Jet Smarter – Smith Responds

I’ve been asked from time to time what I think of Diana Fairechild and her book Jet Smarter, a best-selling exposé of sorts that takes the airlines to task over various safety and comfort issues. Fairechild was a flight attendant for many years at United and Pan Am, and in her book and through her website she assumes the role of consumer advocate, a kind of Ralph Nader with a tray of peanuts and small bottles of Evian. But while I’d be willing to vote Nader for President, I can’t navigate around Fairchild’s site without suffering alternating pangs of annoyance and confusion.

Fairechild was, in some ways, an inspiration for this very column, but she and I have taken different tacks in our how-it’s-done explanations. Here’s a promo clip from her site, the sensationalist tone of which will give you some idea of things…

There are dangers in air travel, some obvious, many hidden. And the oxygen is inadequate — pilots get ten times more than passengers. Pesticides are sprayed on seats, on luggage and sometimes right on passengers. Radiation for frequent flyers equals that of atomic energy workers.

I see. Several of her peeves are somewhat valid, such as levels of exposure to radiation (more a problem for crews than passengers, especially on longer-distance flights at high latitudes), but at least a few of her points are entirely disingenuous. Her shock-jock manner of addressing things is manipulative and does nothing to enhance her credibility.

Fairechild makes a big stink (pun?) about cabin air quality, something I’ve addressed in this column. Nobody maintains the air in a jetliner’s pressurized fuselage is akin to a fresh autumn breeze, just as nobody would say the same about a crowded movie theater or classroom. But Fairechild goes too far. She makes the provocative claim that “pilots receive ten times more oxygen than passengers.” What she might mean is that that more supplemental oxygen is carried for the crew in case of emergency. But that in no way means the passengers do not have enough, either during normal flight or if things go wrong and the masks suddenly pop from the ceiling. Then in the same paragraph she states that some airlines actually require their pilots to sniff pure oxygen before landing! When I read this my mouth fell open in bewilderment, and I began to understand the propagation of myths like the one in which pilots intentionally skimp on the 02 in order to save fuel. Well, some crews are asked to use their masks briefly when landing at high-altitude airports, but it’s hardly normal procedure. Her implication, however, is one of danger.

When various pilots complained that Fairechild had no idea what she was talking about, she responded by pulling quotes and technical specs from the operations manual of the Boeing 747-200. All airplanes, of course, work differently, and in 2002 the number of 747-200s still in passengers service can be counted on one hand, but this is offered as proof of her initial claim. Readers not intimate with commercial aviation might be easily swayed by this impressive-sounding evidence. You can read both the protests and Fairechild’s oddly proud rebuttals at her site. Now, the idea of a flight attendant attempting to inform the pilots how their cockpits do and don’t work ought to be telling enough. It seems her tactic is to take one or two specific instances and present them as truths applying to all airplanes and situations, which is rather irresponsible.

Fairechild is, I believe, now retired from the industry. But passengers who encountered her on board their flights to Europe and Asia should have been quick to request a grain of salt with their coffee.


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.