CEO of the Cockpit #48: If This Is Coffee, Bring Me Tea -- If This Is Tea, Bring Me Coffee

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GA pilots know what it's like to try and survive on vending-machine food. But when you make it to the majors, you can count on first-class meals in flight and in the hotels. Well, maybe if you were a pilot in the 1960s ...

I was wandering the terminal awaiting my daughter's arrival from the city on the other side of the continent that she saw fit to move to at her very first opportunity after graduating high school. I know that regular people aren't allowed to go through security and await their loved ones at the gate.

I had an excuse today, although I really didn't need one. I was at the airport to clean out three months worth of company edicts, memos, reminders and Jepp revisions from my mailbox. Still out on sick leave, I thought I'd better visit the lounge, read the bulletin boards and catch up on the latest gossip.

That chore took about five minutes. Pilot lounges, especially those of almost bankrupt airlines, aren't the happy-go-lucky places they used to be. Most of my friends have already retired early and the rest of the pilots down in the lounge had a harried, tired look about them.

A Happy But Hungry Pilot

At our particular airline we aren't hiring new guys even though the advertisements in aviation magazines say there is a "hiring boom" going on. With hundreds still out on furlough combined with the fact that the airline hired older guys before 9/11, we have a fairly mature-looking group.

Imagine my surprise when I saw a very young pilot dressed in the livery of another, more RJ-flying-oriented airline, sitting glumly near a snack bar that was closed. He was too young to be that haggard looking ... hell, his epaulettes still looked shiny and new. I wondered what was bothering him so much.

His name, it turned out, was Bob. This is a great name for a new-hire co-pilot and in most instances you can't go wrong as a captain calling your co-pilot "Bob" if you can't remember his name. Most of the time you'll be right.

Bob's story was a common one, especially for a new airline pilot. He was a commuter from another town, had just arrived two hours before report time and had nothing to eat for the past 10 hours.

Eating difficulties are a common problem for new-hire pilots until they get settled in the job. It was quite a coincidence that I had run into Bob and also had a pile of stuff from my company mailbox. One of the things in my pile of stuff was a short guide I had written years ago when I was new-hire coordinator for my base and had produced a series of guidebooks for our new pilots.

I handed Bob a dog-eared copy of my "New Hire's Guide to Nutrition" and headed for my daughter's gate. I'm sure it helped him survive his probationary year and I'll copy it below to help any of you out there in the airline world in need of a little advice on eating.

The New Hire's Guide to Nutrition

Eating food is something we have all done since we were very young. It was easy when we were children. Our Mom or Dad or some other lucky adult entrusted with our care would ensure that we got our share of healthy, nutritious stuff to eat.

The '60s passed. Vietnam heated up and then cooled down. Nixon resigned. Clinton didn't have sex with that woman. McDonald's served 20 billion. Hem lines went up and then down and then up again. Then, somewhere along the line, an airline showed some interest in you and offered you a job as a pilot.

Your Momma was, no doubt, very proud.

If your Mom knew what this new job was going to do to your eating habits, she would immediately hop into her SUV, drive to the airline's headquarters and demand from your base Chief Pilot that she be allowed to take you off of your trip and force-feed you some decent home cooking.

Is Mom wrong? Are you doing OK diet-wise while out on trips?

All you have to do to see how much trouble you are really in is to take a look at your flying buddy, your mentor in the skies ... your captain. Go ahead, take a peek. He or she will probably think you are admiring their profile.

Sobering, isn't it? Here, right next to you, close enough to throw a Jepp binder at, is what you will look like in 10 to 20 years if you keep this job.

You are looking at 20 years of nachos for dinner, breakfasts of M&Ms and black coffee from a Boeing galley. Here is an example, in quivering flesh, of what eating the food this lifestyle has to offer for can do to you.

Let's go through a typical day in the life of an airline pilot and see what he or she consumes.

A Typical Day

0500 EDT: Your wrist-watch alarm awakes you, signaling the start of another glorious day of airline flying. You fumble out of bed, wander to the bathroom and -- finding the sliver of soap they left you -- begin your shower.

The wake-up call you asked for last night from the front desk comes in 20 minutes late while you are in the shower and rings for at least eight minutes. As you get out of the shower, dripping wet, and approach the phone, its ringing stops.

