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Arrivederci, Alitalia

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October 18, 2021

LATE LAST WEEK, Alitalia operated its final flight and officially ceased to exist. For seventy-four years, Linee Aeree Italiane S.p.A., as it was formally known, had carried Popes, kings, despots, movie stars, and tens of millions of tourists, across a network that once spanned six continents.

Its demise was both a complete surprise and not the least bit shocking. The airline spent its existence in a more or less permanent state of distress; yet it always managed to pull through, be it from a government bailout, cash from a foreign partner, or some combination. Not this time. Thus, one of the most recognized names in the industry has disappeared, joining the likes of Swissair, Sabena, Malev, and the other classic European carriers that have vanished.

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Alitalia long-haul routes in the early 1970s

A new, government-owned entity, Italia Trasport Aereo (ITA) is taking its place. With the whole thing being schemed out in advance, it’s more of a reincorporation — a reinvention — than a shut-down in the traditional sense, with ITA absorbing most of Alitalia’s assets and employees. Could they not have done this without totally dissolving such a well-known brand? Though, maybe, having left such a legacy of struggle, that was the point.

The transition has so far been messy. The ITA website and mobile app have been plagued with problems, and the new airline has struggled to receive U.S. government approval to operate here. While they sort things out, let’s do the fun thing and have a look at the identity they’ve come up with…

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I can’t get my head around this one. It’s not ugly so much as confusing. Or maybe it’s confusing and ugly. The colors and styles are so mis-matched as to seem almost arbitrary — a big, weird, non-sequitur. The patterned tail motif reminds me of a doily, or the kind of tablecloth you’d find in certain Italian restaurants. To replace Alitalia’s iconic “A” emblem, worn since the ’70s, they needed to step up. They didn’t.

About the only positive thing is the ITA logo. The typeface is distinctive and elegant in an old-school sort of way. (In fact it’s almost too old-school, reminiscent of a made-up airline from a movie.) And smartly, they’ve kept the red, white and green, which is a nod to Alitalia and the colors of the flag. On the airplane, however, the letters are rendered only in white, so the whole effect is lost.

In an annoying last-minute decision, they went and added “Airways” into the carrier’s name. “ITA,” just by itself, was smoother, simpler, and perfectly adequate. But no, they had to jam “Airways” in there, because apparently passengers are stupid and might forget that it’s an airline. Loosely translated, the carrier is now called “Italian Air Transport Airways.”

With or without the extra word, it lacks the poetry of “Alitalia.” Still, it’s better than “Italian Air,” “Prego,” or any of several other garish possibilities. We may have dodged a bullet there.

Grade: D-minus

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Keeping the Curtains Closed

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Pat Fish - Keeping the Curtains Closed

October 8, 2021

IT’S WITH CONSIDERABLE shock and sadness that we mark the passing of Pat Fish, the Oxford-educated musician better known to fans worldwide as the . He died unexpectedly on October 5th, of causes yet unknown but rumored to be related to sleep apnea. He was sixty-four.

You’ve never heard of the . That’s all right, nobody has, for all intents and purposes. There’s that annoying expression, “cult following,” and seldom has it been more apropos, for better or worse, than here. Pat’s music wasn’t widely known, but for those who discovered him, it was like finding buried treasure. You don’t simply like the Jazz Butcher; you love the Jazz Butcher.

I certainly do. For me it began in 1991. I’d heard the name tossed around once or twice, but knew almost nothing about him. I’d been a devotee of underground for years already, which gives you an idea of how unknown this guy was, at least on these shores. Then one night, at a friend’s apartment in Brighton, Massachusetts, I spied a cassette tape of an album called “Bloody Nonsense,” and asked to borrow it. I believe it was the song “Rain” that I first latched on to. I never returned the cassette, and I have it still. Thirty years later my obsession with Pat’s music has barely diminished. Pat Fish is my favorite singer-songwriter of all time.

I can’t really describe what he sounds like. I guess it’s the music a wickedly bright and clever guitarist would make, slightly inebriated, and always spiced with a sly but upbeat sense of humor.

Pat was never a pop star because, as one fan described it perfectly on his tribute page, the music world simply had no idea what to do with him. Into what category could this man possibly fit — this troubadouring punk rock gentleman who studied philosophy and refused to scowl? Punk? Post-punk? Mainstream pop? It was all of that, from thrashers to ballads to drinking songs. But never in a pretentious or throw-away style. Even his quirkiest cuts were — how else to put it? — serious. A novelty song like “Love Kittens,” when you really listen to it, is actually a finely crafted gem. Which brings us to another annoying expression: “art rock.” I suppose this comes the closest. But traditionally this label connotes the moody and dour. Pat wasn’t like that. This was art rock for happy people.

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From the author’s compact disc collection.

I once made a list of every Jazz Butcher song that incluced a lyrical reference to animals. I came up with sixty-two. He’s also responsible for the only cover version of the Modern Lovers’ classic “Roadrunner” that I ever could stand.

How many albums did Pat release? Beats me. There are so many complications, re-releases and whatnot in his canon that they’re hard to quantify. All I know for sure is there are more Jazz Butcher records in my collection than those of any other artist (including Husker Du, yes). The photo above shows about half of them. If you want somewhere to start, I’d recommend the Draining the Glass collection.

Somewhere in that discography, too, is a tragically neglected album called This is Sumo, from a short-lived band called Sumosonic, in which Pat shared vocal and guitar duties. I almost hate bringing this up, because I don’t want to de-emphasize Pat’s legacy as the Jazz Butcher, but this record, for all its obscurity, is absolutely brilliant.

