December 27, 2010
A Very Merry Christmas
We got to the airport before sunrise and the Captain went straight to the gate to get our paperwork as I went down to the jet to warm things up and get started on my pre-flight duties. When I returned from my walk-around, the Captain was sitting in his seat with a somber look on his face. “Bad news” he said, “I checked your schedule and they’ve re-assigned you to fly to Long Beach tonight. You’re scheduled to fly home on the 26th. Your going to miss Christmas.”
“Well” I told him, “that’s fine, but they’re going to have to catch me.” The airline can’t just add a new fight assignment to a pilot’s schedule without notifying him of the change, and since it had been the Captain who logged into the computer to check my schedule and not me, it was their responsibility to notify me of the change…I certainly wasn’t going to call them.
There are a number of ways for the company to notify me of such a change. First, after we were airborne on our way home, Crew Tracking could have sent us a message over the ACARS system. ACARS is a communication system that allows the company to send a message that prints out in the cockpit. Our contract does not require me to respond to such a message while flying, but it would have given me a heads up that they were in fact trying to contact me. We never received an ACARS message.
The next and most common opportunity for contact is through the “changeover report.” About 30 minutes before we land at any destination, I send a message to the company through the ACARS system to notify them of our expected landing time. This information is passed on to ramp and gate personnel and also updates the computer screens that you read in the terminal. We receive a printed response that, among other things, includes information about crew connections. If I was expected to perform another flying assignment, then the changeover would include gate and departure information for my next flight. But instead of providing this information, the report clearly stated “No Crew Connect Info.” I quietly folded the report and stuck it in my pocket.
Next was the call to company ramp control. After we landed, I called the ramp controller to inform him that we were on the ground and requested an entry spot to the ramp. If Crew Tracking was looking for me, the ramp controller would have instructed me to call them after we parked. I received no such message.
After we parked at the gate and the door opened, I looked out onto the jet bridge…no suit with a clip board and the phone was not ringing…good. So with the “No Crew Connect Info” message in my shirt pocket, I turned to the Captain and told him I was going home. “Must have gotten someone else” I told him.
As I started to pack my bags, four stripes got out of his seat and went out onto the jet bridge. He didn’t say anything to me and I didn’t know where he was going. As I exited the jet with my bags in hand, he was standing there on the phone with what I would describe as a “ha, I got ya” look on his face. He held the phone out where the person on the other end could hear and said “I called Crew Tracking for you…” You What?! The voice in my head was screaming something I can’t repeat in this forum. “They need you for the trip…just forgot to notify you.” I wanted to kill him. I freely admit now, that if they had not been able to contact me, some other pilot would have had to fly the trip and would have missed Christmas with HIS family…either that or the flight would have been cancelled all together. Neither is palatable to me now, but I certainly wasn’t thinking of such things at the time. It’s all about me!!!
Before we left Indy 3 hours earlier, I placed a call to my wife and broke the news to her. She grew up with a father who was always home for the holidays and took the news hard. She is, however, a strong, supportive woman and a great wife and as a surprise, she got the kids out of bed and met me at the gate as I exited the jet. It was wonderful to see her and my two little ladies, even if it was only for 10-15 minutes. They brought me some food intended for our Christmas dinner, gave me a present to open and a few last hugs as I boarded the plane to Long Beach.
The worst part? My oldest daughter was only 4 at the time and didn’t understand that I wasn’t going home with her. So as the truth became apparent, she melted down right there in the boarding area with 136 passengers sitting around waiting for their flight. She began to scream and cry and begged me no to go. As I rounded the corner and walked onto the jet, the last thing I heard her say was “Daddy, please don’t go…if you won’t go, I promise to be good.” Broke my heart. I’m pretty sure my wife had a few ugly thoughts for all those people who just HAD to fly on Christmas.
So that was my worst Christmas…here‘s my best.
This year, Christmas 2010, my seniority is about the same, maybe a little worse, than it was in 2000. That’s a story for another day, but let’s just say that between 9/11, swine flu, bird flu, sky rocketing fuel prices, age 65 and the recession, that airline pilot’s haven’t done so well in the last 10 years. I was a reserve MD80 FO in 2000 and I’m a reserve MD80 FO today. My schedule this year had me on reserve beginning on Christmas day and working through the 29th. I did my best to get a trip on Christmas day that signed in late enough to have some time with my family before I had to go to work, but was assigned a trip with a sign-in time of 5:50am. That meant I would have to leave the house at 4:50...just a little early for any quality family time. It wasn’t a total loss as the trip was just a two leg turn, out and back in the same day. I would be home in time for dinner.
We spent Christmas Eve at my in-laws house. We were all sitting around the fire trading stories at about 3 in the afternoon when my cell phone rang. I’ve been doing this long enough to know not to answer my phone if I don’t know who‘s calling. If they’re short on pilots and you’re stupid enough to pick up the phone, your it…day off or not, you're going to work. I didn’t recognize the number on the caller ID, so I let it go to voice mail. A minute or so later, my phone chimed in again indicating a new voice mail, so I punch the button and listened to a message from the MD80 Fleet Training Manager. “Hey Brad, can you holler at me on my mobile please, I’d like to displace you tomorrow.” I'm going to omit his name out of respect since he probably doesn't want to publicize his actions, but the guy is a management pilot in charge of all MD80 training and doesn’t have to work on Christmas or any other holiday.
I jumped up with such a start that wife thought something was wrong. She later told me that her first thought, in reaction to the look on my face, was that someone had died! I hurried into the next room so I could respond to the call in private and my wife followed along. I gave her a thumbs up as my new best friend picked up on the other end. We only spoke for a few minutes, but he explained to me that his children were all grown and out of the house and that it was his pleasure to give me the day with my family. He thanked me for my service to the company, asked about past holidays and seemed pleased to learn that it had been so many years since I had had Christmas day off.
In hind sight, it occurs to me that I will still want to spend Christmas with my kids when they are grown and out of the house. It also occurs to me that he’s been doing this same thing for years and hasn’t had Christmas with his family either. I've heard rumors from time to time about this yearly Christmas gift. I’ve heard that he calls some junior guy who’s stuck flying on Christmas for the umpteenth year in a row and gives that pilot the day off with pay. I always thought the stories might just be urban legend and certainly never thought I would be the recipient of his good graces.
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, but of all the people this affected, my 14 year old daughter was more touched than anyone. She had been telling me for weeks that I could keep the presents...all she wanted was for me to be home on Christmas. I didn’t think there was any chance it would happen, and I definitely couldn’t have foreseen the outcome of the day. This will be a Christmas that my family will never forget.
Posted by APC at 6:00 PM