This is about airport safety; not flying safety or even airline safety – those things are different and involve complicated statistics and sprockets and lectures about how your Kindle is going to bring down a 747. Besides, when it comes to airline safety the answer is always “Fly Qantas” because it never crashes and Waltzing Matilda is always playing in the first class bathroom.
Once upon a time, one’s main concern when flying was that the plane was going plummet from the sky or explode like a Molotov cocktail stuffed in a small town mailbox. On rare but more disturbing occasions, the entire roof of your plane might peel off, in which case you’d find yourself unceremoniously dumped on the deserted island from Lost where you’d spend the next six years trying to figure out what happened to the giant mechanical smoke monster that appeared in the first episode and then never showed up again. This rooftop peeling occurs because of something called “metal fatigue,” a condition I always hope my plane and my seatbelt buckle don’t get at the exact same time.
But no, the problem these days is that airplanes are, quite literally, getting into car accidents. They’re rear ending one another, not looking both ways, clipping wings on take-off, skidding down the runway on discarded packs of peanuts, and having eight-plane pileups every time it rains (when in doubt it’s the cargo plane’s fault.) It is also true, however, that accidents on runways make for much better news stories than planes that inconveniently crash out of sight over the Pacific Ocean. Nothing will make a reporter weep with joy faster than footage of a Cessna caught up in the spokes of an Airbus. So the issue is at least getting proper attention.
Given the focus on practicality, it is of course not practical to advise travelers never to fly into thus and so airport. As far as I can tell, “My plane might have a fender bender” has never worked as an excuse not to attend your wife’s stamp collecting conference in Tacoma. What is practical, however, is knowing the airports in which it’s best to leave your shoes on until you’re safely in the air – or which airports’ safety records are so poor that you actually should turn off your Kindle before landing (rather than just pretending to) because if you descend atop a Learjet and cartwheel down the runway, you’re going to lose your electronic bookmark.
So here is the official list of America’s least safe airports, in no particular order because the order in which they actually fall is boring.
First of all, never make an airport sound a little bit like a hospital. It invites problems and the airport in Cleveland has had lots of them.
Forget the jokes about Cleveland being gray and depressing and home to a baseball team that broke my heart. The frank fact about Cleveland Hopkins is that the runways are too short. Studies show that this is much more dangerous than having runways that are long enough. In 2010 alone, lack of runway length caused 286 billion near misses in Cleveland…or something like that…the most recent incident occurring when a novice Emirates Airline pilot realized a fraction of a second before landing that his assigned strip of runway was only slightly longer than the plane itself. He pulled up and went back to Dubai, where he’s now invested in an innovative shopping mall with main concourses expansive enough to – you guessed it – land a jumbo jet. This has increased both his life expectancy and the sales figures at the Louis Vuitton that sits at the north end of the mall.
Not so lucky was the next pilot to discover Cleveland’s “runways the length of a Slip n’ Slide” phenomenon. He skidded right off the tarmac, through the perimeter fence, and onto the highway where the plane still sits because it was the most interesting thing to happen to Cleveland in years.
It’s not surprising that Chicago has a dangerous airport. It’s cold. There’s a crosswind. Barack and Oprah are gone. And nobody is actually going to Chicago anyway: it’s a hub, which means that everyone is simply connecting through Chicago to get to somewhere better. Either way, between the inhumane temperatures and the desire to “grab the connecting idiots and go,” pilots have been known to cut corners and I mean this in a frantic and ill-advised literal way. They will drive commercial aircraft across patches of grass just to escape the wind chill in January. So intense is the need to flee that the majority of planes that do have runway collisions at O’Hare choose to take off anyway.
If you see a plane over Lake Michigan with one wing dangling, this is what’s going on.
This one’s easy because a recent survey of working pilots revealed that most of them think Charlotte Douglas is the name of the person who wrote Jane Eyre. Sometimes they hear it and wonder if it’s someone in Economy Class who they used to know in the 4th grade; or maybe a niece for whom they’ve forgotten to buy a birthday present at Duty Free. But they certainly don’t think it’s an airport. The last major disaster happened when air traffic controllers instructed a plane to “descend to Charlotte Douglas” — the copilot thought he was supposed to settle for the fat girl he met on OK Cupid; the pilot thought he was supposed to leave his wife for the babysitter.
Miami International Airport
If you didn’t head off on your Miami vacation expecting a rabid lack of foresight and accountability on the part of everyone at your destination, you deserve to be run over by a refueling truck while on foot. Don’t laugh because this has actually happened. Plus the cargo planes in Miami are always in a hurry because, just a hint, they’re not carrying oranges and snow globes.
