CEO of the Cockpit #64: Proceedings of the 17th Yearly Meeting of the SOHOP

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It was just about the perfect day off for this airline captain. Warm breezes from a portable heater wafted over my body, which was lying in a comfortable position in my faux leather recliner. A hot cup of perfectly brewed coffee by my side, I was enjoying a Tivo'd recording of a new Simpson's episode that I missed last week due to my penchant for earning a living via flying subsonic people movers.

The Spouse was outside doing chores I should have done but haven't yet. Sure, the gutters needed cleaning -- a few months ago -- but now that it is almost winter, isn't it too late for that? More reasonable heads (mine) concluded that to wait for next autumn was the best course of action for that job; A sort of "household maintenance carryover," if you will.

I generally like our neighbor's kid, Abby. When she interrupts my mandatory crew rest like she was about to do, she can be a raspberry seed under my wisdom tooth. She saw the TV was on. She saw I was pretending to be asleep in my chair, yet she entered and spoke.

"I was just going through a box of stuff your wife gave me," she began. "You know, stuff you're willing to donate to my school's 'Crap for Culture' junk sale? Anyway, among and amidst your old pet rocks, about a dozen Ray Ban sunglass belt cases, a rubber chicken, a blow-up, round-donut seat cushion, and at least 12 old, cracked, oxygen masks with strings super-glued to them, I found this."

She was waving a computer printout of a speech and "Fly Paper" I presented to the national convention of SOHOP (Society Of Highly Opinionated Pilots) last year.

Many organizations prepare and present White Papers; SOHOP presents Fly Papers for obvious reasons. My assignment last year was to think of ways to change and improve airliners for the future as well as how to combat terror.

A lot of people don't know much about SOHOP and we like it that way. The organization got its start in an un-named base city where we used to commiserate over free coffee refills at our local McDonald's outlet. Seven or eight of us would meet monthly at that fast food joint to discuss issues of the day. You know -- important stuff -- like which flight surgeon was willing to overlook a few faults, which line-check airman was hard to deal with, how to snag a double-paying assignment, things like that.

Over the years, we upgraded. We went from McDonalds to Denny's and on up to meeting at Applebee's on two-for-one happy hour Tuesdays.

A lot of the ideas in my speech were not adopted by the group or the industry. I attribute this not to the fact that they may have been stupid but that I delivered them right after a two-beer lunch buffet.

Abby, as punishment for waking me up and bugging me with questions about my hemorrhoid seat cushion and my old, broken, 727 oxygen masks, I sentence you to listening to my speech.

"Can't be worse than Civics class," she said as she sat on the couch and, much like Civics class and my SOHOP audience, feigned sleep.


Applying New Ideas to Old Problems

A Fly Paper, presented to the SOHOP at the IHOP January 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen: I think we all can agree that the biggest problem facing the airline as well as the piloting world is the fact that we are addicted to imported oil to fuel our planes and careers.

Without the money from selling us oil the Middle East would dry up as a source of trouble for our companies and our countries. Face it; unless we are in the market for kitty litter, there is little else they have that we need. Without money, they may still hate us but they would lack the extra cash to export terrorists to our shores.

The airline industry's goal, then, should be to eliminate most of the need for oil.

Over the past decade or two, aircraft manufacturers have come up with more-efficient jets but they haven't addressed the root problem. They haven't come up with an alternate fuel or changed the fundamental way that the aircraft function and perform.

I have a few suggestions to change the airliner and the airline to achieve the goal of totally ignoring those pesky third-worlders who have been acting like a drunken Jed Clampet at a cotillion ever since they came into our money.

The Aircraft

Rocket-Assisted Takeoff

The airliners of tomorrow have to be totally re-thought and re-designed. They will still have jet engines, but I suggest we only use them for approach and landing. Imagine if there was a way to do that: Instead of carrying 29,000 pounds of fuel to fly an MD-88-sized jet from Chicago to New York, you'd only need to have about 6000 pounds on board for a little holding, a normal approach and a landing.

How can we do this? The same way that NASA currently handles the problem. Solid rocket boosters. I only have a liberal arts degree, but I am assuming that solid rocket boosters are made out of some sort of chemicals. We have chemicals up the wazoo here in this country and wouldn't need OPEC oil if we used boosters instead of dead dinosaurs.

