2003 Air Travel Awards

The Year in Air Travel, 2003. So many stories, scandals and disasters.

Actually, very few. The year just ended, having coincided nicely with all those centennial-of-flight soirees, happened to be the safest twelve months in commercial aviation history. Out of approximately 19 million worldwide departures, there were 25 fatal accidents. Ironic, if nothing else, considering all the squeamishness out there.

Stateside, the only blemish was last January’s crash of a US Airways Express commuter plane in Charlotte, North Carolina, in which 21 people were killed. Improperly repaired elevator controls, allegedly the work of a subcontracted maintenance company, are believed to be the culprit, though — and I need to make this clear — an investigation is ongoing. Initial reports that the plane was overloaded and out of balance have been discounted. The Beechcraft 1900D was operated by Air Midwest, itself owned by the Mesa Air Group, on behalf of US Airways.

If you’re wondering which is the second safest year on record, it’s 2002. According to the Air Safety Network, we’re now averaging about 30 wrecks per year, down from about 50 through the 1980s and 1990s. This trend bucks the predictions of many experts, who warn of hull losses approaching one per day as the volume of flights increases around the globe.

Anyway, to celebrate the best and worst, highest and lowest, of 2003, it’s time now for Ask the Pilot’s first annual Year in Air Travel Awards ceremony. My webcam isn’t working, so you’ll have to imagine the scene here as it unfolds: the mahogany podium, the glimmer of the gold statuettes, the shrieks and exaltations as I announce the winners….

2003 Airline of the Year

Emirates

The expansion and enthusiasm of this pride and joy airline of Dubai is among the most impressive I’ve ever seen. Anything’s possible, maybe, when a wealthy Arab state is writing your checks, but it’s hard not to be impressed by Emirates’ moxie. They’re expanding, buying huge new airplanes, and reaping profits. In 2002 Emirates was fourth most profitable carrier in the world, and expect a similar ranking for ’03 once the numbers are in. In July Emirates placed the largest-ever aircraft order in history — $19 billion for a slew of widebody Boeings and Airbuses — and awaits delivery of 40-plus Airbus A380s. In December it became launch customer of the super long-range A340-500.

This June, Emirates commences nonstop flights between Dubai and New York. With geopolitical maelstrom in mind, unveiling a new service between the Middle East and the USA is about the gutsiest move I can think of.

2003 Raspberry Award

Emirates

For not relaxing their flight time qualifications so I can better qualify for a job. Does anyone have a thousand hours in a 777 I can borrow? Runner-up in this category is JetBlue, another progressive go-getter whose uniform I wouldn’t mind wearing. Their new in-house referral policy assures my application will remain secure in their round file. My Rolodex is void of any JetBlue employees who might pen a recommendation. Anybody out there?

2003 Outstanding Airmanship Award

Unnamed crew, European Air Transport

When a cargo jet was struck by a shoulder-fired missile over Baghdad last November, it suffered a loss of all three hydraulic systems and most of its flying controls. For all practical purposes the plane, an older model Airbus A300, was uncontrollable. Astonishingly, using engine thrust to maintain altitude and direction, the three-man crew was able to land safely after 16 minutes. (The rocket had not caused an engine failure as originally reported by this same columnist.) The jet was flying on behalf of DHL Worldwide Express by its Belgium-based subsidiary EAT (European Air Transport), who have not yet released the crewmembers’ names.

The event mirrored the famous 1989 mishap at Sioux City, Iowa, when an uncontained engine disintegration aboard a United Airlines DC-10 resulted in total hydraulic loss and control failure. Using only differential thrust, captain Al Haynes and his crew guided the DC-10 to a semi-successful crash landing that 184 of the 296 passengers and crew survived. (The DC-10’s hydraulics were later redesigned.) Coincidentally, Haynes had spoken at a seminar attended by the EAT captain shortly before the Baghdad missile strike.

2003 Hindsight as Foresight Award

JetBlue

For having the good taste and vision to help save and remodel Eero Saarinen’s landmark TWA terminal at Kennedy Airport. For years decrepit, the modernist icon was on the road to demolition before preservationists and JetBlue stepped up.

2003 Take That, JetBlue Award

Song

Lime green with envy, Delta’s funky stepchild was dispatched to the Eastern Seaboard to stave off those uppity blue New Yorkers. Are they winning? I don’t know, but frankly Song’s verve is a cooler one, Saarinen or no Saarinen, with 48-channel entertainment and organic food to boot.

2003 Travel Deal of the Year Award

Malaysia Airlines

Extended through 2004, the remarkable AccessAsia Pass allows unlimited 30-day travel to any or all of 24 Southeast Asian destinations. Backtrack through Malaysia’s gleaming new Kuala Lumpur hub as many times as you want. Valid from Newark or Los Angeles, the deal also allows for Taipei or Dubai stopovers. Base fare: $999.

2003 Get Over It Award

Tom Ridge, Minister (sorry, Secretary) of Homeland Security

Ridge can share laurels with his minions at the TSA (Transportation Security Administration), who in their most recent manifestation of idiocy have asked representatives of Qantas, the airline of Australia, to dissuade passengers from “gathering in groups” during flights to the USA. A Sydney-LAX nonstop is a 14-hour run, and it’s something of a long-haul tradition for fliers to hang out and chat during the ride. Imagine some mean looking Aussie purser walking down the aisle going, “Okay folks, break it up. Nothing to see here; move it along.” A Qantas spokesman calls the request “a little hard to handle.”

In February, Singapore Airlines launches 18-hour nonstops, longest in existence, between Singapore and Los Angeles. Cabins on these trips will be outfitted with designated zones “for passengers to socialize and stretch their legs.” No word if Ridge and the TSA are demanding these areas be cordoned off with police tape.

2003 Missed Your Calling Award

This one goes to young Nathaniel Heatwole, the would-be social protester who proved, finally and above all doubt, that yes, it’s possible to sneak harmless objects past security screeners.

2003 Capitulation to the Inevitable Award

America West Airlines

The Arizona-based carrier announced it will begin selling advertising space on in-seat tray tables. Rumors claim other proposals included seat-belt rentals, and a first-ever Adopt-a-Pilot program.

Overhead bins seem the more deserving spot, and I wonder if those who devised this awful scheme are prepared for the obvious: vandalism. A tray-table pitch, already a defacement in the minds of some, is begging to be marked, scratched, and otherwise taken to task. AW can expect to be scrubbing mustaches, middle fingers and swastikas from their interiors.

2003 Only in America Award

Hooters Air

You’ve already read my Hooters Air column and saw my Hooters Air jokes, so I’ll keep this short. Having leased two additional Boeing 757s, the airline has now, um, if you’ll pardon the innuendo, doubled in size.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.