LONGWOOD – Passenger airlines frequently make the news, but usually it’s not for the kind of reasons that make the airlines’ public relations departments happy.
There have been the terrorist attacks, from 9-11 to incidents that wind up being known as attacks by the “shoe bomber” or the “underwear bomber.”
There are passenger complaints that any semblance of leg room is disappearing and that meals no longer get served.
And then there are those incidents where passengers got stuck on a plane for up to 10 hours on the runway, unable to reach their gate, prompting Congress to pass a passenger’s bill of rights.
At a time when holiday traveling is at a premium, the airlines might be bracing for another slew of “What’s wrong with the airlines?” stories. Carol Sugars, though, thinks the public needs some educating about how the system actually works.
Take, for example, complaints about how airlines are putting less and less of an emphasis on comfort. Less room between seats, no meals, none of the creature comforts that passengers once expected when they fly.
Consider what you’re getting instead, Sugars noted: affordable pricing. Airlines are getting rid of the frills to keep the price of the tickets competitive.
“In the 1950s, we invented the jet airliner,” she said. “It became significantly quicker to fly. As the industry expanded, it became more affordable to fly. Up until the 1970s, flying on an airplane was a big deal. You did it maybe once a year on vacation.”
Today, some passengers fly multiple times a year – if the price is right, she added.
“The airlines provide a service and take you and all your bags from A to B, which is all you want to do,” Sugars said. “It all depends on price. People are prepared to sit there and not get peanuts if they can get to New York for $75. It’s mass transit.”
Sugars knows a thing or two about the airline industry. Specializing in Avionics/Aerospace Systems engineering, Sugars has been involved in various design and development projects involving radar, communications, noise cancellation technology and aviation fuels.
In the past few decades, Sugars has logged more than 10,000 hours of flight time and flown more than 50 different types of aircraft all over the world, from light single engine to four engine heavy jets. She holds licenses for Airline Transport Pilot, Flight Engineer, Flight Instructor (FAA Gold Seal) and Ground Instructor.
It’s a field the native of Ilkeston, England, never expected to get into. Back in the 1960s, she noted, it was strictly a man’s job.
“I’ve been interested in aviation since I was young, as long as I can remember,” said Sugars, who now lives in Longwood. “A major factor of life in the 1960s was the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and it was reflected in television shows, things like ‘Star Trek.’ Space travel leads into aviation, and I see aviation as a very science-oriented career.”
Although Sugars went to a good school, in the 1960s, “the girls weren’t very career-oriented,” while the boys had the option of pursuing an apprenticeship with Rolls Royce, a factory in the nearby town of Derby that made aircraft engines.
“To me it was such a distant dream that I didn’t pursue aviation,” she said. “There were no jobs for females as pilots back then.”
Instead, Sugars took a different path, and joined the Royal British Air Force, which enabled her to take a non-combat role in the field of Air Traffic Control. She did it for six years, then left, “because my career progression wasn’t what I wanted it to be.”
She worked temporarily for a financial firm, but that wasn’t what she really wanted, either.
“I got in my car one day and drove to the airport and, looking around, said ‘I’m going to learn to be a pilot,’ “ she said.
Sugars went to work for a foreign company that provided Air Traffic Control services, and saved up enough money to relocate to the United States, where she took flying lessons in Missouri – a “fairly typical civilian flight route” to getting a commercial pilot’s license, she said.
In the years that followed, Sugars flew a medical helicopter in St. Louis, then did freight flying in Kansas, delivering items as diverse as blood supplies to labs and movies to local cinemas – “the daily things that go to a small community,” she said.
She also flew auto parts to plants across Michigan, a job that got her into jets and flying time sensitive cargo. It also lead to a relocation to Fort Lauderdale, where she began training to be a flight engineer in Miami. Then in the late 1990s, she was hired by UPS to fly Boeing 757s and Boeing 767s on international routes.
One of her proudest moments over the years was when Sugars, acting as chief pilot for Green Flight International, wrote and conducted flight test engineering programs to enable experimental jet flight operations on biofuels. In November 2007 she made the world’s first flight of a jet aircraft powered solely by a 100 percent renewable biofuel, followed in 2008 by the first U.S. coast to coast jet flight using the same renewable fuel technology.
“I made the genuine world’s first flight on biofuel,” she said. “The project was done not as an engineering development, it was done primarily to raise awareness. We need to switch to alternative fuels.”
She did it flying an aircraft made in 1968.
“It was an experimental flight test program, and yes there were risks and unknowns,” she said. “But when you ask the pilot, ‘Were you scared, were there fears,’ physical dangers are relatively easy to predict in aviation. The major fear that I had was the experiment would be a failure. There was nothing inordinately dangerous about it.”
The same is true when people read about or see television news coverage of planes that crash. With the exception of terrorist attacks, flights that crash can always be blamed on human error, she said.
“All of them are ultimately human failures,” she said. “The plane wasn’t properly maintained – human failure. It wasn’t properly designed – human failure. They’re all human failings.”
Although Sugars’ career has been in commercial aviation, she’s well aware of the concerns and complaints that people have about passenger flights. She said passengers should worry less how comfortable a flight is if the ticket price fits within their budget.
“It’s comfortable, it’s efficient, and you get good service,’ she said. “They’re reliable and they run on time.”
Sugars doesn’t think Congress needed to approve legislation banning an airline from keeping passengers on a plane for hours on the runway.
“The reason you don’t get off the airplane is you can’t get to your gate,” she said. “We have drastically increased the number of airplanes compared to keeping the same number of gates. It’s exactly like pulling into a parking lot that’s full. You can’t get a space until someone backs out. You’ve got to cure the disease, not the symptoms. Get more gates, or have an air traffic control system that can handle the flow.”
And what about passenger complaints about intrusive security measures – everything from removing their shoes to getting a pat down from security workers to going through screening devices that leave you feeling naked in the eyes of the airports? Are these efforts really making people safer?
No, Sugars said, and she called all these measures another bad idea from an over regulating government.
“It’s window dressing,” she said. “What you go through at the airport is window dressing. Pilots were taught, prior to 9-11, if you got hijacked, you comply. Typically when a plane got hijacked, people wanted to get somewhere – ‘Take me to Cuba or I’ll slit this woman’s throat.’ “
Suicide bombers changed that, and today, she said, the major security device has been to make it virtually impossible for a terrorist to get into the cockpit to take control of the plane.
“We’re secured the cockpit,” she said. “We’ve armored the cockpit door. The doors are now bulletproof. Now the pilots can stay in the cockpit securely while people in the cabin are being murdered.”
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