Random Travel Tips – Part #7:  Airbus and Airmanship

Ideas and Issues

New York City             We touched down at bedraggled, wannabe better, LaGuardia Airport in New York City around ten in the morning on a beautiful clear early fall day.  Banking in to the landing the wings warbled back and forth a bit, meaning nothing, but something I noticed vividly having read William Langewiesche’s cover story that ran while I was Sicily as the lead piece in the New York Times Magazine on a recent Sunday.  The article was chilling.  One of those pieces that you take as seriously as a heart attack, because your life might literally depend on it.  The article runs longer than a New Yorker piece, so a miniscule number of readers compared to the total subscribers or on-line scanners might have read it, but it’s subject was ostensibly, what the frick happened to Boeing 737 Max, but it was really a blunt instrument warning that airlines in many places around the world are no longer safe, partially because Boeing is not Airbus and mainly because many pilots around the world no longer have “airmanship.”

Bottom line on the travel tips:  Do not fly Lion Airlines in Indonesia or anywhere else it flies in Asia, no matter how cheap the offer.  Furthermore, once you move into the airspace of national and domestic airlines in countries where political weight coupled with wealth can trump anything approaching air safety or accountability and regulation.

I trust Langewiesche on any subject that leaves the ground with wings.  He’s been a pilot and doesn’t mince words.  I read him regularly in The Atlantic, and I read his book, Sahara Unveiled. 

He is clear on the Boeing 737 Max that they are not exactly to blame for the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia because of some warning light or software glitch which has been the way the story has spun thus far.  More seriously, they are to blame for continuing to pretend with Lion and many other carriers that the airmanship of pilots can serve as the default for aircraft problems.  Airbus, the French manufacturer, has given up on that myth and tried to increase automatic flight controls.  He believes Boeing will have to end up in that same place, but it could take time, which leaves all of us flying on a yellow warning light.

His reports on the hiring, training, and experience of pilots for the two airlines is horrific.  He even visits Lion City in Indonesia and sees the graduating class while he is there.  We are staggered with him, when he notes that 95% of the recruits after a matter of weeks are approved to fly and put in the cockpit.  The training, whether military or elsewhere, in North America and Europe, is another dimension according to him and every expert he talks to for the story.

Flying globally, I’m a price shopper and, if anything, have been so naïve as to be chauvinistic about Boeing, despite its horrid anti-labor practices in South Carolina, compared to Airbus.  Here’s another travel tip:  start paying attention to make of the plane globally.  If I’m flying in distant airports with unknown carriers, I’m going to be looking at the plane make, and so should you!

Here’s Langewiesche’s final verdict on the information available to date on these tragic crashes:

“Who in a position of authority will say to the public that the airplane is safe?  I would if I were in such a position.  What we had in the two downed airplanes was a textbook failure of airmanship.  In broad daylight, these pilots couldn’t decipher a variant of a simple runaway trim, and they ended up flying too fast at low altitude, neglecting to throttle back and leading their passengers over an aerodynamic edge into oblivion.  They were the deciding factor here – not the MCAS, not the Max.  Furthermore, it is certain that thousands of similar crews are at work around the world, enduring as rote pilots and apparently safe, but only so long as conditions are routine.  Airbus has gone further than Boeing in acknowledging this reality with its robotic designs, though thereby, unintentionally, steepening the very decline it has tried address.  Boeing is aware of this decline, but until now – even after these two accidents – it has been reluctant to break with its traditional pilot-centric views.  That needs to change, and someday it probably will; in the end Boeing will have no choice but to swallow its pride and follow the Airbus lead.”

It’s impossible to take any comfort in any of that, but in the meantime, take the travel tip, and start paying very close attention to this issue when you fly around the world.