The Pilot gets domestic — and the results aren’t pretty

The term “pilot report,” which I’ve adapted into a recurring column gimmick, is in fact a technical expression quite familiar to aircrews. PIREPs, as they’re known in shorthand, are reports of meteorological phenomena encountered in flight. Conditions are passed along to company dispatchers or air traffic control, and made available to other aircraft. If a captain comes over the public address system to warn of impending rough air, often he’s acting on the advice of a fresh PIREP.

PIREPs make their way into the predeparture paperwork as well, topping off a hefty, pretty much indecipherable sheaf of charts, bulletins and forecasts. Approximately three-quarters of a pilot’s training is devoted to unraveling the secrets of FAA weather coding, which comes in the form of byzantine transcriptions like this one:

KCMH UA / OV APE 230010/10TM 1516/FL085/TP
BE20/SK BKN065/WX FV0 SM HZ FU/TA 20/TB LGT

That’s a single, simple PIREP (something about smoke and haze near Appleton, Wisconsin), and rumor has it the archaeologists who figured out the Rosetta Stone practiced for years on preflight weather packets donated by TWA.

Unless you’re a professional cryptographer, or just plain nuts, you’ll have to agree my own PIREPs provide more enjoyable reading. And for a change, lets try a domestic one. Prior examples have come from Thailand, Malaysia, Venezuela, Uruguay, Chile and Japan, and doubtless you’re tired of hearing about sumptuous rides on exotic airlines while you’ve been slogging it out between Detroit and Ft. Wayne in the back of an RJ. I’ve had it coming and here it is:

PILOT REPORT: US Airways flight US 2021

Route: Boston to Washington-Reagan National
Class: economy
Flying time: 80 minutes

Three and a half years after You Know What, as oil prices race toward an unthinkable $100 per barrel, the skyscape remains tumultuous at best for America’s legacy airlines. Through it all, US Airways is the only major player to have made two trips to bankruptcy court. Losses reached $578 million for 2004, and last September the company made its second Chapter 11 filing in as many years. Nonetheless many industry prognosticators expect US Airways to surface out of bankruptcy some time this summer, while rumors abound of a merger with America West. Signs of promise?

We’ll see what happens, but on this bread-and-butter ride from Boston to Washington the vibes aren’t good. US Airways doesn’t feel like an airline on the upswing. On the contrary there’s a waft in the air. The optimist smells a company on the mend from prolonged fiscal distress; the pessimist smells death.

At Logan the entire terminal has a mood of eerie calm. Not a pleasant calm, exactly, but an atmosphere of brooding dullness — an infectious tedium that seems to have worn off on, or perhaps is emanating from, the US Airways employees. The staff are polite, but at the same time sullen and lackadaisical.

Maybe that’s no surprise. I can remember when this was still the Allegheny terminal (US Airways’ former incarnation), and some of the workers probably can too — harking back to those pre-Deregulation days when, if nothing else, at least they knew their paychecks wouldn’t bounce.

The Airbus A319 sure looks sharp from the gateside window. In the critique of airline color schemes that appears in chapter seven of my book, US Airways is the only contestant earning an A-grade for its sleek and handsome livery. Those of us headed to Reagan, however, aren’t allowed to ride on the wing, and must subject ourselves to the squalor that awaits within.

Although it wouldn’t be totally fair to judge an airline by the tidiness of its cabins, but the state of a jet’s interior, which doesn’t require a hell of a lot of work to look nice, makes an important impression. People extrapolate, correlating a grimy, disheveled plane with a demoralized workforce that doesn’t care. Right or wrong, they’re also known to associate the upkeep of a cabin with the upkeep of, let’s just say, more critical components. Cutting pillows from the budget to save money is one thing; leaving crap all over the carpet and not making the effort to a wipe away puddles of coffee sends another message altogether.

And that’s the message on US Airways flight 2021. Although only five years-old, this morning’s Airbus is not just dirtier and shabbier than any of the ’70s-vintage 737s or DC-9s I recently experienced in South America, but markedly so. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the airlines of many, if not most, third world countries have considerably higher standards of onboard cleanliness than those of the United States. There’s something wrong with that, and that gap seems to be widening, not closing.

Around me the sidewalls and overhead bins are dinged, greasy and smeared; the upholstery (patterned in an ugly, institutional combo of gray, white and red) is soiled and torn; my seat pocket is hanging by one corner in such a way that my knee is jabbed repeatedly by an exposed wire prong.

And the floor. Pulling in after a lengthy international flight, the aisles of a wideobody jet are typically heaped with everything from newspapers to dirty diapers. Employees charged with the clean-up and disposal of long-haul offal do not have an enviable job. Yet whether it’s Malaysia Airlines, Air France, or goddamn Air Zimbabwe for that matter, they usually manage to get the ship cleaned and primped in plenty of time for the next takeoff — they even take pride in doing so. Well, here’s a small, single-aisle plane that flew in from… Philadelphia? It’s been sitting at the gate for over an hour, and still the floor looks like a movie theater after the house lights come on, cluttered with, among other debris, crumpled raisin boxes and a line of discarded tissues.