Dressed, packed and in the lobby waiting for pick-up, you take on your first nutrition of the day: a cup of very strong coffee, one sugar and one "death dust" (non-dairy creamer). One half of this brew is consumed by you and the other half is destined to decorate the crotch of your pants when it spills as the van hits a bump on the way to the airport.

0632 EDT: The airport restaurant and all the other vendors are closed. The employee's cafeteria will open in only 45 minutes -- 10 minutes after your flight has left the ground. Strangely, the line at Starbucks is 50-people deep and they won't open for another hour.

The vending machines are always open. A few quarters and a Twinkee later, you are onboard throwing switches, programming all sorts of computers and giving the flight attendants a chance to learn to hate you.

0752 EDT: You are slipping the surleys! Isn't it nice to be in the air again? Your stomach doesn't think so. It is signaling your brain that if it doesn't get something to work on soon it will pop out of your body like a cliché alien and slap you senseless.

You can take a hint, so you slam down some peanuts and more coffee.

0800 - 1555 EDT: Six legs, six approaches and no meals later you are sitting in the motel van wondering why you feel like you have silly putty for a brain and a body like Gumby.

You know what you need -- nutrition! That is it. You will force yourself to partake in a great, healthy kind of dinner tonight without fail.

1800 EDT: Happy Hour! For the price of just one beer or diet Cola, the Hotel's bar will let you eat all of the fried chicken wings or little egg rolls or crackers and cheese or popcorn you can scarf down.

Well, maybe you should drop in and have one cool drink with the crew, then go out and have that meal ...

1945 EDT: Aha! You knew it. "The Island of the Network Overweight Reality Stars" is on TV and you haven't missed a single nuance of what has to be a riveting plot. That bar food you stuffed into your maw sure hit the spot. Maybe tomorrow you can have that healthy meal you promised yourself.

Take Two

That was one of the better days you can expect on the line. A lot of times your day will be longer and we can all have a hearty laugh at the concept of "crew meals" -- they don't board them anymore because they cost money.

Is it any wonder that you face a debilitating demise by coach snack? What can you do?

There are three career choices you can make:

  1. Resign yourself to your fate. You haven't killed yourself yet, have you? Go ahead and stuff your face with chemical-laden junk. No worries -- you'll probably live to see retirement and maybe a week or two after that. Your family can spend your paltry retirement fund and will have fond memories of your blimpy, happy face.

  2. Become a convert. Take up the holy grail of the transformed dieter. Peruse every diet book ever written; follow a diet for a few days and then move on to the next. Pack all of your food for the trip in your suitcase and eat furtive meals from the depths of your wheeled home away from home. Your duty as a convert is to pester everyone else that you fly with using sayings like, "Are you really going to eat that?" and, "Let me tell you about this wonderful petroleum products diet I'm on."

  3. Eat sensibly, but eat. This method is not the easiest one to follow. It is hard on a trip to remember to eat at all sometimes, let alone to eat sensibly.

Attempt to make some sort of sense out of what you eat. The fact that nothing else in your life makes sense should not cloud your thoughts at this point.

Let's Do It!

So, are you ready to live and eat like a human being while on your next trip? Here are a few rules for you to consider as you venture out into the world. They should help you survive and make your life a little easier:

  • Never accept food on the airplane from flight attendants who obviously hate you. I know they are professionals and shouldn't do bad things to your food, even if they despise everything you stand for, but why tempt fate?

  • Never order the "Catch-O-The-Day" at a seafood restaurant that is more than 800 miles from a large body of water.

  • Never order Mexican food at a non-Mexican restaurant. A burrito at "Biffs" is a guaranteed gut-bomb.

  • Especially when you are flying international, ask about food that you don't understand. Deep fried squid may look great when spelled in French but it loses its appeal when you are watching it squish on your plate.

  • Always carry a ready supply of stomach medicines, antacids, diarrhea medicines and pain killers. There is nothing worse than waking up at 3 a.m. needing some antacid when Biff's burrito comes back to haunt you and not having one.

You will spend almost half of your life eating away from home, and the other half at home trying to recover from what you have done to yourself during the first half. Bon Appétit!

Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.