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http://www.newsfactor.com/story.xhtml?story_id=10300003XBJ6&nl=2&full_skip=1Texting Important Part of Plane-Crash Response
By Colleen Long
January 20, 2009 7:50AM
Soon after US Airways Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport, Vallie Collins heard a boom and started smelling smoke. When the captain urged passengers to brace for impact, she immediately reached for her phone.
"I thought, 'OK, I'm not going to see my husband and three children again. And I just want them to know at this point, they were the No. 1 thought in my mind,'" she said.
She sent them a text message: "My plane is crashing." There was no time for the final three words she wanted to include: "I love you."
The crash-landing was one of few aviation accidents in which passengers were able to send frantic dispatches to loved ones before their plane went down.
After the plane came to rest in the water, Collins and all 154 others aboard were quickly rescued by ferries and emergency crews.
Larry Snodgrass, of Lake Wylie, S.C., grabbed his cell phone as the plane descended, sending a text message to his wife telling her an engine was on fire and that he loved her with all his heart.
He said his eyes were shut as the plane hit the water, and he opened them in disbelief when he realized he was still alive.
Meanwhile around the city, witnesses were recounting what they heard and saw via text message, on the SMS-blogging service Twitter, and on online photo-sharing Web sites. Janis Krums wrote that there was a plane in the Hudson, and he was on the ferry going to pick up people.
Krums quickly uploaded images of passengers standing on the wings of the plane bobbing in the frigid waters, waiting to be rescued. The images were picked up by The Associated Press and distributed to media outlets around the world. Hundreds of users on the photo-sharing site Flickr posted photos within moments of the splash landing.
A fan club on Facebook quickly formed for the pilot, Chesley B. Sullenberger.
After the passengers were rescued from the sinking plane, they began calling relatives. Passenger Michele Davis, 23, of Olympia, Wash., lost her phone in the crash, so she borrowed one to call her mother, Susan Dunham.
Dunham told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that when she answered her phone she heard, "Mama, mama, mamma. My plane's crashed. I'm on the lifeboat. I'm OK."
Denise Lockie had just slid down the plane's emergency landing chute when she called her older sister, Nancy Kallile of Toledo, Ohio.
"Basically she said, 'We've crashed in the Hudson River. I love you. I'm still alive,'" Kallile said, who was getting fitted for eyeglasses when her sister called.
Snodgrass was one of the last people off the plane. He told The Herald of Rock Hill that he called his wife as he stood in shin-deep water on the wing, waiting to be rescued. She was distraught, watching television and fearing the worst after getting that text message, but all was well.
Frustrated, Bewildered Air Travelers Can Blame System
By Susan Stellin January 19, 2009 7:40AM
One of the most agonizing aspects of air travel is waiting out a flight delay, desperate for information.
Within the United States, for example, one in four domestic flights runs late, meaning that about 400,000 passengers sit captive at gates or on the tarmac every day .
"They're very poor at getting on the intercom and saying, 'Here's our situation,'" said Jennifer Shirkani, owner of a management consulting business in Manchester, New Hampshire, who flies about 100,000 miles, or 161,000 kilometers, a year. "In some cases, there's not even a crew member at the gate until two minutes before the scheduled boarding time. So we're really on our own to find out what's going on."
If you have ever felt frustrated by the disconnect between what you hear from a gate agent, see on an electronic display, find out when you call the airline or even see out the window -- no aircraft ready to go -- it turns out there is a disconnect. Literally, there is a convoluted flow of information.
Passengers are at the end of a communication chain that involves multiple computer systems, gate agents, pilots, flight dispatchers, air traffic controllers, and other personnel, with updates moving along different paths.
"You can have three or four different systems providing information, one quicker than another at any point in time," said Cindy Bouchard, a former airport customer service supervisor with US Airways.
During a delay, gate agents and the flight crew communicate with the airline along separate channels, and do not necessarily talk to each other. Pilots typically get more updated information because they are in direct contact with the airline's system operations control center -- essentially, the brain that keeps track of every aircraft's schedule.
In the United States, pilots also communicate with tower personnel who are linked to the Federal Aviation Administration's command center in Herndon, Virginia. That is the master system each airline connects with to determine when its planes are allowed to come and go.
But even if members of the flight crew share information with their colleagues at the gate, Bouchard said, "We couldn't make the announcement to the passengers until it was official in the system, because the crew could be wrong."
Gate agents are also reluctant to jump the gun because they dread the onslaught they will face after announcing bad news. "Imagine dealing with a cancellation and 200 passengers standing in front of you -- it's incredible," Bouchard said. "So are you going to announce a cancellation without knowing for sure? I don't think so."
Cutbacks in airline staff have made the problem worse because there are fewer agents left to deal with passengers at the airport.
Of course, in cases of extreme weather, no one can predict when planes will be able to take off.
"Everyone is dealing with information that's not perfect, and it's changing," said Basil Barimo, vice president of operations for the Air Transport Association, which represents the main U.S. airlines. "That's what creates the challenge for the folks out there at the airport."
But he acknowledged that information flowed through separate, and not always equal, channels.
"The crew is connected directly to the operations center so they're getting the latest and greatest information," Barimo said. "The customer service agent is not directly connected, so is getting the information from airport channels."
Depending on the technology available at the gate, that may mean a radio transmission or a phone call. As for the electronic flight displays throughout the terminal, they do not necessarily show the latest data because they get information from sources contracted by the airport.
That is why passengers can often get more timely information about a flight delay by checking the airline's Web site or Flightstats.com. Or, in the United States, they can send a text message to Google with the flight number (AA117, for example), which will send back a text message with the latest departure and arrival information from Flightstats. If there is no plane at the gate, savvy travelers have learned to check the status of the incoming flight, which is often a better way of gauging how soon the plane will turn around.
"You really have to be almost a forensic traveler to know what's going on," said Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, an advocacy group that has primarily pushed for better treatment of travelers during extended tarmac delays.
Hanni also served on a task force created by the U.S. Department of Transportation to establish guidelines for the airlines when long on-board delays occur on the tarmac. She voted against the group's recommendations, which essentially let the airlines continue with the status quo.
"We got a totally unenforceable document with a number of 'mays' and 'shoulds' and no 'musts' and 'wills,'" she said. "I feel like we as a group totally failed."
The task force recommended that airlines attempt to update passengers every 15 minutes during a tarmac delay, even when there is no new information to share.
While many carriers made similar promises in the customer commitments they adopted to forestall earlier passenger rights proposals, few would claim that they actually do update passengers that often.
"I think every 15 minutes is extremely optimistic," said a pilot for a major carrier, though he agreed that communication could be improved. The pilot agreed to speak anonymously because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
"The left hand isn't always talking to the right hand," he said. "I would say the information isn't flowing in the right order."