On Tuesday I was traveling home from vacation. I was one of at least three people on a United flight from Chicago to Phoenix who needed to use the “barf bag”. Embarrassing for sure. I have traveled 10,000-12,000 miles by air each year since 2003. I’ve been through a fair amount of stomach-churning turbulence, but nothing like this. This experience was also annoying because for two of us it should not have happened.
About 20 minutes east of Sky Harbor airport, we hit a weather front moving into the western US. Since we were already in the descent and approach, the pilot could not do much to avoid it. One older gentleman began throwing up almost immediately. But myself and a young boy nearby would have tolerated the stomach agitation if we had landed as planned. But the pilot had to abort the landing and go around for another try. The reason for this? Our airliner was too close to the plane landing in front of us. That plane would not have cleared the runway before we touched down.
On the public address system the pilot said it was difficult to get a visual in the blowing Arizona dust. But someone who was listening to the control tower chatter said the controller waved off the pilot and told him to make the second landing attempt. A pilot has more than just his/her eyesight to guide the landing. Although pilots are under pressure to bring flights in on time, our pilot had said earlier that we would arrive in Phoenix early. There was no need to push the parameters. “Go-arounds” happen periodically, and are preferable to a crash. But given that take-off and landing are the most dangerous parts of a flight, it would be better to have a successful first attempt at landing.
The Obama administration wants to charge airlines (and hence passengers) another fee to pay for airport security (we’ll examine that tomorrow); some legislators have mentioned infrastructure spending on airport maintenance. Instead, maybe federal regulations on pilot training, take-off and landing procedures, and other safety measures need to be reviewed.
First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of the Vice-President, had a similar experience at Andrews Air Force Base in April. At the time, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said the incident underlined “a concern about day-to-day aviation safety.” Our airports are getting busier, the skies more crowded. Basic passenger safety needs to be given attention and funding before anything else.