Sunday, January 21, 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen, Your Pilot is Dead

A Continental Airlines flight departing from Houston succumbed to an emergency landing yesterday after its pilot died. Fortunately, the co-pilot took over and flew the plane to safety. A new crew later steered the plane to its Mexican destination. No word yet on what the crew told the passengers; it's also not clear precisely when the pilot died or why. But Continental seems convinced his death owed to natural causes. A stark reminder of why we need multiple pilots aboard a plane!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Trots On Your Trek

I hesitate to introduce such an unsavory topic as food poisoning, but a recent outbreak of Norovirus at a Hilton hotel near Dulles airport compels me to do so. If you're like me, your biggest travel fear is falling sick, particularly on an airplane, train or cruise-ship, where the bathroom facilities typically leave a lot to be desired. Many of our fears center on food that's undercooked or served past its expiration date. But norovirus poses a unique threat. It's transmitted from employee (whether chef or server) to customer via the improper handling of food. In a classic case, the person preparing the food fails to wash his hands after using the bathroom, and then contaminates the food he's preparing with the virus. In the case of Norovirus, the preparer needn't be sick; he may be a mere--and yet mere is not the right word!--carrier of the virus.

More so than most forms of food poisoning, Norovirus is highly infectious; it explodes through a population. In this Hilton example, over a hundred people at the hotel fell sick in a short space of time--forcing a shut-down and the redirecting of guests to nearby accommodations. Norovirus also made a recent appearance at an Olive Garden in Indianapolis, sickening 370 people. Although it passes quickly, the virus generates projectile vomiting, diarrhea and, if one isn't careful, dehydration.

Yours truly knows Norovirus firsthand. A couple years ago I was socializing at an evening wine and cheese when I began to feel quite sick--seized by stomach cramps and a growing pressure in my chest and throat. I escaped the party and made it home just in time to begin a horrendous stretch of vomiting that lasted until the wee hours of the morning, when, afflicted with cramps so bad I could barely walk, I awakened my roommate Kristen, who kindly and dutifully drove me to the emergency room, where I convalesced thanks to the restorative power of intravenous rehydration. Unfortunately, the projectile vomiting--and in particular, the vomiting of red wine--inflamed my esophageal lining and gave me an overnight case of acid reflux disease that plagues me to this day, albeit in attenuated form. The health department later determined, after surveying scores of other students who fell sick, that our vomiting owed to Norovirus transmitted via salsa at a Mexican restaurant. Needless to say I haven't returned to that establishment.

Thankfully I was near home when the nefarious Norovirus inflicted its damage. I shudder to think how I might have felt had the cramps hit me on a long-distance flight or a week-long cruise (Norovirus is famous for spreading like wildfire through cruise ships). When feasible, you might consider eating at home on the day before you travel (Norovirus usually takes 24-36 hours to replicate sufficiently to cause illness) and packing your food for the journey. Peanut butter sandwiches work well, as do crackers, chocolate bars, dried fruit and cereal bars. Not the most glamorous fare, I concede, but surely preferable to being bent over an under-sized toilet on a turboprop making a mess of things as a rambunctious child and his impatient mother stand outside, tapping on the door and asking, "what's taking him so long in there?"

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"Whoa!" Comair Crash Update

The FAA has released the voice recordings of the two pilots aboard the Comair plane that crashed in Kentucky a few months back. Polehinke, the first officer and lone survivor, noted to his co-pilot as they taxi-ed down the runway the strange absence of lights, and then, presumably as they reached the end of the runway and realized that they were on the wrong one--one far too short for commercial flights--exclaimed, "Whoa!" Family of crash victims have filed multiple lawsuits against Comair, but Comair insists that the FAA and the Lexington airport deserve part of the blame, the FAA for placing only one officer in the tower (there should have been two) and the airport for allegedly failing to publicize properly changes in the runway following recent construction. All this finger-pointing--and honestly, all parties voice valid arguments--means that financial settlements will be a long time coming, if ever they do.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Merger Mania

As USAir tries once again to take over Delta, and as United and Continental continue their discussion of consolidation, we learn this week that Airtran has made a move for Midwest Airlines. A second move, in fact. The first, which failed, went unreported in early December. Midwest enjoys a stellar reputation for offering wide, leather seats and freshly baked cookies on most flights. Their Milwaukee hub would complement Airtran's Atlanta hub nicely, but the diminutive Midwest thinks that it can survive even in the current chaos that is the aviation industry, and that a merger with Airtran might compromise its customer service. But with Aitran upping its bid and Midwest only recently emerging from a string of unprofitable quarters, one can't be sure that Airtran won't emerge victorious. And if USAir and United gobble up Delta and Continental, respectively, passengers can look forward to fewer flights and higher prices. It's the future, and we might as well brace ourselves for it.