Cockpit Confidential: A Pilot Answers Your Most Urgent Questions
You might say that Patrick Smith knows a thing or two about air travel. He flies jets for a major carrier and has been a professional pilot for more than 20 years; he is the host of askthepilot.com and for 10 years wrote Salon.com's column Ask the Pilot. His book, Cockpit Confidential, answers travelers' most pressing questions—including advice about the best seats for jittery fliers, explanations of disturbing events like turbulence and iffy landings, and the lowdown on the overall safety of flying.
I caught up with Smith and posed some of my own most pressing questions to him—I hope they reflect what you're most curious about, too. Here, his answers along with some tidbits from Cockpit Confidential, a fun, informative read that I highly recommend.
Get your kids a cockpit visit
Smith reminds us, "Many people wrongly assume that the cockpit is entirely off limits. This isn't so. Cockpit visits are welcome while the plane is parked at the gate, either before or after the flight. Provided things aren't too busy, we're usually more than happy to have a guest stop by. It's flattering when somebody takes that much interest in what we do. And this isn't just for kids. If you've never seen a cockpit up close before, and you're curious, come on up. For nervous flyers, a chat with the crew and a look around is often reassuring. Be sure to ask a flight attendant first, but nine times in ten it won't be any problem."
The best seats for jittery fliers
While Smith doesn't idly dispense "tips," he does offer solid advice for passengers on those topics he's most qualified to speak about. "If you're a fearful flyer bothered by turbulence and/or engine noise," he says, "avoid sitting in the rearmost rows. It's noisier in the back, and the aircraft tends to sway more during spells of rough air. It doesn't make a whole lot of difference, but the smoothest seats are usually those over the wings."
Advice for the truly fearful
The good news is that fearful fliers are not alone. "The first thing to keep in mind is that everybody is on some level afraid of flying," Smith says. "This is normal, whether you're a first-timer or an annual million-miler. The problem is when this fear becomes irrational and unmanageable. Often in such cases, no amount of statistics or straight talk from a pilot are going to make a difference, and what's really needed is professional counseling. For some people, one thing that helps is a "dry run" prior to the day you plan to fly. Take a trip out to the airport and go through the motions, familiarizing yourself with the process. Walk through the terminal, watch some airplanes take off and land, etc. Many of the most stressful aspects of flying—long lines, noise, etc.—take place on the ground, long before you're actually on the plane, and this is a way of priming yourself for these hassles. Another good idea, of course, is to get yourself a copy of Cockpit Confidential."
What's the deal with airline food?
Smith reminds us that though the topic might still be ripe for stand-up routines, airline food has greatly improved. "On shorter flights, the old plastic trays and beef-or-chicken entree options have been replaced by buy-on-board options. Usually it's a sandwich or wrap of some kind, and they tend to be decent. On long-haul flights, full catered meals are still the norm, and frankly they are a lot tastier than people give them credit for. And if you're fortunate enough to be in first or business class, of course, long-haul meal presentations are often exceptionally good, with four or more gourmet courses and a carefully selected wine list. The more prestigious carriers—Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, British Airways, et al.—take their catering very seriously. Some Turkish Airlines flights carry an on-board chef who prepares and supervises the business class meals. U.S. airlines, to their credit, have markedly improved their service standards over the past few years. This includes better food and drink options in both economy and premium classes, in some cases rivaling the better European, Asian, and Middle Eastern airlines."
Spanning the globe on one tank
Over the years, Smith's readers have asked what plane has the longest range. The answer is the Boeing 777-200LR, which can cover a staggering 9,000 nautical miles without refueling, making it possible to connect just about every major city on earth via nonstop flights. He also notes that the longest scheduled flights offered by major carriers are less than 8,000 miles and include flights from Australia to Texas and from Texas to the Middle East.
The dangers of turbulence
Well, the fact is: turbulence is perfectly normal and even the worst turbulence is not much more than a nuisance. Smith stresses that turbulence cannot turn a plane over or cause it to go into a tail spin. (While we're on the subject, I have my own way of dealing with turbulence—I close my eyes and pretend I'm on a bus, which makes me quickly realize that airplane turbulence is always way smoother than the the bumps and curves your body endures on the road.)
