March 14, 2013

A Dose Of My Own Medicine

I recently enjoyed a short vacation from the glamorous life of a junior First Officer and 10 hour layovers at the airport hotel in Des Moines...if you could see my face or hear the tone in my voice, the sarcasm would be more clear.  My daughters were on spring break, my wife was able to get some time off from her busy schedule, so with the ability to fly almost anywhere in the world for pennies on the dollar, we packed our bags and headed for the airport.   

Most people view flying for free as one of the greatest benefits of working for the airlines, but it is a perk that comes with significant traps and pit falls.  Careful planning and flexibility is required for a trip to a desirable location at popular times of the the beach during spring break.  The single most difficult aspect of utilizing this benefit is the simple fact that airplanes to all the good destinations will be full, so last minute planning is the name of the game.  

This year, my daughter requested...wait for it...the beach.  I checked flights to Mexico, Hawaii, the Caribbean and the Bahamas...just to name a few...and the flights were already full weeks in advance.  For whatever reason, there were a handful of flight to Los Angeles with open seats, so off we went.  I reserved a room within walking distance of the beach and the Santa Monica Pier, rented car and paid for the whole thing with airline miles.  No money out of pocket for the plane ride, hotel or ground transportation meant a relaxing and inexpensive vacation.  

One week before departure, there were 50 available seats on our flight.  Two days before departure, there were still 20 open seats.  One day before departure, the flights were beginning to fill up and at 6pm the night before we were supposed to leave, our flight was oversold by 5.  Actually, every flight that day was suddenly full.  However, if we threw our stuff in the car and headed for the airport, there was still flight that night (the day before our planned departure) with 10 available seats.  However, in the ten minutes it took me to confer with my wife, that flight sold out as well.  I'm not sure what caused such a mad rush for seats, but LA was getting very popular.

We decided to stick with the original plan, got up at 4am to catch the first flight to LA and thanks to a few people who didn't show up, we somehow managed to get the last three seats on the plane.  Crisis averted.

I know you couldn't care less about how we spent our time in LA, so I'll skip to the flight home, which should have been much less stressful.  Ask any airline employee and they will tell you that there are good and bad days of the week to fly.  Personally, I avoid Sunday, Monday and Friday non-rev travel at all costs.  We planned to fly on notoriously light travel days, and on the morning of our flight home, every plane still had plenty of available seats...right up until two hours before departure when they cancelled one of the flights.

Once again, we stuck with the plan and managed to get the last three seats on the plane.  The picture below is from the last row, middle seat between the engines of an MD80.  I'm convinced they save this seat for me when I fly.

Our flight left the gate a few minutes ahead of schedule and after a short taxi we were climbing westbound over the beach...I'm sure the view was beautiful, but all we could see out the window was the left side of a noisy JT8D.  Then, about two and a half hours into the flight as we began to descend...we also started to the wrong direction.  My daughter, who was sitting by the window, had a sliver of a view past the engine and fuselage and commented how pretty the sky looked.  "Pretty like blue or pretty like clouds?" I asked.  "Pretty like clouds, Daddy."  An impenetrable line of severe thunderstorms had developed between us and the airport and all arrivals from the west were closed.

A few minutes later, the Captain got on the PA and made the announcement I knew was coming.  I already knew thunderstorms were in the forecast, so prior to leaving LA, I pulled the flight plan to see how much extra fuel we had on board.  I even mentioned to my wife at the time that we seemed to have a lot of extra fuel for holding.  "That's never a bad thing," I told her.

From my seat without a view, I could tell that we reversed course away from the weather and entered a holding pattern.  The Captain informed us that the airport was now closed to all arrivals and that the line of thunderstorms was moving quite slowly.  I learned later that the storms had only moved 100-150 miles in a 24 hour period.  It was only a matter of time before we would have to divert for fuel.

The pilots only made one more turn in holding before we started an aggressive descent.  That either meant the airport was open or we were diverting.  A few minutes later, another PA from the Captain confirmed that we would be landing in Oklahoma City in twenty minutes.  Time to put a backup plan in action.  I quickly got out my iPad and logged onto a popular travel site.  I knew the WI/FI signal would die around 10,000 feet and we were coming down fast.  I wanted a car reservation in case the you-know-what really hit the fan or the flight cancelled.  It must have been pretty close, but I hit the enter key one last time before we lost the internet connection and I had a one-way reservation in case I needed one.  We were on the ground a short time later.

I should really take a moment to compliment the ground crew in OKC.  Within 30 minutes of our arrival, we had new paperwork, fuel in the wings and were all buttoned up and ready to go.  A van came by and provided extra provisions for the cabin crew and offered to take anyone back to the terminal who didn't want to continue on the flight.  One person was even given the opportunity to take her dog to a grassy area for a potty break.  That was as much a gift to us as it was to the dog...if you know what I mean!

Unfortunately, the weather would not cooperate.  After an hour, the only word from Air Traffic Control was that we would have another update in an hour.  A quick check of the radar revealed that the weather hadn't even arrived at the airport yet.  We could be sitting on the ramp for hours.  I gave up at this point and asked to get off the jet.  Five minutes later, transportation arrived and we were carrying our bags onto the ramp past the noisy exhaust note of the APU.

One of my favorite things about the MD80 is the ease of access provided by aft stairs.  Passengers on just about any other large airplane are stranded without the assistance of portable stairs that may or may not be available at some airports, but if you are lucky enough to be on an MD80 during a diversion, there's a built-in exit for a quick and simple escape.

