Means of Egress: 7 hours on the Tarmac

By November 22, 2011blog
An MD-80, one of the last common jet types that had built-in deplaning equipment

An observation by an architect and former pilot on the hundreds of JetBlue and American Airlines passengers trapped for over 7 hours on the tarmac at Bradley International Airport a few weeks ago.

Architects and Airline Transport Pilots (ATP)s share a similar apprenticeship: they work for many recorded hours under the guidance of senior hands, take a battery of exams for licensure, and have yearly requirements to keep their license active.

Why all the fuss? In matters of life safety, we need to know that, when it counts, a licensed professional will place regard for public safety & welfare above all other considerations – particularly those of profit, prestige or corporate policy, allegiances to which architects and pilots are equally vulnerable.

Which made the events at Bradley so disheartening: when one ATP accepts being a runway jail keeper from 2pm to 10pm it’s bad enough; when a squadron of them create a medium-sized prison on the tarmac, something is seriously wrong.

It’s not hard to understand their failure to act: a terrible job market; a creeping sense of powerlessness in the face of computerized replacements; equipment designed to prohibit initiative (in this case, airplanes designed to prevent deplaning without ground equipment); a fear of lawsuits – factors that are weighing on licensed professionals in all fields.

But I can’t imagine the chief from my old flight school, Ted Steckbauer, a former Navy Test Pilot, being reduced to ineffectually begging a ground crew for assistance for hours on end. Once their predicament was clear, he’d have marshaled the other pilots, fetched the equipment needed to lead the passengers into the terminal and, if necessary, taken volunteers on the twenty minute walk to bring back lunch from Papa Gino’s Pizza.

It may not have been as dramatic of act as, say, Sully’s dead stick landing or Steven Slater’s rage-fueled deployment of an emergency slide, but in an age of failed¬†supercommittees, pepper spray and aimless camping, leading passengers trapped by a Kafka-esque bureaucracy to their freedom would have been a splendid tonic.

And you can bet they would have never tasted a better slice.

An MD-80, one of the last common jet types that had built-in deplaning equipmentAn MD-80, one of the last common jet types that had built-in deplaning equipment – perhaps its time to reintroduce such simple contingencies?

Map of one mile walk from Bradley's ramp area to Papa Gino's PizzaThe quick one mile walk from Bradley’s ramp area to Papa Gino’s Pizza –
no Air Traffic Control clearances required.