Air Travel and the “Kick the Dog” Syndrome.

The forward cabin door closed with a kerthunk and its warning light winked out on the overhead panel.

My first officer said, “You know, this is still a pretty good job once the door’s closed.” I nodded and keyed the interphone mike to called the ramp crew chief in the tug below. “Brakes are released, stand by for push clearance.”

He was right, of course: once we close and seal that door we’re on our own, free of “supervision” and the hassles that come with it. Now all decisions rest on the flight deck; each can be handled sensibly, quietly, without abstract criticism and senseless third-party interference.

But when is this not a “pretty good job?” Well, usually any time we’re not on our own–which is when the cabin door is open. Because besides the usual hurdles required to pass through an airport–gates, passengers, baggage, maintenance, cargo, restricted items, law enforcement travelers, fuel, engine service, catering–there’s one major side effect of the financial and managerial failures endemic to the Post-9/11 airline industry:

The “Kick the Dog” syndrome. And unfortunately, everyone gets to be the dog sometime at the airport.

The Urban Dictionary defines “Kick the Dog Syndrome” as “[t]he act of mistreating a peer or someone inferior to you out of frustration because a superior (whom you can’t argue with) has treated you poorly.”

Everyone in the airline and airport biz has been beaten thoroughly and regularly from the top down. Everyone’s reaching the boiling point from drastic pay cuts, stripped retirements, increased work, longer hours and less rewards than ever.

The airport is a combat zone populated with disgruntled airline employees, besieged concession workers and overwrought passengers. As a result, the trickle-down effect of the industry’s harsh austerity causes an inevitable reversal of polarity: surely as a methane gas bubble raced from the ocean floor five miles to the ocean’s surface and blew the hell out of the B.P. oil rig in the Gulf, air travel is right at the flashpoint of anger.

Tremors that indicate something ready to blow, someone on the verge of “kicking the dog?” Here are the classic examples that tell me for someone, I’m the dog:

1. Long day, many legs, bad weather–but it’s finally over. The whole crew’s dead tired, trudging to the hotel pick-up spot.

No hotel van.

We’re on time; same schedule as always. No van. Flight attendants look at me sidelong . . . do something, captain. Too many captains simply don’t, but I’m not one of them. I dial the hotel on my cell phone.

“Hi, the flight crew from 1157 at the airport waiting for pick-up . . .”

Pause. Then whoever answers the phone at the hotel says, “The van should be there.”

Now I’m ready to kick the dog. I know the van should be here–but if it was, would I be calling? Do I really need to know it “should” be here? Are we all just stupid: the van’s really here, we’re just calling the hotel for the hell of it?

Not gonna kick the dog, not gonna kick the dog. “I know that,” you dumbass I say only in my head. “Can you tell me how much longer it’s going to be? We have a short layover and if necessary, we’ll take cabs.”

Pause. “Well, we won’t pay for cabs.”

Note to self: Prozac. Valium. Yoga. Nine Milimeter. Whatever it takes.

2. Quick turn in Las Vegas. Gotta grab some food and get back on board to pre-flight. Hmmm, Burger King is near our gates; I even have exact change. I wait in line.

Finally, my turn. “I’d like a veggie burger with no pickles.”

The guy in the paper hat smirks. “The veggie burger doesn’t have pickles on it.”

So why do you have to say anything, other than “Okay,” then take my money? Don’t kick the dog, don’t kick the dog.

“Well, then put one on it then take it off because I don’t want one.”

Okay, I kind of “nudged” the dog. He deserved it.

3. Checking the destination weather back at the home drome. Chance of thunderstorms both en route at in the terminal area just popped up. Plus, I know from experience that we won’t get our cruise altitude right away due to outbound traffic from another major hub. Better call for more fuel.

A quick cell phone discussion with the airline dispatcher–he agrees and sends the updated release fuel to the station. Then a courtesy call on the radio to the station staff: “We’re going to add another thousand pounds of fuel.” From the station: “Stand by.”

I can feel it coming . . .

Finally, on the station frequency: “The fueler says you don’t need more fuel.”

Sigh. Did I ask the fueler if I need more fuel? Am I confused and can’t read the fuel gages myself and so was checking with him, especially knowing he doesn’t feel like driving back out to add more? No doubt, he’s checked the weather en route and we’ll just go with his judgment on this.

Don’t kick the dog . . . don’t kick the dog . . . “Uh, we’ll need another thousand pounds; he’ll be getting the fuel slip from dispatch any minute. When we get it, we’ll go.”

Just in case the Operations people forgot that we might have requested more fuel, not that I’m unclear on the amount on board. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

Operations: “Well, no one else has asked for more fuel today.”

