Why Does Everyone Hate Flying? And Other Questions Only a Pilot Can Answer

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(photo: Colin Anderson/Getty Images)

Turbulence, terrorism and technology on airplanes: A veteran pilot answers questions on these and more.
(photo: Colin Anderson/Getty Images)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “Why Does Everyone Hate Flying? And Other Questions Only a Pilot Can Answer.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

Patrick Smith, the author of Cockpit Confidential, answers every question we can throw at him about what really happens up in the air. Just don’t get him started on pilotless planes — or whether the autopilot is actually doing the flying.

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.

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MUSIC: Chauncey Canfield, “Resheveled” (from Resheveled)

Welcome aboard, ladies and gentleman. This is your host, Stephen Dubner. On behalf of the entire crew here at Freakonomics Radio, I’d like to thank you for choosing this podcast. We know you have a choice of podcasts when you listen, and we want to thank you for choosing us. This is episode No. 249, originating out of WNYC Studios in New York City. Our playing time today will be approximately 45 minutes. Our guest today is a very talkative airline pilot:

PATRICK SMITH: My name is Patrick Smith.

And he’ll answer my questions about flying — and yours:

SHEA VAN TONDER: Is it true that pilots can see you through a camera that’s in the bathroom?

TIM WILSON: Can the pilot really fly faster? And if so, why don’t they fly faster normally as a normal matter of course?

KATHERINE HURDLE: Is there anything that you have seen on a flight that you couldn’t explain?

It’s time now to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

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It is nearly summertime. Which probably means that you, and just about everybody you know, will soon be getting on an airplane. Which means that you, and just about everybody you know, will be racking up a lot of questions, and even more complaints.

SMITH: Never underestimate the contempt people have for airlines. People hate carriers, and the airlines are out to either steal your money or get you killed or both. So, as part of this, let me apologize in advance for sounding frustrated.

Patrick Smith is a pilot for a major U.S. carrier. He won’t say which one.

SMITH: I live near Boston, and I fly the Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft.

And he’s willing to tell you everything he knows about airline travel. Smith maintains a website called AskThePilot.com.

SMITH: And my book is called Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel.

His love for flying came early.

SMITH: When I was a kid, I used to stay up at night instead of doing my homework, reading airline timetables and looking at the route maps and all the countries and cities that these airplanes flew to.

And while Smith gets the fact that most of us love to whinge about airline travel, he doesn’t see it that way.

SMITH: It’s still a very special thing and an exciting thing in a lot of ways that people don’t normally think about. There’s so much bad information out there. There are so many urban myths and conspiracy theories and all these ideas people have about airlines and flying, so many of which are wrong.

STEPHEN DUBNER: Give me a for instance. What’s on top of your urban airline myth?

SMITH: Where can we start? We can talk about the notion people have that flying is expensive, when in fact it’s cheaper than it’s ever been. It’s absurdly cheap in a lot of ways. Young people, especially, have no memory of the fact that not all that long ago, only a certain fraction of the population could afford to fly at all. And now it’s basically a form of mass transit. And that’s good. The downside is that it’s crowded, it’s noisy, planes are full, there are babies crying, and you don’t get a three-course meal in economy anymore. So it’s good and bad, give and take. But flying is damn cheap. When you adjust for inflation, and even when you factor in all of those ancillary fees that airlines love and passengers hate, air fares are about half of what they were 30 years ago. So flying is cheap, and it’s mostly reliable; about 85 percent of flights get to where they’re going on time. And then you’ve got kind of the more romantic side of it. The idea that you can get on a wide-body jet in New York City and fly to China in 13, 14 hours. That’s something that 100 years ago would have been absolutely unimaginable to people. And you can do that for a few pennies per mile. People don’t often stop and meditate on that, because it’s corny, but it is true, and it’s kind of exciting.

DUBNER: It seems that people love to hate on the airline industry, and that it’s considered perfectly standard to hate on the airline industry. But it is strange that we don’t hate on movie studios, who make plenty of crappy movies. We don’t complain about our electric utility suppliers. Electricity has gotten a lot more expensive, at least in many parts of the country, relative to other costs than airline travel. What is it, do you think, that makes your industry such a target for just kind of low-grade fever whining of a standard sort?