The picture up at the top, from the back of the Big Questions album, is my favorite shot of Pat. There’s something quintessential about it; the guitar, the smile, the sneaky insouciance. It’s a photo you can just about hear. The framed poster that hangs in my office room, partially visible in this photo, was stolen from the window of a club called Tramp’s, on 21st Street in Manhattan, in May of 1992. I own a setlist from that tour as well, on which Pat drew the letters “o” in the shape of small hearts.

I came to know Pat a little bit through Facebook. He was always good enough to answer my questions. Beyond that, I knew him only as a musician, not as a friend — so much as those things are necessarily the same and completely different. We can only assume he was as kind, funny, and dazzlingly interesting as his music.

This sucks. Most of my heroes are dead now. Grant Hart, Joe Strummer, Spalding Gray, Vonnegut. But this might be the heaviest gut-punch of all. It’s just not fair. Our condolences to Pat’s family, his galaxy of friends, and to his longtime collaborator Max Eider.

A toast to the Jazz Butcher, in three parts….

SOUTHERN MARK SMITH
SOUL HAPPY HOUR
KEEPING THE CURTAINS CLOSED

Welcome to “Hidden Airport”

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Unexpected Pleasures at a Terminal Near You.

WITH SCATTERED EXCEPTIONS, U.S. airports don’t have a whole lot going for them. They’re noisy, dirty, poorly laid out, and just generally hostile to passengers. As my regular readers are well aware, I’ve made this point in numerous prior posts — perhaps too many times. Now, so that I’m not accused of harping on the negative, here’s something different. “Hidden Airport” is a semi-regular feature highlighting little-known spots of unexpected pleasantness.

ALL PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR

UPDATE: INDY KIND

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Indianapolis International is the rare gem among U.S. airports. It’s spacious, clean, and splashed with natural light. Best of all, and unlike almost every other airport in the country, it’s remarkably quiet. According to Airports Council International, IND is the Best Airport in North America, and the readers of Conde Nast Traveler have dittoed that sentiment multiple times.

Tucked into the A concourse, between gates 14 and 16, is the KIND Gallery. Created in partnership with the city’s Arts Council, it showcases the works of Hoosier artists. The gallery is neither large nor — depending on your tastes in art — particularly breathtaking. But it’s exactly what it should be: an engaging and relaxing little sneak-away spot. My favorite of the current installation is “Cloud Study 1-4,” a four-frame series of cloudscapes by an artist named Kipp Normand.

What do we do at airports? We kill time. And here’s a way to do it that’s a little more fulfilling than staring at your phone or browsing the magazine kiosk.

And about that name, “KIND.” Chances are you’re familiar with the three-letter identifiers for airports, Indy’s being IND. What you probably didn’t know, however, is that airports also have four-letter identifiers. These are assigned by ICAO and used for navigation and other technical purposes. Airports in the United States simply add the letter “K” to the existing three-letter code. KLAX, for example. Or KBOS or KSFO or KMCO. Or, in this case, KIND.

PREVIOUSLY IN HIDDEN AIRPORT:

— KENNEDY CALDER

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The next time you’re on the check-in level of terminal 4 at Kennedy Airport, look up. Suspended from the ceiling near the western end of the building is a sculpture constructed of balanced aluminum arms and trapezoidal panels. This is “.125,” the famous mobile made by Alexander Calder in 1957, back when JFK was still known as Idlewild Airport.

At 45 feet long, it’s supposedly the fourth-largest mobile in the world. For years it hung in the arrivals hall of the old Terminal 4, better known as the IAB (International Arrivals Building). Later it was moved to the departure level when the terminal was rebuilt. “People think monuments should come out of the ground, never out of the ceiling,” said Calder. “But mobiles can be monumental too.” The name “.125” comes from the gauge of its aluminum elements. What it evokes is, I suppose, in the eye of the beholder. One can detect a certain flight motif, though to me it looks more like a fish.

This wasn’t Calder’s only aviation-related project. In the 1970s he hand-painted two airplanes for Braniff Airways, including a Boeing 727 for the Bicentennial.

— UNDERGROUND ATLANTA

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Atlanta. The Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has its negatives, to be sure. The low ceilings, beeping electric carts and endless public address announcements make the place noisy and claustrophobic. Many of the windows are inexplicably covered over, and the airport’s skinny escalators were apparently designed before the invention of luggage. On the other hand, ATL’s simple layout — essentially six rectangular concourses sequenced one after the other — makes for fast and easy connections. It’s one of the most convenient places anywhere to change planes. The neatest thing about it, though, is the underground connector tunnel. This is where you go to catch the inter-terminal train, but the better choice is to walk it. (If, like me, you purchased a Garmin Vivofit and have become obsessed with step-counting, note that it takes sixteen minutes and 1800 steps to cover the tunnel’s full walkable length.)

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ATL’s history of Atlanta exhibit.

Along the way you’ll pass a series of art and photography installations. Between concourses B and C, is an excellent, museum-quality multimedia exhibit on the history Georgia’s capital. You could easily spend a half-hour here. My favorite section, though, is the forest canopy ceiling in the tunnel between concourses A and B. This installation, made of multicolor, laser-cut aluminum panels is the work of artist Steve Waldeck. Described as a “450-foot multisensory walk through a simulated Georgia forest,” it features an audio backdrop of dozens of native birds and insects. What a welcome change it is, listening to the calls of sandhill cranes and blue herons instead of some idiotic TSA directive. It takes only two or three minutes to pass beneath the length of it, but these are about the most relaxing (if a bit psychedelic) two or three minutes to be found at an airport.

