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Nov 14, 2016


One of the many problems that MH370 sleuths have in proposing scenarios that account for the mystery of its disappearance has been to explain a period in which the airplane flew between two points barely 60 nautical miles (or 111 kilometres) apart at an implausibly slow speed.

That part of its flight occurred well west of Penang after the Malaysia Airlines 777 had abruptly departed from its filed flight plan between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing early on the morning of March 8, 2014, with 239 people on board.

Queensland-based MH370 follower Michael Gilbert argues that at that point the plane’s pilots, who had been deprived of communications by a short but damaging cockpit fire, attempted to restore contact with Kuala Lumpur while keeping the lights of Banda Aceh in Indonesia in sight as they flew a loitering path safely away from other air traffic.

Gilbert’s new paper on this follows on his earlier hypothesis as to the causes of that cockpit fire, which has been reported with links to his calculations and conclusions here.

His analysis doesn’t involve criminally insane behaviour by one of the pilots to deliberately fly the Malaysia Airlines’ 777-200ER to the southern Indian Ocean, where it ran out of fuel, or to land it intact on the surface of the ocean, while it was deprived of fully functioning and powered control systems, before sinking it. Both types of claims, widely made by rent-seekers and ratbags, are not only unsupported by what evidence has been collected about MH370, but physically contradicted by forensic examination of key pieces of identified wreckage under the management of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau in Australia.

The one deeply alarming inference from Gilbert’s latest paper is that whatever had gone seriously wrong in the cockpit of MH370 during an attempt to restore communications then took an even more serious turn for the worse while it was loitering 30 minutes’ flying time from Penang.

This has to be so because at the end of that attempt the airliner’s satellite phone rang unanswered in the cockpit of MH370.

The timing of this may well tell us when the crisis on MH370 went from being one where the pilots thought they could save the flight to one where all hope was gone.

*This article was originally published at Crikey blog Plane Talking

The Rest

Feb 8, 2016


The photo of the jagged passenger-sized hole blown in the side of a jet shortly after it took off from Mogadishu in Somalia last Tuesday is the stuff of air traveller nightmares.

Immediately to the left of the rupture, some images show a smear of blood from the suspected bomber, who was the only fatality in the botched attack, as the Daallo Airlines A321, which had reached an altitude of around 14,000 feet, immediately returned in one piece to the Somali capital’s airport.

Another A321 wasn’t so lucky on October 31 last year after it was more severely ruptured by a bomb blast after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh in the Sinai Peninsula for Saint Petersburg.

It was blown up at around 30,000 feet and fell broken apart to the desert below, killing all 224 people on board the Russian charter airline flight. Residues of explosives have been identified in both cases.

But are fears of a new wave of bomb attacks on airliners overblown? They are, even though “we”, the herd, are helpless to do anything about such risks in anything but a theatrical manner.

In Mogadishu, where bombing atrocities punctuate the long-running and horrific human tragedies that are the lot of Somalians, one suicidal — or murderous — but undoubtedly incompetent bomber means nothing.

For travellers in Australia and abroad the unpalatable truth is that nothing will necessarily stop a determined terrorist from bombing an aircraft, or the much easier targets of a mosque, a school, a shopping centre, a train, or a maximum damage road location, such as inside a tunnel or on a bridge.

We could nominate any number of places such an atrocity could occur. “Fear porn” is a big thing in the media, and few seem to consider the risk of encouraging copy-cat attacks.

But it can be responsibly said that there is next to zero effective security aimed at preventing bombing atrocities at large, other than first-class policing and targeted intelligence, which are necessarily limited methods and are no good for mass screenings.

In this country, the calculated avoidance of a 100% screening regime for air travellers, airport workers, their carried and checked luggage, their parked vehicles, their retail shopping displays, and air freight is a matter of orchestrated feel-good massaging of the messages about how good our security procedures are.

They are good for the stakeholders, the airports and the airlines, because if screening were truly universal, there wouldn’t be any mass air travel to, from or within Australia.

No one can afford to make the “system” safe. It would take hours to move people from the terminal doors to the plane doors, with no time for those lounges that some people seem to think are an essential part of flying.

However, the security “system” at airports, here and almost everywhere, does create a few minor barriers to an attack on the ground or on the plane, although no one has ever answered formal questions as to what would happen if an explosives-carrying passenger were actually revealed to be in the building, metres away from security staff.

