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.