Archive for March 26th, 2012


Flashbacks at the Airport

Post from Harry Hutchinson:

That Florida trip I mentioned in an earlier post began with a bout of deja vu. The plane was almost an hour and a half late getting out of Newark because there were 20 planes in line ahead of us. Rain and fog were to blame, so we sat in the plane as it inched forward.

I was headed for Sarasota, and you can’t get there from here. You have to go someplace else first. The place else for me that day was Atlanta. My schedule called for a three-hour window to connect with the plane to Florida.

This was no real inconvenience, aside from having to stay in my seat during the extra time. But it put me in mind of many things. One of those things is how much more efficient technology has made air travel over the years. Back in the mid-70s I used to fly in and out of Chicago once or twice every January. I can’t remember how many times overcast and a little snow would keep planes from landing, so there were no planes to go out.

Here I was—older, maybe wiser, and certainly more spoiled—in the rain and fog moving in a plane toward take-off. Sure, things were slower, but they were still moving. I am always amazed by the ability of people and technology to control these huge complex systems—not only individual airplanes, but airports and the entire air traffic system. And to do it with such a sterling record of safety.

Even without GPS or the Wide Area Augmentation System, the delays at Ohare back in the disco era were matters of hours, rather than days.

So my first real travel delay, at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, was in December 2010 when Europe was enjoying a kind of winter weather that it hadn’t seen for some time.

Forget Hans Brinker and his silver skates. It was international news when Amsterdam’s canals froze solid enough this past February to support anybody’s weight. The Dutch, like many other people in Europe, aren’t used to a deep freeze. Or to four inches of snow.

It was surprising to see the X-ray machine spit my laptop back out. That’s exactly what happened at the security check when the airport shut down. People who lived locally were advised to go home.

I wound up staying a little more than 24 hours at Schiphol. Much of the time was spent standing in lines trying to rebook my flight. There were several rebooking desks but only one for international flights. People came now and then to hand us muffins and bottles of water. I got to sleep on a cot in a vacant section of the airport. It was like camping out.

At one point I was watching a couple of Bobcat-size snowplows working on the field. They were piling the snow under a parked airplane. I understand that I was only a tourist observing from a distance, but it made me wonder if they could have used a little more planning on this project.

I had been in Amsterdam for a week. I was really mellow, so this wasn’t bothering me much. It was frustrating that the airline couldn’t adjust its rebooking operation to handle the large numbers of stranded people. But that gripe could be unfair. After all, I don’t run an airline.

In the final analysis I was lucky. I got another story to tell, and it only cost me a day’s travel.

I met two Czech ladies who lived in the U.K. and were on their way to Prague for the Christmas holidays. This was their third straight day at Schiphol because Prague had been socked in all that time.

In April that year, the volcano with the forbidding name, Eyjafjallajökull, blew its top in Iceland. It shut airports in Western Europe and affected air travel around the world. Jets have enhanced air safety, but can’t fly through volcanic ash. Lee Langston, who was caught in the volcanic mess, wrote an article, “Asking for Trouble,” that covered the subject in Mechanical Engineering’s July 2010 issue.

Technology is great when it works. We can complete in a handful of hours a journey that used to take weeks. As recently as a hundred years ago, the Titanic was trying to set a record for the crossing and the ship was making 21 or 22 knots—less than 25 mph. (There’s more on the Titanic in the April issue.)

As wonderful as our transportation system is, it is part of a larger system. And when the big system acts up, there’s nothing left to do but stay mellow and see what happens. You may get to brag to people that you slept on a cot at Schiphol.

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

March 2012

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