You can be upset about working on Christmas, or you can be sanquine and reminisce about the good-old (holi)days of cooking turkey in the galley and layovers with belly dancers. AVweb's fictional CEO of the Cockpit, looking at imminent retirement, is surprisingly cheerful.
December 18, 2005
Eastbound and down, loaded up and truckin', we're going to do something that they said couldn't be done -- arrive on time in Newark on Christmas Eve.
This feat is harder during the Christmas season than almost any other. In addition to unusually high passenger loads, icy weather and high winds, we airline crews are dealing with other issues that might not occur to a non-pilot.
For example, Chet -- my copilot on this four-day safari -- is dealing with two important issues as we bounce our way to New Jersey. First, his Christmas tie's green and red flashing lights are inop due to a malfunctioning battery pack. Second, he is contemplating a career change.
While the airlines carp and complain about the hundreds of early retirements that pilots were taking advantage of, they hardly mention the hundreds of young co-pilots who are quitting their airline gigs and going to greener pastures.
Chet is one of the lucky ones: He has the family FBO in Florida to return to. In addition to the little bit of money his family makes from selling avgas, he and his dad are starting an air taxi using two Cirrus aircraft. They recently bought two production positions and hope to have them both on their airport within a few months.
I was curious how it was going to work, and in-between putting the seatbelt sign back on for the 12th time since we left Seattle and spilling yet more coffee on my crotch, I got out the back side of the flight plan and started to pencil whip the idea with my cohort.
"Rigs" Isn't Just a Character in Lethal Weapon
Our holiday-week jumpseat rider was also interested in the idea. Barb was a two-time loser in the furlough lottery, and with the recent bankruptcies and cutbacks she was looking at a "three times and you're out" scenario.
"I worked for a so-called 'air taxi' for two years before I joined the Navy," she began, "and it wasn't a very pleasant way to make a living. I was on call 24/7 and seemed to spend most of my time sitting around FBO lobbies drinking burnt coffee."
"There will still be some of that kind of thing with our service," said Chet, "but with some very important differences. For example, with old air taxi models they would give away your waiting time fees on the ground in order to secure the order. This won't happen with us because we won't charge fees based on time."
Remember, I said, our waiting time with the airline isn't paid either. We get expense money but were only paid for a little less than a third of our sit-around time based on duty rigs; and now that the rigs are gone we get bumpkis.
Chet seemed to remember from way back when we had duty rigs: "One for three-and-a-half, one for two, and one for one-and-three-quarters?"
That's right. In the good old days when we still had something along the lines of a contract, we got paid one hour's flight time for every three and a half hours we were on a trip. This meant that we got an average of five hours of flight pay a day even if we just sat around all day and didn't fly that much.
The one for two was paid for time we were on duty. If we did fourteen hours of duty we got seven hours of flight pay. The one for one-and-three-quarters was the duty rig for duty time between midnight and six in the morning.
In the dark ages before computerized crew scheduling and pay departments, the flight engineer (or the copilot in two-pilot airplanes) worked out the credit for the trip with a pencil and his or her brain. I had a duty rigs chart scotch-taped to my clipboard.
It sounds like a "pay for no work" deal, but the duty rigs system kept the company honest when it came to constructing trips. Now, with our so-called "new deal," we can be scheduled for a three-day trip that is only worth six hours, meaning 21 nights away from home instead of the 10 to 12 nights with 15 duty periods we used to enjoy.
Enjoy the Moment
I am as cynical as they come and I know that a bitching ship is a happy ship, but could we change the subject for a while?
Here we are, flying an amazing aircraft over some beautiful countryside. The ride has smoothed out and my area heater has got me in a warm and mellow mood.
This will almost certainly be the last Christmas that any of us will celebrate by flying an airliner. Whether by caprice, stupidity or just circumstance, it is obvious that this airline-pilot career ride is almost at an end. Maybe we could just sit back and enjoy where we are for a minute -- huumm ...
This comment resulted in my getting a very nice, two-minute back rub from Barb, sitting behind me in the jump seat.
"You're right," she said. "If a relative -- like an uncle -- dies, you don't go to the funeral and tell stories to the attendees about what a prick he was. You remember the good things and good times. Maybe that is what we ought to do here."
