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Covering transportation: Common errors and how to avoid them

airportA jet with 130 passengers on board is reported to have had an engine go out on approach for landing. The captain is in communication with air traffic control, seeking permission to land on a different runway. TV goes live. Against images of the plane gliding in for a landing, the anchors speak in hushed tones, seemingly awaiting a scene of destruction on the ground or heroic action by the pilots to avert disaster.

What you won’t hear is that every airplane in commercial service in the United States is designed to operate with one engine malfunctioning. An aircraft cannot get certified by the Federal Aviation Administration otherwise.

Pilots are required to undergo periodic training in so-called unusual attitudes. Landing with an engine out is considered one of the less unusual. Unless it implodes with shrapnel puncturing a hydraulic line or creating a hole in a wing, an engine malfunction may be a non-event.

Overreaction to common incidents that rarely if ever endanger passenger safety – an engine out, a blown tire, landing gear stuck in the down position – may be the most prevalent error in covering transportation. It may ruin credibility with sources and expose the reporters – often with justification – to charges of “sensationalism.”

Other types of incidents to check out, but keep in check:

airplane takeoffUnscheduled landings. These are almost always precautionary, often over something as minor as a malfunctioning cockpit light. Veteran airline reporter Ted Reed, of TheStreet.com, recalls that a US Airways redeye flight from Las Vegas from Charlotte would often have to make unscheduled landings to have drunk passengers removed.

Bird strikes. The “Miracle on the Hudson” landing in January 2009 by US Airways Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, after both of his plane’s engines sucked in geese and stopped working after taking off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, raised awareness of the issue but was a once-in-years event. Bird strikes are a costly problem for the airlines because they can ruin engine components, but they’re rarely emergencies since the chances of flocks of birds being sucked into both engines simultaneously is so small.

Security incidents, in part because airport personnel bring on the overreaction by clearing out terminals if they think someone may have gone through security checkpoints without being cleared. “There’s never been a terror incident that stemmed from somebody erroneously going through security at the airport – never,” Reed says.

About the Author

Bernie Kohn is a team leader for transportation and infrastructure policy at Bloomberg News. He's a 27-year journalism veteran, nearly all of those years in business writing and editing, and is a past president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

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