Push back is 12 minutes tardy with no explanation or apology. A brief taxi, and then we’re airborne, clipping left to one-niner-zero in the noise abatement turn off runway 22R; then up, up, up, over the harbor and into the cobalt morning sky.

There’s a glorious view all the way from the Berkshires to the sandy hook of Provincetown. I’m happy for the window seat because it distracts from the hideous spectacle of my tray table, which is so filthy that I’m hesitant to put my notebook on it. Amidst the smears and smudges is a gummy brown slick and a coffee ring so congealed that I’m able to strip it with the tip of my pen like a skein of dried Spackle.

During climbout a row of LCD screens drops down and begins shilling US Airways’ new destinations in Panama, Guatemala and El Salvador. The adventure traveler in me finds it tough to begrudge the airline’s endeavoring to such exciting places. Just the same, is there not something perverse about opening far-flung routes when it can’t find the resources to deal with spilled drinks or take out the trash?

The sales pitch is working though, and I’m wishing I were on the way to the pyramids of Tikal or the beaches of Bocas del Toro instead of going to Washington to embarrass myself on the Tucker Carlson show. (Those of you who caught my April 22nd appearance will understand why I became a pilot and not a public speaker.) Of course, if I were going to Central America, the wiser option would be a seat on Copa, TACA, LACSA, or any of the other Latin mainstays that know how to use a vacuum cleaner and actually give a damn about service.

Not that there’s anything wrong with pretzels for breakfast. You might remember this http://www.askthepilot.com/skymeal.html from a flight I took within Chile last month. The ride from BOS to DCA is about the same duration as the one from PUQ to PMC, but this time, rest assured, there’d be no such bounty set before me. The galley carts are unlatched and attendants commence a rushed dispensing of what has become the standard on virtually all US domestic flights, long or short: the dreaded “beverage service.” (Kudos to Delta, by the way, whose multiple choice snack baskets are actually a fun idea in this lesser-of-evils game.)

The final insult to injury comes during descent, when the crew is obliged to remind us of the inane FAA security regulation affecting all arrivals into Washington: passengers are strictly prohibited from leaving their seats — and that includes the mere act of standing — during the last 30 minutes of flight.

Once on the ground some recuperation is in order, and fortunately the gorgeous main terminal at Reagan is good for the mind and soul. The building can’t really qualify as “new” anymore, but it never ceases to impress. Emerging from the concourse into the main hall, I plop onto a sunlit bench, gazing up at the soaring vaulted ceiling. If only US Airways could funnel every one of its 118,000 daily passengers through the place as a kind of post-flight cleansing ritual.

Check-in and boarding: B-minus
Punctuality: B-minus
Aircraft cleanliness and decor: D-minus
Food and onboard service: D-plus

Some US Airways Factoids:

  • The airline was founded in 1938 as an airmail carrier called All American Aviation
  • It was known as Allegheny Airlines from 1953 to 1979; then as USAir until 1997

  • Today’s US Airways network takes in vestiges of Mohawk Airlines, Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) and Piedmont Airlines, among others — companies it acquired or merged with over the decades.
  • US Airways adopted the peculiar habit of bestowing the names of those absorbed entities onto some of its commuter subsidiaries — not always with geographic accuracy. Thus PSA became a regional airline based in Ohio.
  • Fleet size: 280 jets, mostly of smaller single-aisle variety. A token number of widebodies (767s and Airbus A330s) flies limited services to Europe.

The ’97 name change always struck me as a good one, “US Airways” intoning a certain elegance not present in the brute concision of “USAir.” That elegance, according to the evidence, appears to be strictly superficial.

Which by itself, I hasten to add, is not anything terrible. Inexpensive tickets are the traveling public’s foremost prerequisite; nobody, we air travel sentimentalists included, is misguided enough to lobby for premium frills at a discount price. For the opportunity to fly 3,000 miles for $149, few will lament the absence of steamed towels, five-course meals, or a potted plant at every seat. We’re willing, even, to get by without those pillows.

What’s not negotiable, however, is a basic level of amenity at least marginally improved from what’s found on a public bus. Whether it lives or dies, US Airways, along with the rest of its moribund compatriots, needs to figure out that no matter the price of a ticket, profitability and a modicum of service — and that means cleaning the floor — are not, and never can be, zero-sum variables. Until then, the experience of flight 2021 seem no less of a dark portent than any bleeding balance sheet or dire forecast from the Wall Street Journal.


This Q&A 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.