— The 9/11 MEMORIAL AT BOSTON-LOGAN

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The idea of building a memorial to the 2001 terror attacks, at the very airport from which two of the four hijacked planes departed from, ran a fine line between commemorative and tasteless. It needed to be done just right. What they came up with is superb, and ought to serve as a model for such memorials everywhere. Reached along an ascending pathway that twists upward amidst grass and trees, the main structure is a sort of open-topped glass chapel, inside of which are two vertical slabs, one for each of the two aircraft that struck the World Trade Center — and mimicking the shapes, one can’t help noticing, of the twin towers themselves — engraved with the names of the passengers and crew. There’s one for American’s flight 11, the Boeing 767 that struck the north tower, and the other for United 175, which hit the south tower a few minutes later. The glass and steelwork allow the entire space to be flooded with silvery light, creating an atmosphere that’s quiet and contemplative without feeling maudlin or sentimentalized. There are no flags or any of the crudely “patriotic” touches one might expect (and dread). It’s everything it should be: beautifully constructed, understated, and respectful.

Officially it’s called the “Place of Remembrance,” and it was built by the Boston-based firm of Moskow Linn Architects, as part of a public competition. The final design was chosen by airline workers, airport representatives, and family members of the victims. The engraved names are separated into columns of crew and passengers, and the names of off-duty United employees on the flight 175 plate include a small “tulip” logo of United Airlines. This might seem a strange touch, but this memorial was built primarily for the community of people who work at Logan Airport. Among the passengers and crew killed on the two jets were more than a dozen Logan-based employees. But anyone is welcome, of course, and I only wish the memorial were more easily accessible. If you’re at BOS and have some time, it’s worth seeking out. It sits on a knoll just to the southern side of the central parking garage, at the foot of the walkway tunnel that connects the garage with terminal A. Find the tunnel and follow the signs.

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— SFO DRAGONFLIES

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Airport art installations of one form or another are awfully trendy these days. Paintings, sculptures and mobiles are popping up all over the place. And good for that. Among the best is artist Joyce Hsu’s “Namoo House” sculpture at San Francisco International. It’s a huge, wall-mounted display of aluminum and stainless steel insects that, in the artist’s words, suggests the way the airport “fuses science, nature, and imagination, to become the transit home for all passengers” — whatever that might mean. To me, the metalwork moths and six-foot dragonflies represent both natural and human-made flying machines. And they remind me of the erector-set toys that I played with as a kid. Go to gate A3 in SFO’s international terminal, near the Emirates and JetBlue gates.

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— RALEIGH-DURHAM’S TERMINAL 2

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“Ah for the days when aviation was a gentleman’s pursuit, back before every Joe Sweatsock could wedge himself behind a lunch tray and jet off to Raleigh-Durham.” That’s from Sideshow Bob, in an old episode of the Simpsons (back when that show was still watchable), and we love the way he gives the words “Raleigh-Durham” an extra nudge of derision. I guess Bob hasn’t seen RDU’s Terminal 2. Home to Delta, American, jetBlue and United, this is possibly the most attractive airport building in America. Opened in 2008, it was the first major terminal with a wood truss skeleton. The design earned architect Curtis Fentress, whose firm also designed Denver International and Korea’s impeccable Incheon Airport, the American Institute of Architects’ Thomas Jefferson Award. “A blend of the region’s economy, heritage and landscape,” is how Fentress describes it. “Terminal 2’s rolling roofline reflects the Piedmont Hills, while the daylit interior provides the latest in common-use technology. Long-span wood trusses create column-free spaces that offer efficiency and flexibility, from ticketing to security.”

All true. And, unlike most airport facilities in this country, it’s quiet. Boarding calls and other public address announcements are kept to a minimum. This, together with the building’s architectural style and flair, will almost make you think you’re at an airport in Scandinavia.

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— KANSAS CITY EASY

Kansas City? Yup, I’m talking about MCI, an airport I visited for the first time only a couple of days ago. Its “little-known spot of unexpected pleasantness” to borrow from this post’s introduction, is in fact the entire airport. There’s nothing pretty about MCI’s three semi-circular terminals, unless you have a thing for unadorned concrete, but it’s startlingly convenient. There cannot be a quicker-in, quicker out airport anywhere in America. Curbside to gateside is literally a twenty-foot walk! The MCI experience is quick, quiet, and no-fuss — three rarities among airports these days. Worryingly, there’s a movement afoot to replace MCI’s terminals with something more “modern.” In other words, the existing layout doesn’t provide enough floor space for those “retail and dining options” that have helped turn every other big American airport into a hellish sort of shopping mall. Please keep Kansas City the way it is.

— THE QUIET AREA AT MINNEAPOLIS-ST. PAUL

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On the whole, the Minneapolis airport is about as architecturally unexciting as a parking garage. It’s an older complex with low ceilings and endless corridors that reminds me of the ’60s-era grammar school that I once attended. And like most American airports, it has a noise pollution problem. But unlike most American airports, it has a place to escape the racket: an upper-level “quiet area” overlooking the central atrium of the Lindbergh (Delta Air Lines) Terminal. It’s difficult to find, but worth the effort if you’ve got a lengthy layover and need a place to relax. Look for the signs close to where F concourse meets the central lobby.The long, rectangular veranda has pairs of vinyl chairs set around tables. There are power outlets at each table and visitors can log in to MSP’s complimentary Wi-Fi. Delta provides pillows and blankets so that stranded passengers can nap. It’s a bland space without much ambiance, lacking the funky chairs, sofas, and other quirky accoutrements that you might find in Europe or Asia (Incheon Airport’s quiet zones are the coolest anywhere). But it does what it’s supposed to do. It’s comfortable, detached and peaceful. It’s a shame that more airports don’t set aside spots like this.

