What's your worst travel nightmare? For millions of people around the globe, it had to be the Apr. 14 eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which brought European air travel to a dead stop for six days. But for a handful of Nepal Airlines passengers it might have been the time they were stranded at Tribhuvan Airport in 2007. Technical problems had grounded their Boeing 757, according to a Reuters report, and the mechanics were not confident they could make the necessary repairs. So airline officials came up with a creative solution: To appease the Hindu god of sky protection, Akash Bhairab, they trotted out two goats and, to the horror of some of the passengers and the relief of others, sacrificed them right on the tarmac.
Few would argue that goat sacrifice might just be among the least reassuring airline maintenance practices going, but modern travel is redolent with many equally appalling stories. From agonizing delays to inedible food, passengers these days continue to submit themselves to horrors that would make the Pilgrims on the Mayflower think twice about returning to Plymouth.
Since pain in others is often a rich mine of comic material, intended or otherwise, Doug Lansky decided to write down some of the worst travel experiences—save death—he has come across in his 16 years as a travel writer to amuse his fellow sufferers and excoriate the assorted baggage handlers, airline executives, stewards, TSA employees, and obnoxious seat mates that can make the relatively simple act of getting from A to B sheer hell.
Tales of Vexation
His new book, The Titanic Awards: Celebrating the Worst of Travel, is a lively compendium of ineptitude, turpitude, and just bizarre behavior that would be even funnier if it weren't so depressingly familiar. By shedding light on these tales of woe, Lansky hopes that airlines and other service providers will be stimulated to do something about it. "I wanted to find a home for the best bar stories of travel," he says.
What kind of woes? How about the story of the baggage screener who pilfered nearly $400,000 of travelers' belongings, the airline with the worst animal fatality record, or the time a British Airways (BAIRY) pilot knowingly flew a 747 all the way from Los Angeles to the U.K. with a dead engine caused by a fire, allegedly because it would have been too expensive to make an emergency landing.
On the whole, however, considering the volume of people who travel by air, boat, train, or car every year, the safety numbers aren't that bad. Statistically speaking, traveling is safer than ever, but today the old Cunard line of "getting there is half the fun" would draw nothing but sneers and hoots of derision.
Risks Actually Are Low
Nevertheless, aviation accidents per 100,000 departures dropped to 0.29 last year, from 0.451 in 1999, for U.S. carriers, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. On the road, highway traffic fatalities dropped to about 33,963 last year, the lowest number since 1954, according to 2009 projections from the U.S. Transportation Dept., and the fatality rate, 1.16 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, was also the lowest for the period.
What is "safe enough" is a thorny question. Patrick Smith, a pilot and author, emphasizes that on a statistical level, one carrier may have a worse record than others, but "there is virtually no such thing as a categorically unsafe airline," especially with an experienced and well-trained crew.
While Lansky's book refers to reports of sleeping or drunk pilots, Smith maintains that today, better training and communication within crews, modern equipment, and improved infrastructure at airports and air traffic control make flying much safer than 20 years ago. Even though malfunctions, such as compressor stalls in the engine or landing with a burst tire, can be startling, "they are not necessarily dangerous," he says. "We've engineered out a lot of what used to the more common causes of accidents," such as developing cockpit equipment to prevent midair collisions and collisions with terrain.
That does not mean airlines are not cautious. After Eyjafjallajökull erupted, both authorities and airlines were criticized for overreacting, but "we didn't know for sure, and you can't gamble. You have to err on the side of caution," says Smith.
Todd Curtis, a former Boeing airline safety engineer and founder of air travel information site AirSafe.com, says safety can be defined many ways, but overall, risk is down. Recruitment and training are among the biggest issues facing the airline industry, he says. Pilots have become heavily reliant on automation and regional airlines are hiring pilots with a few hundred hours of flight time compared to 1,500 hours for major carriers, and offer lower salaries.
To determine how safety can be further improved, Curtis says, accident reporting requirements need to be more rigorous and specific. Requiring detailed accounts even of small-scale problems—for instance, if a malfunction or error occurred during takeoff, while cruising, or on landing—can enhance the quality of data.
In addition to safety, consumer protection shows promise of getting better. New rules by the Transportation Dept., effective Apr. 29, restrict aircraft of U.S. airlines from being on the tarmac for more than three hours at large and medium hub airports for domestic flights. They also require airlines to provide food and water for passengers within two hours and to have medical attention available.
Such measures to ensure safety and comfort are critical, but travel is rarely perfect. Says Lansky: "As with life, you just have to lower the bar a little."
And about that Nepal Airlines flight? It took off and landed safely in Hong Kong. Maybe there's something in goat sacrifice after all.
Click here to read about the worst travel experiences.