When it comes to crew life, outsiders want the dirt, the real lowdown, and they ask me at times, “What was too sensitive for you to include in An Airline Pilot’s Life?” My answer is always, a lot.
Too many others could get hurt and as bad, this: some stuff is insider knowledge outsiders probably don’t need to know. Well, I found a way to share it anyway:
Here are the nitty-gritty, incredible, crazy, hilarious and often sad, all at once, insider stories from the airline world. There’s some extreme behavior; there’s some misbehavior. In fact, there’s some extreme misbehavior, in these stories.
I hesitate to share them. Too sensitive? Too intimate? The tough stuff is going on right now: furlough notices. What’s that like? See for yourself. Below is a story from the collection that will let you witness the very insider view of that tragic reality. But that makes me cringe: so many fellow crewmembers, folks I’ve flown with and care about, are getting the bad news.
That’s why, when I retired in May after thirty-five years at American Airlines, I passed on the proffered final flight water canon salute. I just couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t; not when so many others are facing loss of their flying job, income, security and their very profession.
See why this collection makes me worry? For now, though, I’ll give it a try.
The collection is available for Kindle pre-order, assuming I have the fortitude to go ahead with the publication. Both paperback and Kindle formats are slated for release by Dark Horse Books on October 1. I’m not sure how long I’ll let the publication run, to be honest. It makes me uncomfortable, which is why I didn’t include these incendiary tales in An Airline Pilot’s Life.
Well, let’s give it a try. Here’s some of the heartache that’s going on now, behind the galley curtain. A sneak preview from Aircrew Confidential.
Stacy bound her pony tail in a twisty-tie, then grabbed her stacked bags again and rolled toward her departure gate. She looked good, she knew, especially compared to some of the older, more senior flight attendants who didn’t seem to care how they looked.
It wasn’t a bad thing, she decided, that heads turned, male heads, sometimes young and good-looking male heads, when she walked into a boarding area. That was probably something the senior mamas noticed, even if they never acknowledged the fact.
The gate agent scanned her ID card, then pulled open the locked jetbridge door.
“I’m sending them down in ten,” she said without looking back at Stacy. She strode down the sloping jetbridge, bags in tow, already starting to swelter in the layers of polyester uniform in the stale-smelling jet bridge.
“I’m Stacy,” she said as she stepped through the forward entry door. “Number four.”
“Kimmie,” the older woman said. “Number one. Shirley normally flies four on this.”
“Oh,” Stacy answered, smooth and cool. Why did that matter, that ‘Shirley,’ whoever she was, usually flew number four?
“I guess she called in sick,” Stacy said and smiled sweetly.
“Well no,” Kimmie answered. “Thursdays she has Bunco so she just drops. Never fails.”
Hobbyist, Stacy grumped to herself. Drop a trip, lose the pay, but for those married to a doctor or lawyer or such, that mattered little. My husband lets me fly forty hours, one hobbyist told her. I have to get away from the kids.
She was already in a foul mood and the thought of more elitism, especially since Stacy herself counted every paid flight hour towards her own rent, began to annoy her. She dragged her bags down the aisle and stowed them near the aft galley. Now is the time, she decided, to put this all out of your mind. And yet, the letter poked out of her tote bag as she forced the overhead bin shut.
The letter. The damn letter.
No, she decided again, this time more firmly. Not going to let it end like this. That thought, of course, sprouted green shoots of memory only recently planted. Those she could allow herself.
A year and ten months ago, on the stairs of the Charm Farm, all of them in descending order, uniforms fresh, the sign board proclaiming their class number and graduation date.
What a hodge-podge they were: the oldest guy was a retired cop; several school teachers, giving up the daily grind; many, like Stacy herself, fresh of a series of post-college marketing “positions;” just all manner of young and old, or at least older, but all of them survivors of the attrition rate she figured was built into the flight attendant training program.
Within a day, within hours, really, they were scattered to the four winds, to crew bases on both coasts, plus Chicago. Then the first few quit in their first months at their crew base. That wasn’t hard to figure: Stacy herself felt like quitting when she’d arrived at O’Hare on Christmas Eve with two suitcases and the one box the airline had shipped for her. And that was it.
“Stacy,” Kimmie’s voice cut into Stacy’s thoughts. “We’re still checking emergency equipment, if the agents call.”
Not that Stacy wanted to rush boarding, but the fact was, Kimmie and company were basically lounging in First Class, not checking anything. Her phone buzzed.
Our FO is wearing cowboy boots with his uniform, the text read. Stacy sighed, then tapped away with both thumbs.