Chet and the Belly Dancer
"Two Christmases ago," Chet began, "We were laying over in West Palm all Christmas Day at the Marriot. There wasn't much to do and all the restaurants were closed. We ended up at an IHOP -- the whole crew, flight attendants and us. IHOP ended up closing early while we were there and we were thrown out, but not before Cindy -- our A-Line -- did this fantastic belly dance right there near the blueberry syrup.
"It was hypnotic. One of the weirdly nice things about holiday trips is that you sometimes get paired with a crew of flight attendants for the whole trip. Cindy and I hooked up. Best layover sex ever -- talk about Christmas presents."
Whatever happened to Cindy, I asked.
"Married her. She quit the airline last year when the crap started hitting the fan and is using her CPA skills now. Turned out not only could she dance, but she could account."
Barb Remembers the CEO
"One of my best Christmas trips was with you," Barb said as she gave me one more pass at a back rub followed by a poke.
"It was a few years back when I flew engineer for you on the 727, remember?"
Oh yeah, I said. The trip where I had to hand-fly the stupid thing from New York to Vegas just so you could lay-over with your boyfriend -- he was named Biff or Bill or something, right?
Yeah, I knew it was something like that. I also seem to remember that during that leg you were so entranced with the idea of meeting Charlie at the hotel that you let our center fuel tank run dry.
Barb nodded, laughing. "Yep, but we didn't need to start that APU anyway." (The APU on the 727 gets its fuel from the center tank).
That was the second-longest 727 leg I ever hand-flew. The longest was from Seattle to Atlanta years back. When you get a seven-two high enough for fuel economy, it gets a little dicey controlling the pitch. I almost wore out the slow pitch-trim on both flights. It was all worth it, though, to know that at least one of us would get lucky that trip. What ever happened to Charlie, did you marry him?
"Hell no! Dumped him and married a Navy Seal. Garth is in Iraq right now, killing bad guys. I'm going back to the Navy after the first of the year and staying there until I get a retirement. My first flying job in my old/new Navy career will be flying the COD off of the beach.
The CEO Was Young Once Himself
Out of 26 years of airline flying, I've been away from home for Christmas for 15 of them. Stupid misuse of juniority, I know, but by and large, I had a good time on all of my Christmas trips.
I had a good time because I made myself have a good time.
Christmas trips are the ones you bring your own food and cook it in the galley. The last time I had pizza and orange soda in flight was when I was a DC-8 engineer and ran the galley for that Christmas trip. We also tried to roast a turkey breast in the oven but it just didn't work out.
You pretty much wear whatever you want on a Christmas trip. Santa hats are in vogue as are weird, colorful, holiday ties. I have a pair of Christmas socks that I only wear on my Christmas trip. I'm wearing them now and if I leave the airline this year, as it looks like I will, they will be retired along with my zip-up boots, my ID chain and my flight-engineer tool kit.
My favorite Christmas trip? Back during my "brown hair" days, when I was a hip, "happening" 727 co-pilot, we had a great three-day excursion with Christmas falling on day two.
I was just junior enough to know I would have to fly Christmas so I bid this trip using the theory that if I had to fly I might as well fly a good trip with great layovers: a Los Angeles layover for Christmas Eve and Las Vegas for Christmas day.
Dennis, our captain, paid for everything. We had more fun during those three days than I've had on any other trip since. We ate great food, hung-out in classy bars and had more fun in the airplane than the FAA would ever let us have if they knew what we were up to.
Christmas day we landed in Vegas around nine in the morning and after we checked in to the hotel -- where, by the way, we all got suites because of the holiday -- Dennis rented three Harley's. We spent the afternoon ripping up the desert with the girls riding on the back.
Just an outstanding holiday.
Things got quiet after I told my story. Circumstance was going to change our lives in the next year. It is likely that our airline will slip from Chapter 11 into 7 with hardly a burp and we'll all be out.
Everything changes and I'm not smart enough to tell if the changes are for the better. Next Christmas would be way different for all three of us, but for now we were warm, we were happily looking forward to a Manhattan Christmas layover, and life was good.
The present is really all you have, and for now the present was smooth and calm and we were happy airline pilots.
Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.