Archive for the layover Category

Vuelo Loco: Tennyson, Dead Fish and Mexico City.

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, airport, faith, fart, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, food, jet, lavatory, layover, life, pilot with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2011 by Chris Manno

Listen, I’m a fan of Mexico. Really, I am.

What’s not to like about Mexico City? Always looked forward to those downtown layovers–it was part of my job–but they’re scary dangerous. Probably not for the reason you think though.

I mean, sure, there’s plenty of drug violence. And yes, I did have to dodge through four lanes of traffic to evade a scroungy-looking cop trying to shake me down once, but he was either too lazy or too smart to chase me through the insane downtown traffic.

And yes, plenty of people with questionable intent in a city of 20 million, where you could simply disappear, kind of like the city itself  is doing, slowly sinking into its own aquifer. And okay, maybe I did roll the dice in a sense, as an instructor-evaluator taking pilots down to Mexico City every month, showing them the safe way to fly in and out of the mountain bowl.

Well, it’s not even really this “thread-the-needle-through-mountains” approach and usually, through thunderstorm alley that was like playing craps weekly. And it’s not really that I minded the always slick (memo to Mexico City Airport: the rest of the world cleans the reverted rubber off of their runways every year or two, so get a clue) runway with the puddle in the middle that you hit doing about 150 and exit two thousand feet later at about 149.

More, actually, was requiring the qualifying pilot have a beverage and a Cuban at an outdoor cafe on the traffic circle outside the Presidente Hotel. The bar–Karishma–is where a whole crew got mugged one night. They noticed that suddenly the place was empty save the two airline crews enjoying tapas and the generously poured (“Tell me when to stop pouring, Senor”) refreshments there. Then suddenly, watches, rings, wallets–buh-BYE, as we like to say.

So to be on the “safe” side, we sat outside on the traffic circle–maybe more witnesses?–and since it was my idea, I made sure my back was to the building, so the new guy got to sit with his back to the insane traffic, puffing a Cuban (relaxing–but mandatory) and enjoying a refreshment, maybe getting a shoeshine from the roving vendors who’d magically appear, ignoring the demolition derby mere feet away.

Hey, might as well get the full flavor: massive city (did I mention 20 MILLION people?), exotic neighborhoods of jumbled steel and glass elbowing in between with castellated stone architecture, snarled in the clogged highways like the arteries of a fat man. You watch the traffic and muse over your beverage, how the hell do they do this five way intersection without a traffic light?

And then on the side streets of The Polanco, maybe a quieter sidewalk cafe where I actually did much of my doctoral exam study: outside, books piled, good coffee, usually a thunderstorm in the afternoon that made me glad I wasn’t trying to fly a jet in or out at that moment. Out of nowhere, it seemed, in the afternoon towering big-shouldered thunderheads would roll through the mountain pass with raggedy sheets of torrential rain and thunder that echoed through canyons of concrete and steel, the reverberations so fitting to Tennyson’s “Ulysses” marching across the page before me toward the inexorable doom awaiting us all.

Harder to relax at dinner, though, when you were concentrating on the guard dog staring at your plate and whatever you were having for dinner. The armed guard restraining the dog had his eye on you and the plate alternately, and you had to wonder if either or both of them might figure that the dinner and your wallet might tip the scale in favor of mutiny. It was a stand-off in Mexico: the guard and dog making sure banditos didn’t mug you while you ate–but then the silently menacing pair themselves having to resist the hunger and temptation to rebid the transaction in more favorable terms.

And it’s not even the “one-eye-open” sleep in the airport high rise hotel with the un-level floors from the tipped buildings patiently waiting to tremble and topple in the next big quake they know is coming soon.

You wake up the next morning with the feeling of relief: ahh, The Big One they’ve been expecting didn’t happen while you slept, crushing you in tons of rubble that will take about ten years–if ever–to remove.

No, I’m talking about this:

That’ll eat you alive. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I was heading down to Mexico City for the umpteenth time and my favorite cousin was there with her husband who worked for the U.S. Department of State. “Hey, want to meet for dinner?”

Okay, I already know why not–I’ve been in the airline crew biz a looooong time: relatives don’t get it, you’re not on vacation; time does matter, sleep too.

“Sure, why not?” Because I’m an idiot–and here’s why. We’re going out for Mexican, traditional, right? I mean, we’re in Mexico-friggin-City, right? Enchiladas? Queso? Fajitas?

No.

We’re doing Mexican-Asian fusion, which means I’m eating raw fish in Mexico: salmon carpaccio, pictured above. Delicious. Amazing! Immodium, amen. That didn’t take long.

The fever lasted about a week. The shower nozzle effect (any chance of scheduling a colonoscopy? I’m prepped, just for the hell of it) lasted a couple weeks. Thanks cuz.

Forget banditos. Who cares about high altitude aircraft performance, up-sloping mountainous terrain and treacherous rolling thunderstorms. The real danger’s on the plate.

Yes, I love Mexico City. Just don’t go there unarmed, okay?

Mach Speed Tumbleweed

Posted in air travel, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight attendant, flight crew, hotels, jet, layover, life, night, passenger, pilot, travel, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2011 by Chris Manno

A battle rages in silence. You don’t want to get involved–but you are, you realize slowly.

Exactly where is it 5am?

You don’t want to know.

No, I do. The sinking feeling. It’s not home, is it?

Told you you didn’t want to know.

Damn. Reno?

No, that was last night.

Montreal?

The night before.

Palm Beach. Not home. Home got away–again.

How many miles from here to home? Not distance–I get that–flown, I mean? How many more? Flight hours like matchsticks: light ’em off one by one, watch them burn down, then out. Slowly, in the glow, you get it: midway through a four day. Just what you didn’t want to wake to. But do.

So, that was last night: late, always, bone tired too from hotel sleep somewhere else.

That’s here, middle of the night here, before you messed it up. Spartan. Antiseptic. Do not disturb. A trail of clothes from the door to the bed–worry about everything else tomorrow.

Sleep, and it’s that dream again: you can find the gate, find the plane, but there’s no door from the gate to the plane. Which is the way home, of course. No way home–just the waiting place, halls of marked time and any old place.

Gertrude Stein nailed it: “there’s no there there,” in that space between places, the waiting–the island between going and getting there. Or getting home. There’s the irony: for those who make their living going, and carrying others who are on the way too, the idyll would be staying, not going, being home. No door.

So wake up then. Going to need goggles and a snorkel to wade through this one. Not the stuff you’ll think about later–the weather, the jet, the fuel. Rather, another day not home.

Good dog–you’re ready to swim in the deep blue.  People will ask you questions, like “What’s it like to be a trained dog working in the blue every day?” Or maybe they’ll have something equally inane more for each other than for you, like “we’ll let him on” or “we need him” as you try to slip by them going to the office. Funny stuff, right? More likely, though, they have to go to the bathroom; they want to share that with you, assuming you have a constant awareness of toilets and locations, like you do with bailout airfields and low fuel contingencies in flight, right? Funny stuff.

