Smart Traveler: We're Learning to Fly. And It Shows.

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Destinations, May 1997

Smart Traveler: We're Learning to Fly. And It Shows.

How to save yourself from the world's worst airlines
By Everett Potter

B u l l e t i n s

Dune Buzzers
Nearly 100 pilots will cruise above North Carolina's Jockey's Ridge State Park during the 25th annual Hang Gliding Spectacular, May 9-12. America's oldest such contest, the Spectacular features low-level and high-altitude flights, most centered over an 85-foot sand dune — the largest on the East Coast. Entry fee is $35; free for spectators. To register, call 800-334-4777.

Blood Drive
One of Olympic cyclist Lance Armstrong's inaugural efforts as a spokesperson for health and charitable causes kicks off May 17 in San Diego with the Five Points of Life bike ride. In this 43-day event, 12 cyclists will pedal coast-to-coast to promote blood and organ donation. Armstrong, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer last fall, is scheduled to make cameo appearances. For more information, call 352-334-1096.

Mush, Parachute
Cross Greenland's glaciers the easy way: powered by a canvas sail. Outfitter Hvitserk As will lead a group of sail-skiers across Greenland's ice cap, May 16-27. Equipped with telemark skis and a large, parachute-like sail, each sail-skier will glide across 125 miles of glacier. Afterward, the group will hike some of Greenland's most spectacular countryside. Land cost for the annual trip is $2,700, food, skis, parachute, and instruction included. Call 011-47-67-58-2606.

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Several years ago, I was aboard a battered 757 from Chengdu to Lhasa when I noticed that my seat was hopping forward. It wasn't bolted to the floor. Earlier, we'd taken off without safety instructions, while passengers wandered the aisle and the Chinese flight attendants responded to the concerns of anxious Western fliers by passing out plastic key chains. All normal service on Air China.

The downside of exotic adventure is having to pursue it on exotic airlines. FAA guidelines obviously are not in effect. And the results can be disastrous. In February, Air Senegal's only airworthy jet crashed, killing 23 people. Officials blamed the disaster on "contaminated fuel" and "excess baggage." In effect, the overloaded plane ran out of usable gas.

As the summer travel season heats up, many hapless fliers may find themselves boarding similarly iffy aircraft. How can you assess the record of local carriers or, more immediately, the safety of the plane you're about to board? A few guidelines:

Check with IASAP
Under the International Aviation Safety Assessment Program, countries requesting permission to fly into the United States are investigated by the FAA. Those whose airlines recently were denied U.S. air access because of safety concerns include Belize, Gambia, Kiribati, Nicaragua, Swaziland, Uruguay, Zaire, and Zimbabwe. Call the FAA at 800-322-7873 for others. Then, in these nations, stick to air routes served by major U.S. or European carriers. For local travel, drive. The most harrowing road trip will likely be less hazardous than the local puddle-jumper.

Follow the suits
Many American corporations have policies against booking their employees on certain airlines. Among the carriers that have been openly blackballed are Air China, Russia's Aeroflot, Peru's Aero Continente, and domestically, Rich International Air and Valujet, both of which have had their operations suspended by the FAA. Few companies will name the airlines they've blocked, however, since carriers' lawyers can be prickly. The best way to find out which airlines corporations avoid is to chat up your corporate friends or, if you work for a Fortune 500 company, ask the travel planner directly.

Follow the money
Be wary of national airlines in countries with huge, unpaid debts to the World Bank. In such circumstances, bothersome expenses for luxuries like airline maintenance are likely to be ignored. After Aeroflot was nationalized in 1982, it suspended all salary payments to its pilots. Not surprisingly, accidents escalated. (Its safety record has improved since.) You may be better off chartering a plane in such places. Or try the trains.

Use code
Even in nations with poor airline safety records, you can feel confident flying on local carriers affiliated with American and European majors, an arrangement called code-sharing. The bigger airlines typically share maintenance facilities and standards with these partners. Fares may be higher than with other locals, but that helps cover the cost of such amenities as on-board fire extinguishers.

Don't go to the dogs
As for the aircraft itself, consider yourself lucky if you're seated in a trashed-looking Russian-made Tupolev. They were built like AK-47s, crude but strong, and will absorb tremendous abuse before becoming unairworthy. Beware, on the other hand, of any aircraft with doors held closed with duct tape, a safety problem that has actually cropped up in FAA reports. Finally, as a rule of thumb, avoid any plane that permits dogs, chickens, or other creatures in the cabin. This occurs on the most poorly regulated locals, with disconcerting results. Uncaged animals can be quite mobile, and the only life form inhabiting the cockpit should be the pilot.

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