SMITH: I think part of it is fear — the fact that on some level, people are afraid when they get on a plane. And then that is compounded by, let’s be frank, the recalcitrance of airlines. Airlines don’t like to talk. They don’t like to give out answers if they don’t have to. They don’t like to explain problems, you know, sometimes, safety issues. They don’t need to because people aren’t going to stop flying, but they will continue to hate it. So I think that feeds into the contempt that people have for the flying experience. And also, look, it is uncomfortable most of the time. It can be exciting if you’re flying from New York to Hong Kong in business-class, but if you’re going from St. Louis to Denver in the back of a 737, it sucks. But for all of the griping people do about being wedged in steerage — you know, I was on a flight not long ago; I’m in economy; I’ve got a 12-inch video screen with 100 and something movies to pick from, TV shows to watch; I’ve got a little coat hook; I’ve got — I wouldn’t call it a designer seat, but — kind of an advanced, sculpted economy seat. It was pretty comfortable. And I think back to the 1970s, when I flew as a kid, and you had a seat. And remember those movies that you would watch on the bulkhead screen that were all blurry and they’d give you that plastic earphones that you’d stick in your ear and it would cut the inside of your ear because the plastic always had jagged edges on it? People talk about, “I wish flying could be the way it used to be!” Are you sure? I mean do you really want to go back to that, and also to the fact that flying was more dangerous and more expensive?

Music: Leo Islo, “Mind of Martha Jane” (from Modern Fiction)

DUBNER: Let’s talk about safety for a few minutes. Do you remember, I think it was July of 2013, there was a fatal air crash on landing, Asiana Airlines Flight 214 in San Francisco? Do you remember that one, Patrick?

SMITH: Absolutely. Sure do.

DUBNER: Two passengers were killed; I think a third was killed after on the runway. I think was hit by a fire truck or ambulance.

SMITH: Fire truck.

DUBNER: I just looked up some statistics at the time; so this was a couple years ago. The last fatal flight of a major U.S. airline, previous to that one, was in November 2001, when 265 people were killed in the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 shortly after takeoff from JFK in New York. And then I calculated the number of people killed in U.S. traffic accidents since the last major U.S. airline crash, the last fatality, was about 442,600 people. And the number of U.S. newspapers, TV networks and so on that did not feature, however, this fatal crash that killed two was zero. Literally. So you’re a smart guy. You’re also an airline pilot. You understand that people get upset about anomalous events when they’re presented in a certain way. But do you blame them for being scared? It’s a strange thing to climb into a big metal tube and let a couple of people fly you across the country.

SMITH: It is. And I think on some level, everybody is afraid to fly. And maybe they have a reason to be. But we’ve engineered out what used to be all the most common causes of accidents. First, you have improved technology — cockpit technology, improved airport infrastructure and so on — better crew training, pilot training. And then you have the collaborative efforts between airlines, regulators, and pilots groups. And that will sound incestuous to some people, but it works. For example, a lot of carriers now have these self-reporting programs where pilots, when they make a mistake, you write it up, you send it in, you’re not punished, but that data is collected and analyzed both by the airline and by the regulators to look for trends and take preemptive action to stop worse things from happening. It works very well. We’re much safer now than we used to be. You can do the statistics differently, but I’ve heard 8x, 9x, 10x safer than we were 30 years ago, even with double the number of airplanes in the sky. Go back to the year 1985, for example. In that one year, there were 27 major airline disasters around the world, that killed I think 2,000 or so people. Twenty-seven. And you had, among those, you had two of the deadliest air disasters in history happening within 60 days of each other. Granted that was an unusually bad year, but we had years like that all the time, where you had multiple catastrophes globally each year. And we don’t see that anymore. But you almost wouldn’t know that, because every time there’s an incident, it’s splashed across all these different media platforms 24/7. And I think that gives people the idea that these things are happening more commonly than they are.

DUBNER: And yet, there are crashes, every year, or most years at least, in commercial flight but particularly on smaller regional jets. So, can you talk for a couple of minutes about the differences between bigger planes or bigger airlines and smaller planes or smaller airlines and why there’s such a difference in safety?

SMITH: I don’t think there is such a difference. Part of that is that the regional airline industry, regional airline sector — the smaller, contractor commuter jets that are so common now — is now such a huge part of the industry. In the U.S., more than half of takeoffs and landings are performed by these outsourced contractor connection express and so on regional carriers. So, if there’s going to be an accident, in a lot of ways it’s a coin flip: major carrier, regional carrier. Over the past 10, 15 years, we’ve seen more accidents involving regional planes than larger mainline planes. That could be simply chance. The question you’re asking: are the bigger jets safer? The short answer there is no. And this — it’s similar when people ask me, “Which is the safest airline? Which is the safest airplane to fly on?” The answer is, “It doesn’t matter.”