Just put all the pieces back together; everything back into the suitcase like the crammed heap that sprang out twelve hours ago. Kind of like behind the scenes Disney: Mickey puts on his fiberglass head with the permanent smile–then out he goes. Down to the lobby, out to the curb: vantastic! Off to whatever aeropuerto in whatever city.

Just get me to the gig. Snake through the masses herding across the wide-open plains, grazing, mooing; hoofbeats at a shuffle.

The ants go marching out again, hurrah. Step around, mind the Mickey head. Wind your way through; heft the bags, schlep the bags, onward to the gate. Show your ID: yeah, it’s Mickey. Let him on board.

Nothing purtier than precious metal, all eighty tons of her:

She’s your big ol’ dance partner, every song, every leg, and just like you: all about the getting there–but not staying. Folks trundle off, more trundle on; makes no difference. We do our same dance steps, carefully and deliberately without art. Over and over–same old song. You know the words:

We say Mass for the Earth, the litany of escape–then we leave, but everyone still in their pews, seatbelts on and tray tables stowed. Then the aluminum conga line–every-buddy-CON-ga– to the runway. This:

In this:

Into the blue, the higher the better: the sky is denim, comfy as jeans. Good for hanging out, soft, simple, warm, comfortable. The good feel when you put them on.

Unpressed and rumpled–doesn’t matter; a little faded, all the better. That’s cruising, ain’t it? It’s like Saturday against your skin. That’s the jailbreak from the suitcase–off with the polyester, and Mickey’s head; jeans, amen.

Soft and comfy as the sky and nearly as distant: nobody knows you without the Mickey head on, and that’s the best. You’re a ghost, anywhere, everywhere–somewhere where no one knows you, and in the middle of the night you won’t remember where anyway.

You just know what it’s not–home; and where it’s not–HOME. And just close your eyes because soon enough, once again: another passage. Sleep.

“. . . life is a watch or a vision

Between a sleep and a sleep.”

–Algernon Swinburne

Holiday Travel Weirdness: The Jethead Chronicles.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airliner, airlines, airport, airport security, cartoon, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, food, jet, lavatory, layover, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2010 by Chris Manno

What is it about holiday season travel that brings out such weirdness? I’m not just talking about the vagrant standing out in front of our favorite Seattle crew hangout with the helpful sign:

He also offered to be my “bodyguard” for $5, but I was with Ben The Dependable Copilot, and Ben’s about 6′ 2″ and weighs in about 220, so I passed. But still.

And even Pike’s Market Place was a little off the game today as well:

So just getting away from the airport doesn’t seem to limit the weirdness this time of year.

Now, at the airport, odd stuff is a given. That’s because odd people still have very little time and so must go by air, I suppose, to share their weirdness with family and friends.

Some folks just don’t get out much, but this being the holiday season, they’re of necessity heading to “somewhere else” and you know what the fastest way is from point “A” to point “B,” right?

Maybe there’s too much of a good thing on either end–eating, drinking, whatever. Problem is, airline crews are kind of stuck in the middle: between wherever “here” and “there” is for the traveling public, our workplace is the waiting room.

I guess folks just make themselves at home, or forget they’re not at home. Either way, our “workplace” is more bizarre than ever during the holidays as a result. The trick is to not only act like you don’t notice (step around the seemingly dead body for whom apparently stretching out on the floor is fine), but to try to act nonchalant when you do–which sometimes is difficult.

The on-board weirdness is predictable, with holiday travelers who are often infrequent flyers. Go ahead, mop the lavatory floor with your socks, Mr. Seldom Travels By Air. I don’t want to even think about it, but I am grateful that at least somebody’s cleaning that outhouse floor, even if the flight attendants are gagging when you do.

Or, go ahead and ask if there’s food on this flight. Has a nice, nostalgic ring to it, especially since there hasn’t been a meal served in coach this century.

I don’t mind for two reasons. One is because no matter how many times airlines, air travel organizations or even travel agents tell you that you need to bring your own food (and water if you want real convenience), you’d rather be surprised.

And second, the cockpit door is locked from the inside, so you can’t see what I’m eating anyway

Whoo-hoo: hot fudge brownies for the crew!

and really, you wouldn’t want to know anyway.  It’s pretty scary up front. Right?

No, honestly, what it is is peaceful. Darling Bride used to come up to the cockpit when we were flying at night and say how it was a cozy cocoon. It is, and I appreciate that–especially compared to what goes on in the back of the plane.

Phoenix glides by 7 miles below.

Gives you time and silence to put things into perspective. When you do, you realize that holiday travel is the best: it’s more than just business or even vacations. It’s families; it’s reunions and gatherings and children. It’s not just air travel, it’s yearlong anticipation of children and adults alike.

Our Chief Pilot–a true leader who voluntarily flies  on every holiday–uses this example to explain: The CEO of Revlon once said, “We don’t sell cosmetics–we sell hope.” Truly, what we do in these holiday travel weeks is just as magic: it’s hope for many, joy for the kids and for the adults who love them.

Come to think of it, weirdness and all, this is a great time of year to be an airline pilot, to fly families and friends to reunions and holiday gatherings.

I’ll be in the air this week–next week too, looking to make somebody’s travel as quick and easy as possible so they to can be with family and friends for the holiday. Really, it’s the least I can do considering they’ll mop up the lav floor without even knowing it.

Stupid Layover Tricks: Sharks In Death Valley.

Posted in air travel, aircraft maintenance, airline delays, airliner, airlines, airport, flight attendant, flight crew, hotels, jet, layover, life, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2010 by Chris Manno

You know how things make sense when you’re doing them but in hindsight, you have to ask yourself, what was I thinking? Well this is one of those times. Being on the road, flying about 200 days a year, it’s really not surprising that it happened on a layover.

Had a Tuscon layover a couple summers ago. My big plan was to get in a good run early, before it got too scorching hot, then some pool time.

And here’s the thing about layovers: that was my plan, I was looking forward to it, it’s what I told myself ahead of time when I was feeling that “I-don’t-want-to-be-away-from-home” pang before a flight sequence: it’ll be fine, a good run, decent Mexican food for dinner.

Great plan. But a problematic jet engine screwed it up: we departed a couple hours late, which meant a late arrival in Tuscon. Add to that the excessively long time it took to get the hotel van to pick us up and by the time I was ready to run . . .

. . . I was pretty well screwed: the temp was over 100 and climbing as the afternoon wore on. The hell with the temp, I decided–and it really was becoming hellish–I’m not going to be denied my run. The whole layover depended on it! I could start out and if it got too hot, just stop and walk back.