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— THE La GUARDIA GARDEN

I’ve written at length about the Marine Air Terminal at La Guardia Airport in New York City. This historic art-deco building, in the far southwest corner of LGA, is one of the most special places in all of commercial aviation — the launching point for the Pan Am flying boats that made the first-ever transatlantic and round-the-world flights. Inside the cathedral-like rotunda is the 240-foot “Flight” mural by James Brooks. What few people know about, however, is the cozy garden just outside. Facing the building, it’s to the right of the old Art Deco doorway, set back from the street. It’s a quiet, tree-shaded hideaway amidst, grass, flowers and shrubs. Grab a sandwich from the Yankee Clipper and enjoy it on one of the wooden benches. To get there, take the A Loop inter-terminal bus to the Marine Air Terminal. The spot is best appreciated in the warmer months, of course. Like the Marine Air rotunda it is outside of the TSA checkpoint, so you’ll need to re-clear security if you’re catching a flight.

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The Day of the Cockroach

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Corridor Shot 1994 - The Day of the Cockroach

September 11, 2021

MY MOST VIVID MEMORY of September 11th, 2001, is my memory of a cockroach.

It was one of the biggest roaches I’ve ever seen — copper-colored and bullet-shaped, the length of my little finger — and it came crawling across the platform of the Government Center subway station at 7:00 a.m., as I stood there waiting for the train that would take me to Logan Airport. It scampered, stopped, then zigged and zagged, in that deliberate yet utterly directionless way of insects, its footsteps so heavy I swear that I could hear them, click-click-click on the greasy concrete.

It portended everything, this giant subway cockroach. Or it portended nothing. And as it came closer I drew my foot back — my right foot, I remember with absolute clarity — and nudged it, gently, off the platform and down into the dark and filthy space alongside the tracks, where it disappeared more or less instantly into the shadows and detritus.

This is how we remember things.

Once on the train, I would chat briefly with a United Airlines flight attendant, whose name I never got, and who maybe, possibly — I’ll never know for certain — was headed to work aboard the doomed United flight 175.

I was on my way to Orlando, where I’d be picking up a work assignment later that afternoon. My airplane would lift off only seconds after American’s flight 11, the first of the two jets to hit the twin towers. I had watched the silver Boeing back away from gate 25 at Logan’s terminal B and begin to taxi. United 175 would launch a few minutes later. My plane was in-between.

In an old briefcase here in this room, I still have my boarding pass from that morning. It shows me assigned to seat 11D, on the aisle, but there were empty seats and I slid over the window.

Elevens were wild that day. On the 11th day of the month, flight 11 would collide with the World Trade Center, two buildings that shaped an enormous “11” in the Manhattan sky. I looked down from row 11.

But there was nothing to see, yet. I recall an almost uncannily clear view of Manhattan, taking note, as I always do, of that graceful little bend that the island makes — the way it turns eastbound just below Midtown. There was no smoke, no fire. I was just a few minutes — a matter of seconds, maybe — too soon.

A short time later, about halfway to Florida, we started descending. Because of a “security issue,” our captain told us, we, along with many other airplanes, would be diverting immediately. Pilots are polished pros when it comes to dishing out euphemisms, and this little gem would be the most laughable understatement I’ve ever heard a comrade utter.

Our new destination was Charleston, South Carolina.

A bomb threat had been called in. That was my hunch. My worry wasn’t of war and smoldering devastation. My worry was being late for work. It wasn’t until I joined a crowd of passengers in Charleston, clustered around a TV in a concourse restaurant, that I learned what was going on.

And there I am. I’m watching the video of the second airplane, shot from the ground in a kind of twenty-first century Zapruder film. The picture swings left and picks up the United 767 moving swiftly. This is flight 175. The plane rocks, lifts its nose, and, like a charging, very angry bull making a run at a fear-frozen matador, drives itself into the very center of the south tower. The airplane vanishes. For a fraction of a second there is no falling debris, no smoke, no fire, no movement. Then, from within, you see the white-hot explosion and spewing expulsion of fire and matter.

And then, a bit later, the collapse. And this is the important part. Because to me, had the airplanes crashed, blown up, and reduced the upper halves of those buildings to burned-out hulks, the whole event would nonetheless have clung to the realm of believability. Had the towers not actually fallen, I suspect our September 11 hangover, which rages to this day, might not have been so prolonged. It was the collapse — the groaning implosions and the pyroclastic tornadoes whipping through the canyons of lower Manhattan — that catapulted the event from ordinary disaster to historical infamy.

As I stand awestruck in this shithole airport restaurant in South Carolina, the television shows the towers of the World Trade Center. They are not just afire, not just shedding debris and pouring out oil-black smoke. They are falling down. The sight of those ugly, magnificent towers, collapsing onto themselves, is the most sublimely terrifying thing I have ever seen.

Then I would go to a motel and spend the night. The next morning I would rent a car and drive all the way home to Boston.

This is how we remember things.