Music: Leo Islo, “Body Speak” (from Modern Fiction)

DUBNER: What about, however, the pool of pilots among big planes and big airlines and regional jets?

SMITH: Great question. We keep hearing about this pilot shortage. Really this is something affecting the regional sector, not the mainline sector. And where it comes from is the fact that for years and years and year, regional airline pilots were paid next to nothing. And pilots were suddenly realizing, “Wait a minute, I’m going to put $200,000 in my training to make 20 grand a year as a regional airline co-pilot? No.” And so fewer people getting into the business and the ranks are drying up. So it’s the regionals that are having trouble attracting pilots. We are seeing salaries starting to go up. Some carriers are offering bonuses and that kind of thing.

DUBNER: What about salaries among the big companies, including yours? For instance, you want to tell us your salary? You’re certainly welcome to if you’d like.

SMITH: No, I don’t. But I will say that I do well. I do better than I ever expected to, and I have no complaints about my job. I love my job. But it took a long time to get to where I am. When I started flying regional planes in 1990, I was making $850 a month, gross pay. Even as a regional airline captain in the mid-’90s, I was making $36,000 a year. This after me and my family put tens and tens of thousands of dollars into my training, and I was just getting no return on that investment at all. It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I finally made a six-figure income. So it takes a while to get to that level, and for many pilots, they never do. And this is another reason you’re seeing fewer pilots getting into the business, because the regional sector, the lower-paying regional sector, has gotten so big. It’s no longer seen as just a stepping stone to a major carrier. When I was learning to fly, you did your training, you went to work for a regional for a couple of years, and then you went on to a major. That was the process.

DUBNER: So now it’s become more of a tournament model, where you’re not guaranteed at all ascension into the major level?

SMITH: Right. And regional pilots are sitting back and thinking, “Hey this might be as far as I ever get. This is a career. It’s not a stepping stone.” And so for that reason, fewer are willing to do it.

DUBNER: But, I think we could agree that the pilot as profession, including regional and major airlines, is not as financially attractive as it used to be, correct?

SMITH: That is correct. Pilots do not make as much money as they used to make.

DUBNER: So are you concerned that as those salaries have fallen, relative, at least, to other occupations, that the occupation will attract either fewer or less competent pilots over time?

SMITH: Haven’t you heard, Stephen, that pilots are going to disappear soon and we’re all going to be flying around on pilotless aircraft?

MUSIC: Milan Grajetzki, “Blinking Blooming Furry Moon” (from Milan Grajetzki)

DUBNER: Well, that’s my hope. No offense to you. I do know that autonomous cars are a potential reality. And I like the ramifications of that, because I think that driving and riding in cars is one of the single most dangerous things that a given human will do on a regular basis. So talk to me for a moment about why I shouldn’t expect and fully demand all my planes be flown by robots and computers?

SMITH: Well, a car’s not an airplane, do I need to say that? Neither is a drone. And I know it’s so easy to compare the two. You look at a drone and you extrapolate — we’ll just make it bigger and put a hundred seats on it and there you go. But then you look at the safety record of drones, and you think, “Wait a minute.” Almost always when this comes up, the people advocating for the pilotless plane idea are academics, researchers, scientists, and so on. And granted, the work these people do — it’s important, it’s interesting, it’s compelling, but the people you hear talking about this aren’t people who necessarily have a good grasp of the operational realities of commercial flying. All right, I’m an airline pilot, so I’m an advocate. I’m defending my profession and all of that. But that’s not it. I personally don’t care if eventually pilotless planes are a reality because I’ll be long dead and retired before then. I’m not saying it’s something we can’t do. Just as we could be living on cities on Mars. It’s within our technological grasp, but that doesn’t mean it’s affordable, practical, or something that we really want. I think of all of the thousands of things that could go wrong on any commercial flight, and do you really want to be dealing with those problems from a room thousands of miles away? I’m astounded by how much faith people have in this idea. And among the challenges, never mind the technological challenges, which are huge, you’d basically have to rebuild the entire civil aviation infrastructure, from air traffic control to the way airports are laid out. Hundreds of billions of dollars to make something like that happen, and you’d still have to have pilots to fly the airplanes, just from a remote location.