So I set off from the hotel running. Found some back roads with shade and honestly, even at 109 degrees, with the shade, without any humidity and at a slower, more cautious pace, the run was more comfortable than back home in the upper 90-degree range with boiling humidity and scorching sunshine. So on I went, carefully, for twenty minutes through a mostly residential area of town.

After twenty minutes, I took a walking break for a minute to take my heart rate: no real problem. And I felt fine.

So I reversed course, hugging the shade as much as possible, heading for the hotel. Then I got that gnawing feeling–and it wasn’t just the heat–that I wasn’t alone. The whole time it had seemed as if I was running through a ghost town: not a creature, a person or pet in sight. But still, I knew I was being watched. I turned around . . .

Creeping along behind me, maybe fifty yards back, a police cruiser. When I stopped, he did too. I started running again, he started creeping along behind me. Finally, I turned around and walked back to the police car. One cop, and he didn’t get out of the car. The window slid down silently.

“What’s up?” I asked.

He tipped his shades down. “Couple people have called 911,” he answered nonchalantly, “figure you must be crazy.”

He let that sink in. Guess there’d been no signs of life outside, but inside the natives had decided only a mental patient would be out running in the afternoon.

“Well I’m almost done,” I said, pointing at the hotel in the distance. “I’m feeling fine.”

“I can’t stop you,” he said. “But it doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.”

I went back to running at a measured pace, but the cop had been a buzzkill: what if he’s right? If the hidden, 911-dialing residents were right? “We gotta ‘nother dumb tourist down,” he’d say on the radio, staying in the car with the furiously blowing air conditioning, “wet cleanup on aisle six.”

Me, road pizza. That’s how it happens–one minute you’re running, the next your heart explodes in the 109 degree heat. Now came the mind games, like when I’d swim laps between bouys in the Pacific: now and again you’d catch a glimpse of someone on shore, pointing. You just knew they were pointing at you, yelling, “Shark!” Which you couldn’t hear . . . but which you’d certainly feel any minute. Yes, I know Death Valley is not in Arizona; but was the shark thing all over again.

Made it to the hotel and started a walking cooldown. The cop car did a u-turn and vanished into a side street. Disappointed? No CPR, unless it was too hot for that. No roadkill.

Regardless, the thrill was gone, probably for both of us. I grabbed the cool beverage I’d had icing down as I ran . . .

. . . then entertained second thoughts about the run. Okay, maybe you can’t always force things in extreme temperature. Maybe the run could have waited till Boston (hate the traffic!) the next day.

Like so many things you look back on in life–and layovers–you have to wonder: what the heck was I thinking?

Between Flights: Faith and Blood Among Strangers.

Posted in air travel, blind faith, faith, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, hotels, layover with tags , , , , , , , on May 16, 2010 by Chris Manno

After landing late and schlepping downtown to Kansas City Westin, woke up to a beautiful Saturday. A green fountain was my first clue that the huge courtyard between the hotel and the Hallmark Center had been transformed.

Whoa. We’d landed in the middle of Kansas City’s Irish Fest. Not in March–say, St. Patrick’s Day. Rather, in early September. You just never know what opportunity you’re going to find when you travel for the sake of the flight–or in my case, my job–instead of for the destination. Who knew there’d happen to be a huge and seemingly cool event at our doorstep.

My First Officer and I sized up the roped-off plaza: food, beer, bands, and a growing crowd. Way cool. But a $9 entrance fee?

Darn. We only had a few hours till we had to be back in the air. Definitely no beer tasting, and nine bucks for a few hours? My F/O shook his head. Not worth it.

Then I noticed the opportunity tent.

“C’mon,” I said. “We’re volunteers.” He looked at me dubiously. “Let’s go sign in. We can volunteer as well as anyone.” Scam, I’m sure he  was thinking. Well, maybe a little.

“You go ahead,” he said, heading back inside. Shrug. I walked up to the volunteer sign-in table. “Jones,” I said, then waited.

A woman with a huge computer print-out didn’t even look at me, but scanned her list. “Are you the Jones with, uh, with, uh . . .”

“Yes I am.”

Still not looking up, she put a check mark by one of a dozen or so “Joneses” on her list. She handed me an extra large T-Shirt emblazoned with “Volunteer,” and said “Go over there and get your admission wristband.”

In a matter of minutes, I was inside the Irish Fest with a small guidebook (“Where’s the face painting?” Check the book–“Make a left by the stage”) and a couple of hours to browse around.

Although I had volunteer “coupons” for free pizza, I just had to buy one of the steaming brats grilling at various booths. Good music, good food, give a few directions here and there but largely, just enjoy the sunshine in the ever-growing crowd. So what’s the big deal? Opportunity taps you on the shoulder, give a little help, enjoy the big picture.

When I related this all to my F/O at altitude that evening, he seemed a little wistful. “Should’a joined you,” he concluded. And being the smartass that I am, I recall telling him, “That’s the problem with volunteerism these days: nobody wants to help. And you really miss out on a rewarding experience.”

He rolled his eyes. Yeah, quite a stretch. But you take the good and the bad as it comes–this was a windfall.

Fast forward to last Friday, May 14th. This time, fate had plopped us down in Norfolk on a beautiful sunshiny Spring day. We had fourteen hours scheduled off-duty, then would fly one leg back to DFW. Home for Friday night and for me, Saturday morning with Darling Bride and youngest daughter’s academic competition, plus a band session with Night Flight in the afternoon. Perfect plan.

Until fate stepped in to trash everything. Crew Tracking called me a couple hours prior to our departure time: “Sorry captain, but thunderstorms at DFW have forced us to cancel your inbound flight.” Great. Home tomorrow early, maybe?

Catch the tail end of my daughter’s academic competition, and maybe most of the band session? “And I know it sucks,” the Tracker said cautiously, “but we’re going to need your crew to stay there and fly home tomorrow night.”

Thank you, cruel fate. Everyone on the crew had plans and people counting on their arrival home that night, but it is what it is, and you do what you know you have to do.

Now with forty rather than fourteen hours off duty, we developed a contingency plan: free concert at the fountain on the harbor that evening; dinner afterward. Vendors were selling adult beverages in the park. After the first two at five bucks each, we modified the plan: F/O would go for his run then meet us there (great band playing), #2 flight attendant and I would walk a few blocks to a deli and pick up crew beverages to enjoy at the park. Others had brought coolers with drinks; no one seemed to mind.

Heavy get-out-of-town Friday rush hour was shaping up downtown as we walked the two blocks past the battleship Wisconsin moored near the heart of Norfolk. I heard the unmistakable boom of a traffic accident not ten yards from where we walked.

Under a green light, one car had stopped, and the car behind him had plowed into him from behind. The rear car stood with a crumpled front end in the middle of the intersection. Not a safe place.

I dodged across the traffic and approached the driver’s open window. Probably stunned; let’s get you out of this intersection.

“You okay?”

She was not okay. Maybe no seat belt? Regardless, her forehead was gashed wide open and blood was everywhere. I actually didn’t know anyone could bleed so fast and so much. Open the door.

