Sunday, January 1, 2012

Bad Night in Omaha

I knew it would be a bad night.

I was at the Omaha Hilton, on New Year's Eve. It was a short layover, so we couldn't even stay up for the fireworks because we had an Oh-Lord-thirty wake-up call. As we headed up to our room we nudged past hundreds of New Year's revelers, some dressed for the hotel's big midnight bash. Miniskirts and ball dresses abounded. Most of the wearers of these garments had drink in hand. The line to the elevators was 100 feet long. This was going to be a bad night. You know it.

As I go lights out I feel the hotel shake from the booms of the fireworks. Too bad, the show is on the other side of the hotel. The noise is tolerable so far. The hallway is fairly quite but loud voices in room a few doors away are annoying. To mitigate it I turn on my nifty Android app that creates background noise. I hook it to my mini-speaker set and choose chirping crickets. 

But the crickets are no match for the noise. I blend in a crackling campfire sound. Still not enough. I mix in a burbling brook, then bring in the cicadas. An hour after turning-in I've got so many noises on the speakers they spew a soup of static, and stillI can hear voices, music and the “pump pump pump...” of a rock band drummer somewhere below. 

This is an all too familiar scenario. I've spent enough New Years' Eaves in hotels to know what's coming. But this is to be the worst yet. 

After the traditional mid-night cheer, the noise dies down a bit. I turn off my night noises and drift aslumber. Then I bolt upright at a blood-curdling scream outside my door. I thought a woman was being assaulted, but then she laughs. Other drunken voices join in. I look at the clock: 1:30. I consider calling hotel security but I know that's a hopeless call. My crew has six rooms in this place tonight. The other 294 rooms are filled with party-goers. We hold no sway.

I lay there wondering why Omahans can't just get drunk at home. I dare say most of them live locally. As doors slam and people yell, scream and sing in the hallways, I imagine the various ways I would put an end to it. A trip wire across the hallway would be fun to do. But an AK-47 would be far more effective.

When the alarm sounds at 0415, I'm wide awake, still bothered by the riots. Should I call the company and tell them this flight will not go until I get some rest? It's their fault―you know it is. Scheduling an 0600 take off on January 1st creates a certain compromise of crews' rest periods. But I pull myself together and meet the crew in the lobby. Knots of drunken Nebraskans―college-aged youths―mill around slobbering, stumbling and slurring.

To a man (all four flight attendants are men) we are all tired and sleepless. Every one else on the crew experienced the same. Yet they want to get to work so we go to the airport. 

Entering your cockpit before dawn on January 1st and seeing mechanics scratching their heads, thumbing though manuals, and making phone calls is not a good way to start off the year. They have deferred the auto-speed brake―we can live with that―but the elevator trim is not working. Bad.

While they fiddle with that I go down to Ops to review the paperwork and check the weather. The O'Hare winds are gusting to 40 knots. Wonderful. I rub crusty eyes, sign for the jet and go back up. The trim problem finally gets solved as hoards of bleary-eyed people file on-board. I look across at Rick, my F/O. “Man I don't think I can take the Chicago – LAX leg this afternoon. I'm pulling out at Chicago.” I get my phone out and while I dial the duty flight manager I ask Rick, “You too?” He nods.

The DFM is sympathetic with our plight, and even asks if we should perhaps go back to the hotel instead of coming in to Chicago. I told him we had all discussed it and determined we were good for the short flight. He tells us he will take us off the trip and get us into a hotel as soon as we hit the ground in Chicago.

But as we're starting engines, Rick has second thoughts. “Man,” he says, “I can't afford this.” As the RPM spools-up, he pauses to move the fuel lever to run, then says, “I'll lose 11 hours pay. My family can't take that.” (As an F/O at this company, Rick makes far less than most plumbers.) The four flight attendants have already told me they plan to keep going. They too will lose their hours if they declare fatigue. I told Rick to call the DFM and ask to be re-instated, if that's what he thinks is right. I waited with engines running while he called. He got his wish.

I fought the gusting crosswinds to a reasonably succesful meeting of rubber and concrete, parked the jet and bade Rick good luck. I checked into the O'hare Hilton and turned-in for much needed sleep. As I faded I thought about Rick and the flight attendants winging their way across the continent (with a reserve captain), nodding and battling the fatigue monster. Such is this business.

Peaceful and safe New Year.