December 17, 2006
If you snuggle down deep, a La-Z-Boy recliner can actually begin to feel warm. This is especially true if you cover yourself with an unfolded newspaper as you try and snooze in a cold pilot lounge. We were trying to out-wait a mid-December snowstorm and I was trying, in vain, to nap the time away.
It was difficult. In addition to the large crowd of tired, re-routed pilots slouching around the room there was the ubiquitous, large-screen TV tuned to CNN and the usual gaggle of ALPA apologists posted by the bulletin board to tell the group why, once again, it was a good idea to give the company more of our pay and benefits.
I tried to put that unpleasant aspect of pilot life in the back of my mind and concentrated instead on my upcoming 48-hour Christmas layover in Las Vegas. This gambit almost worked. I was close to a pilot-lounge snooze when I heard and felt the impact of a rather large behind in the recliner next to me.
It was Charles.
Normally, in the pilot world, when you run into a "Charles" you would call him "Chuck" or even "Charlie." In this case, Charles fit and that is what everybody calls him.
Charles is a good pilot, but an even better lawyer and negotiator. He was responsible for the 2000 contract being a good one with a rare pay raise and he had done a lot to mitigate the downward spiral our careers had been taking ever since 9/11.
He can untangle the biggest Gordian knots of contract details. If you had a pay problem, you call Charles. If you think your last reroute or inverse trip assignment is illegal as well as immoral, you give Charles a jingle.
Now he is out of the ALPA negotiating business and has concentrated his time off on practicing injury lawsuit law and driving his very large boat in and out of San Diego. He is also a classmate of mine from good old "SOA-79" (second officer class "A" 1979) and an ex-roommate from that time. Back then, we called him "speed brake" because his hair had a way of flapping up on the top, looking like an extended flight spoiler.
His hair isn't a problem now. He has none.
"Hey, how are you doing?" he asked, totally ignoring the fact that my eyes were closed and I was in the verge of dreaming. I didn't mind -- Charles has always been one of my favorites, because in addition to being a good pilot and a great lawyer, he was also one of the wackiest guys I had ever known. He never disappointed and today would be no different.
To The Moon!
"How about the news about the new base on the Moon? Can you imagine all of the troubles they are going to have running an astronaut-pilot base that is on the bottom of the Moon all the way from this planet?"
I know I'm going to be sorry I asked this, I said, but what the hell do you mean?
"Think about it," Charles said. "Back when we had a pilot base at O'Hare, the guys at our airline's g/o (general offices) a thousand miles away had a terrible time keeping us in line. We were constantly fomenting revolt, whether it is wearing those zip-up boots in the wintertime or not wearing our hats in the terminals. We were that rebellious just a thousand miles away from Red Square; how much control is NASA going to have over their pilots from a planet away?"
Charles, we can't call the company's general offices "Red Square" anymore. They painted over the red brick construction with our new company color, beige. They did this at a cost of $6 million two weeks before declaring bankruptcy.
I guess you do have a point about the pilot base, although I thought it was an exploratory outpost, full of scientists and aliens furthering science, or something.
"Yeah ... and how do you think they are going to get there and back?"
Charles, I have to admit that I never thought of the moon base idea in terms of whether or not the astronauts would be able to get away without wearing their hats and would be able to wear zip-up boots. What other kinds of shenanigans do you think they will be able to get away with, knowing that NASA management is so far away?
"For one thing," Charles said, "they will probably be able to watch something entertaining on their pilot lounge televisions besides this CNN stuff and dull football games."
Charles nodded enthusiastically.
Now Charles was really enthusiastic. The only thing that excites a lawyer more than a high-speed ambulance chase is to watch all the fast action on C-SPAN. After all, attorneys can't practice law if Congress didn't make the legal system such a cat's litter box of confusion and little stinky surprises.
"Think about it," he said, now more excited than ever. "If an astronaut does something silly like wear his Christmas tie during Lent, what is management going to do? Make the miscreant fly all the way to headquarters to explain? That would cost about a billion dollars in rocket fuel alone. The moon will be the most excellent pilot base of all time and there is nothing that NASA will be able to do about it."
Charles you are so wrong. They can turn off the oxygen from mission control. They can make the temperature in the base really uncomfortable one way or the other. Heck, I bet they can even turn off the porn from mission control. If things get too out of hand they can do what our company did when we Chicago pilots kept on wearing boots with no bus driver hats.
That's right -- they can close the base!
Cut Off The Nose ...
Remember, that is exactly what our management did back in 1990. The Chicago O'Hare airport, even though it was and still is the largest commercial aviation market in the world, was getting to be a pain to our Georgia Tech management graduates, mainly because the pilots there were so out of control. Their solution eventually was to withdraw from the airport and close the pilot base there. Sure, we lost market share and eventually went bankrupt, but they taught the pilot group a lesson. That lesson being: Wear Your Hats!
"Do you really think they would shut down all interplanetary exploration because they wanted to exert complete control over their pilots? Never mind -- I already know the answer to that one. I guess if we want our species to propagate the cosmos, the pilots in space are going to have to behave like little space-age line-check airmen with chief pilot aspirations."
Charles and I were somber and quiet for a few minutes after that because we both knew it to be true. During our short quiet time, I am sure that Charles was thinking his lawyer thoughts but I was thinking of two things. First was the new idea I had for a television situation comedy: "Chief Pilots in Space."
The second thought I was just beginning to have was about the additional recent news that NASA had found hard evidence that there was flowing water on the planet Mars.
Coffee, Tea or Chlorine?
|Hypothetical River on Mars
My thoughts weren't about science; they went beyond that to the airline world. I wondered if there was life found on Mars, would that life want or need transportation? If they did require airline, or in this case, spaceline transportation, how would we adjust the seatbacks and legroom to accommodate 300 pounds of green, slimy, Mars creatures? What would the lavs look like after a six-month space line flight to Earth that was carrying a species that pooped ammonia and carbon?
Charles must have been thinking along the same lines because he broke our silence by posing a rhetorical question.
"How come," he said, "how come they can find water on Mars, but with current airline travel security rules I can't get up and go to the back for a drink of water without a 60-step security procedure? Why is it probably easier to get a drink of water now on Mars than it is to get one on a westbound 767?"
Over to the Dark Side
I was about to come up with a pithy answer to Charles' question but I noticed that our pilot lounge was emptying out. Apparently, the snow had stopped, opening a departure window and everybody wanted to get out of Dodge while they still could.
Always good seeing you, Charles, I said. Where are you going today?
"I'm right here," he said. "Didn't you hear? They made me chief pilot for the eastern region because of my legal and ALPA background. By the way, get a haircut, wear your hat, and don't let me see you wearing those zip-up boots again."
I left the lounge befuddled. If Charles could be a chief pilot and we could have a base on the moon, then life had certainly passed this old captain by. I zipped up my boots, stuffed my pilot's hat into my suitcase and headed for the concourse to find my subsonic people mover full of homeward-bound Las Vegans.
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