CEO of the Cockpit #51: Cockpit of the Apes

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If a free-enterprise economy is Darwinian and if legacy airlines are dinosaurs, what are the little mammals and what are the cockroaches? And which will survive longest? AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit ponders this in the hypoxic cockpit of a 777 in this month's column.

A 777 cockpit can be a crowded place if you fill all of the seats. Along with the relief-pilot seat there is a fairly uncomfortable jump seat. With the back of the airplane full of returning Americans and potential British ex-pats, I found myself a sort-of cockpit captive for the eight and a half hour westbound ride from England back to her former colonies in the New World.

We were flying in bright sunshine at an altitude in the mid-30s at Mach .84 somewhere around 30 West. Not a bad ride, and we were trailing a Lufthansa 747 that was one thousand feet above our aircraft and about a hundred yards ahead of us on the track. Our speeds were compatible so we'd be pretty close together for the whole crossing until we broke formation somewhere over Nova Scotia.

With all of the automation ... well ... automating, and with the relief pilot in the back "dozing for dollars," we were relieved of the boredom somewhat when Lars, the business-class flight attendant and native child of Germany, came up and sat in the relief seat to eat a sandwich and read a magazine.

On domestic flights it is more-or-less against the rules to have "non-essential reading material" in the cockpit. The theory behind that is that pilots are so abysmally stupid that they would probably fly right into a mountain if they had a USA Today on their lap. Many of us, this captain included, weren't beyond keeping up on current events in the cockpit as long as we were in cruise with nothing going on and the other guy wasn't napping.

International flying is a different animal. Theoretically, the pilot in the rest seat can read because he or she is officially off duty. Because of this, every 777 cockpit in our fleet was a sort-of airborne lending library. I made sure that our cockpit today was stocked with six or seven different newspapers and an equal number of magazines. It was the least I could do in exchange for the free ride home.

Lars picked up a London Times and spent about 10 minutes reading an op/ed piece about intelligent design. Apparently, like most newspapers, the Times was against the idea of a Creator, which is more than a little ironic when you consider that the op/ed writer probably thought that he was a creative guy but wouldn't give god the benefit of the doubt.

What Lars Thinks

Putting the paper back in the stack behind the jump seat, Lars wondered out loud about whether his universe was designed or evolved by chance.

"I can't believe," Lars said, "that a world that fits us so perfectly just sprang into existence. I mean, somebody had to think all of this up, ja?"

Jim, our captain -- who up until now had been fairly quiet for the entire crossing, mainly because he spent most of it napping -- said one word before shutting his eyes again.

"Puddle."

Lars waited for Jim to elaborate and when he didn't, said, "Huh?"

Come on, Lars ... this is freshman dorm-room, pot smoking, Boones Farm Strawberry Hill drinking and wondering about life stuff. The "Puddle Theory" has to do with evolution and the concept of a creator-god.

Imagine for a moment that you are a puddle of water sitting in a pothole in a runway. What would you think?

"Puddles don't think," Lars opined. Obviously, college students in Germany neither do pot nor talk with each other when the munchies run out.

You have to imagine what the puddle is thinking, Lars. It is probably thinking, "Hey, what a wonderfully friendly world I find myself in. This hole fits me perfectly! And the rain is making other puddles right next to me. There must be a puddle-creating god who loves us so much that he or she made us in his or her image after creating this wonderfully puddle friendly universe ..."

Of course, as the puddle dries up, it thinks that is natural too and it looks forward to another puddle-like life after this one.

"The puddle is right," said Gwen, our co-pilot. "Even in the world we occupy the puddle does go on to something bigger and better. It evaporates, rises up in the sky, and probably becomes part of a thunderstorm that has the power to hurl mobile homes across county lines and shove 777s into the trees three miles short of the threshold. In reality, the puddle's theology is sound: It does go to a better place and it never does, in fact, die."

Lars Brings It Home

"So, why is there all of this stress and argument in the States?" asked Lars. "In your country, there are all sorts of debates, special elections and court cases about whether or not intelligent design will be taught in your schools. What is so dangerous about exposing students to both points of view?"

Americans are very touchy about mixing religion with government. When we founded our country, we took a long hard look at European history and decided that government-sponsored religion was dangerous and fundamentally wrong.

Even the very religious people who want to force schools to teach kids that the world is only 5000 years old and that Noah rode a dinosaur to his ship-building site would blanch at the schools teaching a Hindu creation myth or a Native American philosophy about totems.

Personally, I think the entire argument about whether the whole thing formed itself over billions and billions of years or was built by a bearded god in a bathrobe is moot.

"Damn right," Jim muttered.

Great, two words.

Most religions are based on faith. Faith means believing in things unseen and bigger than you. It doesn't take any faith if god drives up in a Humvee and tells you all the secrets.

