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Prepare For Takeoff With 'Cockpit Confidential'

With summer travel season just over the horizon, millions of Americans are poised to take off for family vacations. But before they reach their destinations, they'll likely endure security lines, luggage fees, tiny bags of pretzels and unexplained delays.

Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and columnist, has written a new book for curious fliers. It's called Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers and Reflections.

He tells NPR's Scott Simon that he wishes air travel could be awe-inspiring again. "I wish people could step back and maybe change their perspective a little bit and try to re-appreciate the act of air travel," he says. "It's not as horrible as everybody thinks it is."

Interview Highlights

On how airplanes stay aloft

"It's amazing, isn't it? I mean, a 747 weighs close to 1 million pounds. It's all about lift and power ... an experiment you can try yourself is to just hold your hand out the window of a car as you're traveling down the highway, tip it up slightly and, sure enough, your hand and your arm take off like a wing. It's really not a whole lot different scaled up to the size of an airplane."

On the safety of regional airlines

"For all intents and purposes they are as safe [as larger airlines]. Maybe on some statistical level, regional flying is less safe than main line flying, but 'less safe' is not the same as 'unsafe,' and it's really kind of an academic conversation. I would never say to people: 'Be wary of regional jets.' Especially now that regional flying accounts for an astonishing — I think it's 53 percent of all the domestic flying. This is an industry that 20-30 years ago represented maybe somewhere in the single digits."

On why you still have to turn your electronics off during takeoff and landing

"A lot of people seem to think that the rules against phones and PEDs [personal electronic devices] are arbitrary and all a part of how the airlines hate you and make your life miserable. But really though, it's a lot that's just not known about how phones interfere. It's unlikely that there would be interference, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence out there that phones can and do interfere in some ways. There are at least two cases — one in Switzerland and the other in New Zealand — where accidents were possibly, probably traceable back to cellphones."

Patrick Smith has been an airline pilot for more than three decades. He answers questions about air travel on his website <a href="http://www.askthepilot.com/about-the-author/">AskThePilot.</a>
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Patrick Smith has been an airline pilot for more than three decades. He answers questions about air travel on his website AskThePilot.

On post Sept. 11 security

"One of the big ironies here is the success of the 9/11 attacks really didn't have much to do with airport security in the first place. They weren't taking advantage of a loophole in airport security, they were taking advantage of a loophole in our thinking. ... Our understanding and expectations of a hijacking were based on a long precedence of hijacking in years prior. ... Crews were trained in something called 'passive resistance' ... of course all that's different now."

On misconceptions about autopilot

"The myth of cockpit automation ... it's repeated over and over and over that airplanes essentially 'fly themselves' and that pilots are there more or less just as a back-up in case anything goes wrong — and that is so incorrect. ... The analogy I like to make is cruise control in your car. It frees you up from having to take care of certain tedious tasks — specifically having your foot on the accelerator — but cruise control cannot drive your car from one city to the next city, just as autopilot cannot fly an airplane from one city to the next city. It makes it easier, but it doesn't make it easy."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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