Who the hell cares what anyone else has done? Who’s responsible for my flight–and who’ll answer for anything that goes wrong in the next thousand miles? Well honestly, I’d tell the FAA inquiry, they said no one else has asked for more fuel so I didn’t.

Before I could kick the dog, my First Officer jumped on the Ops frequency: “Ask the fueler if he’d like to add the thousand here, or drive about five hundred miles down the road and refuel us when we divert.”

Good answer! A kind of “nudge” to the dog.

I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that once we’re underway, things go more smoothly. But meanwhile, if you’re walking through the terminal, reconsider whether you really need to ask the flightcrew people you pass where the bathroom is (especially when they’re on their cellphones, grabbing a minute between flights to communicate with home), or whether you must ask them the “20-questions” starter, “am I in the right place?”

Just don’t ask or better yet, think before you do. This simple advice might make life smoother for your dog when you get home.

46 Responses to “Air Travel and the “Kick the Dog” Syndrome.”

  1. Haha I loved your veggie burger line! Your blog was very funny. I definitely sympathize with what’s been happening with all the airline employees. I heard about British Airways recent strike, what airline do you work with?

  2. What a great blog! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. I will never bother a flight attendant.

  4. Great post! Very fun to read. Definitely had me laughing because I can relate these instances to ones in my own field of work. 🙂

  5. Michael Rosenbaum Says:

    And there’s no combat pay for the dogs, who are the first and last connection to, um, the customer. Senior management cuts costs and leaves some underpaid gate agent or reservation clerk to deal with the backlash.

    I’m sorry, Mabel, you’re not the one who’s at fault here, but you are the one who’s here. So, let me tell you all the things wrong with your airline….

    I did a post on Undercover Boss and what it reveals about the business practices that create this syndrome, if you’d like to check it out @

  6. They have a show in Sweden at the Stockholm airport, and man I tell ya, I think working there has got to be one of the most frustrating jobs around. Dealing with angry, hurried people all day! I feel for them.

  7. I loved reading this. Thanks for sharing

  8. So many links in the chain. I’m impressed that you’ve managed to stay sane :mrgreen:

  9. Great blog! How true it is that “Kicking the dog” makes it way in both directions Top to the bottom and also from the bottom to the top and it doesn’t take long to travel either direction.

    I just got my PPL last month at age 50 and I love the comment intended for the FAA about no one else asking for fuel. I always check my own fuel and don’t take the word of anyone else about how much fuel I will need especially when they are trying to talk me out of more fuel.

    The last commercial flight my daughter and I took from MPLS to Springfield, MA was great. The crew was pleasant and it was one of our more enjoyable flights. No one was “Kicking the Dog” that day.

  10. blackwatertown Says:

    Very good. Interesting read. I’m glad you’re able to mellow out slightly once the doors have gone ker-thunk. You might be cheered up to think that you’re not flying in this particular plane

  11. We haven’t had the opportunity to fly anywhere for years, and while I have felt bad about that in the past, after reading your blog, I will gratefully get into our little Honda Civic and make the 7-hour trip to the Oregon Coast, being thankful for the limited legroom in a compact car (because it is more than what I would get in coach class), the squabbling in the back seat (because it comes from people I know, and not strangers), and the squashy sandwiches and stale cookies (because at least it’s food and it didn’t add $50 to the ticket price).
    Oh, and because it will only take 7 hours to get to our destination.

  12. Awwwwwwww, poor baby! Did you have a stressful day then? Welcome to the real world.

  13. Hilarious post but unfortunately so true. Amazing how this kind of behavior transcends industries. It sounds familiar, yet I am no pilot. Keep your cool head and your humor!

  14. On a recent flight, I could hear the frustration in the pilots voice as he waited impatiently for the catering truck to arrive – it was 45 minutes late. He did his best to make up time but the odds were stacked against him. I know the catering truck driver probably received a good booting – I’d feel sorry for him except I was sitting by the door where the driver brought his goods…. he voiced his opinion of the polit and the air lines rather loudly. Stating he was in the middle of lunch and the pilot could wait another 15 minutes… Here’s hoping his pessimistic out look on things grew to a cheery optomistic out look shortly afterwards.

    All in all though, it is really nice to know pilots are human too.

  15. I like the comic about ‘put a pickle on and take it off because I don’t want pickles’ – I have been in restaurants and heard people make silly statements like. “Do you have a strawberry shake? “yes” ‘Okay, good I will have a chocolate one’. It is almost like they speak for the sake of speaking or is that what I am doing right now. …

  16. izziedarling Says:

    This is very interesting. The stupid airlines need to take better care of you all – jeez. Promise never to kick any pilots or flight attendants. As for those who run the airlines – NO PROMISES! Stay safe.