“Let’s get you out of here,” I said, pressing a cloth she’d found onto her forehead. “Walk with me–I’ll help you.” Through traffic, to the curb. Elizabeth, my #2 flight attendant directed passersby “Call 911.” Several dialed. I laid the woman down on a short brick wall, cradling her head with my arm, holding pressure on her gaping laceration. Not a good thing, I thought silently, to be drenched in the blood of a stranger, but you do what you have to do.

“Help is on the way,” I told her. “You’re going to be okay. We’re going to stay with you till help gets here.”

Elizabeth moved her wrecked car out of the intersection. The wall was near a bus stop and to be frank, a crowd of people waiting for the bus that were of the type who’d make me walk fast and not make eye contact. But not today. “Can someone find a first aid kit?” A man rushed off toward a store.

A tranny-looking woman dialed the victim’s husband’s number on her own phone. A man offered his rolled up shirt as a pad.

An Army nurse walked up and began to take vital signs. I shady-looking guy produced a scrap of paper and I told her, “Push the top button on my watch”–my hands were busy–and she took down the heart rate, her medical history, setting up the ambulance’s arrival.

It seemed like forever crouched on the hot pavement, holding her head, telling her by name that she’d be okay. One police car, then eventually three more arrived.  Don’t move her head. A look at the gash–looked clean to the bone–more pressure. Have to stay this way till the ambulance gets here.

“You’re doing good, Jennifer. Deep breaths.”

At long last–maybe five minutes, but it seemed longer–the ambulance arrived. “You’re not going to like this,” an EMT said, “but we’re going to put a brace on your neck to immobilize it.” On cue, I slid my now red arm out from under her head and let the EMT crew hold pressure.

Jeez–stiff back. Hot pavement. Elizabeth put the woman’s purse on the gurney. “These guys are going to take good care of you,” I told her, squeezing her hand. “You’re going to be fine.”

Off she went; we waited while the police, who’d taken both of our driver’s licenses, finished their reports. Buzzkill.

Finally, the police thanked us and sent us on our way. I used the deli restroom to wash now dried blood off my arm.

“Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon blanc?” I asked. Didn’t really matter to me.

We made our way back to the park. Hooked up with the First Officer. Great band, beautiful night, lots of families and children, many running around in the fountain.

My daughter got third place in her competition; the band played without me. Fate? Opportunity?

You just have to take it as it comes, good or bad. But what I got out of it was twofold. First, the kindness of strangers in that moment of suspense between disaster and official response renews my faith in humanity. And second, I have the knowledge that in a stranger’s moment of hell, there was a calm voice and an arm to rest her head on.

Unlike my Irish Fest volunteer T-shirt, the reality won’t fade with time. And that’s what really matters.

Flightcrew Zoo: Stupid Layover Tricks

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airliner, airlines, airport, cartoon, cruise ship, flight attendant, flight crew, hotels, jet, layover, passenger, pilot, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2010 by Chris Manno

When you’re shipwrecked with fellow crewmembers, there forms a special bond. Over the years, I’ve shared a few exceptionally memorable times “shipwrecked” on layovers with pilots and flight attendants who have become lifelong friends. Here are a couple of the most memorable stories.

Mile High-Jinks

Dave was a fairly senior 777 captain when he took early retirement a few years back. Before he did, when we’d pass in the terminal, besides saying “hi,” one of us would grab the other and say to our first officer, if they were nearby, “He can verify that galley story I told you is true.”

And the story was from twenty-plus years ago when Dave was a DC-10 First Officer and I was the Flight Engineer. We flew all month with the same flight attendants, enjoying long layovers in downtown Chicago. The core group of us–me, Dave, Jennifer, Marianne, Lynne and sometimes Lonnie (whom Marianne admonished for “wearing too much make-up for daytime”) went out every night in Chicago to some club or other night place. Everyone became fast friends and hated to see the end of the month come which would mean no more weekly Chicago long layovers.

To make our last trip memorable, the inherently devilish Marianne dreamed up a plan. During our last leg from Detroit to DFW late one night, I got a call on the flight deck. “There’s something wrong with the P-Lift,” Lonnie said. “Can you come back and have a look?” The “P-Lift” was one of the elevators from the mid-cabin galley to the lower deck galley. Typical that there would be a problem and being the engineer, typical that I’d have to go back and see about fixing it.

“They’re having trouble with the P-Lift,” I told Bob, the leisure suit-wearing captain who ditched us in Chicago every layover to go out with his boyfriend, we suspected, and also to let Dave know I’d be gone. “Be right back.” I grabbed my flashlight, turned on all the fuel boost pumps and headed for the main galley.

“Downstairs,” Lonnie deadpanned, pointing to the P-Lift. Okay, I thought the P-Lift was the problem, but let’s go downstairs. I hopped in, closed the door and pressed the down arrow. The lift lowered me into the darkness below. Hmmm, good thing I brought my flashlight.

Every ORD layover included a stop here after midnight.

The door opened to candlelight in the lower lobe galley. Blankets and pillows covered the floor, and Marianne, Jennifer and Lynne were sprawled out in their nightgowns. “Want to join our slumber party?” Marianne asked, the three of them totally ignoring the 250+ passengers upstairs.

About twenty minutes later, I re-entered the darkened cockpit acting as nonchalant as possible. “Uh, Dave,” I said, “I think you’d better go have a look.” Maybe he knew what was up, but he wasted no time unstrapping and heading back. At least twenty minutes later, Dave returned, grinning. As soon as he did, Bob started to unstrap, maybe thinking it was his turn but Dave very pointedly said “No!” All’s well, he said–no need for you to leave the cockpit. The ladies would have killed us if he’d shown up.

Before Dave retired, our First officers would shake their heads in disbelief at the story but with verification, they could only think back on “the good old days”–such a thing would never happen today.

I still see Marianne now and again, Lonnie too. Lynne quit flying in the 1990s, and Jennifer worked on all of her flight ratings and is no longer a flight attendant but rather, a fairly senior First Officer with us now.

Man The Lifeboats!

Back in the 1990s, we used to have long layovers in Long Beach on the Queen Mary, which had been converted into a floating hotel. We used to convene in the forward lounge which was an art-deco masterpiece. The fun trick was to recruit flight attendants who’d never been to The Queen to have a beverage on the forward veranda of the bar, outside overlooking Long Beach harbor.  The trick in that was the magic hour of 7pm, when they blew the ship’s horn which was located just above the veranda.  More than a few spilled drinks and near heart attacks resulted from the uninitiated experiencing that heart-stopping blast.

My First Officer and I had a good laugh at our flight attendants’ expense on one such trip. One in particular, Rhonda (I still see her now and then) vowed to get even, but we figured it was all in good fun and so thought nothing of it.

