Public Comment

Travels on the Error Plane: Some Trippy Observations on Jets and Frets

Gar Smith
Saturday February 02, 2019 - 10:08:00 PM

lOn Christmas Eve 2018, government health services raised a hue and cry about an alarming outbreak of measles that had been traced to the Newark Airport in New Jersey. 

If you were to guess that an airport would be a great place to contract a contagious disease, you would be right. Do a Google search for "holiday measles and airports" and you'll get reports of infections popping up at airports in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, DC and lots of "elsewheres." 

This being the case, have the watchdogs at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) considered that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) might be at least partly to blame for air travelers' microbial miseries? 

Here's the deal: When air passengers arriving from abroad line up to show their passports, they can be asked to pose for an electronic photo and required to place their hands on a screen for fingerprinting. 

And here's the rub (literally): Look at the glass on those fingerprinting machines (I have) and you'll see the greasy imprints of scores of fingers that have passed by the counter and left their potentially measly mark. 

From appearances, those screens are never wiped. 

Suggestion: If the CDC, DHS and TSA really want to avoid triggering a measles epidemic, they could at least start placing bottles of hand sanitizer nearby. 

In the Event of an Emergency…. 

A Raft of Unanswered Questions 

It's a familiar drill for airline passengers: "Here's how you buckle your seat belt," "here's how you inflate your life-vest," and "escape rafts are located in overhead compartments." 

But while cabin attendants are adept at clicking and unclicking their disembodied seat belts and pretending to tug and blow on their uninflated yellow vests, there's one escape chore they never pause to address: How do you wrest those unseen emergency lifeboats from their hidden compartments? 

The printed in-flight emergency booklets don't address this question either. 

What is clear is that: in order for a flight attendant to access these rafts, he/she would need to (1) lower the compartment, which (2) would block the cabin aisle and (3) prevent passengers from escaping. 

So what's the protocol? Upon surviving an ocean landing, will passengers be instructed to remain seated while the flight crew (1) secures the overhead rafts, (2) trundles the them to the nearest exit, (3) ties them to the doorframe, (4) tosses them into the waves, (5) waits for them to properly inflate before (6) inviting hundreds of patient passengers to depart the aircraft and (7) swim for the nearest available raft? 

I'm only asking because this kind of detailed choreography doesn't seem like some thing you would want to try and explain "in the moment." A bit of rehearsal could prove useful. 

Related question: Most planes have a minimum of three rafts but how many passengers can each raft hold? (I haven't been able to find an answer online.) 

Another mystery: in addition to the rectangular rafts, some evacuation manuals show a larger, circular raft, complete with a tent-like covering. Is that the raft for First-Class Platinum passengers? 

Escapist Reading 

During a recent holiday flight, there was something new in the "escape manual" provided by our host, Copa Airlines. In the event of a "water landing" (which sounds so much better than a "mid-ocean crash"), the illustrated guide advises the first passengers to the doors, to look before leaping. 

A cartooned customer is shown peering through the window of an escape door—and you know he's peering because there's a prominent dotted line running from his eyeballs, through the window glass, and out to the world outside. 

The guide advises passengers not to open the door if (1) they can see flames or if (2) the water is higher than the bottom of the unopened door. 

The advice makes good sense. Unfortunately, something is missing: there is no other option. What do you do if the doors can't be opened—calmly return to your seat and watch as the plane slowly sinks? 

Just something to ponder after you've finished all the Sudoku and crossword puzzles in the in-flight magazine. 

The Missing in Action MIA Missives: (Introduction) 

On New Year's Eve 2017, after returning from an overseas trip, we found ourselves stranded overnight at Miami International Airport (MIA). With lots of time on my hands I jotted down some notes about the experience. With the goal of offering constructive suggestions for improving the future traveling experience, I sent a letter to Doug Parker, Chair and CEO of American Airlines. It was returned as "undeliverable."  

I then mailed the letter to Miami International Airport. After 66 days, this second letter was returned, unopened, with a sticker that read: "Return to Sender. No Such Number."  

Really? Three months and no one at the US Postal Service could find the Miami International Airport?! 

At this point, it looks like my only recourse is to "go public" with the sordid details of the whole misbegotten misadventure. So be it: 

The Tale of Our New Year's Stranding 

Sorry to report that our New Year got off to a rocky start. 