DUBNER: Let me give you a parallel scenario. Let’s pretend that we learned, definitively, tomorrow, that human doctors and their diagnostic abilities are really for crap. And maybe it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise to learn that because we know diagnosing is really, really hard. And that through a series of technological steps and inventions, that there is a model — whether it’s some form of robotization, computerization, whatever — that is basically a much better diagnostic model. And that would require that our medical system would need to be rebuilt, maybe from scratch, with the promise and the idea that in the end it will A) be better, and B) be worth it. Let’s say that one could make a similar argument for airplanes. Tell me why you still wouldn’t want to argue in favor of a pilotless airplane fleet.

SMITH: I’m not arguing against the idea of it. I’m just reminding people of what an immense job it would be. And how expensive, and how elaborate. You’re talking so many years and so much research and so much technological advancement before this could happen. You’ll be getting into a pilotless commercial jet around the time that you’ll be getting a doctorless kidney transplant.

MUSIC: Pailboy, “Hop Suey”

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MUSIC: Paul Freitas, “Pelican Parade”

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot with a website called AskThePilot.com and a book called Cockpit Confidential. He grew up near Boston.

SMITH: One of the things my friends and I used to do during junior high school was we would take the subway out to Logan Airport in Boston — back in those days, of course, you could just walk through security without a ticket — and we would stake out the jet way when a flight came in. And after all the passengers were off, we would walk down the jet way and approach one of the pilots or flight attendants and say, “Hey is it OK if we come in and look at the cockpit?” And almost always the answer was, “Sure! Come on!” And we would go up to the cockpit and sit in the pilot’s chairs and pretend we were up in the air over the ocean somewhere. That was a pretty big thrill for a seventh grader, eighth grader. I remember one time we spent an hour in the cockpit of a Northwest Airlines DC 10 at Logan Airport, and absolutely nobody knew we were there. Finally a mechanic came along and said, “What the hell are you kids doing?” “Oh, we just came on and wanted to take some pictures and look around.” And he basically said, “All right, well just don’t touch anything. Don’t mess with anything.” And left us there! Imagine that today.

Today Smith is taking any and all questions about airline travel, including questions from Freakonomics Radio listeners. Let’s start with Scott Crosby. He’s a surgical neurophysiologist from Houston. He says his wife is a nervous flyer and she hates turbulence, and he tries to tell her it’s not such a big deal.

SCOTT CROSBY: The way I try to rationalize this to her is to explain that the plane is not really moving very much whenever we feel turbulence. And she doesn’t really believe me, so I’m hoping she’ll believe an airline pilot. Maybe she’ll take it from the expert.

SMITH: Look, even in pretty rough turbulence, an airplane is displaced only slightly from its position in space. Airplanes have what we call positive stability where when they’re moved from their position in space they, by their nature, want to return back there. So, run-of-the-mill, moderate, please-fasten-your-seatbelts turbulence, there’s almost no displacement. Yet, there are those cases we read about once or twice a year where an airplane hits severe turbulence and does actually move hundreds of feet up or down. People are injured, there’s damage inside the cabin. That’s very rare; it’s something I’ve personally never experienced and most pilots, most passengers will never experience in a lifetime. But even in those cases, almost always the people who are hurt are people who did not have their seatbelts on when they should have. And there’s also something that I call PEF or Passenger Embellishment Factor. And this applies not just to turbulence, but to bank angles and angles of climb and descent. Very rarely, for example, does an airplane turn or bank more than about 20 or 25 degrees. Yet people will swear that their plane was tipped 45 degrees or 90 degrees — you name it. You know, a climb, a very steep climb on take off is seldom more than 20 degrees, at the most, and a descent is usually no more than five degrees. But again, people will swear, “we were descending at 60 degrees nose down.” Absolutely not. I wish I could take you into an airplane and show you what 60 degrees of pitch would actually feel like and you’d be startled.

DUBNER: Have you ever come close to a crash as a pilot?

SMITH: Close to a crash? I mean the closest call, if we can call it that, is something that happened to me back when I was, I think, 19 years old, when I was just learning to fly, just a private pilot, when I was involved in a near miss over Nantucket Sound because I was distracted by the beautiful girl sitting next to me. I have to go all the way back to the days when I was flying that four-seater to come up with anything that answers that question. I think that underscores just how safe commercial flying is. I’ve been flying commercially since 1990 and nothing jumps out at me.

MUSIC: Western Horizon Productions, “Alien Landscape”

MUSIC: Tino Danielzik, “Turtles in Space”

KATHERINE HURDLE: Hi, this is Katherine Hurdle from Bishop, California. I was wondering, is there anything that you have seen while on a flight that you couldn’t explain?