That particular layover, The Queen was full and so both he and I had been given adjoining suites instead of the regular crew cabins. Of course, the flight attendants didn’t believe us when we told them. “Here,” my First Officer said to Rhonda, handing her his room key, “see for yourself. I’ll get another key at the desk.” They left us to tour the ship–including his suite–while we opted to stay and watch the NBA playoffs in the lounge.

A couple hours later, the game ended and we headed below decks, me to my suite and my F/O to the front desk to get another key. We had fifteen hours before we had to fly again and so I was looking forward to at least ten hours of good sleep.

As soon as I unlocked my door, I heard water running. Not a good sign, especially on a ship, I decided. At the same moment–maybe I was a little slow from a couple cold beverages–I noticed that I was standing in an inch of water that was beginning to slosh. Again, the beverage-effect: WE’RE SINKING! I grabbed the phone and called the front desk . . . to the lifeboats! She’s going down! “Uh,” I stammered, “I need a plumber pretty quick here.”

A few minutes later, I had both a plumber and hotel security in my cabin. The plumber removed the towels stuffed in the sink and tub and had turned off the water. Hotel Security began to grill me. “Why did you flood your room?” Rhonda. “What?” I tried to act indignant. “Why would I douche out my own room?” The F/O’s key, the adjoining room. She’d gotten her revenge.

Eventually, the Security Agent decided that he couldn’t prove that I’d flooded my cabin, but as punishment, I was given a virtual broom closet of a cabin–the ship was booked full and I believe it actually had been a broom closet at one point–and so I slept with one eye open looking for the ghost that legend has it prowls the old ship’s quarters.

Even now when I cross paths with Rhonda in the airport or even on a flight she smiles slyly; I smile, too. Thankfully, she stopped saying “you deserved it” about ten years back, although she never actually admitted to the deed nonetheless.

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Airline Passengers: Are YOU “That Guy?”

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, flight, flight attendant, flight crew, hotels, layover, life, passenger, pilot, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2010 by Chris Manno

You know “that guy,” the one passenger, man or woman, who is annoying bordering on obnoxious–but is the only one who doesn’t recognize what a pain they are.

There’s always “that guy” at some point in the day’s thousand or so miles in the air. Typically, 350 to 450 passengers over the multiple flight legs board and deplane and in between, one or more reveal themselves as “that guy.”

Who’s he? Let me introduce you.

First, there’s the mangled lingo guy. Going to make conversation in the argot of the crew, right? What “runs” are you doing? That’s my favorite, although don’t forget the close cousin, what’s your route?

Both tired questions conjure the image of Ralph Kramden for me. Except that the average bus driver never aimed a 75 ton pile of pig iron ripping along at 200 miles per hour at a concrete slab he couldn’t see until a matter of second before the wheels finally touched the ground, nor navigated the same beast 7 miles up at 500 miles per hour.

There’s Ralphie’s “Main Street to 4th” run, and there’s my flight sequence, which is usually 3 legs somewhere to somewhere, then a hotel.

I don’t have a “run” or a “route,” because after 24 years, I really don’t care about most destinations anyway. Rather, like most flight crew members who’ve been around a while, I’m all about whatever flight sequence–2 or 3 days–requires the least amount of time away from home.

Destination? Who cares, although I do try to fly south in the winter, vice versa in the summer (all birds do that, right?) to lessen the weather hassles in and out of the airport. But as far as the “glam” spots? Puerto Vallarta, Cabo, Miami, New York? Who cares? I’d rather be at home with my family.

Part of that is the “been there, done that” effect of hundreds of “runs” (JUST KIDDING–it’s “trips”), part of it is the weariness of the suitcase life, being on the road and NOT having your place, your stuff and most importantly–your time. Because it’s not your time, it’s a work schedule.

Once in Puerto Vallarta, the hotel ran out of standard rooms and put me (“El Capitan,” they said) in the Presidential Suite. Two problems with that:

1. I spent the night sleeping with one eye open, just knowing a band of drug cartel banditos would eventually kick the door in, kidnap me mistakenly (“No, I’m just a lowly crewmember, not a gazillionaire who could afford this outrageous luxury and by the way–check out the grand piano in the living room!”) and then mail home my chopped-off ear with a ransom note, although Darling Bride would probably request a larger appendage as confirmation and the airline would deny even knowing me. Not good rest there.

2. The luxury suite just reminds me that I’m NOT on vacation, I’m not here with my family enjoying beach time or happy hour or the scarf-till-you-barf “Can I Get Immodium With That” buffet. I have to get up early and get my butt back into the polyester and get to work. Just stick me in a broom closet for my lavish nine and a half hours at sea level.

Besides that, I usually don’t even check where I’m going until the night prior and up until then, I’m probably trying to trade my trip for any open trip requiring a captain that has less time away and less work involved. So we really don’t have “runs” or “routes” anyway, and I’ll trade any trip for Tulsa-Omaha if it gets me home quicker and less painfully.

The next “that guy?” He’s “Mr. I Have Frequent Flyer Status.” He–or she, often–differs from the real frequent flyer who is characterized by the efficiency with which he boards, stows his things, sits down, says “please” and “thank you” and doesn’t make a nuisance of himself.

I'm a "Triple-Axel" elite!

By contrast, those who are impressed by their mileage category or the goofy distinctions airlines dreamed up to make them feel important (“I’m a premium/zirconium/gold circle/fat cat/lead pipe/triple Axel status holder . . .”) run headlong into those who are simply trying to do a good job for everyone, despite the marketing opiate of mileage status.

"Ain't I got status!"

This person is likely to remark to me at some point, “Bet I have more time in ‘these babies’ than you do.” Doubtful, unless you’re in the air more than 900 hours a year and even then, actually flying “these babies” requires more than napping in back in a filthy seat between snoring mothers with squalling lap kids–but better you than me.

Finally, the least obnoxious but often the most disturbing:

We know why you fly: it's cheaper than Greyhound and Amtrak has a dress code.

Unlike the “Status Dork,” these folks don’t mean to be annoying and often, don’t have the experience to not be that way. Never mind the little things like asking if there’s a toaster or microwave in the galley (“Sure–right by fridge and the sink”) or using the lav in only socks or less (“Ewww, but thanks for mopping the floor!”), it’s the stopping dead in the middle of a moving terminal throng, or never knowing their own travel details:

“Is this my gate?” “Give me a hint: where are you going? And god forbid, what’s your flight number?”

It’s just the unfamiliarity with the environment–like me in the dentist’s office or the American Girl Store–

That's NOT me--I took the picture.

it’s the circumstances that make normal people (the “beast” playing with dolls) do silly-looking things they wouldn’t otherwise do, especially if they knew how it made them look. Get the picture?

So if you don’t fly often, it’s not your fault, BUT GET A CLUE:

Dress appropriately. This ain’t a garage sale or a day at the beach. In my Air Force flying, we were told to–and I did–consider the effects of fire on your flying garb. And so we wore Nomex fire-retardent flight suits and even gloves though often it was pretty hot in the cockpit, with cotton underneath, mindful of the melting-onto-bare-flesh effect of artificial fibers when jet fuel burns.

