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.