And pilots, like fire fighters, police officers, and everyone elsewhose professions had been implicated, had no choice but to take things, well, personally. Four on-duty airline crews were victims, including eight pilots. John Ogonowski comes to mind, the good-guy captain of American 11. Of the thousands of people victimized that day, Captain Ogonowski was figuratively, if not literally, the first of them. He lived in my home state; his funeral made the front pages, where he was eulogized for his philanthropic work with local Cambodian immigrants.

Maybe it’s melodramatic to say I felt a bond or kinship with these eight men, but it’s something like that. What they went through, these eight colleagues on very front edge of the attacks, the very men whose airplanes would be stolen and weaponized, is something I can’t fathom yet, at the same time, I can imagine and visualize all too chillingly.

And yes, in the ten-second bursts it took the towers to fall, I knew something about the business of flying planes would be different forever. I just wasn’t sure what it would be.

Fast-forward. It’s hyperbole to speak of the world having been “changed forever” that day. I’m conservative and skeptical when it comes to these things. History is bigger than us. Try to take the long view, even if, all these years on, the dominos haven’t stopped falling. Heck, tens of millions of people died in World War Two — tens of thousands at a time, as the incendiaries rained down over Europe and Japan. A hundred thousand bodies one night in Tokyo alone.

Sure, things are different now. Albeit for reasons we don’t always own up to. I have to say, I’m discouraged — or should that be encouraged? — because more than any “clash of civilizations,” the real and lasting legacy of Mohamed Atta and his henchmen is something more mundane: tedium. Think about it. The long lines, the searches and pat-downs, the litany of rules and protocols we’re forced to follow — all this meaningless pomp in the name of security. Of modern life’s many rituals, few are marinated in boredom as much as air travel. “Flying” is what we call it. How misleading. We don’t fly so much as we sit and stand around for interminable amounts of time.

And most distressing of all, we seem to be okay with this. There’s the real legacy of September 11th. The terrorists have won, goes the refrain, and perhaps that’s true. It isn’t quite what they hoped to win, but they’ve won it nevertheless.

The irony that nobody talks about is that the hijackers’ ability to pull off the 2001 attacks so spectacularly had almost nothing to do with airport security in the first damn place. I’ve made this point many times, but never have I seen or heard it acknowledged elsewhere. As conventional wisdom has it, the terrorists exploited a weakness in airport security by smuggling boxcutters onto the airplanes. But conventional wisdom is wrong. What the men actually exploited was a weakness in our mindset — a set of presumptions based on the decades-long track record of hijackings and how they were expected to unfold: diversions to Beirut or Havana, with hostage negotiations and standoffs.

The presence of boxcutters was merely incidental — particularly when coupled with the bluff of having a bomb. The men could have used knives fashioned from plastic, broken bottles wrapped with tape, or any of a thousand other improvised tools. The only weapon that mattered was the intangible one: the element of surprise. And so long as they didn’t chicken out, they were all but guaranteed to succeed.

For a number of reasons, just the opposite is true today. The hijack paradigm was changed forever even before the first of the Twin Towers had dropped to the ground, when the passengers of United 93 realized what was happening and fought back. That element of surprise was no longer a useful device. Hijackers today would face not only an armored cockpit, but also a planeload of people convinced they’re about to die. It’s hard to imagine a terrorist, be it with a boxcutter or a bomb, making it two steps up the aisle without being pummeled. It’s equally hard to imagine that organized groups would be willing to expend valuable resources on a scheme with such a high likelihood of failure.

In spite of this reality, we are apparently content spending billions of taxpayer dollars and untold hours of labor in a delusional attempt to thwart an attack that has already happened and cannot happen again. Guards paw through our luggage in a hunt for what are effectively harmless items: hobby knives, scissors, screwdrivers. Meanwhile, even a child knows that a lethal implement can be crafted out of virtually anything, from a ballpoint pen to a shattered first class dinner plate.

A September 11th post isn’t anything I’ve looked forward to, and I’m wary of the maudlin sentimentalizing and over-the-top coverage this anniversary will bring. But something needed to be said, and so here it is. After all, nothing in my lifetime had a more profound effect on air travel than the events of that Tuesday morning twenty years ago.

Until now. Until COVID-19 came along. And as the legacy of September 11th troubles me, so do its eerie parallels with the ongoing battle against coronavirus.

Both crises were born of legitimately dangerous circumstances, but quickly became twisted by politics and hysteria. Curiously, this seems to have happened in opposite ways: After the 2001 attacks, it was mostly people on the right who bought into the hype and fear; who saw terrorists around every corner and were willing to sign off on things like the Patriot Act, TSA, the Iraq War, and so forth. Left-leaning people resisted. This time, it’s left-leaning people who are the more fearful and pessimistic, while those on the right advocate for a softer, more laissez-faire approach.

Why the difference? I suspect it’s because people who lean right are more naturally drawn to responses involving power and conflict; going after enemies, seeking revenge, etc. — all the things that came into play after September 11th. The pandemic, on the other hand, centers on concepts like compassion and “saving people.” Thus it has galvanized that mindset instead of the more reactionary one.

Regardless of where you stand, the big question is: how and when does it end? Or does it end at all?

When people are afraid they adjust rapidly, to almost anything, accepting ways of life that are ultimately harmful. Replace “war on terror” with “war on coronavirus” and feel what I mean. After 2001, we spent two entire decades — and counting — obsessed with the specter of terrorism. It never went away. Will the same thing happen again?

