What an Aborted Takeoff Shows the World About Qatar Airways

ILA 2008
ILA 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Part of the reason why I want Virgin America to start serving Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is Richard Branson, the founder of the business group that owns Virgin America. He makes multiple efforts to use his wealth and influence to benefit humankind – and tries to keep his airlines from following the typical model of cutting amenities and hiring surly personnel. I’d feel good handing my money to a Branson-led airline, and Sky Harbor needs all the help it can get to connect people to more places.

On the other side, there’s Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker. Because of him, I will not fly Qatar Airways. Under Al Baker’s watch, the airline treats flight attendants like cattle. He grandstands in a manner I can only compare to Sheriff Joe Arpaio – Al Baker recently touted a "historic announcement" that turned out to be the unveiling of a new advertising campaign. He downplayed an incident where a Qatar Airways 777 wiped out a bunch of landing lights at takeoff, sustained "substantial damage" yet continued on a 14-hour flight.

And now this: On a media flight of its first Airbus A350, the Qatar Airways crew had to abort its takeoff. This is in and of itself not a big deal. Aborted takeoffs happen all the time.

Airbus A350
By Don-vip (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The way Qatar Airways officials reacted, though, is exactly the problem with this airline. A writer for the One Mile at a Time blog was aboard the flight – remember, this was a media flight. That means that any Qatar Airways employee can bet that anything that happens on that flight will get coverage. Here are some of the best bits from the blog post (this info came from Zach Honig, editor and chief of The Points Guy website):

  • Some passengers wanted to deplane, and even though they returned to the gate, the CCO wouldn’t allow them to deplane, as he wanted to save face
  • Zach was told to stop recording during the aborted takeoff-- a somewhat odd request on a media flight
  • A passenger (who Zach thinks was an airline executive) came up to him and asked him to "stop Tweeting for now."

Zach also has a blog post about the aborted takeoff. It’s well worth reading.

I’m also amused that the Airbus A350 and its software made a unilateral decision that the runway wasn’t long enough and automatically aborted the takeoff – not the pilots.

Bottom line – I wouldn’t fly this airline, not even for free first-class tickets. There’s just no reason to support it.


Scenes from a Desert Airplane Graveyard

I know a lot of people get freaked out in a graveyard – but to me, an airplane graveyard is even more unsettling. Few of the residents seem ready for the scrapheap. It’s like carting a 50-ish person off to a deserted lot, him in a hole and shoveling dirt on him. Too young, too much still to give the world.

Just look at these. Imagine how much money is just sitting here – and most of it was fully functional before being stripped of useful parts and left to the elements.

Even if they can fly anymore, there are still plenty of perfectly good uses. I’ve stayed in two hotel that were once airplanes – one a 747 in Stockholm, the other a Bristol freighter in rural New Zealand. I’ve dined in a great old CIA cargo hauler in Costa Rica. And think of the company that makes homes out of 727s! I would love to live in one of these! And what worth are they as scrap, I wonder. And how long will they sit in the desert before getting turned into a cola can?

Anyway, I shot these photos at Phoenix Goodyear Airport GYRt, where there’s a pretty good-sized airplane graveyard for airliners. What you’ll see in these photos are airlines from all over the world, and not a bunch of old beaters. There’s only one DC-8-ish sort of plane, and a bunch of 757s, A340s and A320 family aircraft. Sure, the DC-10/MD-11 types are past their prime for passengers. But they’re likely the oldest by a long shot.

