The elevator dinged its announcement that I had arrived safely in the hotel lobby. Does it really matter where I was this layover? Whether I am in Newark or Paris, all hotels have the same qualities clean, yet unimaginative rooms with inexpensive copies of art on the walls. Toilets sanitized for my protection and floors with carpets so Scotch Guarded that, if the Exxon Valdez had its spill in your room, all that would be required for cleanup would be a damp cloth and good intentions.
Not that cleaning up your in-room oil spill would make much difference in
the decor anyway. It might even improve its looks by providing a splash of
I had spent the first fifteen minutes of my stay reading all the notices in my room. From memos telling me that my room "wasn't equipped for smoking" (I bet if I lit the drapes it would smoke ...) to others chiding me for using my towels and expecting them to be cleaned by the staff. After all, we are trying to save the life of the cute little owl shown in the picture. I imagine if a real owl showed up at this hotel they'd be falling all over each other trying to find a weapon to shoot it with to avoid owl poop getting into the swimming pool.
I am on my way to the hotel's cocktail lounge for a happy-hour meeting with this week's co-pilot, Phil. I smell the promise of little barbecued meatballs along with the usual pretzels and other bar chow. Perhaps tonight's dinner will be gratis for the price of a few beers. There is no lounge music act like there used to be in the past. Nowadays, lounge entertainment comes in the form of too-loud music or dozens of televisions around the place tuned to a game you have no interest in or news programs that you can't hear because of the aforementioned music.
Sometimes I long for the days of the '70s and '80s when platinum-haired, big-breasted performers backed by drum machines would croon "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" as the local drunks sobbed into their lukewarm beers and ate stale popcorn.
Phil said he might be a little late this evening. Something to do with an aerobic workout, a call to his wife and a note to his girlfriend. While I admire his dedication to his craft, I'll have to deduct ten style points if he doesn't show up by my second drink or the end of my first plate of meatballs and stale celery.
"Hey, over here!" yelled a familiar voice. It was Doug, an airline classmate of mine and a fellow captain of the "Cajun Clipper" (the MD-88). "What are you doing here, pardner?" Doug yelled to me from across the darkened lounge dance floor. His breath preceded him, indicating he had beaten me to happy hour by a full two beers.
Like most airline buddies, Doug and I had never really been close. Our usual conversations revolved around where we were going on that particular trip, why we were mad at the company and where we could find an inexpensive dinner or some other sort of layover entertainment.
"So, where have you been flying lately?" Doug asked, starting off yet another predictable conversation. "Can you believe what the company did to our vacations?" He continued. "Free happy-hour buffet, just like in Pensacola, except there is no lobster."
Is that all there is, Doug? A little safe banter about company foibles, the last airport bathroom I've visited and some poor, boiled, bottom-dwelling decapod? What about life, Doug? What about the things that matter things like that kiss on a first date, the smell of a new airliner's cockpit and the excitement when the galley has a new flavor of fruit juice?
Doug looked a little perplexed because I had broken the first rule of layover bar conversation in two different ways. First, I had brought up a new subject; second, I had made it interesting. Doug's strategy was a master stroke of inventiveness and execution. Just like my wife and kids and most crews I fly with, he chose to ignore my comments and move on.
"They do have little meatballs and some sort of bagel-pizzas," he said, trying to get our conversation back on a safe track. Just then, Phil walked into the bar with a cellphone glued to his ear and a grimace on his face.
"No, I said if it goes to fifteen, sell!" Phil shouted into his little plastic cellphone. He slammed it shut, shoved it into his pocket and then noticed Doug and me in the dark recesses of the lounge.
I made introductions all around and, as Doug started in on why the company had screwed us on the vacation issue, I looked wistfully over the heaving mass of junk-food-eating humanity in the lounge and thought of layovers past layovers when my hair was brown and my eyes were glistening with the excitement of having a company-paid room and expense money in my pocket.
There was that very first layover in New York City. It was my first trip on my own as a 727 flight engineer. The captain on that one was a crusty old fart that didn't crack a smile the entire three days. The co-pilot was a golden haired womanizer on the hunt for his next layover conquest. I was just a country boy that had never been to the big city. What a culture shock for someone who had been flying 172s for a living just a few months before!
Back then, even layovers in such gardens spots as Shreveport or Newark were exciting adventures in aviation. Then, after the first fifteen years or so, ennui set in and I began to spend most of my time watching cable television and holding long conversations in bars like this one about how bad the company was and what trip I was flying.