This reporter has, like no doubt many semi-regular flyers, triggered security. I’ve tested positive for molecular traces of suspicious chemicals on domestic flights, leading to the question as to whether I live on a farm. I do — I live between two cattle properties. When I say I do, no further checks are made on my address, my ID, or anything else.

Similarly, a friend who has been stopped several times for a positive test has been in effect coached into agreeing that she works in an office with a copy machine or printer chemicals. No further checks.

People who test positive to explosive traces risk holding up the passenger flow and are a nuisance, to be explained away, while the theatrical side of security grinds on.  

In the totally harmless cyclotron-type imaging device that zaps just about everyone catching an international flight these days the writer almost always generates a “hot spot”. The security operator shows me the G-rated version of the scan, and my left elbow glows. Right where it was smashed by falling ice in an avalanche on the east face of Mt Cook in freaking 1972! “It’s an old injury,” is always enough to continue on. It means that almost every time I take a plane to somewhere I want to go, I’m taken back to a place where I nearly ended.

These security rituals won’t necessarily stop anyone carrying a bomb stuck up their rectum, or in a particular part of an electronic device and so forth, from boarding a flight or attacking a terminal.

They are a sham no one dares dismantle. All we can do is get on with our lives, and our travels.

Middle East

Nov 10, 2015


The shudders of fear by the public over aircraft bombings following the Sinai disaster are probably nothing compared to those among airport owners and their retail leaseholders in the terminals.

A genuinely secure and bomb-proof airport is incompatible with the private enterprise idea of lucrative revenue streams from a thriving, cashed-up and semi-captive flow of consumers.

And while Metrojet 9268 seems highly likely to have been brought down by a bomb planted in checked luggage, or secreted on board the aircraft, or even carried on the person of a suicide bomber, the crush of people who are essential to servicing a profitable airport contribute enormously to their porous nature in terms of workable security.

Everyone — baggage-handler unions and non-union contractors, pilot associations, and the airlines — is fiercely resistant to subjecting staff to the same intensive screening that is supposed to be applied to passengers.

If you’re catching a flight, you cross from “landside” through security to “airside” (via customs, passport control, etc) but once. But if you are staff on any of dozens of services or enterprises, you might have to cross landside/airside/landside many times a day.

And you don’t (unless you are a pilot) generally have to queue, get X-rayed and take off belts, shoes and put computers and keys in separate bins. That would mean your employers were paying you for hours in a shift just to be stuffed around.

In some airports you’d probably end up in the same category as a high-radiation-risk employee given the scanning equipment and the dubious health risks assessments and lack of transparency over how often such “perfectly safe” equipment is tested and adjusted.

Instead you have a special pass, sometimes a special door, and special secure access to the underbelly of an airport. In some jurisdictions, but notably in the United States, poorly paid security personnel have been busted at regular intervals for stealing passenger valuables in the confusion that often occurs when you are parted from computers, watches, wallets, liquids, aerosols and gels, and at times your belt, shoes and even artificial limbs.

In the US, the issue of employee crime is an everyday concern, especially compared to terrorism — the last high-profile terror attempt was the crotch bomber, who set his underpants alight as his plane approached Detroit airport from Amsterdam on Christmas Day in 2009.

But in terrorism hotspots, and Egypt’s Sinai is one of them, the risk of theft is nothing put beside the availability of flights to those who see killing civilians, including those of target nationalities, as the serving the needs of revenge or revolution.

Consider the risks and procedures in this country. The most obvious targets are the terminals themselves. It is blindingly obvious to regular travellers in the major Australian airports, domestic and international, that the availability of thorough and efficient (and well-spaced) security or border checkpoints isn’t being grown at the same pace as increases in travel activity.

In theory a bomb will be detected by molecular sniffers, which aren’t used on all travellers, or seen in your scanned luggage, which is questionable. It won’t be seen if it has been stuffed up your rectum, vagina, or secreted in continence pads for the aged.

Freight that is loaded into the hold of some airliners is problematic, in that the logistics industry and the airports have for years fiercely argued to largely compliant government agencies that the needs of security and commerce “need to be balanced”, which, for fans of Don Watson, means watered down.

There are, of course, only two pathways to be followed on airport security.

One is to do what is “possible”, which is the present approach, which is diluted to an extent by the definition of “possible” being business friendly first, and secure second. It’s common sense, yet it carries risks.