"Though we hear talk of 'cabin pressure' all the time—and I've been known to throw the term around myself—most of us don't really know what we're talking about. The cabin air is pressurized, of course, because up at 30,000 feet there isn't much air pressure or oxygen. But a plane's cabin is not adjusted to match the pressure you'd find at sea level—far from it. That kind of pressure would put too much, well, pressure, on a jet's structure. So, cabin pressure typically matches what you'd find between 5,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level, comparable to, say, Denver or Mexico City."
And while we're on the subject of air pressure...
Smith also notes that passengers' fear that the doors or emergency hatches of the plane might be opened mid-flight, causing the contents of the plane to be sucked out into the wild blue yonder, is completely groundless. A plane's doors and hatches cannot open once the cabin is pressured precisely because of the pressure. Also, the urban myth that pets and luggage are stored in an unpressurized compartment is false—temperatures outside the plane at 30,000 feet are sub-zero and it would not be possible to move living things and, for instance, shampoo, without pressurization and heat.
Safety and older planes
One of the reasons planes are so expensive is that they don't have a shelf life—though older planes may require more maintenance, they are no less safe than newer planes and in theory do not need to be retired.
How does a plane land in foggy weather?
Some travelers will take comfort in knowing that, when weather gets iffy and visibility is poor, the instrument landing system (ILS) is used, picking up on two "guidance beams"—one horizontal and one vertical—transmitted from the ground. The pilot uses the "crosshairs" to guide the plane, but once the plane is about 200 feet from the ground, the pilot must be able to see the runway or the landing will be postponed.
What's that racket just after a plane lands?
It's just the jet engines switching to "reverse" to slow the plane down. Smith also notes that a "rough landing" by passengers' standards is not a reliable measure of a pilot's skill. Many variables go into landing a plane, and bumps and even slightly sideways landings are sometimes unavoidable and even intentional. Sure, he's a pilot himself, but I hope you'll bear in mind his suggestion that you judge the pilot and crew by the entire flight experience and not just the moment when the wheels touch down.
Hotels' Dirtiest Secrets
The data hounds at TravelMath.com have done us all a favor, undertaking a study of how clean (or, make that unclean) a typical hotel room may be. Prepare yourself for a gross-out: After studying the remote controls, bathroom counters, desks, and phones at nine different three-, four-, and five-star hotels, TravelMath reports that the typical hotel room is way dirtier than your house (you read that correctly) and even dirtier than some airplane cabins. "DIRTY" MEANS GERMS Still with us? When we say “dirty,” we don’t mean dust or grime. We’re talking about bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can give you or your kids respiratory infections, skin infections, and even pneumonia. The measure of a hotel room’s “dirtiness” for this study was the number of viable bacteria cells (known as colony-forming units, or CFUs) per square inch. On average, hotel bathroom counters and remote controls top 1 million CFUs per square inch. Ugh. SWANKY HOTELS MAY BE DIRTIER THAN BUDGET LODGING The biggest surprise was that three-star hotels appear to be cleaner, on average, than four- or five-star hotels. These “average” hotels that offer limited amenities appear to do a better job of cleaning surfaces than their tonier competitors. Among three-star hotels tested, bathroom counters were the dirtiest surfaces, but still far cleaner than those in upscale hotels. Bathroom counters at four-star hotels appear to be the germiest of all hotel surfaces, and the remote controls at five-start hotels are pretty gross too. HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM GERMS We don’t enjoy sharing just the bad news, so we’re happy to report that there are a few steps every traveler can take to stay safe when checking into a hotel. * Wash your hands frequently. * Pack a small bottle of antibacterial spray. * Pack a carton of antibacterial wipes. * Disinfect surfaces such as phones, bathroom counters, and desks. * Pack clear plastic bags and wrap one around the remote control so you can still easily operate it without actually making finger-to-bacteria-laden-key contact. (While dousing the remote with disinfectant may seem appealing, it is perhaps not the best idea.)
