6:29am

Sat May 25, 2013
Author Interviews

Prepare For Takeoff With 'Cockpit Confidential'

Originally published on Sat May 25, 2013 11:19 am

With summer travel season just over the horizon, millions of Americans are poised to take off for family vacations. But before they reach their destinations, they'll likely endure security lines, luggage fees, tiny bags of pretzels and unexplained delays.

Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and columnist, has written a new book for curious fliers. It's called Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers and Reflections.

He tells NPR's Scott Simon that he wishes air travel could be awe-inspiring again. "I wish people could step back and maybe change their perspective a little bit and try to re-appreciate the act of air travel," he says. "It's not as horrible as everybody thinks it is."


Interview Highlights

On how airplanes stay aloft

"It's amazing, isn't it? I mean, a 747 weighs close to 1 million pounds. It's all about lift and power ... an experiment you can try yourself is to just hold your hand out the window of a car as you're traveling down the highway, tip it up slightly and, sure enough, your hand and your arm take off like a wing. It's really not a whole lot different scaled up to the size of an airplane."

On the safety of regional airlines

"For all intents and purposes they are as safe [as larger airlines]. Maybe on some statistical level, regional flying is less safe than main line flying, but 'less safe' is not the same as 'unsafe,' and it's really kind of an academic conversation. I would never say to people: 'Be wary of regional jets.' Especially now that regional flying accounts for an astonishing — I think it's 53 percent of all the domestic flying. This is an industry that 20-30 years ago represented maybe somewhere in the single digits."

On why you still have to turn your electronics off during takeoff and landing

"A lot of people seem to think that the rules against phones and PEDs [personal electronic devices] are arbitrary and all a part of how the airlines hate you and make your life miserable. But really though, it's a lot that's just not known about how phones interfere. It's unlikely that there would be interference, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence out there that phones can and do interfere in some ways. There are at least two cases — one in Switzerland and the other in New Zealand — where accidents were possibly, probably traceable back to cellphones."

On post Sept. 11 security

"One of the big ironies here is the success of the 9/11 attacks really didn't have much to do with airport security in the first place. They weren't taking advantage of a loophole in airport security, they were taking advantage of a loophole in our thinking. ... Our understanding and expectations of a hijacking were based on a long precedence of hijacking in years prior. ... Crews were trained in something called 'passive resistance' ... of course all that's different now."

On misconceptions about autopilot

"The myth of cockpit automation ... it's repeated over and over and over that airplanes essentially 'fly themselves' and that pilots are there more or less just as a back-up in case anything goes wrong — and that is so incorrect. ... The analogy I like to make is cruise control in your car. It frees you up from having to take care of certain tedious tasks — specifically having your foot on the accelerator — but cruise control cannot drive your car from one city to the next city, just as autopilot cannot fly an airplane from one city to the next city. It makes it easier, but it doesn't make it easy."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Millions of Americans are preparing for that string of discomforts that accompany summer air travel. So we turn to Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and columnist who talks straight about air travel in his new book "Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know about Air Travel: Questions, Answers and Reflection." He joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. Thanks for being with us.

PATRICK SMITH: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: I got to ask: are regional jets, smaller planes any less safe than the big ones?

SMITH: I would never say to people be wary of regional jets, especially now that regional flying accounts for an astonishing, I think, it's 53 percent of all the domestic flying. This is an industry that 20, 30 years ago represented maybe somewhere in the single digits.

SIMON: Why can't people keep their cell phones on?

SMITH: There's a lot that's just not known about how phones interfere. It's unlikely that there would be interference, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence out there and there are at least two cases - one in Switzerland and the other one was in New Zealand - where accidents were possibly, probably traceable back to cell phones.

SIMON: In this book, you outline what you see as - I think it's safe to say - drawbacks in airport security, particularly following September 11th.

SMITH: You know, one of the big ironies here is that the success of the 9/11 attacks really didn't have much to do with airport security in the first place. They weren't taking advantage of a loophole in airport security, they were taking advantage of a loophole in our thinking. And that is what our understanding and expectations of a hijacking were based on a long precedence of hijackings in years prior.

SIMON: Well, you point out in the 1980s, because the object of those hijackings weren't to run an airplane into a building but to have the airplane stay in one piece and fly people to some other location.

SMITH: Exactly. And that was our thinking, still, on 9/11. It all changed very quickly.

SIMON: Anything you'd like to grab us flyers by the collar and tell us?

SMITH: Well, just, you know, I wish people could step back and maybe change their perspective a little bit and try to re-appreciate the act of air travel. It's not as horrible as everybody thinks it is.

SIMON: That's quite an endorsement. I don't think you'll see that in any ads: fly our airline; it's not as horrible as you think it is.

SMITH: It's not as awful as you think it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUMMING)

SIMON: Yeah. Patrick Smith. His new book: "Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know about Air Travel: Questions, Answers and Reflections." Speaking with us from WBUR in Boston. Thanks so much for being with us. Good flying to you, sir.

SMITH: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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