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 year...like 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 turn...in 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 daughter...in jest of course, but it was good advice for me too.