Money burnin' a hole in your pocket? For just under $3,000, Fort Lauderdale-based Zero Gravity Corp. will take you on a converted cargo jet into the world of weightlessness. It may be the ultimate thrill. Float around a padded chamber like an astronaut in a space capsule for 30 seconds at a time. Using the same technique that Universal Studios used in filming its space thriller Apollo 13, the trip begins with a steep ascent to more than 30,000 feet. Then, as the pilot begins a 9,000-foot nosedive, passengers do cartwheels in midair.
When Tailpipe, a roller-coaster and Kamikaze devotee from way back, heard about this, he started counting his pennies.
But then the 'Pipe learned just who was playing the role of NASA to ticket-buying astronauts. Zero Gravity uses planes flown by upstart airline Amerijet International Inc. , a Fort Lauderdale company whose security has been questioned by the Federal Aviation Administration and two whistleblower lawsuits. The suits claim that employees routinely skip training and that managers ignore safety concerns. Michael Moulis, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who filed the suits, says the company has the potential to become another ValuJet, whose DC-9 went down in the Everglades on May 11, 1996, when oxygen canisters caught fire in the cargo hold.
"They're playing with fire," Moulis contends. "If you fail to do safety checks and properly train employees, as they're doing, sooner or later, you're going to bring an airplane down."
In one suit, former pilot Pat Major claimed Amerijet ignored him when he said planes were too laden with cargo to fly. On August 17, 1999, Major claims that standing water on the runway at Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport required the plane to be lighter but that he was told to take off anyway. Major complained the next day in a report submitted to supervisors, and he was then fired. Last year, a federal jury in Fort Lauderdale found that he had been wrongfully dispatched and awarded him $522,120. Major says Amerijet's safety problems still haven't got the attention they should. "This is an airline that has fallen between the cracks," he says.
In July, Amerijet's former director of safety and airline security, Larry Bond, claimed he was demoted for bringing up concerns over unsafe conditions. Bond contends that Amerijet employees and independent contractors who load the planes have not undergone safety training to identify hazardous cargo. The suit says Bond was demoted a day after sending his superiors an e-mail, on June 23, 2003, about the untrained workers. "This flies in the face of September 11 and all the extra security we're supposed to have," Moulis says.
Pam Rollins, Amerijet's vice president of business development, declined to discuss the lawsuits. She said the company has a clean record on safety. "If [the claims in the suit] were the case, I'm sure the regulatory agencies that govern us would have done something about it."
In fact, seven years ago, the FAA did do something about Amerijet's safety record. On Christmas Eve 1997, Amerijet voluntarily ceased operations after an FAA inspection that found several violations. The inspectors discovered "significant" problems with the cargo handling program, according to FAA documents. The airline resumed flights three days later but under close FAA scrutiny.
Still, the FAA approved Amerijet earlier this year to begin the country's first commercial zero-gravity flights. The company has done 30 so far, Rollins says, giving its passengers 15 dizzying, gravity-free plunges per flight. And it's entering peak season, Rollins adds. The next flight is scheduled for December 30, and tickets are still available. Tailpipe is saving his three grand for that long-dreamed-of canoe trip down some Bolivian waterfalls.
Everybody from CityPlace to the Okeechobee on-ramp to the Turnpike wants to know what the electronic message board said that morning on Dixie Highway. Everybody who wasn't there, that is. Tailpipe now has the real, unblurred-out communication, which was posted on November 23 by an unidentified message-board hacker.
A few words to set the scene: Motorists in West Palm Beach have been doing a slow simmer, fast increasing to a rolling boil, as the Florida Department of Transportation conducts three construction projects in the downtown area. The jobs include a three-quarter-mile stretch of Dixie Highway.
On that sunny morning just before Thanksgiving, an electronic sign board there, at Seventh Avenue and Dixie, notified drivers in bumper-to-bumper traffic of delays, with an addendum: "I AM MAD TOO -- LOIS." It was a clear attempt by West Pam Beach's irascible Mayor Lois Frankel that, hey, it wasn't us who did this to you.
Two weeks after that message's appearance, though, somebody with both computer and burglary skills broke into the roadside sign in the predawn darkness and did a little rejiggering. For a few hours, until workers succeeded in turning the thing off, motorists were treated to the succinct "FUCK YOU BITCH."
Says West Palm City Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell: "The woman has rubbed every last nerve of every person living in the north part of the city."
Fourth and Long
So much for shameless groveling to get butts into the seats at an athletic event.
Florida Atlantic University's football program needed a big crowd at its final home game Saturday to clinch admission to the NCAA Division I. It was supposed to be the team's ticket to the big time. Venerable FAU Coach Howard Schnellenberger was having flashbacks to 1983, when his University of Miami team edged Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to capture the national championship. All the scrappy Owls needed to be a contender was the bounty that comes from vying with Big Boys: television contracts, bowl bids, heavy demand for tickets, the attention of promising high school prospects.
But there remained one little stumbling block. To prove that the school is worthy of Division I status, the Owls had to draw at least 15,000 fans per home game. Four times before the December 4 face-off with Florida International University, the Owls had attracted a puny combined total of 37,659. To reach the magic number, then, FAU needed almost that many (37,341) in one game.
Well, P.T. Barnum -- or even Bill Veeck -- Schnellenberger is not. The suckers weren't biting on Saturday. The school virtually opened the stadium doors. There was free admission for students. Not just FAU students -- any students, whether they were kindergartners from a Fort Lauderdale elementary school or 70-year-old graduate students at the University of Miami. That little gambit not only failed to bring in the masses; it deprived the football program of much-needed revenue.
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"We were ready to pay," said 31-year-old Daniel Dotti of Aventura, a frequent attendee. "But they gave us coupons to get in free. How do you like that?"
The open-door policy was paired with a sad half-time entertainment in which five randomly selected fans grubbed around on all fours on the playing field, frantically stuffing their shirts with fake dollar bills in the "Million-Dollar Scramble." (The total giveaway: $22,249.) Then there was the live musical performance -- an R&B singer named Adela filled in for rap performers the Ying Yang Twins (who were hastily axed when somebody at FAU finally noticed their x-rated lyrics). Of course, Adela could have been inciting a terrorist armageddon for all anybody knew -- her words were virtually unintelligible as they piped through the PA and echoed around the sparsely populated stadium a half-beat behind the taped accompaniment.
So how many people came? Officially, 16,262, though, as far as Tailpipe could tell, the sprinkling of fans in the vast 75,000-seat Pro Player Stadium looked a lot closer to 5,000.
The good news was that FAU won the game, outlasting FIU 17-10. Bad news was that FAU may have to go back to square one, unless the NCAA gives it another year to meet the grade. Athletic Director Craig Angelos says the fans should take the long view -- the long, long view: "In 100 years, it won't matter, and we'll be right up there with everybody else." The 'Pipe suspects that the crotchety, 70-year-old Schnellenberger might get tired of beating the FAU drum before then.