There have been many changes in layovers and laying-over techniques over the years. Before cable TV, there was only one channel on late at night as I got up at 2 a.m. to fly out of Fort Lauderdale. It always had a rerun of "The Rockford Files" or "Macmillan & Wife," droning on with advertisements for the "Pocket Fisherman" or the "Vegamatic." Little did we know back then that Macmillan really had no need for a wife or that Rockford would go on to portray the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
In-room coffee pots didn't exist. Since neither the Weather Channel nor the Internet existed there was no way to worry about the next day's weather like I do today. No email to read or answer, no ESPN, no automated wake-up calls. The telephones still had dials and you had to contact an "operator" if you wanted to call home using the one long-distance phone company.
Things are different now. I can obsess about the weather on hundreds of sites and channels. There is almost always an in-room coffee maker and it almost always has no sugar, creamer or coffee with caffeine. "Macmillan & Wife" certainly isn't the raciest thing I can find on my hotel television and, through the "big-pipe" internet connection in my room, I can access the internet and read the dozens of pieces of junk mail sent to me daily.
Because I have spent about a third of my life in layover motels, it has all become a routine thing to me. No surprises ... just a place to drink a few beers and sleep until the next late wake-up call that invariably comes when I'm in the shower.
To Phil, this was all still new. He was used to living on a huge ship that launched aircraft and was used in Navy recruiting commercials. He was fresh from a job flying F-18s and thwarting evildoers. It looked like he might be doing something like that again soon if our furlough schedule held up. He was looking down the barrel of a new house, a pregnant wife, and two yard apes with no income from the airline industry coming in.
Funny thing. Where did the billions of dollars the government gave to the airline industry go? It certainly didn't "trickle down" to the low people on the seniority list. They were getting put out of airline cockpit doors by the hundreds along with thousands of other airline employees. I have yet to see a single airline vice president laid off or demoted. You'd think with a 20 percent reduction in head count that some of those heads would be senior management. I'm assuming that they are keeping their jobs so there will be somebody in the company able to write those memos to the dearly departed thanking them for their "sacrifices."
"That was my broker," said Phil. "I bought ten thousand shares of 'Peekaboo Instruments' at 75 cents a share a few months ago and, because I'm facing a furlough, I've decided to unload it at fifteen bucks." Anticipating my question, he added: "Peekaboo Instruments has a laser guidance system for bombs that can sense a cave-dwelling bad guy from 35,000 feet. After September it seemed like a good investment."
My formerly Navy co-pilot was about average for the breed. When most pilots were senior to me, the military guys were Vietnam vets. They tended to focus on lifestyle issues like women, partying and the like. Today's breed of ex-military pilot seems to be a more sober sort. Because I'm a civilian background pilot myself, I'm really not qualified to judge the ex-military guys and I'm too close to the issue to judge the civilians. I suspect that both groups are more mature in outlook and behavior in today's environment of mandatory drug tests, CRM, and general seriousness.
Phil's investment success confirms what I have always known about pilots in general and airline pilots in particular. We tend to land on our feet when things go bad, like they appear to be doing now.
I have always been one of the lucky ones who have never faced a furlough. There have been a lot of downturns to be sure. The PATCO strike was the first, followed by many more setbacks. I have been canceled back from co-pilot to flight engineer a record four times, but I never had to face unemployment and I know that, in the grand airline scheme of things, a record like that is very rare.
No matter how much I carp and complain about layover boredom, at least I have a layover to be bored in.
I have to wonder about the future of air travel. Will all the extra security, long waits and new rules make flying in airliners so unpleasant that people will stop traveling? The initial patriotism of passengers cheerfully waiting in long security lines awaiting their turn to be frisked will melt away after the initial surge of emotion wears off. Ma and Pa will think twice before they load the kids into the 757 and fly to Mickey Land. The family station wagon will replace the airliner on short-to medium-length trips.
The airline system will survive in some fashion because we really have no alternative method of traveling long distances. Europe has a rail system; we don't. For long distances in the United States, if you don't fly you don't go.
This "only game in town" attitude is already evident at airports and the way people are treated. For us lucky senior guys, the job will probably be there until we retire. For junior guys like Phil, I'm not so sure. Unless the airline world makes flying fun and convenient again, it will continue to shrink.
Maybe sometime in the future the airline layover will go the way of the pet rock, free love, and the swine flu shot, but for now it exists. I'm on one and I need another beer.
|With apologies to Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, and P.J. O'Rourke, who penned The CEO of the Sofa.|