Saturday, November 27, 2010

Recent Safety Review Begs the Question: Are Airplanes Too Fat To Fly?

On November 4, a Qantas flight departing from Singapore had to turn around after one its engines experienced a midair blowout. The plane landed safely in Singapore, and all passengers were safe, but the engine was toast.

The engine in question is a Trent 900, manufactured by Rolls Royce and installed on the A380 planes of Qantas, Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines, and, well, the damn thing disintegrated upon takeoff. A domino effect occurred, a series of events that, as you can imagine, caused all sorts of problems for the pilot.   

The incident occurred without much media coverage or public outcry about airline safety, perhaps because Qantas did everything right—both from a safety and PR perspective—to correct the situation, including replacing some of the Trent 900 engines, grounding planes for exhaustive safety checks, and flying its chief executive on a Sydney to London flight today as a sign of the airline’s commitment to safety.

In an act of good faith and PR suavity, Qantas flew its chief executive on the first flight by one of its super-jumbo jets since a midair engine explosion in early November triggered a safety review of the airline’s fleet.
But still, even Qantas admits there’s more work to do. The airline will eventually pursue compensation from Rolls Royce for the faulty engines and seek compensation for losses it suffered from grounding its fleet. And there’s the matter of redeploying its fleet of A380s that fly the Australia to Los Angeles route, currently one of the longest commercial flights in the world. Those flights are currently suspended while the airline tests whether the extra thrust required for takeoff on these routes creates too much stress on the engines.

In other words, the airline is keeping its fingers crossed that our desire (our need?) for long-haul world travel hasn’t exceeded its operational capacity.

Certainly it’s a question other airline executives must be asking themselves. As if the airline industry doesn’t have enough to worry about, now it can add “Stressed Out Engines” to its list of woes.

That’s because the A380s that fly these long-haul flights must load up on more fuel than other flights if the airplane is expected to make it across an ocean. The planes, therefore, are heavier at take off and require more thrust in order to get the bird in the sky. Qantas insists the Trent 900 engines are up for the challenge, and claims the suspension of these flights is only precautionary.

But even if the engines are manufactured correctly and the airline follows all the rules and adheres to strict safety protocols, there’s no denying that outside factors are starting to affect airlines’ ability to carry us safety around the world.

I’m talking about our insistence on packing our entire closet in our luggage.

How many times have you seen someone wheeling a ginormous “carry on” bag onto an airplane and wondered how on earth an airline employee didn’t question it? Or stood speechless at the check-in counter as the family in front of you checked, like, ten bags? I know that’s happened to me on several occasions and frankly, it’s selfish of my fellow passengers and it’s unfair that airlines aren’t doing more to stop it.

I know the airlines have instituted fees for checked luggage in an effort to discourage people from bringing too much stuff (and okay, to make money for the financially strapped companies), but so far all the fees have proven is that people will gladly whip out their wallets if it means they can still pack eight pairs of shoes. We Americans don’t want anyone telling us what to do, least of all dictating what we take with us on vacation, so if we have to pay a little bit extra for the right to exercise that freedom, then so be it.

And therein lies the problem: At some point, it becomes a safety issue. If every passenger on a full flight checked just one bag that was “only” ten pounds over the weight limit, that’s thousands of extra pounds on that already heavy flight.

Sure, Qantas says the extra weight—in their case because of extra fuel—was okay and didn’t effect the airplane, but what’s the tipping point? When will extra weight be too much weight? At what point will airplanes simply be too fat to fly?

There’s nothing us average passengers can do about the extra fuel required to fly us on super-long flights; that’s up to the airline industry and its suppliers to sort out. But we can help control the excess weight of the airplanes that we board.

The next time you’re preparing for a flight, stop and think about what you’re packing. Seriously people, do you need four bags’ worth of stuff for your extended weekend jaunt to Florida? I understand that international--and extended--travel requires more luggage than usual, but let’s do our part to make our flights less hefty by carrying less stuff.

I promise you, there are washers and dryers wherever you’re going. And if not, there’s always the hotel bathroom sink.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Co-Ed Naked Airport Security: Would You Strip if it Guaranteed Your Safety?

The majority of Americans (4 out of 5) in a recent poll said they would. And that other person? Well, he is protesting the increased security measures at airports around the country, because he thinks it’s an invasion of his privacy.

