On regional jets and wheelchairs

I live in “flyover” country. That means two things when I book a flight out of Lincoln. First, I will be flying on a “regional jet” which is airline-speak for small, cramped, and run by a company that is nearly bankrupt but holds on by supplying the big carriers with passengers from “flyover” country” while pretending to be part of the big carrier. Second, you will always find that the “regional jet” parks at an arrival gate that is far, far away from the center of the airport. And such was our experience this time as Joan and I flew to Denver and then on to ABQ (Albuquerque) and back.

One of the good things about flying a regional jet is that the air crews are often composed of decent people rather than the devils in human form featured in the old Saturday Night Live bit, “Total Bastard Airlines.” This time the pilots were funny and informative–and you could even hear them over the audio system.

For example, despite our late departure out of Denver returning to Lincoln the captain demanded that we refrain from calling his airplane a “toy.” He bragged that he could fly as fast and as high as a Boeing 737 and his plane was more stylish. Despite our late departure, he promised that we would be on time (we were supposed to arrive at midnight). As the pilot predicted, a “screaming tail wind” pushed our little space capsule to 600 miles per hour over the ground and allowed us to get to Lincoln exactly as scheduled. (Will someone take it real slow and explain to me once again the difference between “air speed” and “ground speed” and why I should care?) This triumph occurred despite the fact that, as our captain warned, the landing might be a abrupt “’cause we will be using the short runway–the one that’s not all torn up.” He also instructed us to blame the first officer for any herky-jerky landing complaints.

Photo credit: Raihan Ahmed pursuant to Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. We flew back to Lincoln on a fifty seat Embrarer ERJ  145 with 12 passengers braving the experience. The photo shows an Embraer ERJ 145 preparing to take off from its hub Shahjalal International Airport in Bangladesh.  The fact that the Brazilian built Embraer is used by airlines in Bagladesh is certainly a comfort.

Photo credit: Raihan Ahmed pursuant to Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. We flew back to Lincoln on a fifty seat Embrarer ERJ 145 with 12 brave souls aboard. The photo shows an Embraer ERJ 145 preparing to take off from its hub Shahjalal International Airport in Bangladesh. The fact that the Brazilian-built Embrarer is used by airlines in Bangladesh is comforting.

As for the flight attendant, and despite the fact she was obviously exhausted,  she was pleasant and talkative. She told us she was from Georgia and asked us to forgive her heavy accent. She was clearly tickled by the pilot’s banter. Before we got to Lincoln, she asked over the intercom if anyone knew where the nearest “Jimmy John’s” to her hotel might be found. It turns out that there was one near the Holiday Inn where the crew stayed, and she beamed with delight. It was then that I knew the flight crew had their priorities in the right place. “Freaky fast.”

I turn next to the second part of this post. Although to be honest, both parts are related. I just don’t how.

The Denver airport is huge. It is populated with young and old people in perfect health. That is true even for old folks. It is not unusual to see a perfectly tanned very old man in spandex, running shoes, a huge backpack with water bottles hanging off it, fast-walking through the airport and eschewing the “people walkers.” I hate those guys. Especially the ones with the “arm candy.” (If she is reading this, that’s not to say that you, Joan, aren’t “arm candy.” It’s just . . . .)

Before returning to Denver, I decided that I needed a wheel chair when we got to the mile high city. I’m still short of breath and unsteady on my feet from the chemo and the stint in the hospital. Our regional jet was scheduled to use a gate that was at the very far end of the airport, and our Lincoln gate had not yet been assigned. What was worse, we were going to have to exit on the tarmac, walk off the tarmac to a long corridor underneath the main concourse and climb a set of stairs to the main level. There we would find out our next gate. I didn’t think I could handle that trek.

As I exited the plane, and limped down the stairway (festooned with a tarpaulin topped with fringe), I noticed the other passengers staring at me. I could read their minds. Surely, I must be faking it. Even Joan seemed to melt away, distancing herself from me much like you would distance yourself from a traveling companion who displayed a neon sign that flashed “Kiss me, I’m a leper.”

