I’m standing by my outbound gate, trying not to be annoyed by the fact that my inbound jet is over an hour late. That easily pushes what should be a nine or ten hour flight duty day for me to more like twelve. Same thing happened yesterday, same flight tomorrow. What are the chances?
From the sea of passengers milling around the departure lounge, the lead flight attendant walks up, talking. I can’t hear her yet, I can only see her mouth moving as she approaches, but she seems oblivious. She’s like that in flight, too.
“So I didn’t get home till midnight,” she concludes, eyes wide as if it were a question.
Do I have to ask why? Do I really? “Why?”
“I was waiting for the airport bus to the employee lot when I see this black box behind the retaining wall near the stop.”
Go on, I don’t say. Because I know I don’t have to.
“So I pick it up in case a crewmember forgot it but there’s no tag and I can’t open it.”
An out-of-breath passenger rushes up to me waving his boarding pass. “I need to change my seat,” he huffs, “I need an aisle for my ankle.”
“Sir, I can’t do a seat change–the agent will handle that for you. They’re down on the jet bridge now meeting the inbound flight.”
“I need to change my seat,” he repeats, as if I hadn’t spoken.
“So I called 9-1-1 on my cell phone,” the lead flight attendant continues. I assume somewhere during the seat change exchange I’d reluctantly attempted that she’d determined the black box to be a threat.
“When the airport police get there, they tell me ‘you better wash your hands, that’s a rat trap.'”
My jet’s just now trundling down the taxiway, swinging a wide arc toward the gate. I spot the nose number–it’s an older model, which means a better sun visor but a less capable radar. Always a trade-off.
“And I’m thinking, this trap’s heavy–is it full of rats? Are there a lot of small ones, or just a couple big ones?”
An agent bursts through the jet bridge door and ducks behind the counter as a torrent of irritable-looking passengers rush off the plane, late for their connections.
“Are we loading this flight?” a bespectacled guy in a t-shirt and eating fries asks. I want to say we load bags, but board passengers. And boarding is when passengers crowd onto the jet; these people are stampeding off.
“I have to go to the bathroom.” That’s my emergency go-to, for him and for the lead flight attendant who’s now ranting about the traffic snarl on her way home last night.
A business guy blocks my escape path.
“How’s the visibility in San Francisco?” he snaps, as if that was something pilots chatted about.
The voice in my head answers honestly, I have no idea. Because the current weather at a destination four hours away is irrelevant. We’ll monitor that in the last hour inbound; for now all I care about is the extra fuel I’ve already requested to give me loiter time in the air no matter what the weather is 1,300 miles hence.
“It’s fine,” I lie, stepping around him.
He holds up his cell phone. “Well, my office says there’s some fog. Better double check.”
I’ll get a man right on that, the smartass in my head blurts out, and I laugh out loud. “Will do,” my regular voice answers. I point to the men’s room as a way of excusing myself.
Then I melt into the swirling tide of bags and people, walking determinedly: as with stray dogs, avoid eye contact, which can only bring trouble. I head for Dunkin’ Donuts, which I think has the best hot chocolate and I want something hot, soothing. There’ll be a bucket of airplane coffee to glug down between here and the coast and back; you have to pace yourself.
Sigh. As usual, the easy part, the peaceful part, will be at 40,000 feet, behind a bolted-shut cockpit door. Until then, a tall hot chocolate and whatever quiet spot I can find will have to do.