The other is to retain a lower-key theatre of security for its feel-good effects and marginal-risks reduction benefits, and accept that life  doesn’t come gift wrapped and lovely, and that everyone should be alert, go along with the farce, and hope for the best.

Just getting on with it in air travel arguably leads to the same result as draconian security. Atrocities will happen over time, whichever approach to air-transport security is taken.

But the human herds will continue to surge through the airports, and after brief ripples of horror, look the other way when some of us die, and keep on with keeping on.

Comments & corrections

Oct 27, 2015


On bankers

Edward Zakrzewski writes: Re. “Business bites” (yesterday).  Glenn Dyer says “increased home mortgage rates will be absorbed by higher repayments by (half the) customers and not their wallets”. Where does he think the higher repayments come from – and what about the other half?

Time to call HR

John Richardson writes: Re. “Department of Australia” (yesterday). The Department of Australia surely excelled itself when reporting that “Parliamentary colleagues lined up to thank the former Treasurer for his service”, while “Joe felt confused, and very afraid.”. It brought to mind the old Human Resources joke about how management in different cultures deals with the termination of unwanted employees.  It’s said that in America, the decision is made and everyone lines-up to bathe in the victim’s blood. In the UK it’s said that everyone conspires to bring-down the intended victim but then expresses shock and consternation at the outcome while, down-under, it’s said that our executives attempt to emulate their British counterparts but wind-up outdoing the Yanks. Joe should keep a wary eye open on the Potomac.

On long-haul flights

Janice Knight writes: Re. “Oh god, air travel is about to get even worse. And it is your fault” (yesterday). The nastiest flight I have ever spent is the 10 plus hours from Hong Kong to London on Cathay Pacific as a co-carrier for Qantas in 2011.  The plane was so old and so un-maintained that I spent the whole flight sitting on metal, covered with a little fabric.  The foam had either disintegrated or shifted.  Neither Qantas nor Cathay Pacific got any brownie points from me, even though at the time as a moderately frequent flyer, I was asked to comment on our trip and treatment. That was also the time we experienced the joys of terminal 3 as opposed to terminal 4 at Heathrow. Made us both question the value of our membership.

United States

Oct 7, 2015


The death on Monday of an American Airlines pilot flying an A320 with 147 passengers on board between Phoenix and Boston was not a story that the surging numbers of air travellers worldwide would like to see on their in-flight entertainment streaming devices.

Especially in America, where the in-flight news feeds are often live.

But despite the tabloid panic impact of the news, this was only the seventh pilot fatality during a scheduled commercial flight since 1994 in US skies, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, although it came barely a day before a United first officer flying a 787 from Houston to San Francisco collapsed at its  controls around the time the plane reached cruising altitude at 40,000 feet.

Both flights were safely landed at the nearest suitable airport by the remaining pilots, who are trained to fly aircraft single-handedly in such a crisis.

For airlines, pilot deaths and incapacitations are treated in the same way, and the most recent US study to hand, 10 years ago, found there had been 50 pilot incapacitations, including deaths, over a five-year period, all of them without causing injury to any other person.

This training is integral to being an airline pilot anywhere on the planet scheduled turbo-prop and jet services are flown, which is important, as passenger numbers worldwide have more than doubled since that last available US study on pilot incapacitations.

In modern times there are no records of pilots dying at the controls of a scheduled passenger flight in Australia. However, the records attribute the fatal crash of a TAA DC-4 freighter on approach to Brisbane airport in 1961 to the captain having a heart attack and falling over the controls while attempting to leave his seat.

Thanks in a tragic way to the Germanwings pilot suicide and mass murder crash in France in March, Australia has moved into line with most other countries in requiring that one pilot or cabin crew has to remain in a cockpit when the other pilot is out of it.

Pilots are only permitted to take leave of the cockpit for any reason during cruise, when a flight is routinely being managed with the assistance of an auto-pilot. The absent pilot is expected to return promptly even though the security door is locked from within, although in many instances, more than two pilots may be in the cockpit anyhow. This is particularly likely if it is a long-range international flight, where duty hours rules and other procedures involve the rotation of pilots through the “office”.

The focus during a pilot incapacitation is on control of the airliner and an immediate landing. The cockpits of smaller airliners are tight, and assisting a stricken pilot from a seat so that he or she can be dragged back into the cabin for medical assistance is always problematical, especially if a suitable airport for an emergency landing is close at hand,  requiring the full attention of the other pilot — who might be about to fly an approach to the landing place for the first time.