Averting the eyes of my fellow travelers, I climbed aboard the wheelchair and the very nice man assigned to the task pushed on. In truth, I am glad I called for the wheelchair. Nonetheless, it was a humiliating experience. “Bogus” requests for wheelchair assistance have become such a problem that the Wall Street Journal ran a feature article on the subject. See Long Lines Lead to Rise of Wheelchair ‘Miracles’, Wall Street Journal (updated April 5, 2013) (“At Los Angeles International Airport, airlines and companies that provide wheelchair service estimate 15% of all requests are phony, said Lawrence Rolon, coordinator for disabled services for Los Angeles World Airports. Airport officials estimate nearly 300 wheelchair requests a day are bogus. ‘It’s just a big mess,’ Mr. Rolon said. ‘Abusers are really impacting the operation.””) As I glided away on my wheeled magic carpet, the word “schmuck” rang continuously in my ear.


So, that’s my riff on regional jets and wheelchairs.  Like the Indians used to say (before we killed most ’em off or consigned them to reservations that are the perfect example of hell), “walk [or in my case wheel] a mile in my shoes” if you desire to know me. On second thought, don’t bother.










23 responses

  1. Since a nautical mile is one minute of arc along any meridian of the Earth’s surface, air miles must depend on the height at which you are flying–a bigger “meridian” of sorts, depending on how far you are off the ground. Glad to hear you’re safe and sound on the Earth’s surface. Welcome home.

  2. For what it’s worth, the Embraer ERJ 145 has a great safety record. Just saying. Regional U.S. carriers, not so much. That, however, is more a function of low-paid, low-experience flight crews and the carriers’ skimping on training and maintenance support than it is a function of the aircraft themselves.

  3. My SO is a flight attendant and they always know that if there are 5 wheelchairs on boarding the plane, there may only be 1 or 2 using them to get off the plane, 3-4 being bogus. They call these the “miracles”. So when the gate agent opens the door (the FAs don’t open the door from the inside, simply disarm the slide) and the gate agent gets the paper work for the flight, the FA will tell the gate agent the wheel chair count which is based on the boarding count. The airlines have started to allow infirm, elderly, parents with small children, etc to board first without the charade of the wheel chair required in order to help stop the bogus use of the service.

    Anyhow, wind speed matters because air is the medium upon which the engines impart their thrust. This is limited by the physics of the plane’s engineering so the plane can only travel x miles per hour air speed. Ground speed matters because it is the real speed by which you get to your destination. In math, air speed = Ground speed + wind speed. NB: Wind speed can be a negative number. In a car, air speed doesn’t have a big impact and it does not alter the reported ground speed on the speedometer, so no one cares. At most, it causes the engine to work harder and cuts the maximum possible speed capable by the car. This is why land speed time trials on the bonneville flats go twice in 180 deg opposite runs.

  4. I can’t tell you why you should care but….

    Groundspeed is speed relative to the ground.

    Airspeed is (basically) speed relative to the air.

    So the two are (basically) the same when the air is still – when there is no wind.

    But when the air is moving, they diverge by (basically) the speed of the wind.

    Suppose a hot air balloon is hovering in perfectly still air. Since it is not moving over the ground, it has zero groundspeed. Since it is also not moving relative to the air, it has zero airspeed. But if the air starts moving, if it becomes windy, the balloon will move with the wind. In everyday english we would say the balloon is being blown by the wind. But actually the balloon is just floating in moving air.* Which is to say, the balloon still has no airspeed as it not moving relative to the air – but it does now have groundspeed because it is moving relative to the ground.

    So too with planes. A plane flying at 500 knots airspeed in still air is flying at (basically) 500 knots groundspeed. And if the plane encounters a 100 knot headwind it will (basically) maintain its 500 knots airspeed without, contrary to what we might intuit, anything being done to the controls. That’s because flying in a headwind just means flying in an airmass that is itself moving in the direction opposite to where you want to go. The plane doesn’t feel the headwind – the plane is just carried along with it. But of course the headwind does decrease groundspeed because even though the plane continues to move at 500 knots relative to the air, the air is moving 100 knots relative to the ground and in the opposite direction. So groundspeed is now 400 knots.

    An imperfect but useful analogy is walking through a train. Airspeed would be how fast the person walks through (or relative to) the train. Groundspeed would be how fast the person moves relative to the ground underneath the train. The person’s airspeed, then, is just the person’s walking pace. It is not a function of how fast the train is moving (leaving to the side any increased difficulty of walking through a moving train versus a still one, which makes this an imperfect analogy). But the person’s groundspeed, in contrast, is a function of both walking pace and the the train’s speed and direction. So if you start at the back and walk forward, your groundspeed in a train moving 200 mph will be slightly greater than those who remain seated the whole trip. And your airspeed will crush theirs as theirs will have been zero whereas yours will have been however fast you were walking.