His name may very well be John Tyner, the traveler who recently refused to undergo the new security measure at the San Diego airport, and also refused to undergo a pat-down, only to leave the airport—with a full refund for the flight he didn’t take. (The whole incident was recorded and you can see it here and here.)

What, exactly, was Tyner—and other privacy-sensitive people like him--protesting? Full-body scanning machines.

The TSA rolled out full body scanners at 65 airports across the U.S. in October, including ones at the large airport near me, Philadelphia International. These Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) units use X-rays and electromagnetic waves to detect both metallic and non-metallic threats including weapons and explosives. Both types of machines create a full-body image, like this:

Looking at the pictures above, can you see why some people are up in arms?

Never mind that these machines are safe, according to the TSA. (They claim our cell phones are worse for us.) Or that they require only seconds of your time to walk through. And never mind that they pretty much weed out terrorists and other bad guys and guarantee safe flights for everyone because they detect ALL metallic and non-metallic threats.

No, the hubbub has to do with the fact that your fat, flabby body will be seen by a TSA agent you can’t see and will never meet. 

You see, these machines can pretty much see through all the layers of your clothing, and images of your (naked) body are what pop up on the scanner’s computer screen. And that’s exactly why Tyner refused to go through them in the first place. His words to the San Diego airport’s TSA officials? “I didn’t want anyone looking at my naked body.”

People are protesting this latest technology because they think it’s an invasion of their privacy. (Whether these people use the “invasion of privacy” term as a replacement for “fear of embarrassment” is open to debate.) These machines have created such a hullabaloo that a group of fed-up fliers have created the National Opt-Out Day, scheduled for November 24. Their cause has a website here 

 On that day, travelers who think their privacy is being violated by the thought of going through the AIT scanners should refuse to do so. They will tell the TSA agents, “I opt out,” and in doing so will be pulled to the side for an “enhanced” pat down. (The National Opt-Out gang wants you to think the TSA will grope your genitalia during the pat-down—a further violation of privacy--but the TSA is pretty vague about what “enhanced” means.) The end-goal? Get enough passengers riled up and refusing to go through the scanners, and thus creating even longer lines at airport security and complete mayhem at airports around the country during the Thanksgiving travel season.

Huh. So these opt-out people would rather waste five minutes being groped in public by a complete stranger during a pat-down than take three seconds to walk through a scanner and be on their way? And not only that, they want to create longer lines for you and me, their fellow American travelers who have no problem with the scanners, and are willing to piss us off on a principle? Really?

I could go further and say that they’d rather take the risk of being blown up mid air than allow an invisible stranger to see an image that is a mere reflection of their naked body, but that would be insensitive of me. Instead, I’ll just say thanks, d-bags.

On Monday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano defended the stepped-up airport security measures. "This is all being done as a process to make sure that the traveling public is safe," she said. I wish she would have said what she was really thinking. “You fools wanna be blown up by terrorists? Be my guest. My ass is walking through that scanner.” (Wouldn’t it be awesome if we lived in a world where politicians could say what was truly on their minds? Life would be so much more interesting. But I digress. Sorry.)

Look, I don’t want airport security to see my “naked” body either, but we live in a world where bad guys are getting smarter, their technology increasingly advanced. We need to be smarter than they are. And if an AIT scanner will do that, then so be it. The TSA agent looking at my “naked” self can laugh all he/she wants. This is a person I will never see and never meet.

My only complaint about these new scanners? That they weren’t instituted sooner.

Hey, if nothing else, the new machines will force us to get in shape, something we need to do anyway, because America is getting fatter and fatter and obesity is now an epidemic in this country. So if takes a few seconds of embarrassment for us to change our eating and exercising habits, awesome. Bring it on.

A slimmer America with no terrorists? Hurray to that.

I raise my glass to the new AIT scanners and look forward to stripping naked for the TSA.

Who’s with me? Anyone? Hello??

Monday, November 8, 2010

Cleopatra: Do We Need Her to be Beautiful in Order to Matter?

Cleopatra is all the rage right now. A new biography was just published about her, Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff (a good book apparently, albeit without any new revelations) and a traveling exhibition on the Egyptian Queen is currently making its world premiere in my neck of the woods, at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

While reading reviews of Ms. Schiff’s book and scanning through info on the last pharaoh of Egypt, it occurred to me: Cleopatra is always portrayed in photos and dramatizations and movies and artwork as being outrageously beautiful.

I think this might be a lie.

