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Airline pilot Patrick Smith let's it all fly in highly-readable "Cockpit Confidential"

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"Cockpit Confidential" by Patrick Smith was published in 2013.
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BOOK REVIEW: Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel by Patrick Smith (Source Books) 2013

While milling about the terminal at Midway Airport in Chicago recently, I noticed a book on display rack in one of those airport stores that also happens to sell bestselling books.

The funny thing was that the book, Patrick Smith’s popular Cockpit Confidential, was difficult to find in the store and I had to wedge myself between the back of the book display and the window to reach a dusty copy.

Seeing the book surprised the cashier who didn’t even realize they were still selling a bestseller that was a bestseller in 2013 – four years ago.

I guess they don’t update their displays very often. But I forgive them. It’s a “bookstore” in an American airport, where expectations are low and prices are obscenely high.

So, while waiting at the gate for my flight back to Oklahoma City, I began reading Smith’s book that does a bang-up job of addressing all of those questions many of us have had while going to the airport, hanging out in the airport and getting aboard an airplane (Smith is a pilot with some three decades flying experience with major airlines), because, Smith realizes, we all have questions about this weird, shared experience we have when we fly.

And frankly, Smith hits all the right notes, for the most part. I found this book exceedingly readable and one I suspect I'll return to as another airline trip approaches.

Breaking the book up into seven “chapters,” he gives an overview of how airplanes work (Chapter 1); the issues around turbulence, weather and the worry that goes along with it (Chapter 2); life in the cabin and back in the passenger areas, answering questions about all those “urban legends” (Chapter 5) about opening cabin doors, hanky-panky between pilots and flight attendants, UFO sightings hushed up (allegedly) by pilots (Smith says no to that one) and won’t even get into the “chemtrails” controversy.

There is a lot about airline safety – and an overview of the worst airline disasters in history (barring the 9/11 attacks, he notes the crash at Tenerife, Canary Islands disaster in March 1977 was the deadliest accident in aviation history) and, considering how many flights happen daily (thousands and thousands) around the world, airlines are very safe.

My wife has long said airports should ditch the high-end luggage stores and put in a drugstore, like Walgreens, which would feature all those things travelers really need. And so when I saw that Smith firmly agreed with this, I was pleased.

Smith is not afraid to share his opinion on American airports’ obsession with bombarding travelers with endless, annoying announcements, while calling those “CNN Airport Network” TVs you see and hear everywhere “hellboxes.”

They are everywhere, he writes, “and they cannot be turned off. There is no button, no power cord, no escape. Every gate has one, and they run 24 hours a day.”

He’s right, you know.

What I found interesting (and this book is simply brimming with interesting facts and so forth) is that many airports found in Asia are considered some of the best, from Singapore to Seoul, they build airports with people in mind, not the brutalist, industrial structures of yore that seem to have forgotten that human element, from the food options, to the shops to the smallest conveniences, like places to relax or plug in your laptop. America has a lot to learn, not just when it comes to airport design but to improving our airlines and make them about the passenger, not the bottom line and making anti-human seats that essentially injure people and make airplanes more akin to cattle cars than forms of civilized, human transportation.

And then he notes the 15 things no terminal should be without, ranging from low-cost public transportation linking the terminal to the city’s downtown; showers and a short-stay hotel; better dining options, “a view,” “an information kiosk” and so forth. He’s clearly put a lot of thought into these issues, and they are all no-brainers. What is not fully explained is why the airport big wigs and airlines don’t make the experience – which for many is unnecessarily unpleasant – a bit more pleasant.

Smith, a native of Boston, has, of course, flown around the world and is struck by the fact that he runs into people of so many other nations as he goes from one country to the next, but runs into far fewer Americans. Yes, we are "bookended by two vast oceans" but he wonders aloud if Americans' apprehension (high costs of tickets or otherwise) about traveling internationally are potentially problematic?

Writes Smith: “Is it healthy for the citizens of a nation that wields so much power, economically and militarily, to be so oblivious, if not xenophobic? Are global influence and global ignorance not, in the end, mutually exclusive? Do we ignore the rest of the world at our peril?

Smith seems almost jealous of all the amenities non-American airports and airlines embrace. And he says there are reasons for this. But in America doing the bare minimum while keeping ticket prices low wins out in the end - to our detriment, if you think about it.

I did not finish Cockpit Confidential on that plane ride from Chicago to OKC. However, I did finish it at home and it gave me a lot to think about – good, bad and otherwise – in preparation for my next flight, whenever that happens.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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