What the Airline Industry Thinks of

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- ( TheStreet) - "Flight" is a movie about an alcoholic commercial airline pilot, which is a fallacy. He minimizes the impact of a plane crash by intentionally flying the plane upside down during the descent. This is also a fallacy.

Our pilot, portrayed by Denzel Washington, flies an aircraft while drunk and high on cocaine. He finds a way to sneak a drink during the flight. After the accident, lawyers for the pilot and his union engage in a cover-up, including paying a pusher for drugs, in order to protect him. And the National Transportation Safety Board seems poised to let him off.

In other words, the movie makes a mockery of commercial aviation. Sure, Hollywood can do whatever it wants. But if you base a movie on a series of false premises, while implying that you portray real life, you diminish your art form and also mislead your audience, a portion of which already harbors misgivings about flight safety.

Not surprisingly, the airline industry has distanced itself from this film. The Air Line Pilots Association, the principal pilots union, issued a brief statement that concluded, "We all enjoy being entertained, but a thrilling tale should not be mistaken for the true story of extraordinary safety and professionalism among airline pilots." A spokeswoman declined to comment further.

An official in the Allied Pilots Association, which represents pilots at American ( AAMRQ.PK), recently sent pilots a message noting that "Hollywood has just produced a movie that depicts airline pilots acting in a criminal manner." He said some passengers may react by making comments that include "serious accusations about a pilot's fitness to fly." In these cases, pilots should make passengers aware that such accusations are serious matters, potentially requiring a drug and alcohol test, and should then step back from involvement in the discussion, the union official said.

One airline, Delta ( DAL), is mentioned in the movie, because a passing reference is made to our fictional pilot's previous employment with Delta. If an actual pilot was dismissed from Delta for alcoholism, he would not fly again. Delta declined to comment.

A few pilots spoke with me about the movie. Some said they will not see it. "It dumbs my profession down," one said. He reminded that pilots routinely undergo random drug and alcohol testing, which can, in fact, be frequent. Another said, "Everyone knows Hollywood can do as it wishes and no one is off-limits."

One pilot told me he saw the movie and enjoyed it, despite the fallacies. "As far as the drinking, I've been flying for over 30 years and I've never smelled alcohol on another pilot in the cockpit or on an overnight," he said, adding that he would turn in anyone who did smell of alcohol.

Pilots used to avoid alcohol "because the job paid so well they would not want to screw up and lose the job," he said. "Now, it's just a matter of integrity."

The movie is "supported by technical facts (particularly the hearing process) that are accurate, but the premise is ludicrous," he said. Thus, a fictional NTSB official, presumably based on NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman, leads the questioning. But her line of questioning is clearly not the line of questioning that Hersman would pursue, rather, it obliterates the necessity to arrive at the truth in an accident investigation.

In replicating a crash, the movie relies on details from a 2000 Alaska ( ALK) crash that killed 83 passengers and five crew members. In that crash, a jackscrew failed due to excessive wear and inadequate maintenance. The jackscrew failure led to the failure of the horizontal stabilizer, which normally adjusts the flight control surfaces on the airplane's tail. The plane went into a dive, which the pilots were able to halt. But they could not halt a subsequent dive, which resulted in a crash that killed everyone on board. During the incident, in real life and in the movie, the airplane flew upside down in the last minute of a rapid, uncontrolled descent.

In the movie, the maneuver saved the aircraft. Real life was somewhat different: the upside down flying was unintended and harmful, part of the aircraft's final downward spiral.

John Goglia was a National Transportation Safety Board member during the investigation of the Alaska crash. Throughout the flight, Goglia said, the pilots had no control over the stabilizer. In the final descent, "the airplane flipped upside down because they couldn't control the position of the stabilizer," he said. "The pilots started to lower the flaps and (the plane) flipped upside down." He said the maneuver was totally unintentional and the airplane could not have survived structurally.

Flying upside down "cannot possibly help you," Goglia said, even if you are Denzel Washington.

-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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