Although our December 31, 2017 American Airlines flight from the Caribbean arrived at Miami International a few minutes early on New Year's Eve, we missed our connecting AA flight to San Francisco—because of the time it took to pass through airport immigration. 

Suggestion: AA could be more aware of the delays inherent in being processed through US Customs and Immigration and allot more than two hours between arriving and connecting flights. 

After arriving, we found ourselves trapped for 20 minutes in a large crowd of passengers herded into one of the airport's corridors. No one received any information about what we were expected to do during the immigration process. 

Suggestion: It would help to display preparatory instructions and guidance in advance—on signage positioned where it can be read. Instead, hundreds of passengers wound up standing shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting in confusion and wondering what lay ahead. 

We finally arrived at a station in the airport equipped with scores of self-service electronic kiosks. There was no human assistance on hand. The only information about what we were expected to do was contained on the screens of the kiosks themselves. Many of the kiosks were out-of-order. 

Travelers were left to jostle one another to gain access to the remaining working kiosks. (There were green lights to guide passengers towards functional kiosks but they were not always reliable.) 

After several attempts, we were able to get a kiosk to produce the printouts we needed to proceed. But, then, there was no information about how to leave the "kiosk pit." Detecting a slight surge in the huge crowd, we followed the blind shuffle and, after several minutes, found ourselves approaching what turned out to be a virtually unmarked exit. 

Suggestion: It would be useful for MIA to place the Exit signs where they can be seen. Somewhere at eye-level, at least. Hung from the ceiling, at best. But certainly not where the sole sign was placed—waist-high, near an otherwise invisible exit gate.  

Passengers with an "X" marked on their tickets had to take special efforts to be processed at "X-only" check-out counters. But all the available lines were assigned to handle passengers with X-marked tickets. No other options were visible. 

Finally, having made it through the confusing entry process, we were compelled to run a considerable distance from the arrival gate to our distant departure gate. In desperation, we commandeered a small airport shuttle (intended for disabled passengers) but we still missed our plane—as did nine other passengers. 

Suggestion: Physical distances between arriving and connecting flights should be taken into consideration. When connection times are tight, shuttles should be waiting outside the processing area to whisk delayed passengers to their assigned aircraft. Shuttle drivers should be able to contact agents at the departure gate to advise them that other passengers are coming. 

Happy New Year, Suckers! 

The time we spent waiting for the next flight to SF—set to board at 8:10 the next morning—was an extremely uncomfortable experience. 

The personnel at the American Airlines counter assigned to assist passengers who missed their flights were unable to provide us with complementary hotel arrangements. Because our AA flight arrived on time, they argued, they were relieved of any further responsibility. 

I pointed it out that it took nearly 2 hours to proceed through immigration and AA should have been aware of this impasse when deciding when to schedule arriving and connecting flights. 

Didn't work. The AA reps said we were on our own. We found it impossible to relax in the airport's hard, uncushioned seats, whose hard metal armrests—apparently designed to prevent anyone from stretching out—made sleeping impossible. 

Although it was the dead of winter—with historic low temperatures and epic snowfalls blanketing the country—MIA's operators decided to keep the air-conditioning running full-blast, all night. (Adding to the misery: The only entertainment on the waiting room's TV screens were images of Anderson Cooper freezing in snowy Times Square while waiting for the New Year's Ball to drop.) 

Suggestion: A little bit of warm air would've been much appreciated by stranded passengers, some of whom could be seen doing push-ups and jogging in place in an effort to ward off frostbite. 

Suggestion: Passengers facing an unexpected all-nighter in an airport should not be forced to attempt sleeping on metal-bracketed seats. In such cases, AA and/or MIA could offer stranded passengers the simple courtesy of canvas cots for sleeping. (And, when the air-conditioning is running full-blast in the dead of winter, a few blankets to keep passengers from freezing.) 

I hope that you will be able to respond sympathetically to this note and undertake efforts to address the shortcomings that made our interrupted flight experience such a miserable one. 

It was not the best way to start a New Year. 

Your, sincerely . . . . 


I'll be sending copies of this Planet article to the folks at AA and MIA. Maybe now I'll get a response.