For some of these shots, I tried going in for close shots of the aircraft to convey the sense of decay.

airplane graveyard
I had to take this photo because it shows the amazing scale of the Boeing 747 – I’m pretty sure it’s a 300 series. But whatever it is, it’s hundreds of yards behind an MD-80 and a 737 … and still manages to make them look like light twins.
airplane graveyard
This Airbus A340 makes a forlorn backdrop as a light GA plane – probably with a student pilot – comes in for a touch and go. On of my favorite things about the older Airbus widebodies is that muscle car, nose-down look.
airplane graveyard
Three widebodies in one shot: a pair of DC-10s and a 767.
airplane graveyard
Here’s a closer look at one of the DC-10s, with its door and a lower panel open. It looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic film.
airplane graveyard
The missing radome and doors of this 777-200 are just depressing.
airplane graveyard
Signs of life at the old airplane graveyard.
airplane graveyard
A tangle of winglets, tails and stabilizers.
airplane graveyard
This cannibalized 757 is a bleak husk – a mangled corpse denuded of dignity.
airplane graveyard
I can imagine having this A340 delivered to some cool piece of property and turning it into the ultimate Wandering Justin house.
airplane graveyard
The mountains make a great backdrop here.

If you think visiting an airplane graveyard sounds like fun, check out my story about running a 10K race through one of the most-famous of them all!

Literature Review: The Cruelest Journey by Kira Salak

The Cruelest Journey Kira SalakToday’s post is travel writer Nichole L. Reber’s review of the Kira Salak memoir, The Cruelest Journey. Nichole is full-on obsessed with the fraternal twin crafts of writing and reading, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy her insights. Get to know Nichole and her work by visiting her website or her Facebook page.

“No place is safe. Safety, itself, is an illusion.” Kira Salak

The women’s memoirs I’ve read since repatriating to the US have repeatedly disappointed me. Rather than travelogues about other cultures and a writer’s (small) place in it, today’s publishers churn out self-obsessive memoirs aimed at women as if we were interested solely in finding boyfriends and making babies with men of foreign accents. Women writing about living in Japan, Yemen, mainland China, and Hong Kong, for instance, focus on infertility or stealing husbands, treading nowhere near anthropological observations of the other cultures. Then there’s Kira Salak. She raises travel writing to the level of explorer writing.

The Cruelest Journey Kira SalakHer book, The Cruelest Journey, published by Brooklyn-based Restless Books, is a riveting read. It, like her other books and National Geographic stories, reveals a women who eschews the easy route, the cliché destination. Salak has crossed Papua New Guinea and made a 700-mile cycling trip across Alaska to the Arctic Ocean. She has ventured into Iranian vistas where local travel guides don’t take their clients, and explored Madagascar, Mozambique, Bangladesh, Libya, Bhutan, and Borneo. At the age of 20, backpacking through Africa at the height of a brutal civil war in Mozambique, she was kidnapped by marauding soldiers.

“Since then I’ve sought out countries that are dangerous in order to reveal situations no one else is covering, like slavery in Timbuktu and genocide in eastern Congo. These tragedies are very emotionally difficult to witness, but if by shedding light on them I can improve even one person’s life, I feel it’s worth the risk,” she wrote in National Geographic.

The Cruelest Journey Kira SalakThe Cruelest Journey tells her journey kayaking solo six hundred miles down West Africa’s Niger River in an inflatable kayak toward the Saharan city of Timbuktu.

She begins her trip with a single backpack in a torrential downpour from the Malian town of Old Ségou. She reveals how Timbuktu fell from its zenith during the Songhai Empire’s reign from 1463-1591, when its academic and artistic riches were tantamount Florence’s during Europe’s age of Enlightenment until it was sacked by the Moors in the late 16th century, and how it’s come to be the rubble heap and tourist trap it is today.

Salak equips herself for the journey with the writings of 18th-century Scottish explorer Mungo Park, who twice labored over this course but perished along the way. Determined to follow in (most of) his footsteps, she shows us a place that time has all but abandoned. She witnesses polio and leprosy, voodoo priests and shamans, and abundant slavery, despite its being outlawed there. She kayaks through a pod of hippos like tiptoeing through a field of landmines.