Probably a cheesy ‘stache and a teeny wienie. She hit send. Then she added, my granny crew is sitting on their fat asses in First.
Where was Laurie? Stacy couldn’t remember. Detroit turn? Stacy had a hard time remembering her own schedule, or even the day of the week, much less her roommate’s schedule.
“I’m Delores,” a portly flight attendant wearing gardening gloves said. She resumed hammering cubed ice that had clumped together on the catering truck.
“Stacy,” she replied and raised a hand to wave, but Delores had already ducked back into the forward galley. The cabin smelled stale, and little air circulated.
He keeps trying to get me to go to lunch with him sometime Laurie texted. Says I’ll like his Porsche.
Loser, Stacy texted back. She checked the emergency equipment in the forward overhead bin. The phone rang on the jetbridge and Stacy pictured the disheveled, harried agent who hadn’t met her eyes on the jetbridge.
“Don’t answer that,” Kimmie ordered, comfortably curled up in a First Class seat.
Yes ma’am, Stacy said in her head, then tried to figure out why that rankled so much. Being told what to do? Being ordered to join the old ladies malingering, delaying boarding?
The fact was, she too was in no rush to start the tedious parade of passenger demands, confusion, clumsiness with luggage and the impossibly slow process of finding a seat then actually sitting down. But she didn’t like being discounted, being told by parent-ish Kimmie and her cronies what to do as if she were a child.
“So,” Kimmie continued to her partners also on their duffs in First, “Everyone knows Shirley and I own 19 to London. It’s our bid.”
Granny thinks she owns the early London flight, Stacy tapped out on her phone. Bitches. She’s been sent out on that flight as a reserve more than once. While some of the crews were welcoming, too many “air bags” like Kimmie felt compelled to assert their “ownership” of a flight by virtue of their seniority rather than anything related to skill or merit.
The fact was, passengers clearly preferred the younger, prettier and more energetic younger male and female flight attendants to the waddling, plodding and as was the case right there in First, hiding flight attendants.
The agented clomped through the door, huffed a sigh, then pointed to Kimmie.
“We’re boarding,” she announced, then turned on her heel and walked up the jetbridge again.
“We used to board a full DC-10 in twenty minutes,” Kimmie called after her, mostly for effect, Stacy figured, or maybe for Stacy herself. That rankled too. She headed for the back of the plane.
Stacy took her place in the aisle for the mind-numbing slow shuffle of boarding which, she grudgingly had to admit silently, really did seem endless.
As the jet trundled to the runway, Stacy sway-walked to compensate for the nose-weaving taxi motion with the practiced grace of one who’d had a few years of doing it, of pouring scalding coffee flawlessly in a bouncing cabin, and reassuring nauseated passengers in turbulence that her own stomach had long since accommodated.
In cruise, Kimmie faced the inevitable.
“Let’s get this over with,” she said. She released the brake on a service cart and yanked from the galley.
Stacy positioned herself at the forward end of the cart, facing aft, popping open soft drinks, twisting caps off of liquor minis and wine splits, pouring, then handing things over to Kimmie who passed out the drinks and snacks.
The older woman had a strange, obsequious, automaton manner about her, as if she was there as a paper cutout, speaking with care but her eyes vacant, elsewhere, just sleepwalking through the service.
Fine, Stacy decided. Passengers, too, were barely there. More engrossed in layers of technology from ear buds to games and movies, hardly noticing her and requiring a second or third inquiry: something to drink? Snack?
It never ended. What? Something to drink? Would you like to purchase an on-board snack … credit or debit only … something to drink?
Kick the cart’s toe brake, pull forward a few rows, park the toe brake. Something to drink? A snack? Credit or debit.
She fell into the mind-numbing mantra, ask, pop a top, pour, tap the brake, pull. Finally, she helped Kimmie drag the cart back into the galley, shove it into its slot then flip the latch. At last, she plopped down on the jumpseat, exhausted more from the noisy hotel and crappy night’s sleep than from the mind-numbing cart mantra, up then back down the aisle.
She pulled a People magazine from her tote bag and dropped it in her lap, then leaned her head back just so against the bulkhead at the perfect angle that let her glimpse the round porthole in the emergency exit even while her head rested against the aft bulkhead.
Framed by the circular window, a tapestry of raggedy mountains glided noiselessly by below and disappeared behind. She gave in to the gently swaying yaw of the jet, always more pronounced in the very aft end, and let it lull and rock her like a cradle. The drone of the engines, the whoosh of conditioned air, and the ever-changing tapestry smoothly, silently scrolling by below mesmerized her into that half-sleep of conscious twilight, dreamy, awake but not really.