In fact, I really do want to stress that most accidents at Miami International Airport are due to large scale criminal activity and not silly things like flight crews doing lines of coke off the flip-top armrests. (This armrest rumor only got started when FAA officials blamed a 2008 collision on a plane “blowing a tire,” which everyone figured was code for “the pilots doing donut-shaped lines.” This is not true because doing lines in that fashion is actually called “blowing o-rings” – although, yes, that is what caused the last major incident at Cape Canaveral.)
I also want to stress in an especially vehement way that planes in Miami do not, as rumored, have “small accidents” on the runway when they’re found to be carrying unusually unattractive passengers. While this was a brief campaign the city of Miami requested the airport enact, they found out in the end that it was better to let the unattractive people deplane and wander around the city so that South Beach bikini models coming down off four-day Ecstasy binges could see them and have something to feel good about. In the struggle between preventing low self-esteem and preventing bikini model suicide, the latter wins out and the blowing of o-rings certainly helps.
Listen, we’re just pissed that we’re not in first place. It doesn’t matter the list or superlative: best, worst, filthiest, communist. If there’s a list out there, New Yorkers want to be at the top of it – except any list that sounds exceptionally boring. “Doing pretty well on runway incidents” and coming in 20th place does, indeed, sound rather dull. So we either want to be in first place on this list or we want off it entirely.
San Francisco Airport
SFO’s troubles are also easy to explain because it’s so foggy that someone at the airport once mistook me for Abe Vigoda. It gets even easier when you realize that the world’s foggiest airport also has the world’s most tangled configuration of runways. SFO from above looks like somebody dropped a pile of Swizzle Sticks then let loose a hoard of blind carpenter ants hopped up on amphetamines. It’s chaos.
On the upside, the FAA recently announced that they were looking into the problem. On the downside, their analysis showed that the only way to untangle the runways was to extend the airfield into San Francisco Bay – something that’s never going to happen because the plan “is vehemently opposed by Bay Area environmentalists and windsurfing enthusiasts.” When asked for comment on the tradeoff between hippy sensibilities and human life, a representative for the windsurfers noted that flaming balls of airplane wreckage in the bay might at least burn off some of the fog.
Newark Liberty Airport
It’s Newark for god’s sake. Most of the runway incidents are muggings.
Los Angeles is worried about this. They’re number 3 on the list, getting worse every day, and the FAA is launching “an intensive outreach program” to educate airport staff on best practices, proper procedures, and situational awareness. In other words, The Air Traffic Controllers Guide to Not Being a Sleeping Tree Shrew.
But the truth of the matter is more insidious than ignorance and more intractable than a lack of willingness to stay awake in the tower during rush hour. The truth is that planes at LAX smash into one another because as soon as the pilots find out there isn’t anyone famous on board they sort of just…give up. The last recorded runway collision occurred when two despondent Korean Air pilots pulled away from the gate thinking they were carrying either Dr. Phil or Dr. Drew, only to find out that the doctor in first class was actually just a neurosurgeon. The neurosurgeon, in turn, failed to prove useful after the accident because he’d sunk into a depression when he realized the man sitting next to him was neither Denzel Washington nor Samuel L. Jackson, but just a black guy who ran a hedge fund. Apparently the doctor had been quite excited to ask the man if there were “mother fuckin’ snakes on the plane” when he was interrupted by a loud crashing sound, followed by the hedge fund manager shouting out some sort of panicked “I drink before breakfast!” confessional to the man he, of course, thought was Dr. Drew.
STOP HANDING OUT LEIS AND START WATCHING THE RUNWAY.
And slso the runways aren’t lit very well.
And sometimes they overflow with lava.
Phoenix Sky Harbor
They are two main problems at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport. The first is that many pilots hear the term Sky Harbor and think that the world of The Jetsons has finally arrived. In response they attempt to land hovercraft-style on the roof of the nearest control tower and this rarely goes well.
The other problem is that sensible pilots who do try to land in Phoenix in the regular fashion invariably discover that the tarmac has melted due to an oppressive and life threatening heat index not even Dante could have dreamed up. The wheels immediately stick, everything else onboard continues forward at 200 miles per hour, and that’s why Phoenix baggage claim is located in the parking lot of a nearby Olive Garden. Please note that many Olive Gardens look alike and they’re the only place to eat in Phoenix, so just keep life easy and take whatever piece of luggage looks like it contains a ticket back to the East Coast.
Las Vegas McCarran
When asked about the airport in Las Vegas, FAA officials announced (and I quote), “Runway status lights are part of the airport’s program to improve safety.”
Now…I don’t know why the runways didn’t have lights before. Did Steve Wynn take them all? Were people wearing them on their heads? Were airport administrators taking part in some kind of “What happens on the runway…” Las Vegas hijinks? No one seems to know. All that’s clear is that the FAA told them to cut it out or they’d remove all the slot machines from the airports, including the teeny ones that fold out of your tray table and crawl straight into your wallet to breed.