SMITH: I think reading between the lines there that I’m being asked, “have I seen a UFO?” and the answer is no. You know, I’ve heard people say, “Is it true that there’s this tacit agreement among pilots that if you see a UFO you don’t say anything?” And that just makes me laugh out loud as if there’s a tacit agreement among pilots about anything. I have seen a lot of cool things though, that I can explain: views of the northern lights, of the Kalahari desert, the rainforests of Guyana and Brazil. Flying really gives you a sense of how small the world is, and you also see a lot of breathtaking things that leave a disturbing impression. For example, flying over some of the clear-cutting fires over the Amazon, seeing the miles-long flame fronts gives you a sense of how much destruction and how much damage we’re doing to the planet. You get a good sense of that from the air.

TIM WILSON: Hi, my name’s Tim Wilson. I’m an analytics consultant based in Dublin, Ohio, right outside of Columbus. Reasonably often I’ll be on a flight where we’re delayed taking off by 15 or 30 minutes for any number of reasons. But then the pilot comes on, apologizes for the delay and tells us that he or she is expecting to be able to make up the time during the flight. And a lot of times we do. My question is: what’s going on there? Can the pilot really fly faster? And if so, why don’t they fly faster normally so that the route is shorter as a normal matter of course?

SMITH: Well, we can sometimes fly faster, but not as fast as we want. There are Air Traffic Control constraints of course and fuel constraints. Flying across the ocean, for example, you have to hit target fuel values at various waypoints as you go along, and if you start to fall behind those target values, that’s a problem. And in a worst case scenario, you could end up having to divert. So we can speed up a little bit, and this is actually more effective on long-haul flights than on short-hauls. Going across the ocean, we can fly at maybe Mach 8-2 instead of Mach 8-0. Usually though, it’s less about flying faster than it is about getting shortcuts from Air Traffic Control.

DUBNER: This does lead me to another question, which is why don’t airplanes go faster, generally? It’s no faster to fly to California now than it was 30, maybe even 50 years ago. Why is that?

SMITH: Yeah, the average jet today actually flies a little bit more slowly than it did in 1965. But it flies more efficiently. And there’s kind of a conundrum here where the faster you go, the more energy you need. Breaking the sound barrier isn’t just a matter of just pouring on the coals and going faster. There are all kinds of aerodynamic complications that come into play; plus it uses a lot of fuel. So no, planes aren’t faster, but they are more efficient and they are better. They’re much safer than they used to be, much more efficient, much cleaner, much more sophisticated. I try to look at it that way.

MUSIC: Judson Lee, “Potentially Funny”

COLLIN WEBSTER: Hi, my name is Collin Webster from Irvine, California. In university, my favorite professor was Edwin Hutchins from University of California, San Diego. And I remember him telling me that on 98 percent of all U.S. commercial aircraft flights, there was one error with regard to pilot procedure. Yet flight remains one of the safest ways for us to travel and that is due in part to the resiliency in the protocols for pilot, co-pilot, and air-control tower interaction. Is this true?

SMITH: Well, this is going to sound more ominous than it is, but mistakes are made on every flight. How could that not be the case? Every flight, no matter how routine, is subject to really thousands of human inputs. Fortunately, the errors made tend to be small and are easily corrected. The resiliency of protocols, as the caller put it, is there to make sure that the bigger and potentially hazardous errors don’t go unchecked. The checklists, the systems’ redundancies built into the aircraft, and just the overall cockpit discipline is a big part of that. To give you an example, I was flying to Europe not long ago, and we were giving an altimeter setting during the descent and in my head I mixed up millibars with inches and just for a moment I dialed in the wrong altimeter setting, which caused mine and the captain’s altimeter to differ slightly. But this was caught a minute or two later by the checklist that we ran during the descent. Perfect example. And even if it had not been caught, it wouldn’t have been anything particularly dangerous, but just one of those sorts of things that happens.

MUSIC: Johnathan Greer, “Oh My God”

ZEKE MORGAN: Hey Freakonomics. My name is Zeke. I am a student in Waco, Texas and my question for the airline pilot is this: Why is there no kids’ seating on an airplane? It could be at the back of the plane separated by a thick curtain. And for any parents with young children, they could sit back there and at least spare most of the other passengers with their children’s noise. Let’s make this happen.

