December 23, 2012

A Very Merry Christmas

Originally posted in December 2010, this post starts out on a sour note, but ends well…so stick with me.

The year 2000 was a difficult year that culminated in the story I‘m about to tell. I had already missed my oldest daughter’s birthday and baptism, my anniversary, Easter, Thanksgiving and pretty much everything else of any importance along the way, so it came as no surprise that I held a line in December that worked on Christmas day. I was on reserve from December 21st through the 26th but was quite pleased to be assigned a three day trip on the 23rd that got off at 8:30am on Christmas day. I spent the night in Indianapolis, Indiana on Christmas Eve and was scheduled to work an early morning flight home on Christmas day. One leg home…what could possibly go wrong?

We got to the airport before sunrise and the Captain stopped at the gate to get our paperwork as I went down to the jet to warm things up and start 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.”

I had completed my probationary year plus about three months at this point and was getting slightly less willing to be abused without a fight.  “That’s fine" I told him, "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, the they still had a contractual 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...think text messaging for airplanes. 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 make contact. I basically stared at the ACARS printer most of the way home that morning, but we never received such a 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 see 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."  "They must have gotten someone else," I said as I quietly folded the report and stuck it in my pocket.

The next opportunity for notification was the call to company ramp control. After we landed, I called the company 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 wearing management type with a clip board...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 said for about the third time.

As I started to pack my bags, four stripes (that's the Captain) 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 out the phone in such a manner that I knew 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" he said.  "...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, daughters in tow, 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.

My oldest daughter was only 4 at the time and didn't understand that I wasn't going home with her. So as she began to realize what was really happening, she melted down right there in the boarding area with 136 passengers sitting around waiting to board. 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 a good girl!” Those words broke my heart and are still difficult to remember today. I’m pretty sure my wife had a few ugly thoughts for all those people who just HAD to fly on Christmas day, but thankfully she kept them to herself.

So that was my worst Christmas…here‘s my best.

This year, Christmas 2010, my relative seniority at the company 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 in the U.S. haven’t done so well in the last 10 years.

I was on reserve beginning Christmas day and was scheduled to work 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...ever so slightly too 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 and 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. My phone chirped a few minutes later informing me that some one had left a message, so I punch the button and listened to what the MD80 Fleet Training Manager had to say.  “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 to calm her concerns, 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.

After giving it some thought, 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 this guy has been doing this same thing for years and probably hasn't had Christmas with his family in a very long time. 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 wondered if the stories were 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.


  1. Merry Christmas. Clear skies and light winds for your travels.

  2. I left a commet last time you posted this. I do not realize how hard it must have been.

  3. I already hate the captain that told on you! Come on! What kind of human being can do that? Did you speak about your plans during the flight?

  4. Wow, tough story with a great ending, Bro!

    We've all been there, unfortunately. This year was the FIRST time in 22 years that I legitimately had Christmas off...and now my youngest is nearly 18, so I feel for ya!!

    And it just goes to show...for every total a$$ out there, there's a Saint!!

  5. Thanks for this great and sweet story. A good read.

  6. I havent any word to appreciate this post.....Really i am impressed from this post.