If the last International Air Transport Association figures (for 2013) are extrapolated for known rates of growth, there are about 9.6 million people in the air for part of any given day on between 60,000 and 70,000 scheduled flights in airliners carrying on average  of just over 135 passengers.

Hundreds of these people may have cardiac events or serious health crises at the airports, and dozens of them will fall ill during their flights, some of them ending in their deaths.

Although there are no stats at hand, airlines are known to routinely screen and reject pilots from rostering on duty each day because they check in for duty unwell, or self-monitor their well-being and advise their companies of their being unfit to fly on the day.

These are additional processes that reduce the risk of pilot incapacitation and have been in integral self-checking or self-filtering process for airline operations since before the jet age began.

Current reporting through industry sites, notably the Aviation Herald, also flag pilot incapacitations occurring worldwide at a rate of at least one a week.

In addition to the two US incidents so far this week, a British Airways 777-200 aborted a flight from London to Tel Aviv last week when the first officer became incapable of continuing his duties as the jet was climbing past Brussels. The jet returned to Heathrow.


Mar 25, 2015


With the crash site in darkness, the first of many unanswered questions about the Germanwings A320 disaster in the south-eastern French Alps is what crisis caused it to suddenly descend from its cruising altitude of 38,000 feet on its way from Barcelona to Dusseldorf?

The jet had only briefly settled at that altitude when it began an eight-minute rapid and steep descent to below 11,000 feet. Without any sign of  significantly deviating from its course, it then appears to have entered a short phase of more level flight at around 6800 feet before striking the lowest part of mountainous terrain, which rose to around 9000 feet directly in its path.

The crash took 150 lives, including 16 German school students, two babies, and a mother and adult son from Victoria.

In a crisis, such as a cabin depressurisation or an outbreak of fire, pilots are trained to aviate, navigate and finally communicate.

Nothing was heard from the Germanwings jet as it dropped, as fast at one stage as around 5000 feet a minute, and it is not known if the pilots ever reached the navigate stage of their efforts to deal with the crisis of unknown cause before the jet struck the steep, mostly treeless side of the mountain with such force that parts of the shredded debris were seen at around 8800 feet.

However, most of the wreckage is lower down the barren steep slopes, in three small sections tracing a rising traverse across a set of gullies into which the rest of the wreckage and the remains of those on board have fallen.

Given the exposed, almost vegetation-free state of the crash zone, yesterday’s prompt recovery of the flight data recorder should be soon followed by the finding of the voice recorder and the eventual recovery of all of the victims and wreckage from later today.

There are all sorts of lines of questioning being followed quite reasonably in the intensive media coverage.

But to deal with some of them other than those speculating on the causes, there is nothing known that adversely reflects on the safety culture nor maintenance of Germanwings, which has been flying since 2002 as the low-cost or budget brand of its owner Lufthansa.

Germanwings had never had a fatal accident, and Lufthansa has had very few. The A320 that crashed was built for Lufthansa in 1991, and its age is not likely to be a factor because one of the consequences of being a short haul workhorse of such vintage is that by now most of it has been meticulously renewed as parts reached their limit by years or number of pressurisation cycles flown.

Which is why, paradoxically, old jets like this 24-year-old A320 are cheap to acquire but increasingly costly to maintain. Compared to the largest European low-cost carriers, Ryanair and EasyJet, Germanwings  had some much older jets in service, although there is no reputational or factual basis for believing there was anything amiss in this airline’s maintenance nor in the training and checking of its pilots.

Nor is there any statistical case for seeing Airbus A320s as less safe than other jets, including the similar-sized Boeing 737 family.  Both types are extraordinarily reliable and safe, although historically their crash records spike notably in parts of the world that are, or used to be in past decades, notably deficient in the regulation of air safety or airline standards.

It’s the where and by whom a jet is flown that ought to be top of mind for nervous fliers, not the type of jet. And this is what makes the Germanwings disaster so perplexing.

A nagging question at this early stage of the factual information vacuum in which this disaster is being reported is the lack of evidence of any change of direction by the Germanwings A320 when it suddenly dropped out of its cruise level.