Three hours later, I was sitting in my driveway.  The rain was still coming down hard and I got drenched unloading the car, but we were home.  I carried my little girl into the house and tucked her into bed before I had a chance to check on the flight we abandoned.  As much as I hated knowing all those people were inconvenienced for so long, I felt vindicated to learn the flight still hadn't left Oklahoma City.

I've always heard that doctors make terrible patients.  I think the same can be said for pilots as passengers.  The simple truth is that we know too much and don't like being left in the dark.  Most of us, me included, would much prefer a seat in the cockpit with hands literally on the situation to even the most comfortable seat in the cabin.  I kept that in mind as I sat in row 32 and generally kept my mouth shut.  "Sit down, shut up, keep your feet off the furniture...and if you push the Flight Attendant call button you're dead!"  That's what I told my jest of course, but it was good advice for me too.


  1. Great non revs are quite adept at going with plan B. My fiancee and I bought tickets to fly this most recent Christmas night from DEN to DFW on an unnamed airline ;) Unfortunately it snowed that day at DFW and our flight (which was the last one of the night) was cancelled. We immediately went from paid customer mode to non rev mode...sometimes knowing too much is a blessing. We knew our chances of getting to DFW that night were slim to none. So, we revised our game plan and non revved on our airline to OKC. We grabbed a $70 room near the airport and then non revved on the first flight to Dallas Love in the morning. We didn't get much sleep, but we were at work in the morning...which is all that mattered. Being a non rev can be painful...but it does teach you how to be resourceful quickly.

    BTW, I too am always astonished at how quickly a flight can go from "looking good" to "don't even try." How does that happen?
    Mark J.

    1. Great story Mark. That reminds me of my first commute to STL from DFW with a line of storms on it's way. I'll write about that sometime, but long story short...I flew my airline to TUL, slept 4 hours on the floor in operations and rode your airline to STL in the morning. What an awful way to get started!

  2. My dad always made sure if we were going somewhere we had 1st class upgrades in our pockets. Even if I was going on a trip back to Wisconsin for fishing and swimming, I had a dress packed in my bag. Had to look good to represent TWA.

    I was in Paris and the back of the 747 was getting pretty filled, I went to the ticket counter and upgraded myself. That was a good thing. When ever I came home from Europe I flew up front. Of course this was 40 years ago. And I have sat in the back row of a 727 next to the head as well.

    But I have to say I miss those days. FLying isn't nearly as much fun as it was in the old days.

    Glad you had fun out here - did you see the sun?

    1. Ah yes, dressing up to represent the airline. My dad is a retired airline pilot so I can relate. Even back when people dressed up to fly, I looked out of place in a coat and tie at the ripe old age of 5. Those are good memories.

      Regarding the sun...we have terrible luck with LA. The highs were near 60 with lows around 40. At least we packed for it. We had a great time though and enjoyed more sunshine than was predicted.

    2. I live south of LAX and we've been having lots of fog. I was watching the web cam overlooking the 25's and you could see the blanket of fog coming in.
      We're in desperate need of rain but the season is coming to an end shortly.
      The one neat thing about storms is the winds are wonky and the pattern changes and their taking off west to east. Nothing like having a 777 fly over at 4000 feet above the house. We also get late night Far East flights that take off west to east and rattle the windows.
      Come back in October when we have our summer heat!

  3. This is a tremendous story and yes, nothing like being a passenger on your own plane without anyway of taking control of the situation.

    This also reminds me of a situation where someone found out I wanted to become a pilot, just started taking flight lessons, and they immediately perked up, as if all of the sudden I became their best friend in the whole wide world, and they asked me, "When you eventually become a pilot, may I have a buddy pass?" Evidently it's been a while since that person tried smootching a buddy pass off a pilot as things've changed apparently ;)

    Have a great rest of the week!


    1. Plus those buddy passes are expensive! At least they are where I work. I can fly free domestically and so can my wife, children and parents (if they're traveling with me). Buddy passes cost almost as much as a cheap ticket and they're way more trouble.

    2. Hi Brad,
      In hindsight would it have been better if all of you had travelled as revenue passengers. The T-shirt picture is a great choice.

  4. I like your comment about pilots in back. My father and I were flying out of Denver many years ago. On the climb-out, a slow bank to the right was arrested with a noticeably (to us, at least) faster bank to the left. My dad and I looked at each other and then looked out the window. Sure enough, we could see the underside of another plane banking away from us.

    Flying military Space-Available can be a similar experience with the added complexity of fewer and more irregularly scheduled flights. However, you can't beat the price.

  5. I love this. And... this is the reason I buy a real ticket. It's harder and harder to non-rev. Yes... hard to be a passenger at times.

  6. I love this story Brad! Sounds totally right for the worst of non-rev flying!

    And sorry about those last minute seats booking up, my brother and I were some of those people (although not on American). Just a few days out from departure, my brother and I booked seats to meet our dad in LA last week. Seems like more an more people try booking last minute, maybe waiting for deals? I have the trips featured on my blog here:

    Very interesting story to read from a pilot's perspective!
    Swayne Martin

  7. It’s nice that you enjoyed your vacation with you family! You really need that to unwind and become stress-free. It is true indeed that being a passenger is hard more often than not.

    -Max | Aviation testing @ AvionTEq

  8. They say you can tell your patient’s a doctor when he gives you a diagnosis before you even start checking. In your case, pre-empting the need for alternate transportation worked out to your advantage. At least you were able to control the urge to back-seat the pilot. XD

    Corina Ogan