A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek. 

July 2013    


 Airline travel has always been a bit of a nightmare, and it’s even worse in this post 9-11 era.  As general aviation pilots, we can get lucky sometimes and are able to choose our own aircraft over the airlines to take us where we want to go.  But there are times when the big jets are the only way we can travel.  That of course means all the hassles of airport security, early morning check-ins, long lineups, and often being forced to hang around a crowded, noisy airport terminal full of people you’d rather not be close to.

 I spent several years “trapped” in the terminal at Vancouver Airport (YVR), and it didn’t take long for the enjoyment to wear off.  In fact, it got very thin.  I was never a Super Elite frequent flyer, but took any opportunity I could get to be upgraded, even just for a lounge pass.   At least it got me out of the general population in the terminal into someplace quiet, uncrowded and comfortable.  I just happen to have a good friend with “the power” at Air Canada.

 That luxury has, in only the past few years, become available to pretty much any traveler who is willing to pay a little extra.  At many airports in North America and around the world, independent lounges are opening.  They offer many of the same services and facilities that the airlines provide to their first-class customers.   Comfortable chairs, free WiFi, food, business facilities like fax and photocopying service, local and long distance telephones and so on.  Many have available showers and a place to sleep.  You needn’t have earned a million miles or be flying a certain airline or class, and many don't require membership. You can just pay to use them when you need them.  Fees are surprisingly low, with hourly rates from about $15, and daily charges of around $50.  These of course vary widely depending on the facilities and airport you’re at. 

 The novelty of busy airport terminals is non-existent for me, so if I come across an opportunity to make use of a facility like this, I will be happy to take advantage of it.  And incidentally, Vancouver now has three under the name of Plaza Premium Lounges.

 Over the past 100 years or so that airplanes have been flying, there have been such tremendous advances in aerospace technology it really is mind boggling.  It was in December of 1903 that Wilber became the first to fly in a controlled, powered aircraft.  That flight lasted just 12 seconds.  Look what’s happened in just a couple of generations.  We’ve put men on the moon, flown a spacecraft to Mars (and landed it there), not to mention the multitude of achievements here closer to earth.  The next big innovation could very well be unmanned aerial vehicles that will do more work than anyone could have imagined. 

 Still, there’s room for the simpler achievements, those that are perhaps so simple you have to wonder why no one has thought of them before now.  I’m referring to electric motors powering the main wheels on big airliners for taxiing around airports.  Two major aerospace companies have collaborated to build a system for airliners that is expected to save millions of gallons of fuel.  The system is virtually silent and the weight penalty is more than compensated for by the smaller fuel load the aircraft must carry.  About 5 percent of jet fuel is burned before takeoff and after landing as the planes wait for departure or for an open gate. Taxi and wait times are on the increase at airports all over the world.  This system of electric motors on the main gear is already being demonstrated on an Airbus A 380.  Airlines with short-haul routes will benefit most from this idea, because the fuel burn during taxi is a bigger portion of the overall use on a short flight.  There could be savings over time in the area of five billion dollars in fuel costs, making this not such a small improvement after all.  It’s an idea that is definitely worth the work.  

  Earlier this year, I wrote about the work being done toward airliners being flown without the pilots.  Initially it sounded like a preposterous idea, but it may not be as far out there as we think.  On-board computers monitored and under the control of a ground-based operator work already on the UAV’s out there.  I’m not sure it will ever happen, but it could be just a matter of time before we’re flying behind an empty cockpit too.  Unbelievable?   Well, consider that in 1899, Charles Howard Duell, the Commissioner of U.S. Patents, was quoted as saying, "Everything that can be invented has been invented."  Even Wilbur Wright got it wrong when in 1901, after their first attempt to fly failed, he said, “Man will not fly for 50 years.”  Further, it was predicted in 1904 that airplanes would never have any military value.  And even Henry Ford got it wrong when shortly after the end of World War II (1945), the whole of Volkswagen, factory and patents, was offered to him for free.  He dismissed the Volkswagen Beetle as a bad design.  We all know now that the Beetle became one of the best-selling vehicles of all time.

 Maybe this is the best failed prediction, and I’ve saved it for last.  “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad.”    That was a quote from the president of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer, Horace Rackham, not to invest in the Ford Motor Co., in 1903.

 So never say “never”.  Just keep flying for as long as they let us. 

 Before closing out this month, here’s a reminder to be thinking of your pilots license renewal.  Remember when we were obliged to surrender the old paper license and obtain the “passport-like” booklet?   Well, surprise, that was five years ago!  They are valid for only five years, just like your passport.  The first wave of these booklets was distributed to commercial pilots in 2008.  I noticed the expiry date on mine is Dec. 01, 2013.  I called Transport Canada licensing in Vancouver and was told they’re not accepting renewal applications until 90 days before the expiry date.  There will be a rush!   So get yours in early, as they’re thinking of a six-week wait to have it processed.  And by the way, once again you’ll need to include a new passport photo.  

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