The Plane Crash and the Pundit

By Michael I. Niman

ArtVoice 3/5/09

When I fly, I feel that I’m home when I get to the last gate and wait to board that final flight back to Buffalo. I always imagine that, even with no signage, I could find the gate by looking at the people beginning to gather. This is our community. Maybe I’m imagining it, but the folks at the gate seem to be a distinctive Buffalonian mix. These are the people I’ve chosen to spend my life with. I feel at home at this cramped gate. I never really thought about one of these flights going down. When fate caught up with a Buffalo-bound plane, the disaster stabbed a dagger into the collective soul of our community—much deeper than I could have ever imagined.

We’re now an injured, grieving population. We need to be treated gently and professionally. We’ve got no stomach for sensationalism and we don’t want our emotions toyed with. The local media, almost to a person, stood up to this challenge. Each crash victim, even those who were not a part of our community, were humanized, and their lives, diverse as were, were each celebrated for their unique attributes. Yes, the story at times seemed to drag on, but we needed to process it—to understand how death can just drop out of the sky, how fragile life is. The bottom line is that, at least in this instance, when we needed good journalism, the local press corps rose to the challenge.


An Airport Pest

There was one notable exception among Buffalo’s journalists, however. That was the Buffalo News’s Donn Esmonde. His six stories on the crash gave us no new information, instead twisting the dagger with his branded angry-man-bot formula. His series—and it’s really tough to call it that since in essence it was one article stuck on replay—culminated with a February 25 piece entitled “Winter Skies No Place for Turboprops.”

His narrative centered on a visit to the Buffalo-bound flight gate—our peeps at the airport—13 days after Flight 3407. More specifically, these were people about to board another Newark-to-Buffalo turboprop. And they now had Donn Esmonde to contend with, asking how they felt heading off onto a possibly doomed flight. He ended his story writing that he “was glad to see [the man he interviewed] and the rest of the turboprop passengers on Continental Flight 3411, Newark to Buffalo, get home safely Monday night.” In reality, however, despite the crash an ominous 13 days earlier, these Buffalo-bound passengers were much more likely to die or get injured on the way home from the airport than on what Esmonde insinuates is a death-defying turboprop ride home.

The meat of the story is that turboprops are dangerous due to icing issues and that they should be grounded because of the crash of Flight 3407, though he admits that “the great majority of turboprops flying in cold weather do not crash.” This might well be the Buffalo News’s understatement of the year.

But let’s look at the issue of icing on planes, the devil that Esmonde insinuates brought down 3407.

Media-wise, icing is to airline crashes what Middle Easterners are to terrorism stories—the knee-jerk, go-to protagonist. Just like the Oklahoma City bombing, when the national media ran out of the gate reporting the incident had all the markings of “Middle East terrorists,” icing is usually the culprit in cold climate plane crashes, until proven otherwise. One such story revolved around the October 2002 death of Senator Paul Wellstone, ostensibly due to icing on his chartered aircraft. His death flipped the Senate from Democratic to Republican control and silenced the most outspoken opponent to George Bush’s policies, helping to pave the way for the subsequent Iraq invasion, six years of reckless fiscal and environmental policies, and the squashing of all investigations into the peculiarities of the 2000 presidential election.

In the end, it turns out that “icing” was not the cause of the crash that killed Senator Wellstone. It was an easy enough story to cover. I called an associate in Gran Marais, Minnesota—someone I met years earlier while doing research for my dissertation—and asked him what the weather was like. His response was immediate: Icing shouldn’t have been a factor in the crash. No other planes reported icing problems. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the weather. That planted enough suspicion for me to write that it was too early to blame icing. In the end, after an extensive investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled out icing, stating that the crash was caused by “the flight crew’s failure to maintain adequate airspeed, which led to an aerodynamic stall from which they did not recover.” The NTSB couldn’t determine why or how an experienced crew let the plane stall, leaving the death of Wellstone an unsolved mystery. In most Americans’ memory, however, the plane was brought down by icing, because that’s the story the media reported.

The Flight 3407 story is also more complex than the turboprop icing theory that Esmonde is pushing. On one level, it’s a labor story. Continental subcontracted Flight 3407 out to Colgan Air, which is a subsidiary of Pinnacle Airlines. Pinnacle and Colgan operate planes painted up with the United, Continental, US Air, Delta, and Northwest brands. By contracting out to Pinnacle and its Colgan subsidiary, the major airlines can work around their own union contracts.