SMITH: Oh, trust me Zeke, you don’t want to go here. I recently did a blog post on AskThePilot.com about whether or not little children should be prohibited from business and first class. And, oh my God, the response I got, some of the letters, some of the hate mail I got, I was ready to ask for FBI protection. The almost violently angry letters I got from all the moms and dads out there who thought the idea was just insane. Kids’ class or family section — maybe that is an idea worth looking into. Something akin to the old smoking, non-smoking section. But don’t underestimate the hostility that comes with going anywhere near the idea of restricting kids on planes.

MUSIC: J.T. Peterson, “The Journey Starts”

JON WIESKAMP: Hi, my name is Jon. I’m an automotive engineer working on self-driving cars, and I live in California in Silicon Valley. How often do you get to fly the plane manually and do you like giving control to computers? Assuming that you got into flying because you enjoyed doing it, do you still enjoy flying manually or is it like a chore?

DUBNER: So you’re just a guy with a nice white shirt and a couple stripes and a fancy hat, and you’re just sitting up there playing Boggle on your iPhone, I assume, right? You don’t actually do anything?

SMITH: Yeah, where to begin on this, Stephen. This is one of my favorite/least favorite things to talk about. Cockpit automation — what it is capable, and what it is not capable, of — is maybe the most misunderstood thing in all of commercial aviation. People have a very exaggerated sense of what the autopilot does and what the pilot’s role is in interacting with that automation. The autopilot is not flying the airplane. The crew is flying the airplane through the automation. We still have to tell it what to do, where to do it, when to do it, and how to do it. And when I say how, I mean for example, just one example of a thousand, setting up and programming, if you will, an automatic climb or descent; there are six, seven different ways you can do that depending on what you need and the circumstances. And I think people would be very surprised at how busy a cockpit becomes to the point of task saturation, even with all the automation up and running. Meanwhile, it’s true that there’s less hand-flying — that is hands on the control wheel, steering almost — than there was in the 1940s or whenever. But that’s OK with me. I can’t imagine the tedium of flying all the way across the ocean having to have my hands on the steering column the whole time. So pilots have come to rely on a different skillset. But I think it’s wrong to say that one skillset is more important than the other; and a certain mastery of both is needed. But manual flight, I mean whatever that means exactly — I still take off and land my airplane all the time by hand. One hundred percent of all takeoffs are manual, by hand. And more than 99 percent of all landings are made manually by hand by either the captain or the first officer.

SHEA VAN TONDER: My name is Shea van Tonder, and I’m from Cape Town in South Africa. I want to know: is it true that pilots can see you through a camera that’s in the bathroom to check if you’re up to any funny business?

SMITH: No, look, before I answer this absurd question, can I say that Cape Town is one of my favorite cities in the world? And that’s saying a lot because I’m not a cities person when I travel. Look, I think we have better things to do than to watch passengers go to the bathroom. No, there’s no truth whatsoever to that. Just do your business.

DARREN PAULI: Hey Pilot, I’m Darren Pauli, an IT security journalist in Melbourne, Australia. How effective are aviation security measures at stopping terrorism? And if you were in charge, what would you do differently?

SMITH:Essentially, the real nuts and bolts of airport security is something that goes on off-stage, back stage if you will. It’s the job of intelligence, of FBI, law enforcement, Interpol, whoever. People all working together to break up plots before they get to the airport. The security that we see on the concourse is important, but much of what we have in place now, I think, is just irrational and wastes huge amounts of time and money. The big irony here is that the success of the 9-11 attacks really had nothing to do with airport security. I think conventional wisdom holds that the attacks succeeded because the hijackers took advantage of loopholes in airport security. And that wasn’t the case. What they really did was take advantage of loopholes in our mindset — that is, our expectations of what a hijacking was and how it was going to unfold. It wasn’t about weapons. The weapons that the guys had — box cutters, knives, whatever they were — it wasn’t relevant. They could have used anything. It was all about the element of surprise. Now we’ve just had the Brussels bombings. And there’s talk now of should we move the security checkpoints out to the curb, or out to the sidewalk, because the bombs went off in the check-in area which is more or less open to the public. And I was waiting for this conversation to happen, and it was discouraging to hear because it’s just irrational, and it’s just giving into fear. Moving the checkpoints to the curb, all that really does is move the perimeter from one spot to another. That is totally meaningless to a potential attacker. All that does is move the so-called soft target from one position to another that is just as convenient. It really does nothing to enhance security.

DUBNER: You’ve talked about passenger profiling as a means of pre-flight security rather than on-site screening. What do you think would work best, most efficiently, to do the job well while not wasting so many billions of person hours?