Budget Travel has been celebrating the Great American Road Trip for more than two decades, and while some of our favorite drives (think Utah’s National Parks, New England’s autumn leaves, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula...) remain the same, the vehicles in which Americans hit the road have evolved exponentially. For Budget Travelers like me, who came of age when a car was, well, just a convenient means to get from Point A to Point B, the latest crop of high-tech rides c3an seem a little sci-fi - you’re basically driving a hybrid smartphone/entertainment center that talks. For that reason, we sometimes assume all that technology is out of reach for thrifty shoppers. Nope. A new generation of reasonably priced cars, such as the latest models of the Chevrolet Cruze Diesel, Toyota Yaris, Ford Focus, and Subaru Impreza, offers an array of tech-driven benefits that will transform your next road trip. Some of the features that are standard or reasonably available in cars under $20,000 include: Wi-Fi. You can enliven your next family road trip by Skyping with family and friends (or co-workers, if you’re into that kind of thing), or downloading music, books, TV, and movies to your devices while on the move. Interactivity. For those of you who can’t bear to be separated from your phone, texting, and music apps, features such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto put those apps right on your car’s display screen, allowing you to talk to Siri, Google Maps, and other programs. Mobile App. Some manufacturers offer an app that transforms your phone or tablet into Mission Control for your car. Send driving directions to your vehicle before you get behind the wheel, start or stop your engine, lock or unlock the doors, or check on Wi-Fi settings and diagnostic information ahead of your trip. On top of the interactive features, we’re seeing great fuel efficiency (especially from the Chevy Cruze Diesel), safety features like a rear-view camera for help with parking and rear traffic, and unexpected roominess in smaller cars that allows for all the packing space you need and some elbow room for passengers.
An Easy Packing Secret (You'll Never Forget Essential Stuff Again)
It’s happened to all of us: You check into your hotel late, after a long flight, ready to turn in for the night, but realize you forgot to pack your toothbrush...and your contact solution...and possibly your smartphone charger. This is where PackingEssentials.com comes in. The free website makes preparing for a trip a cinch, sparing you lots of stress—and cash! (Having everything in your suitcase means you can avoid pricey last-minute replacements at the airport.) The smart, easy-to-use site creates a packing list for you, by asking you a few basic questions about your trip, such as where you’re headed, who's going (are you traveling solo or with kids in tow?), your mode of transport (plane, train, car, or motorcycle) where you’re staying (think: hostel, cruise, or campsite), how long you’re going, and what you’ll be doing (such as skiing, hiking, fishing, or a rocking out at a music festival). To match your personality and packing style, Packing Essentials gives you the option to make your list minimalist, normal, or perfectionist. Enter those details, and the site generates everything from the type of luggage you’ll need to toiletries to medical recommendations, like vaccinations and insect repellant. You’ll also get checklists for the type of clothing and apparel to take along, any specialty equipment (what to stash in your beach bag or hiking backpack), as well as travel preparation, including documents, money, and trip insurance. And to make sure everything is taken care of at home, it supplies a list of reminders, like taking out the garbage, paying the utility bills, holding the mail, and unplugging electronics, to name a few. Plus, when you enter your destination and dates of travel, Packing Essentials even gives you a full weather forecast. You can save the customizable packing list for your next trip, making the process even more streamlined in the future. The site can be used on all devices including a desktop or laptop, tablet and mobile, making it easily accessible when you’re on the road, too. Here’s to never buying a cheap, plasticky toothbrush out of desperation again! Want more packing tips? Check out our advice, below! How to Become a Packing Genius Expert Tips for Packing With Style The RIGHT Way to Pack Your Luggage
13 Dirty Secrets of the Restaurant Business