A highway like a tiny vein slipped by and sun glinted off speck-like semi-trucks lumbering below, antlike, earthbound. A flash of sunlight glinted off of filament-like railroad tracks and moments later, like a black marker streak, a freight train like a miniature eraser blotted the sunlight and crept ever so slowly west on the rails.
It was a footless, god’s-eye view, exclusive, omniscient, above and beyond at incredible speed and height. That was hers, her secret view, her superpower, soaring above.
“She will fly,” Aunt Millie said, holding a ladybug on her fingertip.
“How,” seven-year-old Stacy asked her, squinting in the sunshine and floating dust motes in the side porch. “How will she fly?”
“Well,” Aunt Millie said, a modest smile nonetheless crinkling the crow’s feet near both eyes, “She knows how. May not look like it, but she will.”
The ladybug seemed more like a cute button, a perfect little toy, even a candy, but certainly just a bug. Fly? How?
Then just like that, the candy-like red panels on the ladybug’s back flexed up and out in unison and after a heartbeat, she rose in a blur and darted out the open window then up into the sunlight.
“Just like that,” Aunt Millie said. “She knew how, and she knew just when.”
That was amazing. How could a bitty bug just know, both how and when? And she will fly. She just knew, she repeated to herself, trying the thought on like a soft new sweater. It fit. Somehow, it just felt right. Not the how and when exactly, but.
“I will fly,” Stacy announced, then nodded her head for emphasis.
“Will you, my dear?”
She nodded again, as if to say, that’s final. Millie smiled, stood, then kissed her on the forehead.
“Well, my girl, I do believe you will.”
“Flight attendants,” the PA blared and her half-dream fled like a candle blown out, “Prepare for landing.”
Those were the words a flight attendant lived for. Landing, taxi-in, then time off. She stood and shook the cobwebs from her head. Then she swept past the galley curtains and walked through the cabin, checking for seats fully upright and passengers belted.
As they taxied in, Stacy’s phone buzzed to life and she glanced down at it, cupped in both hands as if it were a precious metal or a family bible. She wanted to look, but she wanted not to. Laurie.
Stacy dug in her tote bag for the letter, for her relative seniority position. Pointless, she knew, but like dawn on death row, she hoped that maybe the meaning had changed or perhaps she’d misread it. But since Laurie had landed an hour ago, she’d know the truth. She’d heard the announcement from the union. And the dream was alive, at least until it wasn’t.
We’re both gone, the text read. Furloughed. The standard WARN letter had been sent out, a verdict read but no sentence carried out. This was it. Gone.
She crumpled the letter and tossed it on the floor. Shit. What do I do now? She thought back to the cloud-flecked blue sky, the scalded ochres of Utah giving way to the big-shouldered Rockies below, all below her, gone. She too, like her sky, just gone.
After everyone had deplaned, the tears came, but she didn’t care. Kimmie looked into her eyes like her mother used to do, knowing, but not saying anything.
Finally, Kimmie sighed.
“I’m so sorry, hon. I heard.”
Stacy nodded but said nothing. Yes, she knew, but with her seniority, Kimmie still had her job. And her sky, and her super power and the sun and clouds and escape and freedom and what did she know—
“Hon,” she said. “I know. This is my third airline.”
Delores put a puffy arm around Stacy’s shoulders. “My second. First one liquidated. No recall.”
“I waited tables,” Kimmie continued. “I just had faith I’d be back. Then we got recalled but a year later, we lost all our seniority in a merger and I was out on the street for five more years.”
“That’s awful,” Stacy said, and all at once, she meant it.
“And now,” Delores added, “After these furloughs take effect, we’ll be flying bottom reserve even though we have nearly thirty-years of seniority.”
Kimmie laughed, and patted Stacy on the back. “Not sure how these granny bones are going to handle that.”
There was everything good about being a flight attendant and of course, everything bad. But this, this, the worst of the worst and a loss. All around, for granny bones and young girls who believed in the magic of ladybugs and flight.
“You’ll be back, hon,” Kimmie said as they parted ways at the jetbridge door. “You take care, meantime.”
“You too,” Stacy said with a nod and a pat on Kimmie’s forearm. “And yes: I will fly.”
Kimmie nodded, and smiled so hard the crow’s feet crinkled at both eyes.
“Well, my dear,” she said at last. “I do believe you will.”
Stacy turned, squared her shoulders, held her chin high, a went on her way.
Well, what do you think? Too much, too “insider?” Let me know.
And pre-order here from Amazon Books, if you want. You’ll get a copy on October 1.
I can’t promise how long I’ll keep it for sale after that.