The result is that Colgan can run flights cheaper since its workforce, which is currently in the process of forming a union, can be worked harder and paid less than the unionized pilots and crews employed by the real Continental, United, Delta, US Air, and Northwest. As a result, according to data collected from pilots and flight crews by Aviation Interviews, Colgan can fly planes while paying first officers less than most taxi drivers who take you to the airport ($21 per flying hour or about $19,000 per year).

Experienced Colgan captains can earn, on average, as much as a seasoned New York City sanitation worker. I would suspect that this pay structure would result in a brain drain at Colgan as experienced pilots move beyond entry-level salaries and seek union jobs with other airlines—or less stressful and more secure work tending to New York’s trash. This all comes into play because the NTSB’s preliminary investigation indicates that it was a human hand, and not ice, that pulled back the lever that pointed Flight 3407 up into its final stall. So maybe Esmonde’s title could read “Winter Skies No Place For Poorly Paid Pilots” or “Winter Skies No Place For Subcontractors of Subcontractors.” To be fair, however, it’s too early to write any of these stories—at least until the journalist writing them does more homework.

In another story about Flight 3407, Esmonde refers to a 1994 turboprop crash in Indiana. Again, he failed to mention the fact that the plane in question iced up and went down only after being ordered to circle near Chicago at an icing-prone altitude while waiting for traffic to abate at O’Hare Airport. Again, while icing was the technical cause, the plane also seems to have gone down because it iced up when it couldn’t land on time at an overcrowded hub. History, however, doesn’t blame the hub system for the crash.

Esmonde, in his “Winter Skies” piece states definitively that “Jets are safer in cold climates.” Buffalo News reporters Mary Pasciak and Susan Schulman, in a much better researched piece, report that turboprop planes were involved in half of the crashes where icing was a suspected factor. That would, one has to assume, with dirigibles out of the mix, leave jets involved in the other half. Pasciak and Schulman go on to report that of the 25 deadliest plane crashes of the past quarter century, “three were blamed, at least in part,” on icing. Of those three, two were jets—a McDonnell Douglas DC8 and a Boeing 737.

The News’s Matt Spina also did his homework, digging up a 2002 report where pilots were tested on their abilities to recover from icing-related plane malfunctions. More than half were unable to recover their planes, faulting the poor training that they had received. This reminds me of the scariest flight I ever was on—a small turboprop flight out of Buffalo on a Saab 340 aircraft. It wasn’t the turboprops that scared me, however. It was the pilot coming back into the cabin and removing the instruction manual from a locked compartment and bringing it onto the flight deck after three failed attempts to start the plane on a winter morning. They eventually hooked the plane up to some sort of jumper cable.

Add up all the data, and the problem may indeed not be the turboprop planes Esmonde was quick to demonize. Turboprops are in the air transportation mix for a number of reasons. They’re safer on short runways. In fact, some regional airports can’t accommodate commercial jets. And in runs of 600 miles or less, fuel savings can be as high as 70 percent. And yes, while the high-tech turboprop engines require more expensive maintenance than jets, these costs are more than made up for by lowered fuel costs and the lower initial price of the plane. And quite frankly, while shopping for cheap flights, I’d rather that airlines cut costs by spending less on fuel rather than spending less on pilots.

Turboprop planes also aren’t nearly as susceptible as jets, especially small regional jets, to crashing after hitting birds. New York-to-Buffalo flights might end in ice country, but they begin, year round, in bird country, with that region’s three airports all situated adjacent to waterfowl nesting areas. Yet there was no column in the New York press after the miraculous water landing of goose-crippled US Air Fight 1549, headlined “Bird-Riddled Skies No Place for Jets.” Rupert Murdoch’s sleazy New York Post didn’t even go there.

My point? At times like the Flight 3407 disaster, we need good reporting based on accurate information that’s fairly presented—not mindless headline-grabbing fear-mongering. Donn, we’re the little people you write about, the folks trying to get by on those “mean streets” and killer planes. Give us a break.

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are available online at www.artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com and available globally through syndication.


ęCopyright 2009

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