That unwavering course has been interpreted as evidence that the jet was under control by the pilots. However, some expert sources have concluded otherwise, suggesting that something else was going on in the cockpit at that point. Whether the initial descent was controlled or not, the sequence of known events raises questions as to why the flight didn’t divert to the left of its generally north-east heading to avoid the Maritime Alps that were under its filed flight path.

That path would have, within minutes, taken the jet beyond those ranges to an overflight of the far higher Major Alps, where a constant heading during any crisis involving loss of height would have been manifestly more urgent and much sooner.

An early clue as to what caused the control crisis ought to become apparent if the cockpit voice recorder is found and read, as is considered likely in coming days.


Mar 23, 2015


Australian domestic air travellers are no longer able to claim psychological trauma compensation under a change to laws that has only come into the spotlight through a Four Corners expose of the terrible consequences of the Pel-Air crash on nurse Karen Casey, who was seated exactly where the tiny jet broke apart when it was ditched near Norfolk Island in 2009.

Continue reading “Why are victims of Pel-Air crash not entitled to compensation?”


Mar 11, 2015


The most unpalatable of theories, that the pilot crashed the plane deliberately in an insane act of mass murder, has become widely regarded as the most likely cause of the loss of MH370, which disappeared on March 8 last year.

Other pilots find this likelihood both shocking and compelling on all the evidence, and it was advanced by a number of people quite early in the saga, which cost the lives of all 239 people on board the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER.

The most refined of such theories was set out in this article in Flightglobal by David Learmount, based on the calculations of Captain Simon Hardy. It has gradually grown in its acceptance. It may well be tested by the Australian-led ocean floor search for the wreckage upon the completion of the current priority search in May, when Malaysia, China and Australia deal with the “what next” issues, should the priority zone not turn up any wreckage.

However, none of those parties has said anything official about the Hardy theory turning into a firm search target, even though it nominates a probable location for the jet within the larger, non-priority search zone, in fact only around 160 kilometres from the nearest part of that priority zone.

This past week, most of the talking was done by Australia, first by the minister responsible for aviation, Deputy PM Warren Truss, who backtracked on an interview given to Reuters in which he said Australia was going to stop searching for the wreckage. Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott more or less ran right over those tracks by essentially confirming the tenor of the Reuters report. In short, Australia was and then wasn’t and now is determined that the search will not continue at its current costly intensity if nothing is found by about late May.

The enormity of the suggestion that MH370 captain Zaharie Ahmad Shah meticulously planned this atrocity, and by inference killed the passengers through a cabin decompression and performed a three-point sentimental farewell fly pass of his home island of Penang before taking the jet to a place where he thought it would never be found, remains totally unacceptable to members of the airline pilot community in general.

That is understandable. The theory, if true, might also explain why the Malaysian authorities and government figures were so determined to lie to everyone about what they knew as to the likely cause of the disappearance on March 8, 2014.

However that doesn’t explain why the flight was allowed to depart that morning, nor the bizarre neglect of duty by the country’s air force in watching what was happening on military radar and doing nothing about it.

Or maybe it does? Maybe the authorities had non-specific information, failed to order a mass grounding, and found out the terrible truth 42 minutes after MH370 took off, when its air traffic control transponders suddenly went dark.

Clearly one of the risks in the Hardy scenario is that it feeds much downstream speculation as to who knew what and when, and who made what decisions, in the face of such a situation.

On the other hand, it eliminates conjecture about the jet that involves layer upon layer of improbability, such as Russian plots, a US military shoot-down, the theft of tonnes of gold bullion, and even a clandestine burial in the vastness of the Baikonur cosmodrome in central Asia.

It just leaves the Malaysian authorities with the shame of inaction and lies.

The other risk, which Hardy acknowledges by inference, is that some terrible doubts remain over the quality or accuracy of the Inmarsat satellite data and its analysis, where even the slightest of errors in assumptions, or the hard data to which they were applied, could result in the calculations being more than a few hundred kilometres out.

Hardy’s work may contain errors that actually place the jet inside the remaining 57% that is unscanned in the priority search area, but toward its south-western extremity, more than 2600 kilometres from Perth.

Thus the searchers may have reason to think that both Hardy, and their search advisers, are right, and that the moment of discovery by the current search is drawing nearer.


Jan 27, 2015


Last November, Qantas launched a major advertising campaign called “Feels Like Home”. It shows five real Australian travellers reuniting with their families after extended periods away, to the strains of Feels Like Home, a Randy Newman song performed by Australian artist Martha Marlow.

