Pay to Fly

18 April 2011

On top of foot-crib bombs, explosives concealed in jockey shorts, slumbering air traffic controllers and crash landings in the Hudson, now we have another thing to worry about: metal fatigue. It seems that much of our fleet of 737s is very, very old and the strain of 40,000 plus flights each of which involves pressurizing and depressurizing the cabin has caused little holes to open in the fuselages, which, when they become sufficiently numerous, will basically turn the plane into flying Swiss cheese. It has already happened in three cases, the first of which was an Aloha Airlines accident in 1988 in which a flight attendant involuntarily disembarked at 35,000 feet, sans parachute, through a hole in the plane, and most recently with two Southwest Airlines which developed holes 18 inches and five feet in diameter, respectively.

Since I fly 737s frequently (and am flying on one as I write this, in fact, a plane so ancient the seats in economy have the length of a boarding pass between them for leg room — unlike the newer versions which use the thickness of a boarding pass), I was concerned enough to make a whazzup-with-that? call to the CEO of a major airline.

“Yes, most of our planes are pretty much flying death traps,” he admitted in a rare moment of candor. “I really wish we could afford to do something about it.”

Like what? I wanted to know.

“Well, like buy new planes, for one. I mean, we used to retire our planes once they exceeded 50,000 flights, and sometimes earlier, if the mechanic could fit his foot through the holes in the fuselage.”

“By ‘retire’, I take it you mean sell the planes to Third World Countries,which, when I last checked on it, had a passenger survival rate of less than 50%?”

“Exactly. But the planes are so beat up by the time we get rid of them, frankly, we need to sell several hundred of them just to afford one new one.” He sighed. “But you know, we’ve done the math. It will be much cheaper to just deal with the wrongful death lawsuits than invest in better, safer equipment. It’s kind of like this Global Warming thing, you know? It really doesn’t pay to do anything about it until the death toll hits a billion.”

I asked Mr. CEO what passengers like me could do to help make flying metal fatigued 737s safer.

“I would bring a tube of Crazy Clue on board, just in case,” he suggested.

I reminded him that Homeland Security would probably confiscate it, and put me on a “no fly” list if I did that.

“Oh, right. Forgot about that.”

Did he think that maybe the airline could bring, say, one giant tube of Crazy Glue on board?

“Well, yes, but then we would have to charge you for that.”

As the pilot of my Burma Airlines said in order to prepare us for a crash landing at Dahka airport back in the 80s: “Well, ladies and gentlemen, some nights it just doesn’t pay to fly. I can’t get the goddamn landing gear down. We’re going to try to do it manually, and hopefully I’ll have this crate on the ground in a few minutes.”

Rupert Scofield


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