"In other words," Gwen added, "With faith you don't need proof and with proof you certainly don't need faith."

My Chief Pilot Is Not A Monkey!

"That kind of puts the whole airline world in a new perspective," said a now fully awake Jim. "If you believe the public and the pilots out there who think the turmoil the airline world is undergoing right now with all of the bankruptcies and huge losses is a Darwinian process, you can't believe that Juan Tripp created Pan Am or that C. E. Woolman created Delta."

"The strong airlines will survive and thrive," Gwen said in a holier-than-thou fake airline-analyst voice, "while the weak airlines are left to rightly wither and die. It is the evolution of the airline business."

"The metaphor is apt! Apt, I tells ya!" Jim shouted. "The same idiot analysts who tout the airline evolution theory refer to the older carriers as 'dinosaurs,' and the traditional airline management technique is try to starve the competition by lowering their prices well below cost hoping that they die of hunger before our airline does.

"If you are trying to keep dinosaur airlines alive, then why do they keep metaphorically cutting food rations? You can't starve a dinosaur into fiscal health any more than you can cut costs into profit when you continue to cut prices at the same time."

The other people in the cockpit didn't know Jim the way I did. We were classmates at the airline, and when we were new hires we had dozens of long conversations like this in the cheap commuter's apartment we shared with six other pilots. Jim, albeit a quiet guy, was a deep thinker with a Masters in philosophy and a Marine combat veteran. This led to him having an almost bottomless understanding of things and a total inability to put up with any kind of b.s., be it philosophical or physical.

A SETI Program For The Airlines?

I'm pretty sure that if we made some sort-of scientific search for intelligent life in the airline world we would probably not find it. Sticking with metaphorical thought, I find it equally difficult to accept that the current airline universe was designed by a benign, all-knowing creator.

"That argument," said Gwen, "is a sort-of, 'why would an intelligent airline god allow such bad things to happen to good airlines?' To say that the airline creator-god is all-caring can be disproved by a single furlough of pilots or crash caused by bad maintenance. Then again, being pilots, we all know that aviation is based on science, not faith."

I'm not too sure about that, I said. Every time I push the throttles up and call for auto throttles on takeoff it is an act of faith on my part. I have faith that the thing will fly, that the atmosphere will behave in the same way it always has, and that everybody from the mechanic to the agent has done their jobs. I'm also quite sure that my passengers spend a lot of time praying while I am at the controls.

"Of course, conversely," said Jim, "real people discovered the rules that allow for flight, designed the aircraft and the air traffic system we currently use. Real people put the aircraft together, not a god, and even though some airline accidents are true acts of god they are never called that; they are usually blamed on pilot error. Last time I checked, even we captains are people, not gods."

General Aviation The Little Mammals Of Flying Evolution?

It is the general aviation crowd that will win this thing if aviation really is based on evolution. They are the little mammals, scurrying under the feet of the dinosaur military and airlines with their new designs and ideas.

Either that, or they are cockroaches who have been around forever and unchanging, and will outlive all airlines after they nuke themselves into bankruptcy. I can't figure out which is which.

"If you're talking about $80,000 new Cubs being built and bought when you can buy an old Cub for 30, you're talking cockroaches," said Gwen. "If you're talking brand-new designs made out of plastic with new technology engines and avionics, we're talking mammal."

Lars Gets Teutonic On Us

"I don't see the real value of either argument," said Lars with a firmer conviction than the situation called for. "The outcome is the same, whether or not you're talking about what to teach in your schools or how to help your airline survive. Both are largely out of our control and we have no real way of telling which one is correct."

Lars had heard enough and got up to head to the back to serve the desserts to business class. He promised to wake our relief guy and send him up. It was time for Jim to go back to the business class rest seat and take another nap.

The Dragon Has Value Even If It Isn't Real

Jim was packing up to head to the back after Lars when he summed up the whole thing.

"Feng Shui," he said.

Oh, the dragon thing, I said. Lars stayed behind the jump seat to hear my explanation.

Feng Shui has to do with the arrangement of things to help the energy and flow of a room or building. One of the ways they decide if a room is properly set-up is to imagine a dragon going through the room and whether or not he would be comfortable doing so. If, for example, our fictitious dragon would hit a lamp or table with his tail they move the lamp or table so his tail would be clear to wag.

"What does that have to do with this conversation?" asked Lars.

"It doesn't matter if dragons exist or not," said Jim. "The dragon has value because by imagining it we are able to make a room comfortable."

Maybe it is the same way with the airlines. Whether you think our situation was created by bad management, greedy pilots and poorly informed airline analysts or was mandated by natural law, the value of the metaphor remains? Jim?

"Apt!"

Whether by design or natural law, our 777 continued West, Lufthansa remained above us, and we had faith that an ice cream sundae delivered by Lars from business class was in all our futures.


Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.