The two-minute montage version made me cry. Indeed, Qantas handed around boxes of tissues in its focus groups. The ad sparked so many tears that the Daily Mail dubbed Qantas “The Crying Kangaroo”.

But perhaps the ad is so successful because it evokes the well-known phenomenon of crying on aeroplanes.

Floating far above the ground in a padded chair, in a dry, sealed aeroplane cabin that hums gently, facing away from other passengers, with no phone or email interrupting our thoughts, we travel inward as well as onward. It’s a sentimental journey. We indulge in emotional thinking, watch melodramatic movies on the in-flight entertainment system, read light novels purchased in airport bookshops, and listen to maudlin music. And they make us cry.

In a 2011 episode of This American Life, Brett Martin likens the experience of flying to “some sterile, infantile travel purgatory. You’re strapped in, given a blanket, a sippy cup, and tiny silverware, forced to do what you’re told and borne away at speeds we can’t conceive, without seeing where we’re going”. No wonder we turn into big crybabies.

Particle physicist and TV presenter Brian Cox cries on planes. So does actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Richard Madden, who played Robb Stark on Game of Thrones, wept over the Red Wedding all the way home to London: “I was the crazy boy on the plane crying at about midnight.” Even civil aviation enthusiasts find themselves crying.

In 2011, Virgin Atlantic issued a jocular “emotional health warning” before some movies after a highly scientific survey on its UK Facebook page revealed 55% of respondents had experienced heightened in-flight emotions. Some 41% of male respondents had disguised their tears by burying their faces in blankets; women tended to feign “something in their eyes”.

Interestingly, the song used in the Qantas commercial also features prominently in the tear-jerking 2009 drama My Sister’s Keeper, this time performed by Edwina Hayes. It plays during a montage scene in which terminal 15-year-old leukaemia patient Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) visits the beach with her family for the last time.

When Virgin Atlantic polled its Facebook fans on which in-flight movies made them cry most, My Sister’s Keeper came in at number four. Toy Story 3, a sentimental tale of putting away childish things, led Virgin’s list of “top ten tearjerkers”.

Emotional tears contain hormones that differentiate them from the eye’s regular lubrication, or tears shed in response to an irritant such as dust or onions. Photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher discovered these stark differences in 2013 when she captured dried tears under a microscope.

“Much as only a few people can witness our toilet tears, we can cry on a plane knowing only one or two other people — our seating row neighbours — will directly observe us.”

Jeffrey Kottler’s 1996 book The Language of Tears suggests crying has an evolutionary function: as infants, we can signal our distress to nearby adults without loud cries revealing our vulnerability to predators. Dutch psychologist and crying expert Ad Vingerhoets, author of the 2013 book Why Only Humans Weep, adds that in early human communities, crying in adults could have signalled mutual trust and connectedness.

Cultural historian Thomas Dixon reminds us, however, of the range of emotions that provoke tears: joy, pride, pity, frustration and more. He also points out that the bad reputation of public crying as “emotional incontinence” stems from late-19th-century psychoanalytic literature: “that a similar shame should attach to a public stream of tears as to a public stream of urine”. (Some nutty Freudians even suggested women’s crying revealed their subconscious desire for male urination.)

The percolation of psychoanalytic ideas into mainstream discourse has led to two broad theories of crying: that it signifies a healthy release of repressed emotion; and that it represents a regression to a childlike state.

But a study in 1997 by Vingerhoets and colleagues discovered that most adults don’t cry openly in public; they wait until they’re at home, alone or in the company of one other person. Crying can be a response to stress, but it’s governed by the body’s parasympathetic nervous system — the so-called “rest and digest” functions that kick in during the aftermath of the sympathetic nervous system’s more immediate “fight and flight” reactions. It’s when we relax and reflect on our situation that we give ourselves permission to cry.

When asked to explain recent crying jags, Vingerhoet’s study participants far more frequently chose “separation” or “rejection” than other options including “pain and injury” and “criticism”. And of those who answered “rejection”, the most common subcategory they selected was “loneliness”.

Flying represents our separation from those we love. If you want to get both evolutionary and psychoanalytic, you could view separation crying as a vestigial echo of our former babyish vulnerability. In the cloistered environment of the cabin, we’re forced to confront our existential aloneness.