Boston Logan is a major airport where, you know, proper planes come and go. Yet the number of commuter jets swarming around Boston’s airport has made it resemble a sort of cinematic long shot of the Death Star, with so many tiny aircraft seeping into and out of invisible seams in the structure that you wonder if anyone is in charge and how they don’t all smash into one another. The answer is “There isn’t and they do.” But there’s nothing Boston can do about it. Taking a regular-sized plane from Boston to New York or Baltimore or Bangor…well, it always seems like overkill. There’s nothing worse than trekking to the back of Economy, compressing your incompressible rolling bag into the overhead bin, sitting down to read SkyMall and wonder “Who buys this shit?” – only to realize that you’ve already arrived at your destination.
So yes, everyone in Boston takes small regional planes. And yes, the occasional big plane going to London runs one of them over. It’s just the risk you take – and quite honestly it’s worth it to go to Bangor, Maine. I once spent a long weekend at a Bed n’ Breakfast-cum-portal to Pet Cemetery and Stephen King wasn’t making any of that scary stuff up…
(Strangely enough, the airports in Bangor are quite safe.)
Would someone please make a decision here? Pilots don’t know whether they’re landing in Dallas or in Forth Worth and the ensuing arguments on approach often cause them to crash into other planes being piloted by bickering flight crews.
Also, if they approach too low over Mexico they sometimes get “Illegals with Magnets” underbelly hop-ons and the Texas governor’s suggestion that such planes simply land without their wheels down didn’t go over very well with the liberals.
When asked for comment both the FAA and GOP just rolled their eyes. A GOP representative later added “maybe they should go land at SFO.”
I once heard a great insight about Philadelphia, more specifically about the New York/Philadelphia rivalry. It came from a good friend – Brooklyn born-and-bred – who spends a lot of time in Philadelphia and is constantly being harangued by diehard Philly types who approach him, unbidden, and launch into semi-accusatory rants about New York City. How Philadelphia is every bit as good as New York. How Philly has the same shows and museums, world famous attractions, sports teams, great restaurants. How Philadelphia is basically every bit as good as New York and don’t you forget it.
Whenever confronted with these rants my friend listens patiently until the Philly type runs out of air and vitriol, and then responds quite simply: “Hey, guess what? In New York City we ain’t talking about Philadelphia.”
None of this has to do with airport safety. The point is that Philly sucks and don’t you forget it.
On December 3rd, as this essay was being written, the head of the FAA was arrested for drunk driving. Apparently he was twice the legal limit, tooling down the wrong side of the street while singing Tom Petty’s Free Falling. I don’t know what this says about planes or safety or the FAA or even people. I just know that it is a strange thing we do – this flying business. Aside from major surgery, flying is the only time we blithely hand our lives over to complete strangers who might or might not have healthcare benefits, have an axe to grind, be sleep deprived, or be sleeping with Charlotte Douglas. And it’s not just our lives; it’s our basic Geneva Convention rights. O’Hare was just the epicenter of a $900,000 lawsuit brought by passengers who were trapped on the tarmac with no food or water for longer than the legal maximum, which is something like 58 hours. For a species that won’t put up with TiVo-proof commercials, we put up with a lot of shit at the airport. “Give me your shoes, your watch, your wallet, your toddler, and your dignity –here’s a $20 soda in return. Now give me the soda because you’re on the wrong side of security. And also we might kill you because there aren’t any lights on the runway.”
Quick: Are airports privately or publically owned? All of them? Just the ones in the US? Are commuter planes really being piloted by college kids? Does Alaska Airlines even go to Alaska? And is the Chief Operating Officer at LAX seriously named Steve Martin??
He is. And we’re idiots. But we’ve got to get to a conference on stamp collecting and we’ve got to get the hell out of Phoenix in July – so we don’t really have much of a choice, now do we? The only good news I can think of is this: with each passing day and every hair-raising taxiing debacle down the runway, we are one day closer to the world of The Jetsons. I’m a believer. It will come. And in my lifetime. And all of these problems will be replaced by new ones that are at least more fun. We’ll hop in our customized luxury escape pods with cell phones, intact nervous systems, and many many ounces of liquid, and we’ll be computer-navigated all over the world by advanced algorithms and Chinese technologies that actually know the difference between Dallas and Fort Worth. The only thing we’ll have to worry about then is the drunken head of the FAA and our own already disproven sense of good judgment. My escape pod will play Waltzing Matilda – and if I can order one those wasp-waisted Mrs. Jetson outfits, all the better.