There’s been a lot of talk and prognosticating about “after.” People often talk of a life “after COVID” or “when COVID is over.” This is a nonsensical proposition. Just as there can be no “end of terrorism,” the virus too will stay with us, chronic and endemic. How we adapt will define the next decade. Will we do so sensibly, or, as we chose with terrorism, by waging a ruinously expensive and self-destructive battle that, to this day, has no conceivable end.

Author’s photo, taken from the cockpit of a 19-seater in 1994.

An earlier version of this essay appears in chapter six of COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL.

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Pilots and UFOs

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Sky - Pilots and UFOs

Skyscape over Turkey.     Author’s photo.

August 31, 2021

EARLIER THIS SUMMER, the U.S. government released its anxiously-awaited (by some) report on unexplained airborne phenomenon. The investigation was driven by a rash of recent sightings, including the startling video of a mysterious object shot from a U.S. Navy fighter seven years ago.

The findings, as these things tend to go (see Mueller, Warren, et al.) were inconclusive, and brought on little more than collective yawn. Experts analyzed some 120 incidents, and although many could not be explained, that, in itself, was not considered evidence enough to conclude that we’re dealing with intelligent life from elsewhere. Our UFOs remain exactly that: unidentified flying objects. This, for better or worse, is generally how official analysis is bound to go. I don’t know what people expected. Maybe something like, “Alien Beings are Stalking Us, Government Says.”

I’m asked all the time about UFOs. This is understandable, I suppose, given that my office is a cockpit, offering me a wrap-around view of late-night sky for hours on end. Have I ever seen anything I couldn’t identify or explain? Alas; I wish my life was that interesting. The answer is no. While I’ve seen plenty of magnificent and occasionally peculiar things from an airplane, I’ve never seen a UFO. Neither has any other pilot I know. See chapter five in my book for a list of the more exciting airborne views I’ve enjoyed over the years. Regrettably there’s nothing there about spaceships, pulsing lights or zig-zagging objects that defy the laws of physics.

I’m not saying these things aren’t out there. There are billions of stars in our galaxy, and tens of billions of galaxies in the universe. Doubting the existence of extraterrestrial life seems foolish. I’ve just never seen one.

If I did, would I deny it? In the past when this topic has come up, I’ve been accused of lying. A lot of people believe there’s some tacit agreement among pilots — a code of silence — whereby we don’t admit to UFO sightings. This always makes me laugh. As if there is, or could be, a tacit agreement among pilots about anything.

Aside from chemtrails, of course.

 

In closing, this subject must segue to its rightful place. To the late Grant Hart and one of the prettiest songs of all time. Play loud…


Sometimes I see her, sitting on the rooftop,
Perched in a lawnchair and staring
into the sky.

I know that somewhere, in some faraway galaxy
That some gray men with telescopes are gazing
right into her eyes!

Cockpit Confidential E-book Sale

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August 1, 2021

This month only, COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL is only $2.99 as part of a special e-book promotion.

Get your discounted copy of this once-upon-a-New York Times bestselling classic, and earn me 34 cents in well-deserved royalties.

Electronic versions are available on Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Apple iBooks, Google Play Books, and Kobo (whatever that is).

CLICK HERE TO ORDER VIA AMAZON

Book with Passport - Cockpit Confidential E-book Sale

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Summer of Our Discontent

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Departure Screen - Summer of Our Discontent

July 19, 2021

THE OTHER DAY, traveling between Boston and New York, my plane was delayed 90 minutes for air traffic congestion. This once-routine occasion was something I hadn’t experienced in sixteen months. This was, missed dinner plans aside, a good thing. Normalcy is back, with domestic passenger volume now matching or even exceeding 2019 levels.

The trouble is, the airlines aren’t ready for it. Carriers are canceling hundreds of flights as they scramble to find crews; airport lines are some of the worst ever seen; hold times at customer call centers are hours long. The whole industry seems to have been blindsided. How did this happen?

The most glaring problem is staffing. The airline bailouts of 2020 and 2021 were engineered to keep people like me from being laid off, and they largely succeeded. Without government assistance, untold numbers of airline workers would have lost their jobs, either temporary or permanently. But while this money protected jobs in the short term, it did not keep the carriers from hemorrhaging billions of dollars. And one of the ways airlines dealt with these losses was to trim their payrolls by offering early retirement packages and other enticing severance deals. Many workers, across a wide swath of departments, including reservations staff, pilots and flight attendants, accepted these offers and left. Now, with passengers rushing back, airlines can’t keep up.

Making matters worse, the lack of flying in the earlier months of the pandemic caused a large numbers of pilots to slip into no-fly status to the point where they were longer legal to carry passengers. The resulting training backlog has triggered a short-term pilot shortage.

It looks like some pretty poor decision-making, and maybe it was. But consider the environment at the height of COVOD-19 downturn. The industry had never faced anything like this, and was desperate to stay alive. There was no way of predicting when, or to what extent, flyers would return. As the virus ebbed and surged, travel restrictions and border closings changed week to week; absolutely nothing was certain, and almost nobody predicted a return to 2019 numbers so soon. The expectation, so much as there was one, was of a gradual, incremental return.

Air travel logistics are challenging enough in normal times, never mind when the entire world has flipped upside-down. Airlines did what they calculated was the smartest thing to do. Some guessed better than others — and that’s what it was to a big degree: guesswork.

