Air Travel and Sundae Prayers.

There are things we expect, things we ask for, and things that drop in our lap. The hard part is knowing the difference and at the same time, appreciating our own good fortune without any further questions. But that’s just not human nature–gratitude and minimal expectations–is it?

Let me start with myself, for the sake of full disclosure–and don’t worry, I’ll get to you as well.

I’ve been flying jets long enough to be Category 3 qualified, which in my jet means I’m certified to hand-fly down to fifty feet above the runway in dense fog or obscured skies, day or night, to land if it looks to me to be prudent.

And yet, having done this for most of my life, that’s not where the extraordinary satisfaction of the workday comes from. Maybe it’s intangible, or more accurately, a tacit reward you get out of the blue (pun intended), and maybe even that itself seems pretty mundane compared to what you’d think would matter about driving eighty tons of pig iron around the sky.  But here it is:

“Sundaes,” I was told by a very wise senior flight attendant when I was a very junior airline pilot, “are like a blowjob: if offered, you take it–but you never ask.” Maybe that’s why it’s special when that offer comes. But throughout the years, I never ask. Which is why this is more the norm:

Don’t get me wrong–I love flying one of the most advanced technology birds in the sky, I thrive on the challenges and the minute demands inherent in every flight. But I’m way beyond anyone’s stereotype of this job, and more like the stereotype of every job.

I have little or no patience for other than the essentials of flight. I’ll say up front that I’ll do anything to help the very young, the very old, those who don’t speak the language and those with special needs. But other than that, I do my best to remain invisible. Because overall, like you, I’m just trying to get through the workday without hassles or repercussions.

Now, shall we move on, and in fact, move back?

These are my colleagues on the far side of that armored and thank God, bolted shut flight deck door. They have to deal with hundreds–you read that right–hundreds of passengers a day. Yes, that’s their job, and they’re damn good at it, better than I’d ever dream of being (see above). But there’s more to it than meets your eye.

He or she has been working nonstop for several days by the time you board, in many cases. That includes the hassles of hotels and transportation, little sleep or food due to schedule constraints, and throw on the added stress of increased hours and decreased pay, the industry standard, and the end result is predictable if you put yourself into the situation. Flashback–here’s me meeting The Missuz after one of her 3-day death marches, particularly when she was on callout reserve:

Probably will be no “sundaes” in the near future in this typical scenario, not that I’d ask. Because she, like most flight attendants in the sky, has just spent several days being deliberately nice to many people who don’t know the meaning of the word. So, you get the point: for all of the good parts about a flexible schedule, travel privileges (a cruel hoax, I say, but that’s another subject) and escape from any kind of office-bound (ugh) or desk-bound (yikes) work day, there is as you have to expect the grind-aspect of any job.

Now, let’s get to “the traveling public,” or as we like to say, “the pax.” I believe that there may be a common preconception among a large portion of “the pax” that may be less than accurate:

And the major contrast between the visualization–actually, the idealization–of air travel like this is not all on the crew side of the daydream. Rather, some of the dreamers show up out of costume for their own daydream:

No sundaes for you, probably ever–not that you’d need one, but you probably would ask. But the point is this: we’re all big on aspirations, but how about the follow-through? We’re certainly all human, but where’s the balance between expectations and obligations? Is there any connection between the way we act and what we get in return?

I’d like to think too that some of the behavior we see in the travel arena is different than what you’d see at the homes of everyone on the plane, but I guess I shouldn’t assume that. Regardless, the point is this: we all have expectations that rely on others, but sometimes it’s hard to remember that others have expectations of us as well. Pilots, flight attendants, passengers–we all tend to forget that.

But if you forget, the results are predictable. Which is why, as the senior flight attendant explained to me, when it comes to sundaes or anything else of a special nature in the air travel realm: if it’s offered, take it; otherwise, just don’t ask.


9 Responses to “Air Travel and Sundae Prayers.”

  1. Chris: You are a really talented cartoonist.

    I try hard not to take out frustrations on folks who didn’t cause my ire, although that can be really challenging when dealing with on phone customer service reps whose English is negligible. Clerks, university staff, and airline/airport employees are nearly always surprisingly gracious and efficient – it is easy to be gracious back.