Okay, you don’t need to be that paranoid, but is the T-shirt, cut-offs and flip flops thing going to work for you on your way home from O’Hare in January, never mind if you make an unexpected stop?

Besides, every type of clothing doesn’t look good on every type of body, so just because you’re traveling to an unfamiliar destination doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily look good in whatever they wear there.

When you get home with your Bolivian halter top or bead-laced hair, in the context of a normal day–you’re going to ask yourself “why the hell did anyone think this looked good?” Trust me: we’re asking that as you walk through the airport and onto the plane.

Nix the wife beater shirt, the ripped garage-cleaning wardrobe, the beach wear. Just dress decently and act that way, too. Know where you’re going and on which flight. Say please and thank you where appropriate, and try not to be too impressed with your mileage status or how many hours you have “in these babies.” Things will work out better that way.

And you won’t be “that guy.”

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Click here to listen to my interview along with the P.R. Director of Air Tran Airlines and the regular panel of Airplane Geeks discussing pending airline legislation, The Passenger Bill of Rights, the replacement of Air Force One, and many passenger-related airline issues.

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Airline Pilot: Day 2 In The Life.

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, airport security, cartoon, elderly traveller, flight attendant, flight crew, food, hotels, jet, layover, passenger, pilot, security, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2010 by Chris Manno

[Did you miss Day One of this saga? If so, here it is if you’d like to catch up.]

The phone blasts you awake at an ungodly hour. “Huh? What?”

“Crew Tracking. Your inbound aircraft is late, so your pick-up at the hotel will be an hour later.”

Damn–you realize you’re in a hotel. Not at home. “Uh, okay. You gonna call the first officer?” No sense letting him get any more sleep than you, right? Besides, he’d be down for crew van pick-up an hour early.

“Sure, Captain.” Click. Hate wake up calls–that’s why you never request one. Two alarms, plus the cell phone. And slowly, it dawns on you what’s just happened: Crew Tracking woke you up early to tell you to sleep later.

Of course, you can’t go back to sleep. Wrong time zone, too awake. Coffee? Foraging for coffee. Darn, it’s the one-cup jobber: won’t stay warm, but take it or leave it.

Strike One: now you’re going to have to risk the coffee bath in the crew van bumping to the airport. It can’t be helped–you need your morning medication. Meanwhile, time for your bloodbath: shave.

You know a widebody captain who just retired (initials Dan H.) but swore he always took not only the hotel free stuff like soap and shampoo, but also the extra roll of toilet paper and when he was running low at home, a couple light bulbs, too. Of course, you took a beer glass from the LaGarbage hotel bar every trip because they were charging $9 per draft. Ought to get something for that price, right? And you are probably the reason why now they allow carry-outs only in a plastic cup. Shrug . . . you have a complete set of their glasses anyway.

Stick your head in the shower, wash away the cobwebs. What the . . . okay, that’s Strike Two:

It’s like you’re in a submarine that’s been hit and is going down.

Anyway, blot that drain clog out of your mind’s eye–the submarine image is better. Grab your stuff, take the key, too, in case you need to come back up for something you’ve forgotten.

Get downstairs for pick up, if your time zone math is correct. If not, and you’re an hour or two early (don’t laugh–you’ve done it), then you’ll need your key to go back upstairs, acting nonchalant (yeah, I just came down to look around . . . uh, with my bags).

It’s quiet in the van because half of the crews are from the opposite coast and so are not yet quite awake; some from the early coast are already on their phones. You and your bunch are on Central time, midway between time zones and everyone, regardless, is heading to the four points of the compass.

It’s a funny career field, isn’t it? First thing everyone does after coming to work is scatter across the country. Maybe that’s why there’s a feeling of comraderie among crews, even from other airlines. We’re all in this nomadic drifting life together, passing each other along the way.

You hate the single point security, at least for the passengers. You’re at work, and you’ve done this so many times it’s pretty well a mindless annoyance. And there are crew lines. You hate the monolithic hassle of giant security operations like DEN and PIT for the families and the elderly who are almost overwhelmed. The special crew line? Well, should we get to the gate and preflight, then wait for the passengers, or vice versa?

There’s no time for anything after the security lines, just go to work. Not making eye contact with passengers, which will normally lead to questions you can’t answer anyway ( more details? click here). There’s an exception, though–there’s always time to help the very young, and the very old.

And of course, the families shepherding both through the airport. Their travel is most important, being their first or maybe even their last flight, and they need and deserve your help just as you would hope your family would get help in a similar situation. Find your way to the gate and  here’s the payoff for you.

The jet, fueled, waiting. That goes back to the core, to the Air Force days: pointy rockets lined up on a quiet ramp, waiting to split the morning sky with the sound of  jet engines. Let’s get to work.

Preflight done, boarding, pushback; take-off.

Do that again two more times. Food? No time–cram in a quick meal eaten out of your lap.

... and keep the cracker crumbs off the radar, okay?

Same sequence, step by methodical and disciplined step, two more times through three more time zones. By the last leg, you’re pretty well worn out. But there’s no slack, no easing up: the third leg has to be just as precise as the first.

Enjoy the desert moonrise, watch the fuel flow, and a constant eye on the route and the weather. The finish line’s only a couple hours away. Never mind the time changes and hotel sleep and missed meals, bring everyone home safely. Park the jet; captain’s the last one off. Now you can relax, the rest is just a sleepwalk to the hotel. And here’s why it’s all worthwhile.

Walk around them. Head for yet another hotel, try to get some rest. The whole thing starts over again tomorrow morning.

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Stay tuned for Part 3: Going Home.

Coming soon . . .

Airline Pilot: A Day in the Life

Posted in air travel, airline cartoon, airline delays, airline ticket prices, airliner, airlines, airport, flight crew, flight delays, food, hotels, jet, lavatory, layover, life, passenger, pilot, travel, travel tips with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2010 by Chris Manno

You’re going to fly the big jet today, right? Well, they won’t pay you if you don’t, so better get ready. Let’s start with Task One: closet chaos.

Whatever you pull out of there you’re only going to wear for a couple hours because you have to drag on the polyester uniform and go to work shortly. Worth breaking out a pressed shirt for such a short time? No, but you don’t want to look like a scrounge in the only free part of the day before heading for the airport, right?

Speaking of “pressed,” what about uniform shirts? Gulp–another trip to the cleaners in uniform pants and an undershirt to pick up the uniform shirts you blot out of your mind on days off? Damn, one more thing you should have done yesterday.

That’s the typical “days off” syndrome in the flying career field: once you’re home, you get to ram-dump all work considerations till “Go to Work Day” sneaks up on you again. Bet you’re going to discover on your layover a bunch of junk is missing from your suitcase that you wish you had, and which you meant to replace, but like the dry cleaned uniform polyester hell–out of sight, out of mind.

