Saturday, February 16, 2013

Catch 787

Don’t you wish Joe Heller were still alive so he could write a new Catch 22 type of novel on this absurd airline business? If he followed me around he would gather plenty of material, like that day my first officer, Rick and I were strolling through the crowded concourse to our outbound flight to Lima. 

We saw passengers were disgorging from a jet bridge. As we passed that area, I looked out and saw a Dreamliner sitting out there. It was a 787, and on one of its first revenue flights at that. Neither of us had seen one so close. I glanced at my watch. We had enough time for a cursory inspection. But Immediately I saw a problem.

The line in front of the agent was long, and she was working furiously to process the outbound folks. She was a small Asian gal who looked like Suzy Wong. I sensed she was trouble.

The question played through my mind: Should I interrupt her and request permission to go down the jet bridge to see the Dreamliner? I turned to Rick. “Should we?”

He shrugged. “She’ll probably get pissed and say no.”

I nodded. He was almost certainly correct. Better to play ignorant than ask permission. We snuck around back of the podium and mixed in with the disembarking passengers. We hugged the right side of the bridge and made our way down against traffic.

We had nearly reached the plane when Suzy yelled from behind. I turned. The bridge was a chaos of passengers flowing off and ear-splitting noises coming from the ramp through open side doors, through which the cleaning crew was arriving for duty, chattering loud in several foreign tongues. Suzy peeked at us from about 20 feet away and yelled, “Excuse me! Excuse me! You’re not supposed to be here! You should have checked with me!” The passengers were looking behind them to see who the object of her accusations was.

Although we were in uniform, still we took off our company ID badges and held them for her to see. “I’m sorry. We didn’t know. We are company pilots,” I said. "We’re just going down to have a look at the plane.”

“You can’t look at the plane!” she yelled.

“What not?” I yelled back.

“Because you didn’t check with me!”

“Did all these cleaning people check with you?”

She whirled and marched back up to her post.

Rick and I stepped onto the plane. Most passengers had gotten off when we paused to look back down the aisle toward the tail. The cleaning crew was already swarming through there. We turned toward the object of our interest—the cockpit.

Two captains were sitting there—one checking out the other. “Can we take a quick look?” I asked.

“Sure! Come on up.” He had hardly begun to give us a quick tour of the Dreamliner’s cockpit trappings when we were nearly bowled over by a throng of mechanics pouring into the cockpit. We backed out of the way, hearing the captain yell, “Sorry guys. We’ve got mechanical issues.” We thanked him and went back out onto the bridge, our three minute tour terminated as abruptly as it started. There, squarely facing us, hands on hips, was you-know-who—with a big guy behind her holding a radio set, eyes darting between us.

“That was rude and insulting! You should have checked with me first!” she said.

“Would you have allowed us to see the plane?” I asked.

“No!” You’re not authorized to see the plane! It’s a security risk!”

“But what about all those passengers?” I asked. “They all got to see it.”

Her face turned an even deeper shade of menacing red. "And it was rude of you to go down the jet bridge while the passengers were getting off!”

I was ready to scratch my head over that one. If we were forbidden to go down at all, then our going down against traffic seemed a moot point. I began to suspect she was making up her own rules.

“But we do that all the time,” I retorted. “We politely stay to the right and go against traffic. That’s how we get these flights out on time.”

“You should have checked with me!” she said, for about the fiftieth time.
I turned and looked to Rick . He shrugged. No help coming from him.

“Well, we’ve got a Lima flight. Got to go.”

She blocked our path. “It was disrespectful, what you did!”

I gathered all the patience I could muster. I smiled. “I know. You said that already. And I apologized. I apologize again. Now we’re going. Goodbye.”

We brushed past her and headed up to the concourse. I expected to hear the big guy bellow out that we were under arrest, or something akin to that, but he said nothing, bolstering my conclusion that Suzy was making up her own rules. She was still grumbling when we got out of her sight.

I half expected to be called onto the carpet, but I never heard a thing more about it.

So, our tour of the 787 was short and disappointing. More disappointing still is knowing that much has changed since Heller described the twisted logic of red tape and turf battles spawned by big bureaucracies. It's gotten a lot worse. Yossarian would know.  

 Col Cathcart: You're a disgrace. I'd like to know how you got to be a Captain, anyway.
  Yossarian: You promoted me.
  Col Cathcart: That has got nothing to do with it.


Cedarglen said...

Thanks, Alan. Hilarious. And you should be ashamed of yourself. As long as you've been in the biz, I guess you've never learned not to screw around with Gate Agents ? Shame. Now that the 78s are grounded, perhaps you'll have more opportunity to inspect one. If you can find one. -C.

Roma S. said...

Excellent post, Captain! I greatly enjoy reading your blog.
The growing problem with non-flying folks is that they forget to keep their mouth shut when speaking to a Captain

Wayne from Louisiana said...

Even pilots have no authority!

Keep those blogs coming.

K1MGY said...

Alan, I am hardly an expert on matters of human relations having only been in these pants for half a century, but I think this story could have taken another track had your initial instinct - that of considering the gate agent's workload and environment - been taken to another level.

What might have been, had you (and she) attempted to see this conflict from the others' perspective? From you description she must be feeling quite miserable and powerless. It would require a lot of stamina to hold understanding of her plot, especially where true understanding requires us to stand under. My guess is you have it in you, otherwise you would not be entrusted with expensive airplanes and priceless human beings.

No telling how much success you might have found because for this exercise to be truly worthwhile it takes two, or at least one who is willing to undertake the question, "tell me about your experience and how I might have done better?".

Putting aside the total nonsense that lives on in the management of the airlines - and so many other vital services - the business is all about humans and their relationships in tight spaces and brief timelines.

It would be fascinating reading to learn how you manage the technical, scheduling, and safety demands of your work whilst holding forth the human kindness that I have frequently read in your articles and find so admirable.


Alan Cockrell said...

Dear K1MGY, Interesting comments. I am an incomplete man: a good pilot but not a great one; good at human relations but not great; a good writer but not great. Sometimes it takes a reader's comment to make me realize I could be better. Yours did. Many thanks.

K1MGY said...


Not for publication, but so you know that your response was well received and will be long remembered.

I am reminded of that famous moment during the Cuban Missile Crisis where two cables were received in Kennedy's white house, back to back from Kruschev.. the first conciliatory and the second quite the opposite. Someone got the brilliant idea to ignore the second one and respond to the first one. It worked. Someone believed that the enemy was still human and banked on a hope that they would respond well to a more positive position. Doesn't work all the time, but best to try.

I took as a lesson (in thinking more on your story) that it's in my best interests to, at first, trust the good intentions of the other side - even if I detest their stance. It is a daily work in my relationship at home (minimally successful!) and in many other areas.

Your story gave me a lot to consider. The gift of a great writer is to do just that.

All the best,

/mark richards

Chad said...

So you wanted to go take a look - big deal. It was clear Suzie was caught up in ruling her own little empire.

Perhaps what transpired was a result of neither parties acting with graciousness, but in the end only harm done is what you don't let slide off your back.