This summer millions of Americans are traveling by air, sometimes all on the same flight. This is the result of the airfare war that occurred recently when major U.S. airlines, in the continuing industrywide effort to go bankrupt, started offering unbelievable bargains, like $29 round-trip tickets between any two cities with electric lights. Fares were reduced still further by the traditional airline discount of 40 percent for people who can prove that they are dumber than mud, which is designed to ensure that every flight has passengers who believe that they can fit garment bags the size of mature bison into the overhead luggage compartment.
So everybody's flying, including possibly you. If you're apprehensive about this, let me assure you, as a frequent flier, that few experiences are more enjoyable than being seven miles above the Earth's surface in a crowded aging piece of machinery held aloft by principles of physics that you do not even dimly grasp. The key to enjoying this experience is to relax, remain calm, and -- above all -- do not think about the following possibilities.
1. The pilot may be lost. Last March I was in Salt Lake City, riding in a hotel courtesy van to the airport, and sitting behind me, talking shop, were two pilots, both from major airlines. I could not help but overhear them, because I was eavesdropping as hard as I could. This is what they said:
First pilot: We were lost. I mean we were lost. It [some kind of navigation thing] could tell us where we had been, but it couldn't tell us where we were going.
Second pilot: One time we had a horrendous static surge, and all our [some kind of navigation things] went out. We had an alternate [something] system, but it took us an hour's flying time to figure out how to use it.
(Both pilots laugh.)
Did you hear that? They were lost for an hour. Do you think they told the passengers? Don't be an idiot. They probably continued to make authoritative, pilot-style announcements. "Those of you
on the right side of the aircraft," they said, "can see Lake Ontario."
Meanwhile, in the cockpit, they probably were frantic. "Where the hell is the Owner's Manual?" they were shouting. And: "That's not Lake Ontario! That's Brazil!" And: "Which one is the right side of the aircraft?"
2. The entire flight crew may be unconscious.
According to a 1986 study, commercial airline pilots often become extremely drowsy, and there have been flights where everybody in the cockpit was asleep. On one transcontinental flight, the plane flew right past California, and the crew didn't wake up until they were out over the Pacific Ocean. ("What the hell is that?" "Looks like Lake Ontario!")
3. Key plane parts might fall off.
A senior airline pilot told me this at a party: One time he and his co-pilot heard a warning signal, indicating something seriously wrong with the No. 3 engine. They were shutting the engine down when a flight attendant burst into the cockpit and said: "The No. 3 engine is gone." The pilots, sounding authoritative, said yes, we're aware of it, we're implementing normal procedures, nothing to worry about, etc., at which point the flight attendant said: "You don't understand. The [very bad word] engine is gone."
What had happened was, one of the plane's toilets leaked, so a chunk of frozen waste formed outside the plane, and it broke off and slammed into the engine, which, unbeknownst to the pilots, fell off the plane.
4. On-board cows may overheat.
I have here a Toronto Star article, sent in by alert reader Jim Cunningham, stating that last October a Lufthansa 747 passenger jet was forced to land in Iceland "after fire extinguishers went off twice en route, dousing 20 head of cattle in the airplane's cargo compartment." A Lufthansa spokesperson quoted as saying: "That's what happens when you get a lot of cows together -- you get a lot of heat being generated."
That's right: They sometimes put cows on passenger flights. But don't think about it, especially not the potential for methane-gas buildup.
There are other things you shouldn't think about -- recently I was on a Washington-to-Miami flight during which the pilot announced that we were taking an alternate route because of "missile testing" -- but I will not mention them here. Because I want you to enjoy the air-travel experience as much possible, from the moment you get on the plane, until the moment you begin the emergency evacuation. Remember: Women and heifers first.