Anyway, since you have a few hours before flying and a few things you planned to do–okay, sort of said you would but now don’t feel like it but somebody’s expecting you to do it–what’s the plan?

Be diligent? Be productive before the rest of the day is eaten up with flying and work stuff? Nah!

Want to listen? Did this in four tracks. Too much fun.

Screwing off in The Man Cave seems much more important than chipping away at The Drudgery List. Hey, you’re going to be at work for the next 48 hours, right? You deserve a little time with the toys. That income tax return isn’t going anywhere and it’s not even April yet.

You’re going to look and sound great at the next gig this month, right? Anyway, don’t lose track of time:

Your flight leaves at 4:10pm, so you need to be there at 3:10, with medium traffic you need an hour and ten and add another fifteen for construction on 35 and . . .

. . .  YOU’RE LATE!

Too bad you spent so much time screwing around. Oh well. Throw the change of clothes for two days into the suitcase–everything else is still in there and never leaves the smelly bag, along with coffee packets, receipts you don’t want floating around so maids can steal your identity, free stuff you don’t need like “Crest” toothpaste in Spanish from Mexico City and a delivery menu from Ming Wok in Queens–and drag on the polyester uniform. Toss the suitcase and the kitbag into the trunk–look, there’s your hat! It lives in the trunk–and head for the employee lot.

The freeway’s a transition zone, both to and from the airport. Starched shirt too tight going in, your mind on the weather halfway across the country, at the home drome–you don’t really care how bad, just that your inbound jet isn’t late–plans for the weekend, but first you have to get through this trip. You pay attention to the sky on the way in: which direction is the prevailing wind? That’ll determine our take-off direction. Taking off south, but going north means a longer day. You wonder if anyone else pays much attention to the sky when they drive to work, other than noting if it’s blue or cloudy or whatever. The scalloped cloud bottoms look bumpy; you make a note to tell the flight attendants to stay seated after take-off.

Am I the only one running late?

From the employee lot to the terminal wastes a ton of time on the lumbering bus. Time, like the hour before pushback, you don’t get paid for but have to be there. Add that to your 12-hour work day, which will seem endless after midnight body-time when you’re still a couple hours from landing.

Now that’s a welcome sight: tons of aluminum, fueled and ready, waiting for you to kick the tires and light the fires–let’s go fly jets. Pull a bunch of paper out of the computer, including the flight plan, the special notices, technical stuff, aircraft speeds for take-off, a bunch more stuff you really don’t care about but the lawyers want to be able to say “we told you so.”

When the length of the flight plan paper equals the length of the aircraft, you're set to go.

Great. Fold this junk, which is the fine art of Airigami (derived from the word “Origami,” like “Oregano,” which is the Italian art of pizza folding) and stow it out of the way on the flight deck (picture coming up later).

Head for the office:

Meet your happy First Officer–you’re going to be locked into the aerial broom closet together for a few days, so you want everything to go smoothly. Does he look happy?

Well that’s not a bad sign, really. Anyway, let’s get on with the preflight. Stash your suitcase in back, your kitbag in the sidewell next to your seat and sit your fat ass down.

See? Everyone does it.

Time to preflight the aircraft. The First Officer goes outside to check the exterior. You make sure the departure and route of flight is set up in the navigation system. That’s the thing that’ll get you off course and in trouble if the points and route are not correct.

Well, Mr. President, look what your example has done to the youth of America.

Now you’re surrounded by a beehive: passengers boarding, catering trucks arriving and pulling old food carts off, shoving new ones on; the ground crew throwing bags on and readying the plane for pushback, the agent exhorting the passengers to sit down on the P.A., the flight attendants orchestrating the boarding melee, directing bag-stowage and seating and–here’s your job right now as captain:

Just let me know when it's time to start engines.

Actually, you’re ready. You’ve done the checklist and all of your preflight items. Passengers?

It’s the herd mentality, at least as far as the gate agent goes. “Get along, lil’ doggies . . . we gotta slam the door to show the D.O.T. that we’re an efficient airline–whether you’re on board or not.”

So, how's your trip going so far?

But you’re strapped in up front, let’s shoot the juice to the moose and turn it loose. Pushback, taxi, join the line waiting for take-off.

Heading north. Looks like an hour and a half enroute; smooth so far, turn off the seatbelt sign. Watch the sun arc low in the western sky.

Thunderstorms out west, chopping up the sunset.

Land, taxi in and the gate chaos recurs: passengers deplaning, catering, ground crew cleaning the airplane, passengers boarding; your task?

Gut bomb!

It’s the Sonic Chili Cheese Dog! The indigestion alone will keep you awake going to the west coast. That’s not all bad.

That ought to keep you going for a while. And this.

Now back to work. The jet’s just about boarded and ready. More paperwork.

Okay, let’s get this beast back into the air and head for DFW. Still have to make it to the west coast tonight. Another preflight checklist litany; pushback, taxi out, takeoff.

That’s a long sunset, isn’t it? Anyway, racing south to do the turn-around dance again with 140 more passengers waiting to go to the west coast. Same deal for you: the copilot’s outside walking around the jet, making sure all the pieces are still there. You’re in the terminal, checking the weather on the coast, your planned arrival fuel, the route of flight, the weather enroute and the actual flight plan route. Looks good? Sign it electronically, get back to your cubicle:

And the last bank of flights is now pushing back. Join join the aluminum conga line to the west side of the airport, waiting your turn to launch. A steady stream of wingtip strobe lights arc off to the west like fireflies. You start your clock, add full power, barrel down the runway then lift off and join the stream of winking lights headed west.

Leveled off at your initial cruise altitude, at this hour with less air traffic, Fort Worth Center is giving big-ass shortcuts: you’re cleared all the way to northern Utah, direct.  Fuel’s flowing correctly, engines motoring, cabin pressure holding, both electrical generators keeping our little island in the sky warm and lighted and on course.

Now the challenge? Stay alert. When Darling Bride used to fly with you, she’d come up front and marvel at what a warm, cozy little cocoon the cockpit is: the red glow of instrumentation, the purr of instrument cooling air and the view out front–looking straight ahead, it’s as if you aren’t even moving, but rather just afloat 7 miles up over the pin lights of cities below.

You can’t help wondering what’s going on down there, in the homes; the trail of headlights on the freeway, the arteries that spider to all points of the compass. The time goes slowly.

There’s the clock you started when you added take-off power. The bottom number is the elapsed time; another hour and a half to go.

