Tuesday, August 14, 2007

GENTLEMEN, THIS IS WHAT YOU'VE BEEN TRAINED FOR!

In this job, there are often little clues that things are amiss. For example: before every trip, you print out a trip sheet, which tells you the schedule for the trip and also has the names of the crew. It is such a clue when the captain's name is missing from this sheet, and this such a thing happened last trip.
We wait there at the gate for half an hour before we discover that the captain we were supposed to fly with had called in sick, and that they were flying in a reserve captain from LA. Good for us, but bad for him, because his day started several hours earlier, two of which were on the clock. The reason I make a distinction here is that pilots are only allowed to fly for fourteen hours by the FAA. This, regrettably, comes into play later.
Our new captain arrives, and we make a somewhat uneventful three hour round trip to Denver. We have three hours of airport appreciation time there in Salt Lake, and then switch planes. When we enplane (yes, it's a word) onto the new plane, maintenance is already there. The maintenance guys, or MX as they're called (for no other reason than that abbreviators the world over share a mutual admiration for the letter X) are all cheery fellows, but you never want to see them, because if you do, something is wrong with your aircraft. Also, you can tell how wrong your aircraft is by how many of them there are. Busted headlight = one MX. Hyperactive warning light = two MX. We had six, and apparently six = metal shavings discovered in the engine oil. I don't have to tell you how bad that is.
So three hours later, they've fixed the problem by doing everything short of changing out the engine itself. Our now five-hours-late New Orleans-bound passengers enplane (see, I told you, there it is again), grumbling and spitting. And before we're even off the ground, the pilots get the message that there are thunderstorms over N.O. and we're gonna have to make a fuel stop.
A quick explanation... your holy trinity on an airplane is passengers, bags, and fuel. The bigwigs know that passengers are the only one of this trinity that makes the company money, so they want to skimp on the other two. Passengers don't want to skimp on bags, so that leaves fuel. And when there is bad weather ahead, it's standard procedure to pack on extra fuel so that, if the idea of landing in the bad weather brings up images from Airplane!, you can divert to another city. And that's something you can't do if you have skimped on fuel. Hence, a fuel stop.
We fly an hour to Kansas City to gas back up. It's a secret joy of mine (because basically I'm a jerk) to see passengers' faces when the captain makes an announcement that starts with, "Ladies and gentlemen... well, uh..." and ends with us landing in a completely different destination. And this joy repeats itself, because in addition to the faces made during that initial announcement, those people who are not listening when we tell them what snacks there are make a second round of faces when we land. Usually a fuel stop is quick. Twenty minutes and we're airborne again. But for some reason, even though they knew we were coming, Kansas City just didn't have the fuel crew ready. For two hours they didn't have the fuel crew ready. And normally, sitting there on the ground for two hours is inconvenient, but surmountable. But let's go back over the day and add things up:

2 hours reserve captain travel time
3 hours round trip to Denver
3 hours AAT
3 hours engine fixin'
1 hour to Kansas city
2 hours inexplicable fuel stop delay

Yes, that's fourteen hours. To the minute. The poor reserve captain, who to his credit wanted nothing more than to stay and get these people to N.O., has to step down and be flown home. He probably also wanted to stay because he has to make the announcement informing the passengers (who were, at this point, far beyond grumbling and spitting), that he was stepping down and flying home. Also, he has to tell them that the captain replacing him had just been notified, he was leaving LA right now, and would be here in two hours.
For all the world, you don't want to be a flight attendant in the cabin with 70 incensed New Orleanians during that announcement.
Several fuses begin to burn right then. You could see them. It was like a planeful of those round black Spy VS. Spy bombs. There were shouts of, "This is ridiculous!" Shouts of, "I'm gonna sue!" One gentleman loudly threatened to introduce anyone in charge to 'Joey Knuckles.' And there I am, along with the other FA, the only thing between this mob and the flight deck. What do I do?
I am an actor, whose job it is to speak. I have a communications degree, which says I can speak. I was trained by the military to discuss very bad things with people, and in different languages, and again trained by the airline industry to do the same in FAA terminology.
What do I do? I wade in is what I do.
First guy I get to tells me its ridiculous. I agree with him, and watch the wind go out of his anger sails. Another lady says she's been sitting so long her knee is swollen. I give her an ice bag and watch her anger sails go flat. And I repeat the process, giving the people the first shot on credit, and doing the last thing they would ever suspect... listening to and agreeing with them, and 70 people later I have them all on my side. Angry Louisianians are funny... their momentum is unstoppable but their steering is easily hijacked. An example:

ANGRY: This here's ridiculous! I still got to drive an hour to Lafayette after this!
ME: Lafayette? I used to hang out with people at USL.
NOT ANGRY ANYMORE: You from down there? Lemme get you a beer!

And so it goes for two hours until the reserve reserve pilot gets there. Now and again I would hear the sudden SSSSS of a fuse lighting up again, and go back to bring it a Jack and Coke (which, at that point, we had decided were all on the house), and bring a sense of shared exasperation/good will to everyone else. I'm no longer a scared rat in a 70 vs. 4 match; I'm a professional in the thick of the job, damn good at it if I say so myself, and perversely enough, enjoying it.
The new pilot (who had no idea he was going to be the new pilot... when he got the call, he was headed to his hotel in Kansas City [welcome to the airline industry, kid]) gets us to New Orleans, and 70 people who were formerly angry enough to kill me deplane, most of them smiling and a few calling me (as they say down there) 'good people.' And as I ride to the hotel, finally able to take my smile off, it occurs to me that maybe it's not at graduation that you 'become' a flight attendant. I mean, it happens there, but it also happens after your first trip solo. And after your first 12 hour sit on an icy Chicago runway. After you fly a 14 hour day sick as a dog. After your first throwdown with a true bastard of a passenger. I think this is a job where you keep having opportunities to become what you are, as many opportunities as there are new and different things to happen to you. And there seems to be no scarcity of those.
So that trip, right there amid those crazy people, I again became a flight attendant. And even though I have to wear polyester and people think I'm gay, I'm proud of that. Makes me look forward to the next chance to become one again.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

you should be proud.

that's how i feel about my job, too. and i have to say, after a week like i just had, i get kinda misty thinking that other 'good people' are also out there doing a damn fine job of being human beings...
and flight attendants or middle school teachers or bankers or whatever it is we do.
nice job.

5:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

U B MAH inspirashunz! L.M.

9:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you going to have a one-year post?
Mike

6:51 AM  
Anonymous Denise Templeton said...

SEriously, funny. Looks like you're having fun...such as it is. Christy and I are plotting, er, planning a trip on your airline just in hopes of getting YOU as our FA. Bwahahaha. Oh, was that evil laughter out loud? And why isn't there a link to my imdb page? I need work before I have to get a real job....love, denise

5:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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You ought to peek at Yahoo's front page and watch how they write news headlines to get people to open the links. You might add a related video or a pic or two to get people excited about everything've
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