Pilot debunks flying myths

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff /file

Patrick Smith flies planes for a living and writes a popular blog called “Ask the Pilot.” He lives in Somerville and he’s out with his second book, “Cockpit Confidential” (published by Sourcebooks), which comes almost a decade after his first book, “Ask the Pilot.” Now 47, Smith, who says that he flies for a large commercial airliner (but won’t reveal which one), says that he hopes his books put to rest some of the common myths about airplane travel. Like, do we really have to turn off our cellphones?

Q. What’s changed between your first book and this latest one?

A. The skyscape is vastly different. There were several megamergers. Airlines have come and gone. It’s a very different industry. Flying is more affordable than a decade ago. We don’t realize flying is as cheap as it is. A study came out a few months ago that said the cost of flying is 50 percent of what it was 30 years ago. And that includes all the fees. It’s cheaper than it’s ever been.


Q. Talk about the grounding of the Boeing 787, did that surprise you?

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A. It was unusual but not unprecedented. The DC10 was another one that happened to. What was good about the case of the 787 is it was preemptive. We caught the case before somebody was killed. I never piloted a 787, but I did fly a Japan Airlines flight on one. I wanted to go for a ride. I wanted to experience the novelty of being on this brand new plane. It was different but it wasn’t radically different. If you hadn’t been told, most passengers wouldn’t have known. There were certain aesthetics that clued you in, like the shaping of the windows, little things like that.

Q. Wow, that’s it? You got the impression it was a bigger deal.

Patrick Smith flies planes for a living.

A. Air travel doesn’t have these revolutionary moments anymore, like the Concorde or the 747. Flying is cheap, it’s fast, and it’s safe. Where do we go from there?

Q. You say it’s cheap, and yet the other day I looked into shuttle prices from Boston to New York and was shocked I couldn’t find anything below $600.


A. The Boston-New York story, those fares have always been market determined, but if you take fares on average, they are 50 percent less than 30 years ago. It’s a downward trend.

Q. Where did you stand on this question of allowing small knives back onto planes?

A. An odd situation. My airline’s line was in favor of keeping the ban in place. I can’t speak or advocate against that, but the question is, would having small knives on planes set up a more dangerous environment for the cabin crew? If yes, the ban should be in place. There are 2 million people moving throughout the system every day. We have to get away from this idea that every single person is a potential terrorist. Terrorist acts against commercial airliners didn’t start with 9/11.

Q. But is that possible, getting away from 9/11?

A. Apparently not, which is why that discussion [about allowing small knives on planes] took place in the 9/11 context. It’s no longer about hijacking. It’s now about an attack or injuries, a passenger air rage incident.


Q. I remember back a little more than a decade ago, there was a spate of major airline crashes, from SwissAir to EgyptAir to TWA. But none recently.

‘We’re safer now than ever before in commercial aviation: better crew training, improved technology, and we’ve engineered out common causes of crashes.’

A. There hasn’t been a large-scale accident since 2001 [American Airlines Flight 587, in which all 260 people on board were killed and five on the ground in Queens, N.Y.]. We’re safer now than ever before in commercial aviation: better crew training, improved technology, and we’ve engineered out common causes of crashes, and the collaborative efforts between the industry and regulators and pilot groups.

Q. I have to ask: If I don’t turn off my phone or tablet during takeoff, will my plane crash?

A. I’m asked this more than any other question. There are different rules for different devices for different reasons. The laptop is not because of interference, but it’s a piece of luggage. Nobody wants to be hit in the head by a MacBook Air going 200 miles per hour. As for phones, it’s unlikely your phone will interfere, but there is anecdotal evidence of phones causing interference. Overall, yeah, we’re erring on the safe side. It’s really a social issue, more than a technological one. Do we really want to be on a plane with 200 people talking on the phone? I don’t.

Q. What’s another question you get asked a lot?

A. Cockpit automation. The myth that planes fly themselves. A plane can’t fly itself any more than an operating room can perform an organ transplant by itself. People would be very surprised how busy a cockpit can become with the automation on. And 99 percent of landings are still hands on.

Q. Is there a change you wish was coming for pilots?

A. I wish in the cockpit, airplane designers would focus on basic ergonomics. The 767 I fly hardly has a place to put your pen. And cockpits should be better soundproofed.

Q. How do you rate Logan as far as other airports you fly into?

A. It’s one of the most underrated airports. I will always have an emotional attachment to it. I grew up here. From a pilot’s point of view, it’s small and can get congested. The cross layout of runways isn’t the best.

Q. Do you have a favorite airplane movie?

A. Any Hollywood movie that features airplanes or airlines has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Q. So you’re saying the blowup doll backup-pilot in “Airplane!” isn’t accurate?

A. It’s a little bit more sophisticated than that.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Doug Most can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Globedougmost