SMITH: I think the most important thing we could do is stop looking at every single person who flies as a potential terrorist. It’s just an unsustainable approach in a country where 900 million people fly every year. We have to come up with something better. I’m talking about a system that takes in a whole number of data points and constructs a profile that way. I wish meanwhile, though, that TSA would get away from its preoccupation with little pointy objects and whether you have 3 ounces or 3.6 ounces of toothpaste and so on. That obsessing on minutiae just drags the whole system down. It’s a waste of resources, it’s a waste of time, a waste of money. Also I think people need to remember that even with all of the emphasis on terrorism and security today that we used to see bombings and hijackings and airport attacks so much more frequently than we do now. Go back to the 1960’s all the way through the 1980’s. Then you had bombings — airport attacks, Lockerbie, Air India, UTA, the TWA bombings and hijackings and so on. This doesn’t happen anymore. We’re much safer now, and whether that’s in spite of, or because of, the way we do our security is something we could argue about.

DUBNER: OK, a much, much, much smaller safety question: For years, you guys were telling us that our iPhones could take down a plane if they’re left on in our pockets, even dormant. And finally, we were told that apparently our phones can’t take down a plane. So what was that process like from the pilot’s perspective? What side were you on and why did it take so long to get to where we are now?

SMITH: I don’t know. I really don’t know. There were so many conflicting stories and conflicting reports about what a phone might be able to do, what it can do, what it can’t do, what it has done; anecdotal evidence of phones interfering with certain systems in accidents in the past. Did that really happen? We don’t know. I estimate that maybe 50 percent of all cell phones whether inadvertently or otherwise are left on instead of being in the proverbial off position also known as off. I think if that was really a recipe for disaster, we’d know about it by now. Now you can have your phone on, but only if it’s in airplane mode. But if you fly on Emirates, you can use your cell phone and make calls just the way you would anywhere. It’s still kind of a tangle of policy and regulation that I don’t quite understand. But I’d remind people that some of the rules really don’t have anything to do with electronic interference. For example, why can’t I have my laptop on my lap during takeoff or landing?

DUBNER: I think I know the answer to that one. Because that’s a heavy sucker, and if it flies through somewhere, it will hit me or someone else in the back of the head and that could hurt. That’s my answer.

SMITH: The edge of my MacBook Air is very sharp, and I don’t want that getting me in the neck at 250 miles an hour. That’s just me though.

DUBNER: I wasn’t even thinking about decapitation. I was just thinking of a bad bruise. Now you’ve got me really scared, because I do try to hide my laptop under my blanket often. Try to see how often I can get away with that.

SMITH: I won’t turn you in.

DUBNER: When you fly as a passenger now, do you break any rules like I do? Do you keep your laptop in your seat? Do you not fully un-recline your seat? Do you follow everything that you’re told to do, or are you a little bit more freewheeling?

SMITH: I follow the rules. I have to. I have to set a good example. One thing I don’t do so much anymore is pay close attention to the passenger safety briefings. I used to make it a point to make eye contact with the flight attendant or make it look like I was really focused on that seatback video showing me how to work the seatbelt and so on. Eventually I decided that if airlines aren’t going to — and regulators aren’t going to — make the effort to streamline those damn presentations, that I’m going to stop paying attention.   

NAT FONDELL: Hi, my name is Nat Fondell. I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I’m a few weeks away from graduating from medical school. And I was on a flight once where a pilot played his harmonica several times throughout the flight, and I’m just wondering why that doesn’t happen more often. Are pilots encouraged or discouraged to do creative things like that? Thanks.

SMITH: So, you want pilots to play music for the passengers, is that it? You know, I do know several pilots who bring guitars. They don’t play them over the PA, but they bring them on their layovers. I don’t play any instruments, but I’d be happy to play some of my favorite records for you over the PA if you really want; if you want to hear Husker Du and then the Clash and the Jazz Butcher. The answer is no, pilots are not discouraged from being eccentric or creative — maybe from being annoying.

DUBNER: You know, it’s interesting. We began this conversation with me kind of saying I empathize with the fact that your industry is unfairly assailed and people complain about this and that. And I realize all I’ve been doing is asking you exactly those same complaining questions. So I apologize, but I do have another one for you, which is this, Patrick. What can you say about the leadership class of airlines? Does it draw from the highest quality pool that the industry deserves? Or is there something about the airline industry that makes it less attractive or less viable for the best executives?