But while Virgin Atlantic film critic Jason Solomons suggests we cry at in-flight movie scenes that reflect our own melancholy at leaving happiness behind, or yearning for its return, Brett Martin of This American Life notices that we’re less likely to cry at the sad parts of a movie than the happy ones: “The parts where everything turns out all right.”

“Flying and films is a heady cocktail,” Solomons said, “the images and feelings so close to your eyeballs, so intimate.” And it’s the intimacy of the flying space — which Martin associates with a regression to childhood road trips — that makes a plane seat perhaps the most private kind of public space.

Think of that other hallowed public crying venue: the toilet cubicle. Like a plane, it’s small, quiet and impersonal. Much as only a few people can witness our toilet tears, we can cry on a plane knowing only one or two other people — our seating row neighbours — will directly observe us.

Aeroplanes, however, are unique among liminal public spaces because they are unmoored from the earth. As air travel has become more ordinary and frequent, we’ve stopped feeling so overwhelmed that we wingless creatures may travel at such heights and speeds. Only those afraid of flying still contemplate its singular un-earthliness.

Other travellers, however, experience this alienation from our ordinary lives as an emotional release. As Martin put it: “Something happens up there, the space between where you’re going and where you’ve left … some strange overhead compartment of the heart opens up.”

A famous Bible verse, now more often used as an epithet of exasperation, is John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” Back when humans only roamed the earth, we imagined the clouds as the domain of gods and supernatural beings. Now, we can float magically there; and like the gods of old, our change in perspective enables us to feel not just for ourselves, but also for humanity.

As W.H. Auden wrote in The Age of Anxiety (1947):

“Sob, heavy world
Sob as you spin,
Mantled in mist
Remote from the happy.”


Jan 22, 2015


How long can Warren Truss, the deputy PM, leader of the Nationals, and minister responsible for reannouncing Labor highway projects as well as air safety, continue to neglect the aviation part of his portfolio?

Questions about the minister’s capacity to focus and act are made all the more pressing by the extraordinary generosity to political parties by Regional Express Airlines (REX), the owners of the disgraced Pel-Air operation that dropped an air ambulance into the sea near Norfolk Island in 2009. REX’s board include the former Nationals transport minister John Sharp, who is deputy chair of REX and chair of Pel-Air.

In 2012, Australia’s air safety investigator, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, was in a state of internal turmoil over the direction of its final report in the Pel-Air crash. That turmoil is documented in the peer review of the ATSB’s report by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, which led to Truss instructing the ATSB in December to reopen that  inquiry.

Consider what was happening in 2012 carefully.

At the end of August 2012 the ATSB produced its final crash report, which failed to mention dozens of  serious deficiencies in the Pel-Air’s Westwind corporate jet division, and overlooked its own failure — as the regulator — to oversee Pel-Air, including serious problems with the airline’s fatigue management and oceanic refueling practices.

However, documents the Australian Electoral Commission recently provided to Karen Casey, the nurse who was seriously injured in the Pel-Air ditching, show that  in the second half of 2012, REX donated $250,000 to Labor, $97,500 to the Nationals and $40,000 to the Liberals.

If REX knows the rationale behind the donations, it isn’t sharing it with the media.

The obvious deficiencies in the ATSB report led in turn to a damning all-party Senate committee inquiry, which, among other things, expressed a lack of confidence in the testimony provided to it by the chief commissioner of the ATSB, Martin Dolan.

Both the former Labor minister responsible for transport, Anthony Albanese, and the current missing-in-action minister, Warren Truss, treated the senators with total contempt, refusing to engage in any meaningful way with their concerns, and in the case of Truss, relying on an anodyne nothing-to-see-here response from his own department.

But after Truss ordered the reopening of the Pel-Air inquiry — something he had to do given the incisive criticism of the ATSB by the board’s Canadian counterparts — the ATSB defied him by continuing to display its discredited Pel-Air report on its website.

Worse than that, Truss appears to have drifted off into la-la land by allowing the ATSB to appoint one of its own, Dr Michael Walker, to lead the investigation into its own fiercely denied errors.

The perils of this shabby approach would be obvious to someone who is on the ball.

The minister has also failed to carry out his personal commitment to appoint an additional commissioner with technical aviation experience to the ATSB, or to act on the Senate’s findings against the conduct and integrity of its chief commissioner.

A vague minister and an embarrassing and deeply flawed air accident report. What could possibly go wrong for Australia’s reputation in air safety governance with a combination like this?