From what I know, while she was far from ugly, Cleopatra wasn’t exactly a stunner, either. She was…well, rather average looking.

And it got me thinking: Was Cleopatra really a gorgeous specimen of femininity, or did popular culture make her that way in order to make her matter more in the eyes of history?

Let’s start here, with this “classical” image of Cleopatra, as portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor in the famous 1963 movie of the same name:

Let’s face it: we all love a pretty face. Pop culture, especially, loves attractive people. Why else use models to sell everything from underwear to soft drinks? Because as a marketing tool, good-looking people get the job done. Sex sells. Always has, always will. I don’t profess to know all the stats out there about this, but suffice to say it’s a trend that’s still in use for a reason. As humans, we’re just hardwired to want to hang around with and look at—and buy stuff from--attractive people. Marketing executives and advertisers know this, and use it to their advantage. (Full disclosure: As a marketing executive, I’m guilty of this myself.)

I guess we could blame the makers of the Cleopatra film, who cast a comely Taylor in the titular role, for the perpetuation of Cleopatra’s beauty. Maybe, however, they were just playing along with the pop culture Cleopatra-as-sexy status quo. I mean, let’s face it: Hollywood almost demands their queens and goddesses to be not just powerful, but powerful and beautiful. The producers had a movie to sell, after all.

But portrayals of a beautiful, seductive, powerful Cleopatra goddess pre-date this film by about…oh, two millennia. Look at this piece of artwork:

This is a basalt statue of Cleopatra that dates to the second half of the first century B.C., around the time she was ruling Egypt. Va-Va-Voom, right? The artist was clearly trying to send a message: not only was Cleopatra an influential pharaoh from a powerful bloodline of Egyptian rulers, she was also smokin’ hot.

Cassius Dio, a member of the Roman consul and noted historian in the first century A.D., spoke of her beauty thusly: “For she was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking.” This Dio dude was Roman and lived nearly 100 years after Cleopatra, and yet even HE knew of Cleopatra’s supposed alluring beauty. It seems, then, that the portrayal of Cleopatra as gorgeous goddess caught on early and was passed down through history.

How, then, do we explain these images of Cleopatra?

The first is a marble bust that dates from about 30 B.C., around the time of her death. The second is an ancient Greek silver coin in wide circulation during Cleopatra’s reign, showing the pharaoh in profile. In these perhaps more realistic images, Cleopatra, with her hook nose and homely appearance, is in stark contrast to popular images of her. Hardly the face of a woman whose conquest of powerful men was proof of her sexual appeal. And hardly the stunning beauty we’ve been led to believe.

So whose images of Cleopatra are the most historically accurate? I tend to believe the truth is always in the middle.

Remember Cassius Dio, the first century A.D. historian I mentioned earlier who claimed Cleopatra was “most striking”? A fellow historian of his, Plutarch, begs to differ, indicating "her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.” In other words, this first century Roman wondered what all the fuss was about. He went on to say that “the sweetness in the tones of her voice” was what made Cleopatra attractive, not any physical attribute. It was Cleopatra’s wit and charm alone, in fact, that won many men over.

But Dio doesn’t completely eschew her non-physical qualities. He is known to have said, “She {also} possessed a most charming voice and knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to every one.” Again, a reference to non-physical attributes that, in spite of any lack of physical beauty, made Cleopatra attractive to everyone around her.

So, do we need Cleopatra to be beautiful in order to validate her as a woman? Must she possess a stunning face and a shapely figure in order for us to take her seriously as a powerful leader and influential political tactician? The answer, it seems, is no.

But just to be safe, Little, Brown and Company, publisher of Stacey Schiff’s Cleopatra biography didn’t show Cleopatra’s face on the cover of the book. (Intentionally?) Instead, her head is turned extremely to the left, as if she's looking over her shoulder. All you can see is the back of her head. But the suggestion of beauty is there—the long line of her neck, her swept-up hair, her flowing wardrobe. This seems to suggest that even though we know she may not be the beauty that pop culture typically portrays her as, we want her to be. We want her to have the whole package: beauty, brains and brawn.

But isn’t it enough that Cleopatra was powerful, and cunning, and “sweet,” and charming? Must she be beautiful, too? Can't we accept that she used something other than her beauty to achieve what she did? In other words, what value do we place on a pretty face?

A lot, but remember, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And to many, Cleopatra, in spite of any lack of beauty she had, was one of the most beautiful women in history.