  17. liked reading your blog. having travelled extensively, I do agree with all what you are saying. But from a passenger point of view…as one who took over 140 intercontinental flights a year for over 5 years, you indeed become less tolerant towards anybody on board or at a a terminal…my blog entry today will explain more. In the mean time, happy landings.

  18. Raul Alanis Says:

    So what happens if you pet the dog? I think it’s a logical question.

  19. […] is the original post: Air Travel and the “Kick the Dog” Syndrome. « JetHead's Blog Share […]

  20. you see, this is why blogging is such a beautiful thing! how else would I get to hear the daily trials of an airline pilot? especially what with that stupid volcanic ash cloud ruining everything for pilots over here in Europe… a very entertaining read, thankyou!

  21. Dennis Magnusson Says:

    Good stuff. Can’t believe a fueler would actually say that. Good follow up picture.

  22. Bruce Emory Says:


  23. Richard Says:

    Nice analogy, similar to ‘sh*t rolling downhill’ but not as messy. Sometimes you’re the boot, sometimes you’re the dog, as the great philosopher Wu Wei put it.

  24. Brilliant post, laughed a lot and nice to know how it all goes on the inside!

  25. Songbird Says:

    LoL… I feel your pain….

  26. ..I love to travel but have not thought about what it’s like from your pov…thanks for the insight…very funny posting and I think we all have had moments when we’d like to say what we are really thinking….



  27. nice read. Also I like the naming “Kick the dog”. What did you mean by it?

  28. That was awesome. Very funny. Thank you for all you do to keep travelers safe. You guys have a hard job and don’t get the consideration you deserve.

  29. braeraye Says:

    Great post. Very entertaining (:

  30. Came across this quite by random, from a DC-10 page on FB (my dad was an engineer at McDonnell Douglas in from the mid-60’s to the mid-70’s) …

    Very interesting. I find air travel today incredible stressful, especially if any transfers are involved, and have had many bad experiences in the past several years. But I have always loved planes and flying and am a bit regretful I never even got a basic private pilot’s license. My great uncle was a commander on a B-24 crew first over Germancy in ’44 and later over the Pacific – he died at the end of the war on takeoff from Guam when one of the engines revved out of control and the plane flipped and crashed and burned.

    It is very interesting and enjoyable to hear your pilot’s perspective. For a while there I was on some flights, maybe United?, where you plug the headset into the armrest and one of the many channels is to listen to transmissions between the plane and the various control towers. Really enjoyed hearing about altitude and speed, requests for route and altitude changes by the pilots, hearing traffic control jurisdiction change over, hearing an approval for a direction change with new compass heading, leaning over and tell my wife “hey we’re going to bank slightly right here shortly” to which she showed not the faintest shred of interest (laugh) and then we banked to the right – only thing better would be to actually be sitting in the cockpit flying.

    My best friend in high school – his dad was an ex-Royal Navy pilot from South Africa who was then a TWA pilot for a while, and ran the Flight Safety International in Wichita at one point (we got to fly the flight simulator once!) before quitting because of the stress and away time and when they moved south he was a private pilot for a rich guy, but then that turned out to be stressful, too. Then he retired and did lots of fishing and puttering and grilling. He has now passed (God bless him), but i always enjoyed his passion for flying, his tremendous sense of humor, and his many stories.

    Will try to remember to stop by this blog now and then and get bits and pieces of your pilot perspective. Thanks for writing and for flying!


    • We used to have a camera in the DC-10 cockpit aimed over the captain’s shoulder to show the take-off and landing on the screens in the cabin. Also had the air to ground communications on one of the passenger entertainment channels. I think United still has the communications on their widebody passenger entertainment channel.

      Thanks for stopping by–come back soon!

  31. I had a flight attendant yell for 10 minutes on a phone call at the gate saying things like “I”m gonna f*ing kill you” then get on the plane to work. Someone was bold enough to ask who she was talking to and she answered “my boss.” Yeah, awesome. Can’t tell if her boss was the problem or the fact that she felt the union protected her from getting fired.

    • That’s pretty funny. Not the part about her allegedly talking to her boss and you eavesdropping, but the part about you thinking you–or anyone else–could draw a conclusion about unions in general or her in particular from your voyeur story.

  32. I have great respect for Pilots and thanks for showing us the other side of flying! We have not a clue what goes on behind the scenes. Glad guys like you are behind the wheel.

  33. Nice post, thanks for sharing some behind the scenes. Funny.

  34. This blog is very good. Thanks for this. I will bookmark this page..

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