The Economist and Airlines

Q: A recent edition of The Economist refutes your earlier statement on the usefulness of life jackets and rafts. They state: “No large airliner has ever made an emergency landing on water.”

In December 2002, in a credibility-stretching discussion of “the realities of air safety,” The Economist quoted a Mr. Jackson of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft who made that comment, though who knows what the full context might have been. While you can argue the definition of “large,” or “landing,” this is untrue, as there have been several instances of airliners having found themselves, through one mishap or another, in lake, river, or sea. At least a few of these, including the 1970 ditching of a DC-9 in the Caribbean, and an Aeroflot ditching near Leningrad, were controlled impacts resulting in few or no fatalities.

The Economist continues, “So the life jackets, with their little whistles and lights that come on when in contact with water, have little purpose other than to make passengers feel better.” The various accoutrements of the onboard floatation devices might indeed be a bit of overkill, but this unctuous remark also is false. In the above cases and others, vests and rafts were put to good use by passengers who needed them.

One thing to remember if you’re ever in such a situation and have, as will be the case, not paid attention to the safety briefing prior to takeoff: never inflate your vest while still inside the plane, despite the temptation to do so. When an Ethiopian Airlines 767 ditched near the Comoros Islands, the cabin broke apart, filled with water, and several passengers with pre-inflated vests were unable to move freely and escape beneath the rising water. The vests are designed to provide some buoyancy even if punctured, so if you’re unconscious and haven’t yet pulled the cord to discharge the little CO2 cylinder, you’ll still float with your head above the surface.

Q: The same Economist article proposed the idea of pilotless planes. Is such a concept really viable?

Right around the corner, with lawyerless courtrooms and doctorless hospitals. We already have machines that help with certain operations, so how far can we be from having a computer do the whole thing?

While I probably have a vested interest in debunking this as so much sci-fi speculation, that’s not the issue. Some will argue that much of the idea is already within the realm of existing technology, and that’s true, but much is not nearly enough, and the realm of things feasible is a different matter. For pilotless flying to become routine would be a huge — and hugely expensive — undertaking with many, many years of research. If you’ll allow me to get juvenile for a minute: it’s hard enough to get the little trams that take you around DFW or Atlanta to work right, and they’re on tracks. Throw in two more dimensions, weather and congestion.

Call me a Luddite, but do I foresee the day? At least not until the government is run by computers and robots (which would probably be an improvement right now).


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.