    That’s the magic of how a plane whose airspeed probably didn’t exceed 520 mph was able to achieve a groundspeed of 600 mph.

    *I’m oversimplifying but in the absence of designing or flying any flying machines, this should suffice.

  5. Judge:
    The only shortcoming that I can see from using a wheelchair was that it physically separated you from your “arm candy”, i.e., your lovely wife. Other than that, hope you enjoyed the ride.

  6. You mean the fact that both pilots had braces on their teeth and bad cases of acane matters? Or that stuff was hanging out of the engines should cause you to worry?

    I am perfectly OK flying small planes. Used to fly very small planes as a lawyer. I mean the four seat kind with pilots who did most of their flying on spray planes thus providing an extra modicum of excitement when they displayed their expertise on charters. So, a jet, even a small one, doesn’t bother me at all.

    All the best.


  7. Using a wheelchair getting off international flights is every educational, as you are rushed to the head of the lines for customs and immigration you learn many new words of abuse in the world’s languages.

  8. Green, I bet that’s true. Particularly when you pull out all the crap you’re bringing back from your gambol about Paris.

    All the best.


  9. Dave,

    No, that’s a guy much like me trying to disguise himself. The only thing missing from the photo are the people pointing and screaming “faker!”

    All the best.


  10. You’re a rich Federal judge. Get one one these, which you can get already built and proved out–i.e., pre-owned; then you can fly on your own schedule.

    Eric Hines

  11. Oops. I meant “second of arc.” That’s why I majored in journalism, not science!

  12. Glad you used the wheelchair. There’s no reason for it to be humiliating – particularly when you are traveling in an airport where there are such logistical nightmares. I must say on a recent flight – there was an attendant waiting with a wheelchair when I got off the plane. They asked if I had ordered a wheelchair and I responded vehemently, no. I wonder if that was one of those bogus wheelchair requests. Who can you trust now anyway??

  13. Eric,

    Me piloting an airplane is like me carrying a gun. Both would produce unpleasant results.

    All the best.


  14. Elaine, I don’t know who you can trust. But, I can say that the airline (United) was very helpful and the attendants were very accomdating. The process was easy. When I checked in I explained my situation, and the United agent who was taking our bags put a code into the computer with my name, and sure enough the wheelchair was there when I arrived.

    All the best.


  15. Laurie, I disagree. I think you would have been a fine navigator.

    In that regard, and before Castro took over Cuba, but prior to my dad doing his Willy Loman routine, mother and father used to crew on a 75 foot schooner in a race between St. Petersburg and Havana. Navigation was important. That memory prompts me to recommend Patrick O’brian’s series of novels about sailing a man-of-war during Lord Nelson’s time. See, e.g., Master and Commander, W.H. Norton (1970) (first in a 20 volume series). There you will find in exquiste detail what it was like to navigate a ship when a “second of arc” truly mattered. Moreover, the series is great literature.

    All the best.


  16. Airspeed v ground speed (analogy to follow). Think of walking up the down escalator. You walking speed (airspeed) is slower than than your progress speed (ground speed). Now, you’re at the top of the escalator. So, walk down the down escalator. Your walking speed is the same as it was in the other direction, but your progress speed is faster

  17. A wag once said, “Indians have a saying–‘Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his moccasins.’ That way when you say something bad about him, you’ll have a mile head-start, and you’ll have his shoes.”

    But seriously, why let the fakers keep you from using a chair if you need one? I’m still able to get on and off planes with relative ease, but I’ve given up the backpack for a rolling carry-on, and I can recall my Dad, who didn’t use a chair in “real” life, used one to get on and off planes, and it was perfectly legitimate.

  18. As a former captain on the EMB-145 and now someone who has to use a wheel chair especially when I am at a higher elevation airport I can sure empathize with you. On the outside I look pretty healthy but no one can see that I only have part of my right lung left after infection caused 3 of my 5 lobes to be removed. My only saving grace in the airport while I am in a chair is the portable oxygen concentrator I drag around and tubing to a cannula in my nose.

  19. John,

    Thanks so much for writing. My nephew flies a Gulfstream 3 or 4 for the “chair” force, as he calls it. He loves that plane. Did you like to fly the EMB-145?

    I am sorry to hear of your lung issues, but half glad that you at least have the machinery to prove that you are not a “wheel chair” faker. On second thought, I am not even half glad. You’d ditch the machinery in a moment just to be able to walk without feeling faint. I am truly sorry for your trouble.

    Again, thanks for writing.

    All the best.


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