It’s Thanksgiving again, always a momentous holiday for crewmembers and passengers alike. Momentous for crews because most of them have to work, while for all parties it’s the single busiest travel push of the year, a four day weekend of overbooked cabins and half-hour waits at the Cinnabon counter. According to the Air Transport Association a record 16.3 million Americans will embark on a journey by plane this holiday, up two-and-a-half percent from last year.
Sixteen million is a lot of people crammed into four days, and some lousy weather could really gum things up. Not to set a discouraging tone, but keep a step ahead by checking out the Budget Traveller’s Guide to Sleeping in Airports, http://www.sleepinginairports.net/usa.htm an online site that ranks and evaluates the best and worst terminals in which to cop a nap. The site lists London, Amsterdam, Singapore, Frankfurt and Bangkok as the most popular hubs for sleeping (the word “crashing” is so tempting there), with our own LAX, JFK, and O’Hare in the top ten. For airport authorities a high score is a dubious blessing, maybe, but some will take it in stride. Even in perfect weather the populations of certain airports are known to swell markedly in the wee hours, a fact obvious to anybody who’s passed through Bangkok’s Don Muang International at 2 a.m. Thanks to an odd mix of midnight arrivals and early morning departures, BKK has more people sprawled across its floors than all the mosques of Arabia at evening prayer. (Missing from the site’s evaluations are the parking lot of Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International, and the grassy embankment in front of the main hall at Papeete, Tahiti. But those are stories for another time.)
Making a stressful situation worse is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), this year promising greater than normal numbers of passengers called aside for “additional screening.” Says Rear Admiral David Stone, TSA’s Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security: “A vigilant America may well have discouraged terrorist acts tied to high-profile events like the recent political conventions and the election. The holidays also are a period when increased vigilance is especially appropriate.”
If you say so, Rear Admiral. The infernal kabuki of airside security has been beaten to death on these pages, and readers are hereby spared another tirade, but it’s worth noting that more than three years after You Know What, the concourse screening rigmarole remains a circus of sneaker checks and pointless pat-downs. So keep your shoes loose and your sharps at home.
If you’re still one of the not-so-few Americans dumb enough to saunter through the metal detector with your Leatherman tool, army knife, or ceremonial dagger, a company called CheckPoint Mailers is there to help. CheckPoint, headquartered in North Carolina, has set up mailbox-style drop units at fifteen airports around the country, and for $8 per item will ship your contraband home. A helpful service for those whose expensive or sentimentally valuable items would be otherwise vanquished to the TSA scrap heap. Sherry Anderson is one of the owners of CheckPoint, and says she got the idea not long after September 11th. “A valuable item of mine had been confiscated,” she explains, “and I couldn’t get it back. The same thing was happening to thousands of people, and the idea seemed a natural.” And they say the American entrepreneurial spirit is dead. Nonsense and hysteria are the mothers of invention.
Wherever you end up this week — delivered on time to your in-laws in Denver, or asleep under a bench at BWI with a half-eaten Chick-fil-A sandwich in your pocket, one thing you won’t have to worry about is missing the latest installment of “Lost,” ABC’s popular ongoing series about a group of plane crash survivors trapped on a mysterious Pacific island. “Lost” runs prime time on Wednesdays but is taking the week off, returning December 1st.
Pilots don’t watch these sorts of shows for entertainment; they watch them because they have a sardonic infatuation with crash depictions. It’s a kind of self-affirmation therapy. They sit back, scornfully and contemptuously pointing out the numerous errors and impossibilities, then switch off the remote before the show is half over.
“Lost” is already through its ninth episode, but it was the first two, broadcast earlier this fall, that provide the best fodder. A typical pilot’s critique goes something like this:
It’s apparent right away that the debris field, scattered across the sand of a gorgeous tropical beach, is assembled from actual airplane parts — namely a cut up, ex-Delta Air Lines L-1011 TriStar, probably purchased out of mothballs or from the salvage yards at Mojave or Kingman. The old Delta livery — a blue cheatline accented by red — is revised with the addition of a thin blue stripe. Delta has become “Oceanic” — an often used generic in Hollywood disasters. See here for one example. (The location shoot turns out to be Hawaii, and we assume the shattered hulk of the TriStar was transported by ship).
The survivors are selectively blotched and bruised, but nonetheless manage to look like they just emerged from an exclusive tropical health spa somewhere up in those lush green hills. Except, maybe, for the hapless sucker who, in episode one’s opening scene, wanders too close and is vacuumed into a detached, upside-down, impossibly still-running engine, which promptly and just as inexplicably explodes into a giant fireball. The first bursts of cackling could be heard in crew lounges and crash-pads around the country.