Carriers, meanwhile, rely on a vast support network of contractors and vendors to keep their operations running, from caterers and cabin cleaners to the drivers who provide crew transportation. Some of these entities received government support as things wore on, others didn’t. Many closed their doors permanently, and pretty much all of them have fewer employees now than they did before. Airport retailers and restaurants also shed thousands of workers, and, not unlike retailers and restaurants everywhere, they’re having a hard time hiring them back. Not to mention the critical roles played by TSA and air traffic control, who also find themselves understaffed. All of this bogs things down even further.

Hating on airlines never goes out of style, and this latest crisis, at least on the surface, smacks of short-sightedness and incompetence. It is, of course, more complicated than that.

 

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Anger Aloft

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Air Rage - Anger Aloft

June 15, 2021

THIS PAST WEEKEND, airport boardings in the United States broke two million mark for the first time in fifteen months, bringing passenger totals to about 75 percent of pre-pandemic levels. That’s the good news. The bag news is, along with the long lines and suddenly full cabins has come a well-publicized rise in so-called “air rage” incidents, several of which have resulted in flight diversions, injuries to passengers and crew, and arrests.

What gives?

Air rage is nothing new, but the dynamics are a little different this time. Not surprisingly, a majority of the latest incidents revolve around masks. This is nothing if not predictable, given how politically charged mask wearing has become, to say nothing of the discomfort factor. But although nobody enjoys wearing masks on a plane, their use is mandatory and the rules aren’t changing any time soon (not before September at the soonest, when TSA’s mandate is up for renewal). People have little choice but to comply, which is both the problem and the solution.

While it might seem a stretch, the anonymizing effect of masks could have a role here too. It’s all but impossible to accurately gauge a masked person’s expression, which, at the make-of-break point of a hostile encounter, can in some people trigger anger or even violence. The fears, frustrations, and aggravations of the past year, meanwhile, have left many people traumatized and on edge.

We’re also seeing a rush of bodies into a system that, in terms of staffing, is lagging weeks or months behind. TSA staffing is down, and many airport restaurants and facilities remain closed. This means longer wait times for just about everything, which leaves people irritated and frazzled even before they step aboard. Some of the checkpoint lines I’ve witnessed over the past few weeks are the longest I’ve ever seen.

Another factor is a demographics shift among flyers. Business travel remains by and large curtailed, while a growing number of leisure travelers are taking advantage of cheap tickets to budget vacation spots. Many of these people are infrequent flyers unfamiliar with the rules and hassles of air travel, and thus more prone to acting out.

Then we have alcohol. Historically, inebriation is a factor in more than 80 percent of air rage incidents. The most recent statistics are incomplete, but several airlines have temporarily banned alcoholic beverages in their economy cabins.

Above and beyond all of this, meanwhile, are the baseline stressors of air travel: noise, crowds, kids, cramped seats, delays. None of these things is going away, and neither is air rage as a phenomenon. Flying has long had a way of bringing out the worst in people, and this will go on. What airlines need to figure out is how to keep the numbers from rising disproportionately.

A zero-tolerace approach to inflight violence is absolutely essential. That being said, could carriers be a little less heavy-handed in how they set the table, so to speak? Air travel was already a confrontational experience in some respects, and has grown more so under COVID: more rules, more being bossed around, more repercussions if you disobey. I understand the need for a tough stance, but at some point the onslaught of public address warnings and threats can have a detrimental affect, inciting rather than calming those who are prone to hostile behavior in the first place.

Which isn’t to blame airlines. The affronts and hassles of flying are duly noted, and getting on a plane is no longer the rare and special event that once beckoned our imaginations and, in turn, our best Sunday suits and behaviors. But that’s hardly an excuse for what we’re seeing. This is ultimately a behavior problem squarely on the shoulders of passengers. And, if you ask me, it’s symptomatic of our society’s increasingly shitty behavior in general. Are we coarser and more unruly as passengers, or as human beings? It’s maybe more of the latter than we care to admit.

Perhaps the best antidote is nothing more than a gradual return to normalcy. Fortunately, that seems to be where we’re headed.

 

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Going South

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AeroMexico 737 Livery 1024x517 - Going South

May 27, 2021

All the griping I’ve done over the “GMST.” That’s the Generic Meaningless Swoosh Thing, as coined by a reader some years ago, the omnipresent and (normally) vapid flourish of the current-day airline livery. Have a look at the paint jobs of El Al, PIA, or United for a sense of how depressing a GMST can be. Every so often, though, you find one that works.

Behold the uniform of AeroMexico. Here we see a livery that’s sleek and modern on the one hand, yet still traditional. While most airlines trade one for the other, here they share the same canvas. Sure, it incorporates a GMST, but in this case it smooths things out rather than drawing attention to itself. Actually there are two, if you count the swoop beneath the tail, and they play against each other nicely (though I’m not so fond of the lighter blue accenting). Yet the look centers neither on a Swoosh nor any other element of novelty. The focal point is the carrier’s Aztec warrior logo, which it has used for decades, proudly adorning the tail.

Few things can make a 737 look good, but this livery does. It’s dignified, distinctive and handsome.

Aeromexico Tail 1024x915 - Going South

Photo by the author.

I bring this up during the same week that the Federal Aviation Administration announced it is downgrading Mexico’s air safety rating. The move drops Mexico’s designation from a “Category 1” to a “Category 2.” While the downgrade doesn’t ban flights outright, it prevents Mexican airlines from adding any service to U.S. cities, and prohibits American carriers from selling code-share seats aboard those from Mexico.

