Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Thoughts on the NYT's attempt to reboot the Airport franchise

I first heard about this through Brad DeLong who did, I will admit, have me going until I clicked through the link to this James Fallows piece. Fallows, following the lead of Gene Weingarten and Jim Romenesko*, had some questions about this dramatic account entitled "The Plane Was About to Crash. Now What?" by Noah Gallagher Shannon.

Actually, 'dramatic' is  not really an apt description. A better word would be 'melodramatic/' complete with details like
The captain came out of the cockpit and stood in the aisle. His cap dangled in one hand. “All electricity will remain off,” he said. Something about an open current and preventing a cabin fire. Confused noises spread through the cabin, but no one said a word. “I’ll yell the rest of my commands from the cockpit.” I could see sweat stains under his arms. “Not going to sugarcoat it,” he said. “We’re just going to try to land it.”
(it later came out that the plane was an Airbus 320 which is a large enough plane to raise questions about the shouting-over-your-shoulder means of communication.)

Lots of these detail raised questions, particularly with real aviation experts like Patrick Smith, who demolished the NYT piece until there was little left than a pile of phonemes, then followed up by talking to someone who actually had access to the maintenance record:
According to the information I was given, the pilots' post-flight logbook entry, which references a caution message displayed on a cockpit advisory screen of the Airbus A320, reads as follows:


What this means, essentially, is that one of the plane's three main hydraulic systems was indicating a low level in its fluid reservoir. Airbus color-codes its hydraulic systems; this would have been the yellow (Y) system.

Per checklist instructions, the crew would turned off this system off. This is unusual, but the loss of a single hydraulic system on a modern airliner is far from a serious emergency. All critical components have at least one alternate source of hydraulic power.

Further, the corrective action note in the logbook implies the issue was merely an indication problem. Fluid quantity was found to have been at the normal level all along.

But perhaps most importantly, Shannon's essay revolves around a supposed landing gear problem. As I explained earlier (below), even the most serious landing gear malfunction sits pretty far down in the hierarchy of potential disasters. Even lower, however, is a landing gear problem that does not exist: the yellow hydraulic system does not power the landing gear.

An A320 captain I spoke to says that a shut-down of the yellow system would have meant, at worst, a slightly longer-than-normal landing roll (due to loss of the right engine thrust reverser and some of the wing spoiler panels), and, in newer A320s, loss of the nose-gear steering system, requiring a tow to the gate.

Shannon had thrown up enough red flags to begin with, but this puts it over the top, tilting his entire account from one of eye-rolling embellishment toward one of outright fabrication.
What really caught my eye, though, was the NYT editor Hugo Lindgren's response to Fallows:
Some commenters have seized on certain details of "The Plane Was About to Crash. Now What?" by Noah Gallagher Shannon in order to question whether this emergency landing happened (and perhaps even whether the author was on the flight). But there is simply no question. The author was on Frontier Airlines flight #727 on June 30, 2011, from Washington to Denver. It was an Airbus 320. The author sat in seat 12A. This flight was diverted to Philadelphia. The FAA reports that the pilot declared an emergency due to a low hydraulics indicator light and that upon landing the plane needed to be towed to the gate. Frontier airlines confirms that an Airbus A320 experienced "a maintenance issue on departure from Washington DCA. The flight diverted to Philadelphia due to easier access. The aircraft and all passengers landed safely."

Did the author's personal recollection represent an accurate picture of what he experienced on that flight? Well, only he can attest to his own experience. But the author did provide receipts and took notes after the flight to back up his account. And his recollection, when run by an aviation specialist, did seem entirely plausible to him. While some of the author's language may have been imprecise, his recollection of his experience was consistent with recollections of passengers in similar air incidents. Naturally, not every detail matches everybody else's experience. Surely even people on that plane would remember it differently. The story was about the personal experience of a fearful moment. The author did not present himself as an authority in airline technology or emergency procedures. The airline, in fact, refused his request for more information about what happened after the fact. He only reported what he heard and felt, which is consistent with the magazine's Lives page, where the account was published.
Of course, out of the tons of criticism from Fallows, Smith, Weingarten, Romenesko and company, the suggestion that Shannon had made up the flight was, at most, a tiny and generally implicit part of the case against the article. Lindgren is using some rhetorical misdirection here; he's just not doing it very well.

More troubling is the now familiar nonchalance of journalists toward accuracy. "Perceptions are subjective." "Opinions differ." "Who are we to judge whose claims are valid?"

But of they do judge. Only a select few articles make it into the New York Times. By publishing those articles, the people who run the paper are putting their reputations behind those pieces. If they want to maintain those reputations, those people need to be more careful about what they publish and less weaselly when something like this slips by.

* Make sure to check out Jeremy Repanich's comment.

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