! Our pilots turn off their personal entertainment devices the same time they tell you to turn off yours!”

And that, in our worst industry, is a now selling point. We’ve all spent the past year beating up on the beleaguered auto industry. But most of us like our vehicles and we love to drive.

Nobody likes the tedium of commercial flight, although I never dreamed that disdain would extend to the pilots themselves.

But I guess selling pilots who actually pilot is better than telling customers who’re already paying more than $275 to fly roundtrip from Newark to Atlanta, “Want to tote along an overnight bag? That’s gonna cost you.”

Same goes for snacks and pillows. Want ‘em? They’re gonna cost you.

Maybe I’m just sour from being marooned on the Greater Pitt tarmac for three infernal hours last month. Every 30 minutes or so, the pilot would come on and say , “It’ll be another 30 minutes or so.”

That’s a special sort of hell because we’ve all heard stories of those situations lasting for much longer. The toilets overflow, the kids cry and you collectively wonder if pack mule would be an easier way to get to Albuquerque where I was headed for a freebie travel story.

Upon landing, one of my fellow passengers bragged he pried a free night’s lodging, meal vouchers and a free flight out of the gate attendant.

I got squat. I told him I’d get home and write a letter demanding equal compensation. Six weeks later and I still can’t find the motivation to do so.

I’m worried they might agree to my demands and the awful cycle will resume.

The whole episode expands my I’d-rather-drive distance from about five hours to nearly 10. That means if I have to get to, say, Nashville, New York or Charlotte from Pittsburgh, I’d prefer to just hop in my car and drive.

There’s no oppressive security. I can take as many bags as I want. I can stop to eat when I feel like it. I have crystal clear coast-to-coast satellite radio reception.

Plus, the car has a trusty cruise control function for long stretches of interstate. Understand, just because it says cruise control it doesn’t mean I can pull out my laptop for a diverting game of Donkey Kong. I still need to focus.

That to me is the most surprising aspect about the Northwestern episode: how unnecessary actual pilots are to maintaining the folly of flight in today’s airplanes.

Whatever did happen in the cockpit that day, it’s clear the plane could have done just fine by itself while pilots Cheney and Cole were having a smoke break out on the wing.

It’s remarkable. Name me another occupation where the essential activity mindlessly rumbles on in the absence of the paid employee.

Mines need miners, high-tech prisons still need guards, and trash haulers have yet to conceive a way to get the garbage to just leap up into the stinking truck.

Even the humble act of blogging requires some engagement. For instance, if I were to just quit blogging right now, here’s of what you’d see:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

But typists understand that even in that nimble simulation, I needed to engage in the act of tapping out period/space bar/period/space bar/period/space bar, so I was applying more concentration than the pilots entrusted with valued first class passengers and all the faceless rabble back in coach.

So, really, how long will it be before the airline industries seize on this new cost-saving feature that will have us yearning for the good old days when the humble basics were all part of the ticket.

“Want a pilot with that flight? That’s gonna cost you.”

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