Even the dead are in remarkably handsome condition. A wayward leg seems to be the worst of it. Then again this is prime time after all, and maybe we shouldn’t expect true-to-death reenactments of an actual crash scene’s more realistic scatterings: burned corpses and heaps of unidentifiable body parts. Who needs it? Gore like that would have detracted from shots of the beautiful Evangeline Lilly standing around in her bikini.
Where did she find the bikini? From her luggage, of course. Touchingly, the survivors are able to locate their checked bags amidst the rubble — no doubt an aggravating irony for thousands of passengers this weekend whose suitcases are accidentally routed to New Brunswick.
How the castaways got to this weird inverted paradise is the strangest mystery of all. Somewhere over the Pacific near Fiji, we’re told, “the radio went out,” leading to an off-course diversion. Please don’t ask how radio failure (in fact you’ll find at least three radios among the communications gizmos on a modern, transoceanic flight deck) leads to getting lost over the ocean. Suffice to say that it doesn’t. But the real fun begins once the jet wanders into a sudden, ultra-violent burst of turbulence.
The depiction of this nuclear-powered “air pocket,” as it’s referred to by Matthew Fox, playing the role of Jack, better resembles an inflight explosion or catastrophic structural failure than it does any encounter with even the most extreme turbulence. The plane begins to nosedive while people scream, engines whine, and, naturally, oxygen masks come tumbling out of their holsters. The idea of the sudden, basically implausible plummet is a disaster flick staple, and always seems to include these colorful add-ons. Here, as so often before, any causal connections among turbulence, engine noise, plastic masks and plummeting is never coherently explained or, really, explainable.
Next, while the passengers hang on for dear life, the plane’s rear fuselage is abruptly wrenched away, tail and all, opening up the cabin to the sky. At this point, on all flights except those arriving and departing Hollywood, it is officially game over. The airplane will now perform any manner of disintegrative aerobatics before raining in small pieces onto the surface below.
Not Oceanic’s L-1011, however, which winds up in semi-survivable condition on a beautiful stretch of coastline. Actually, we discover, a forward section of the fuselage, including the cockpit, has come to earth separately in a distant tract of jungle. Thus, we assume, the plane did not crash-land, but more accurately fell in separate chunks. That’s fairly realistic, seeing how it had come apart in midair, but the condition of the wreckage is not. Inflight breakups like the one we’re shown simply aren’t survivable, and will not result in large, mostly intact sections of fuselage reaching the ground as if aided by invisible parachutes.
For reference, see the catastrophes of TWA 800 or Pan Am 103. The blueprint of the 103 tragedy wasn’t terribly unlike the fictitious Oceanic’s. An explosion in the lower baggage hold, itself responsible only for a six-foot breach of the outer skin, quickly brought on a violent shredding of the entire plane. Down on the Scottish moors, the largest identifiable portion of the 747 was a crushed segment of the fuselage. There are no survivors, let alone fifty, essentially uninjured ones making wisecracks and changing into bikinis.
“Lost” contains its share of perversely unintentional nods to actual disasters. During the runway collision of two 747s at Tenerife in 1977 — still the worst crash in history — living humans were, actually and for real, sucked into a still-running engine hanging from a wing of one of the jetliners. At Tenerife, however, the crippled and burning plane hadn’t yet been airborne, and the engine did not remain powered for long (neither did it explode theatrically after the unfortunate ingestions). No word yet if the team from “Lost” will begin eating its dead, as did those stranded Uruguayan rugby players after the crash of their turboprop in the Andes in the 1970s (the movie was “Survive,” in 1975, remade later as “Alive”).
Then there’s the whole matter of the “transceiver”. The Oceanic survivors, bored from sunning themselves and poutingly contemplating their bizarre predicament, are able to pry one of these walkie-talkie style devices from the wrecked L-1011 cockpit (which is conspicuously missing its overhead and flight engineer instrument panels, by the way), in order to send an SOS message. Transceivers are chiefly used by general aviation pilots, though it’s possible some airlines lug them around as backup to a backup to a backup. They’re able to send line-of-sight VHF transmissions that would not be particularly useful to our strandees, but you never know. A passing merchant ship or nearby Club Med might have an ear tuned to the emergency channel.
Technical miscues aside, the show’s real guilty pleasure is provided by accidental hilarity of the cast’s inane tÃªte-Ã -tÃªtes and interpersonal conflicts, best observed in a scene featuring a buffed-out beach brawl between actors Naveen Andrews, whose character is supposed to be a former Iraqi army officer, and Josh Holloway, rebel stud who looks like he stepped from a Mountain Dew commercial. Dead bodies, crumpled wreckage, bikini babes and tussling toughs. It’s Lord of the Flies meets “MTV Beach House.”
Word has it that upcoming episodes will attempt to justify the strange circumstances of the crash. Stuck on this eerie haunted island, the castaway cast has clued in to the fact their jet’s death-plummet should not have been survivable. What’s going on here?
For pilots, of course, that takes away all the fun.
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.