SMITH: Well, the airline industry in this country, in whole, is a lot more stable than it used to be. It used to be very cyclical. It was either bust or boom, bankruptcies and then record profits and then more bankruptcies. I think that the people at the top have figured out how to stabilize that. I think we’re going to have a much longer run of profit and stability now than we had in the past. Having said that, what the American carriers need is a visionary. We need a Richard Branson, a Freddie Laker. Do you remember Freddie?

DUBNER: No. Who was Freddie Laker?

SMITH: He was a Brit. Eventually, he was knighted by the queen. He started an airline called Laker Airways back in the ‘70s and they were the first low-cost, long-haul, no-frills airline. Not a comfortable ride, but at the time a cheap and fun ride. I mean, he was a celebrity. But somebody who loves the airline business, who grew up with it. Somebody like Juan Trippe from Pan Am, who would sit in his office looking at a globe and just would pick cities with his finger and say, “That’s where we’re flying next!”

DUBNER: Is that true? Did that really happen?

SMITH: I’ve heard that it happened. I don’t know if it actually did. But he certainly was a romantic and a visionary, and that only takes you so far if you’re going to run an airline, which, of course, is a corporation. But that element, that spirit, is missing from the U.S. airline industry today. I was listening to an interview with Tim Clark, the guy from Emirates, and he was talking about when he was a kid, he loved airplanes, and then he went to work as a gate agent for an airline in the U.K. He was so infatuated by the business and that carries over into his being able to put this outstanding airline together. Most U.S. carriers, I think, call from banking and any of a number of different industries and install those people at the top, and they probably, for the most part, do a good job from the fiscal point of view. But there’s just something missing that could help make the American airline industry what it used to be. We don’t have any global airlines anymore. United is maybe the closest thing to a truly global U.S. carrier. We fly overseas and basically feed passengers into our codeshare partners, and they take everybody the rest of the way around the world. We don’t have a British Airways; we don’t have an Air France; we don’t have a Lufthansa, an Emirates. Somebody with a truly global presence the way we had once with Pan Am. Our geography is part of that, but I think more of it is just what our airlines want to be.

DUBNER: The minute you said “codeshare partners,” it got very unsexy somehow. All right, so two really quick questions to finish up with. As a pilot with a major airline, how does it work for you getting tickets to go anywhere you want? Do you fly free, is it a discount, does it work on just your airline or all others? How does that work?

SMITH: I don’t know if I want to answer this, Stephen, because—

DUBNER: Sure you do, Patrick.

SMITH: It’s complicated.

DUBNER: It’s complicated as the engineering? The aeronautical engineering? Why we’re flying slower?

SMITH: People say, “Oh, you’re a pilot! You can fly for free!” In fact, all airline employees are entitled to more or less the same flight benefits. Generally, you can ride on your own carrier, if there’s space, i.e. standby, for nothing or next to nothing. On some international routes, you pay some of the taxes. As pilots, we also have what are called jump seat privileges. We can ride in the cockpits of other, at least, U.S. airlines. But non-revving, as we call it, non-revenue, is unpredictable. A lot of employees, when they go on trips, just buy tickets the way everybody else does because you don’t want to have to deal with — flying standby can be very nerve wracking. I can tell you about the time I was stuck in Paris for three days trying to get to Cairo and ended up losing my deposit on an Egyptian vacation.

DUBNER: And final question. Where are you flying to next, as a passenger?

SMITH: As a passenger? Huh. Well, I have my to-do list of countries. I’ve got, let’s see, Bhutan, Uzbekistan, Bolivia, and so on. The list goes on and on. I think I have to get to a hundred countries.

That was Patrick Smith, airline pilot. If you have more questions for Patrick Smith, he can be found at AskThePilot.com.

SMITH: I try to get to all of my mail so if anybody has a question feel free to ask away.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Christopher Werth. The rest of our staff includes Arwa GunjaJay Cowit, Merritt Jacob, Greg Rosalsky, Kasia Mychajlowycz, Alison Hockenberry, Jolenta Greenberg and Caroline English. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook and don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your free, weekly podcasts.


Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:


  • Patrick Smith, author of Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel



  • The National Transportation Safety Board’s report summary on the crash of Asiana Airlines flight 214
  • Read Patrick Smith’s blog post on whether kids should be banned from first and business class
  • Read Patrick Smith’s blog post on plane crashes today compared with crashes historically
  • Read Patrick Smith’s blog post on pilot shortages