    I keep coming back to what may be some of the explanation (aside from personality) – it seems like people who fly infrequently get quite frustrated with all the changes that occur over the six months between flights. And, as a passenger, I definitely see among my friends and fellow-passengers an increased love of grumbling about all things flight-oriented.

    Lots of people fly way more than me, but since I fly 1-2 times a month and am hyper-organized, the challenges and changes quickly become routine and less stressful. And I think being curious about planes, airlines, and flying (including reading yours and Patrick’s columns and listening to the Come fly with me podcast) makes things that much more interesting and fun.

    So, we’re all at work – me flying between meetings, the flight attendants keeping us safe and semi-hydrated, and the flight crew getting us there safe and on time. It’s a lot more enjoyable to cut everyone some slack and enjoy the process as much as possible.

    It’s lovely that the stuff that gives you the most kick is someone being out of the blue really kind as when they bring you a surprise sundae.


    • I try to envision the air travel environment like my dentist’s office: he’s perfectly at home in the environment, has seen it all a hundred times, just wants to get through his workday. I, on the other hand, am in his office at most twice a year and it’s anything but a familiar, relaxed environment.

      Folks passing through the travel system have little control over the big things that can affect their flights. Meaning, of course, delays, which go to the heart of the matter: if you’re on a trip, you have a schedule, your time is constrained whether by vacation, work or other scheduled events at one end or the other. That’ll get the heart rate up like mine in the dentist’s office.

      Unfortunately, though, many travelers contribute to their own frustration by not having their travel details handy: flight numbers, dates, times–in hand, not buried in a carry-on or stuffed in a wad of papers. You can’t get assistance if you can’t provide those basics. Some people don’t even know what kind of ticket they’re on, whether it allows for changes–which a lot bought on the mega-websites like Travelocity DO NOT allow (why do they think the price is so low?).

      I get what you’re saying about the changes made between booking and then six months later, traveling. That can be short-stopped ahead of time by checking on the reservations once or twice between booking and traveling. That’s pretty easy to do on-line, or on the phone.

      Nothing passengers can do about delays due to weather or aircraft maintenance or crew shortages–but they sure can have the airline’s re-booking phone number in a cell phone ahead of time to be able to skip the lines for re-booking that only add to frustration.

      In the end, though, it comes down to how people act under stress. “Please” and “thank” you seems to be the first thing out the window when frustrations arise as they’re bound to do in air travel, but they’re also the easiest components of a constructive interaction with anyone who could help. Air travel can be difficult, but with planning and a little personal determination and accountability (“Is my flight on time?” I don’t know–what’s your flight number? “I’m going to Cleveland.” What’s your flight number? “I’m not sure . . .”), it can be smooth enough under most circumstances.

      Now if my dentist’s office would only offer sundaes, even occasionally . . .

    • Hi Chris: Thanks – actually, I didn’t mean that they would experience changes in their ticket between flights.

      I meant that if people only travel twice a year, they are sure to encounter significant changes in the whole system each time that confuse and stress them – new TSA rules, new airline rules, etc. etc. In my experience, this is the group most likely to complain.

      Whereas if someone, like me, travels once or twice a month, any changes in the overall system we encounter are small each time and we’re highly organized and used to flying, so they don’t stress us. Maybe I’m wrong, but in my experience people who fly as much as I do are much less likely to complain than infrequent fliers because we know how things operate and have organized around it. Kathy

  2. Hey Chris, what an excellent blog!

    You know, visits to the dentist is inexorably linked to the number of sundaes you are offered – how’s that for karma??

    I love to travel and do nowhere near enough of it – it’s an adventure! Longest delay – 51 hours and 15 minutes (apparently at 52 hours they refund your ticket – now that’s planning to the minute)

    I go in expecting to be delayed or there be issues and anything else is a bonus – it happens. There’s fun to be had whatever happens……

    All the best

    Dave from the UK 🙂

  3. I’ll never look at ice cream the same way again.

  4. Cedarglen Says:

    With that experience comes the ability to find and appreciate the humor in most situations, even if only behind your secure door. Thanks for sharing it with your readers. The cartoon’s are wonderful. In the end, ‘what goes around…’ and I’ll take my chances. Thanks for another great post. -Craig

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