She learns to discern the differences between tribes such as the Tuareg, the Fulani and the Bambarra, the Bozo and Somono. Most nights she stops at villages, learning to deduce which tribe lives there by characteristics visible from the river, if she can’t already discern that by how the village inhabitants react to her from the shore. Do they wave and exchange greetings, yell and threaten her, or watch her like a zoo animal? All the while she searches for commonalities, for ways of communicating and better understanding by speaking to them in Bambarra.

Thoughts on Male Travelers

One particularly enjoyable part of Salak’s book is her ability to alternately make fun of and admire male travelers. (Though admittedly her adoration of Park sometimes reads like Oriana Fallaci’s hero worship of Alekos Panagulis in A Man.)

“He doesn’t hide his distress, and his trademark equanimity fails him, revealing glimpses of a traumatizing ordeal. Many male adventurers of his time chose to hide such candor, opting instead for bravado or tedious ethnographical digressions,” he says of Park’s narrative of his capture by Moors. When the women among his captors repeatedly inspected his physique, they became particularly hands-on to find out if circumcision also applies to Christians. Park supposedly had some say in the matter, allowing only beautiful women the chance to inspect his white skin and naughty bits.

The Cruelest Journey Kira SalakAs a female traveler, though, Salak isn’t as lucky. On one occasion she is nearly raped – or at least molested – by a male villager.

Gender Differences in Travel

“My gender will always make me appear more vulnerable. But to not travel anywhere out of fear, or to remain immobilized in a state of hypervigilance when I do, feels akin to psychological bondage. I do not want to give away that kind of power.”

She doesn’t decry this reality. She does in a way that can be described as literary anthropology. “The Somono fishermen, casting out their nets, puzzle over me as I float by. ‘a va, madame?’ they yell.”

Each fisherman carries a young son perched in the back of his pointed canoe to do the paddling. The boys stare at me, transfixed; they have never seen such a thing. A white woman. Alone. In a red, inflatable boat. Using a two-sided paddle.

“I’m an even greater novelty because Malian women don’t paddle here, not ever. It is a man’s job. So there is no good explanation for me, and the people want to understand.”

Considering the death-defying adventure she’s chosen the reader wants to understand too. What would compel a person to take such a trip? She addresses this and the very fundamental things that, as I learned when living abroad, mark the difference between tourism and travel.

Why Embark on These Trips?

Concerning “what we look for when we embark on these kinds of trips,” she writes: “There is the pat answer that you tell the people you don’t know: that you’re interested in seeing a place, learning about its people. But then the trip begins and the hardship comes, and hardship is more honest: It tells us that we don’t have enough patience yet, nor humility, nor gratitude. And we thought that we did. Hardship brings us closer to truth, and thus is more difficult to bear, but from it alone comes compassion.”

Salak’s poetic prose, like the parallel narratives of her journey and Park’s, meanders throughout the book like the bends and curves of the Niger itself. “The late afternoon sun settles complacently over the hills to the west. Paddling becomes a sort of meditation now, a gentle trespassing over a river that slumbers. The Niger gives me its beauty almost in apology for the violence of the earlier storms, treating me to smooth silver waters that ripple in the sunlight. The current – if there is one – barely moves. Park described the same grandeur of the Niger during his second journey, in an uncharacteristically sentimental passage that provided a welcome respite from accounts of dying soldiers and baggage stolen by natives.”

Heading Into Deeper Water

Her deft handling of dynamics, coupled with the occasional sweetener of levity make The Cruelest Journey an energetic read. This Restless Books publication and Salak’s other books such as Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea, traverse the depths of the human condition, weaves between fear and bliss, and blurs borders of time and place.

As Jessa Crispin points out in an essay in the Boston Review: “That the market has not sustained the work of other, more rugged, less self-obsessive women travel writers may have more to do with our expectations as readers than with any faults of their writing. We still look to men to tell us about what they do and to women to tell us how they feel.”

Meanwhile, for readers who like their water deeper, there’s the work of Kira Salak.