How would a normal airline flight profile look? First, the aircraft would all be towed to the active runway via a running chain or cable in the middle of the taxiway. This system has been used for cable cars in SFO for years.

The airliner in question would eventually reach number one in the line for takeoff and the cable would take it all the way to the takeoff point of the runway then automatically unhook. Once cleared for takeoff, the pilots would fire the solid rocket boosters and the airliner would take off, assume the proper trajectory for its journey, and book.

The cruising altitude or "apogee" of the flight would be determined by the leg length. For example, a New York to Los Angeles flight would go much higher than a Palm Beach to Orlando one. The airliner would have to be re-designed to be able to hold pressurization at very high altitudes using fuel cells. Somewhere near top of climb the solid rocket boosters would cut out and the airliner would become a glider.

Our gliding airliner would be coming down from flight levels like 750 or 850 and would not be burning any fuel at all until it descended to around FL 240 or so. Then the pilots would start the engines, leaving them at idle. If the profile is followed they won't ever use them.

Barring any unforeseen holds, the flight could be vectored to an approach and landing without the use of much extra thrust at all. The space shuttle does this all of the time and it is using 1960s technology. Once on the ground, the airliner would hook up to another cable, which would pull it toward the gate area.

No Luggage

The next fundamental change we need to make is to eliminate and outlaw all carry-on and checked baggage. A large percentage of the weight carried by our airliners is made up of dirty underwear and tasteless gifts that travelers buy their families. Almost anywhere you go on this planet you can buy underwear and tasteless gifts.

We as a society would have to change to a "James Bond" model for our baggage. You never see James Bond carry anything around but maybe an attaché case with a rifle in it. Do you know why? Because his luggage, tuxedos, scuba-diving equipment, and any lubricants, erectile dysfunction medication and hair dye is already at his destination.

Our new system would have a way for you to rent luggage at your destination. You currently have no problem with the concept of renting a car when you arrive somewhere. This would be no different.

Your clothing sizes, toiletry preferences and the like would be recorded in a central computer. For a small fee, a suitcase containing clothes your size, a kit with shaving and other needed items and any other goodies you ordered online would be waiting at baggage claim at your destination airport. When you prepare to go home just drop the bag off at check-in and go your merry way.

This program will not only reduce the weight of our airliners quite a bit but will eliminate the need for baggage handlers, baggage tugs, lost luggage, and TSA baggage searches. It has the added bonus that you no longer have to face doing laundry when you get home.

Because carry-on will be totally eliminated (whatever pills you might use can be carried in your pockets and there will be a computer in every seat), the new airliners can do away with overhead storage bins. Instead of dinging your head every time you try to get out of your seat, you'll have lofty aircraft cabin ceilings to enjoy.

Since we will be concerned mostly with reducing the weight of our aircraft, I suggest we charge people by the pound for their fares. This is an equitable and very doable solution. Passengers would be weighed by little scales located under the kiosks where they check-in and their fares would reflect their current heft, or in solid rocket terms, throw weight.

They should be reminded that if they take a poop after check in and before boarding the flight they should get a receipt (that will be automatically provided in all restrooms) to show the agent before boarding so they can get the appropriate credit.

Security

I think you can already see the security improvements my new system will bring. In my new way of doing things passengers can get pre-screened once a year at their local airport. Then they will injected with a small computer chip. Going through security for them will entail just walking down the hall to their gate. Scanners will sense their implant and let them pass without slowing down.

Eventually, we will do away with passenger screening altogether. With terrorists stuck in their sandy countries for lack of money they should be so busy trying to find food that they won't be a bother to us.

In Closing

There are still some obvious problems to work out if my ideas are to be used. For example, what will we do with all the TSA people we no longer need? How quickly can the solid rocket boosters be changed out at the gate? How many gees can the passengers realistically take during the solid booster burn?

I'm sure that all of these little bothers can be worked out. It is obvious that the airline industry has been doing it wrong for some time. A new way of doing things has to be implemented.

Thank you for your time. Be sure to tip your waiters and waitresses.


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