1. DON'T FILL UP ON BREAD Your mother was right, but not for the reason she thought. Waitstaff confess that the bread in your basket may have been around the block a time or two. Yep. What doesn't get eaten often goes back to the kitchen, then may get dumped into some other unwitting diners' basket, making it a breeding ground for bacteria. 2. IGNORE THE MUSIC Sure, the inspiring strains of "We Built This City" make you feel like Superman, leading you to order the entire chile shrimp platter all for yourself. But that's exactly why the restaurant is blasting music: It makes you order more food, eat faster, and leave sooner. Forewarned is forearmed: Tune out the music while you're ordering, and enjoy conversation and a moderate eating pace. 3. NEVER BE THE LAST CUSTOMER Closing time can mean old food, tipsy kitchen and waitstaff, surly service, and some dude may already be mopping the floor. 4. DON'T BE RUDE Yes, this is a broad mandate, but we know you're up to the challenge. Think about it: Your cook, your waiter, and other restaurant workers hold the fate of your evening (first date, engagement, Dad's birthday, best friend's 12 months of sobriety) in their hands. If you have legitimate problems, by all means voice them—courteously. But think twice before sending food back (which, fairly or unfairly, often makes the cook angry with your waiter), telling the bartender that the owner is a friend of yours (fyi, the bartender may hate the owner), or asking questions that reek of stinginess ("Would it be possible for the three of us to share a cup of soup?"). While reports of waitstaff spitting on the food of pesky customers are greatly exaggerated, being not only the best-informed diner but also the nicest will always yield better results. 5. AVOID DIRTY BATHROOMS There is typically a strong correlation between the condition of a restaurant's bathrooms and the cleanliness of its kitchen. Sure, there will be a sign admonishing employees to wash their hands, but is there fresh soap? Is the floor clean? The trashcan in good repair and not overflowing? Red flags in the lavatory mean red flags in the kitchen and you have every right to decline your table and move on. 6. AVOID DRINK GARNISHES This is a bit of a shocker to those of us who don't think twice before asking for extra olives, twist of lemon or lime, etc. But it turns out those garnishes may have been sitting in an unrefrigerated bar tray for hours or more. Seasoned restaurant workers suggest that whether you prefer your martini shaken or stirred, ask for no olives. And if you want lemon or lime, ask for a slice on the side and squeeze the juice into your drink yourself. 7. ENJOY YOUR MEAT MEDIUM OR RARE Wait. What? While the USDA recommends that meat be cooked to a proper internal temperature to avoid potentially harmful bacteria, you may be better off ordering it a bit rare. Turns out cooks confess that they sometimes reserve the oldest meat for customers who prefer it well done—those extra minutes of cooking, not to mention the slightly charred exterior, can mask the tired quality of old meat. 8. ORDER YOUR FISH FRESH A nice piece of salmon served with rice and asparagus? Great. Pasta tossed with pieces of fish? Danger, Will Robinson! Same goes for seafood soup. As with well-done meat, cooks sometimes mask the flavor of old fish by mixing it with other ingredients—and the practice is more widespread than you might think. 9. DON'T EAT OUT ON HOLIDAYS Ever take Mom out for what you hoped would be a special Mother's Day brunch only to find that the waitstaff was inattentive, the food was mediocre, and the entire experience underwhelming? Unfortunately, that's what eating out on holidays often means. Especially on days when restaurants are packed—like Valentine's Day and Mother's Day—the pros recommend you cook up a treat at home instead. 10. NEVER EAT "ALL YOU CAN EAT" Buffets are notoriously unreliable at keeping food at safe temperatures—and you just have to belly up to the table for a minute or two to notice how many hands are touching, or grazing, or hovering over your meal. We love hotel's complimentary breakfast buffets as much as the next traveler, but we suggest that you arrive early and dig into the freshest, untouched stuff on the spread. 11. SAY "NAY" TO THE TRAY If you're a recovering fast-food junkie (guilty), you already know that the plastic trays that your food is served on are absolutely crawling with micro-organisms. If you must order fast food (and we beg you to be a little more adventurous, especially when representing the U.S. abroad), ask for it in a bag, even if you intend to consume it on the premises. 12. MAKE YOUR OWN COFFEE Ever ended a dinner out with a nice cup of "decaf" only to find yourself tossing and turning all night long? Or did you ask for a big mug of regular and end up falling asleep on the metro? Sorry. Restaurants are notoriously careless with the caffeine vs. regular setup, especially as the night wears on. If you want a jolt of caffeine, order an espresso, which is made cup-by-cup. 13. PACK YOUR OWN LEFTOVERS Trust us, that time you murmured, "I could have packed this better myself"?—you were right. Waitstaff is busy, cooks can't be bothered, and if you want the right stuff put into the right doggie bag (not to mention clean hands touching your uneaten morsels), don't rely on the busboy. Ask for the package and do it yourself.