Sloppy Reporting On Flight Problems

There’s a reason aviation buffs, employees of the airline industry and frequent fliers are disdainful of the media:  sloppy reporting. I noticed some on Thursday, when a United flight from Bradley to Chicago diverted to Albany with possible engine trouble.

The stories on the Albany Times-Union’s Web site and looked fine to me. (Of course I work for, so I may be biased.)  But some TV station Web sites got things pretty twisted up.

The headline on one Connecticut TV station’s site said the jet’s engine failed. The story didn’t bear that out and it’s clear from several other reports that a warning light came on and the cockpit crew turned the engine off, which is standard procedure. (If an engine warning and engine failure are the same thing, my Buick died a thousand deaths.)

The same story said the United jet was a Boeing 747. It was a 757. That’s not an arcane distinction. The 747 is a much larger aircraft with four engines. The 757 has two. Also, there are no scheduled passenger flights out of Bradley on a 747 – on any airline.

Another TV station started its story with the phrase "Scary moments for passengers …" without citing any passengers who said they were scared. Yet another station mentioned a " scare in the air" with nothing to back it up. A 757 can fly just fine with one engine.

A few stations got breathless with the News Channel Whatever has learned stuff about when the plane took off and other details. I imagine they learned all that from or FlightAware. Within minutes of hearing about this plane being diverted, anyone could go on FlightAware and get all the details, including a map of the flight path.

I know about the competitive, cut-throat, cost-cutting pressures that reporters and news outlets are under these days. And I know that all of us – even sanctimonious travel bloggers – make mistakes. That’s why I’m not naming names and linking links.

But when I talk to people who know about commercial aviation and when I read their message boards, I run across lots of complaints about how the media so often get the details wrong in cases like this one. If the reporter couldn’t get the kind of plane right, they wonder, what else did he or she get wrong?

Yet I’m convinced that most reporters can get the story right. Even in this case, at least one TV station did. I thought Capital News 9 in Albany did a good job and kept the story in perspective.


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