This is not easy: you have to be alert and sharp for the descent and landing–18 hours after you’ve awakened, 9 hours since reporting for duty. Never mind “tired”–you’re moving across the ground at nearly 500 miles per hour. Get out the arrival procedure and get the waypoints and crossing restrictions set in your mind:

Actually, as arrivals go, this one isn’t too complicated, fortunately. Brief up the approach and get ready for runway roulette with Seattle Approach: they won’t tell you which of the five approaches you’re flying until about two minutes before you’re expected to do it. And never mind the radar monitor in Approach Control or Seattle Tower ready to nail you (big, festive fine and/or license action) for any deviation from course, altitude, speed or heading, or the 140 critics waking up in back–you are your biggest challnege: YOU want it done perfectly. Every single time in the past 17,000 flying hours, and those ahead.

Nothing to see outside anyway, because the ceiling is only about a hundred feet off of the runway. Gives you a good two to five seconds at about 160 miles per hour to make sure you’re lined up properly for landing . No problem.

There’s what matters: folks getting off the plane. Safely. Happy. They have no idea–nor should they. You do your work, fly right; it’s what you do.

“That’s a wrap,” you say, as the last passengers trail up the jetbridge and the crew gathers for the trek to the hotel. You’re the last one off the jet, by design. You lock the flight deck door, call the layover hotel for crew pick-up.

The clock’s started: in twelve hours, it all begins again; this time, to the other coast: New York City. Safely, and as smoothly as it is possible for you to make it. No problem–that’s just what you do.

Stay tuned: coming soon–Day 2.

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My Investigative Report: Omaha’s silent tragedy.

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View from above: “Where am I?”

Posted in air travel, airliner, airlines, airport, elderly traveller, flight attendant, flight crew, hotels, jet, layover, life, parenthood, passenger, pilot, travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2010 by Chris Manno

Like life in general, flying can beat you up. But I learned a trick from one of my Air Force flying buddies who is now a captain at Fedex.  He’d endured days of long hours in the air, most at night, with schedule changes and sleep disruptions and all of the physical challenges that flight crews must surmount each trip. Eventually, he found himself suddenly half awake in a strange hotel and in the semi-conscious haze of waking, intensified by the days of sleep disruption and flight re-routing, he couldn’t for the life of him remember what city he was in. So he called the toll-free number for Crew Scheduling and asked, “where am I?”

If you’ve been on a flight crew, you’ve been there, waking up and sometimes, grasping at where in the hell, besides some hotel, somewhere, am I? But rather than giving Crew Schedule something to laugh about, I do my buddy’s next best technique, which is actually easier: I fumble through the night stand till I find the phone book. Okay, I must be in Cleveland.

This is important because I’d like to think I know where I am, though that may seem unnecessarily obvious if you wake up in your own town most of the time. But once you enter the time and space and place tumbler that is the flight crew world, you’re going to feel sheepish when, as I have done, you pull up to an airport and notice the signs announcing “Welcome to Portland” when all night you’ve had in the back of your mind that you were in Seattle.

Nobody will know but you, of course, but that rankles for a couple of reasons, which I’ll get to.

First, I have to contrast that with days I remember as a kid in upstate New York, particularly in the abomination they call winter weather, which extends well into spring. I’d spend hours bundled up but outside pursuing what might be the worthiest of endeavors for a grade school kid: poking something with a stick, hopefully something weird or dead otherwise new and fun for the pack of us roaming the snowscape.

Never mind that my little sister was in tears about having to wear a parka over her Easter dress because we were having another white Easter, because I just assumed that everyone in the world had the same brutal weather and so the misery was of no consequence–it was just life. I didn’t find out about Florida till later.

At first glance, it would seem that I’d do better today with the same mindset. Maybe life would be better if I didn’t worry about whether I was in Cleveland or Detroit either physically or mentally, and spent a little more time and attention searching for interesting things to poke with a stick. I could just resign myself to the coldness of life, same everywhere, no worries about Ponce de Leon discovering Florida and not incidentally, warmth.

But there’s exactly the problem: as an adult, you know better. You realize time’s not infinite, that there are other, warmer places. And you’re not there.

It’s the last part that we deliberately forget, or lose track of after a few days in the time and place scrambler that is flight crew life. But it’s the former that is the grievous sin: we block out better places and like me as a kid in winter, assume that’s just the way life is as the clock and calendar march on regardless. That’s what rankles.

A 2008 government “Time Use Survey” reports that the average adult spend 7.5 hours per weekday on job-related activity. After work, the average man spent 3.5 hours watching television, with women only slightly behind with 3.2 hours. Given the requisite time averages for personal maintenance such as food, hygiene, and sleep, most of the waking day is consumed with mindless, often passive “stuff.”

When you stop and really think about that, it’s much like fighting for consciousness in a strange hotel in some place you may have assumed in your head was your location. Or like my childhood self, you just assumed that where you were was where and how everyone was in their lives as well. That truth cuts to the bone because it’s truly the acknowledgment that you’ve lost touch with the reality of your place in life.  And in a real way, you have: the touchstones of meaningful place are gone and you’re adrift, not really aware of your spot in the world. Hour by hour, the day is subsumed by the mundane, by routine. It’s cold, but it’s cold everywhere, right, according to the kid in you?

Yet it would be a mistake for me–or you–to wish for more time to do as we did when we were kids, blissfully oblivious of time, poking stuff with a stick. Because according to the government  report, that’s about all we do anyway: television, sleep, eat, work, television; Cleveland, Detroit, lather, rinse, repeat. Though that’s clearly what most folks do, as I assumed in grade school, it’s not all there is to do, nor is there endless time in which to do it.

When you were ten, the voyage seemed endless. Now, I recall approaching forty and joking with an already fifty-something first officer that I’d be joining him soon in middle age. He just raised a hand and looking at the endless sky ahead, said, “you’re on your own there–not too many hundred and somethings out there.” Hmmmmm.

So just change course, right? Pretty simple? Once in the dead of winter I told a staffer at our layover hotel in Toronto that if I were her, I’d get in the car and drive south until I could stick my head out the window at sixty miles per hour and NOT die of exposure. She laughed, we laughed, but nonetheless nothing changed for either of us. Both still at work here and there, running on the hamster wheel at the usual pace.

How difficult it is, as I described, to wake up. But somehow, you must find the phone book, or call crew schedule, or find a local paper or whatever it takes to wake up and figure out, to know where you really are. And to realize that although yes, a lot of people are in the exact same place–it’s neither the only nor best, warmest place.

Because the reality is, the hours I spend and the miles I fly will someday end. It’s important to know that I spent them doing more than just poking stuff with a stick or mindlessly sleepwalking fitfully through a years-long  journey only to wake up and find that I’m not where I thought I was–or really wanted to be. When I see the sign at the end I want to say, “yep, that’s what I figured.”

I’ll head that way today by hugging my bride and kids close and really see them, see where home is, where the warm place is. Then I’m off to the airport, home again tonight. That’s really where I want to be, need to be, no matter where I might have to go in between.

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Zoom lens focused on “The Boneyard” in Tuscon, where old aircraft live out their final days.

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