The FAA, whose penchant for safety is outdone only by a fondness for annoying acronyms, has come up with the International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) program to judge standards of other countries, using criteria based on ICAO guidelines. Classifications are awarded to nations themselves and not to individual airlines. Category 1 status goes to those who meet the mark, and Category 2 to those who “do not provide safety oversight of air carrier operators in accordance with the minimum safety standards.” Whatever that means exactly. Because the categories pertain to countries and not specific airlines, and because the restrictions apply unilaterally (American carriers are free to increase flights into Mexico), IASA has its critics.

For what it’s worth, on a chiefly anecdotal level, I fly to Mexico all the time, and while security screening for crewmembers is a little overzealous, I notice few or no meaningful deficiencies, whether it’s infrastructure, air traffic control, or anything else.

This couldn’t come at a worse time, as passenger levels between the U.S. and its southern neighbor are now higher than they were before the pandemic. It’s also a black eye to Mexico, which has a long and proud aviation heritage.

AeroMexico is today the nation’s biggest carrier, but let’s not forget Mexicana. One of the oldest airlines in the world, Mexicana flew throughout its home country and North America. Its demise, in 2010, left AeroMexico at center stage, and spawned a number of low-cost upstarts, the largest of which, at the moment, are Volaris and the grotesquely named Viva Aerobus.

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“Because of the Sanitary Condition”

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Hote Room Glass Mug - “Because of the Sanitary Condition”

May 4, 2021

Mexico City, Mexico

HOUSEKEEPING: Good evening.

PATRICK SMITH: Hola. Can you help me? The door to my mini-fridge is locked.

HOUSEKEEPING: Yes, sir.

PATRICK SMITH: I need somewhere to store my leftovers. The fridge is locked.

HOUSEKEEPING: Yes, it is locked. For COVID-19.

PATRICK SMITH: What?

HOUSEKEEPING: The fridge is locked. Because of COVID.

PATRICK SMITH: I don’t understand. What does COVID have to do with my mini-fridge?

HOUSEKEEPING: I am sorry sir.

PATRICK SMITH: But… what about my sandwich?

HOUSEKEEPING: The fridge must be locked. Because of the sanitary condition.

And so on.

I spend a lot of time in hotels. Witnessing the various ways they’ve responded to the ongoing pandemic has been equally amusing and frustrating. The focus on cleanliness has been relentless, spawning an arms race of extreme and often bizarre measures. Although different chains have come up with different gestures, there are certain constants: the remote-control handset encased in plastic, for example, and the ubiquitous QR placard in place of a room service menu. The Gideon’s have been scooped from the drawers; pens and notepads have disappeared.

How effective these measures might be isn’t my expertise, but suffice it to say I’m skeptical. The idea, so far as I can tell, is to reduce the number of so-called “touchpoint.” In a hotel room, of all places, this feels a bit absurd.

Usually the effect is merely comical, but occasionally it’s maddening. One night in Los Angeles I was forced to drink tap water out of my hand because the room had been stripped of cups and glasses. “Yes, we’ve removed all beverage-related items,” was the response to my complaint. There’s still a bed, and a shower, and toilet for that matter. But nothing to rinse with after brushing your teeth.

In a hotel near Kennedy Airport, “per order of the governor,” according to the sign, the 24-hour continental snack buffet — a small cabinet of pastries and fruit — is now available only from 5 a.m. until 10 a.m. Did I miss something about people contracting coronavirus through donuts? If so, from this point on you can only catch it in the morning.

Hotel Room Remote 2 - “Because of the Sanitary Condition”

Meanwhile, I’m convinced that one of the byproducts of the pandemic has been a tenfold increase in the manufacture — and subsequent discarding — of single-use plastics. Everything now is wrapped in plastic, from hotel silverware to the food on airplanes.

Have you flown in first or business class lately? On many airlines, each course of the meal service — salad, entree, dessert — comes plated in its own little polystyrene house. Indeed, each individual roll or bread slice is wrapped in cellophane. Mind you this wrapping is done by hand, which would seem to undermine the whole endeavor, but in a world drifting deeper into dystopian madness with every passing day, never let reason stand in the way of pointlessness and waste.

Hotel Room Coffee Maker - “Because of the Sanitary Condition”

The morning after that mini-fridge episode, I was passing through the crew security checkpoint at the Mexico City airport. I was subjected to repeated pat-downs and was asked to proceed twice through the body scanner. The culprit was — wait for it now — a slip of paper in my shirt pocket. A man ordered me to stand before him with my arms outstretched. He slipped on a pair of sanitary gloves, touched me lightly on the breast pocket, then took off the gloves and threw them away. Off to the side, at the x-ray belt, my colleague was having his suitcase eviscerated by two guards who’d spotted a tiny corkscrew inside — the kind that attaches to a keychain.

Am I the only one who sees the parallels here? Am I the only one getting nervous? We are all familiar with the phrase “security theater.” Will “virus theater” be next?

Twenty years after the attacks of 9/11 and we’re still confiscating pointy objects from pilots, wasting billions of dollars and immeasurable amounts of time on security protocols that nobody can justify or explain. And it’s doubtful they will ever go away. Once such things become policy, with entire bureaucracies constructed to support them, they are often impossible to march back. The traveling public simply gets used to them.

Although the COVID crisis will not last forever, don’t be surprised if aspects of it — even, or especially, the silliest and most illogical ones — are still with us for years to come.

Hotel Room Remote 1 747x1024 - “Because of the Sanitary Condition”

Hotel Room Silverware - “Because of the Sanitary Condition”

PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR.

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