Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Fading Away

I enjoyed another nice layover in Sao Paulo despite the madhouse atmosphere on the streets over the coming World Cup. That and the social unrest over the government’s spending on that event, to the exclusion of other things the country needs, is fueling bad juju with the folks.

Nevertheless they all are excited about the games. I heard that Team USA checked into our hotel while I was sleeping off the all-night leg down from Houston, but I never saw any of them during the layover.

We had decided earlier to splurge a bit to celebrate my coming freedom and so planned to dine at Bovinas. While waiting for the restaurant’s van to pick us up another United crew showed up. Good. The more the merrier.

As the two crews sat across the table exchanging pleasantries and news of mutual friends I noticed the other captain, a guy named Bill, was mostly quiet. When Bill got up to go to the salad bar one of his guys told me he was about to retire—the very day before I do. I thought I would humor him a bit. When he got back I said, “Bill, I just heard you retire July 19th. You old fart!”

He looked back at me, expressionless. Then he looked aside at his first officers. “I told you guys not to bring that up.” They laughed nervously and goaded me to tell him when I retire. I told him. I was expecting at least some emotional response from what I considered some sort of a brother now that we were virtually walking out the door together. All I saw was a guy looking down picking at his salad.

I decided to leave it be, but the outher guys started pelting me with questions about what I was planning to do (see previous post for answer). After a spirited and funny exchange with them, curiosity overcame me and I asked Bill what retirement trip he had in mind. With absolutely no emotion in his face or voice he shook his head and said, “Nothing. I just want to fade out.”

I pondered that for a minute and knew it was best to change the subject, but I couldn’t help but ask him one more question, the one I had been answering profusely to the other guys for the last ten minutes. What was he going to do in retirement? His terse answer: “Look for a job.”

I was astounded. This guy had been hired in 1978. He was super-senior. He could easily have two million in his retirement accounts; could hold any airplane he wanted as captain; could have any base he wished; any schedule, any vacation. He was a top dog on the much revered seniority list. But why was he so bitter?

I was not to find out, but the next night on the northbound flight we discussed it. Maybe he had personal problems. Maybe the company had done him wrong somehow. Maybe financial problems. Two or three ex-wives, perhaps? Who knows? There are unlimited ways a guy can screw up his life. I wrote Bill off as an oddity and hoped his future would be bright. My thoughts turned to my own much anticipated retirement trip. I would see the boss next morning about it.

The company had established an impressive method of sending its pilots into retirement, to include special consideration on where the honoree wants to go; two free reserved first class seats or four free reserved coach seats for his or her guests; up to two extra hotel rooms at corporate rates; a water cannon salute upon return—courtesy the airport fire department; and a cake and a presentation in the pilots lounge at the completion of the trip. I wanted all of this. I would not be a bitter fader-outer like Bill.

The “flight manager” as he is called, welcomed me into his office. He congratulated me and asked the usual questions about what I planned to do (see last post again). Then I asked him what the protocol is for arranging that final celebratory flight. He said, “Well, it’s a bit early yet. We need to see what your July line looks like when it comes out and we’ll make adjustments. Where do you want to go?”

I said, “Frankfurt. But I’m not a line holder. I’m a reserve.”

He frowned. He took out a copy of the rulebook mumbling, “Hmm. I’ve never done this for a reserve pilot before.” A minute passed as he read and rubbed his chin. “This is not very clear,” he said. “Excuse me for a minute.” He went out, apparently to seek consultation with someone.

He came back with a long look on his face and drew a deep breath. “I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do for you.”

I sat stunned, mouth agape, not knowing what to say. He continued saying, “ALPA and the company apparently got together and decided that you guys can’t pick your trip because that would usurp the seniority protocol.” He shrugged. “All you can do is take what they give you or try to pick up an open trip. I’m sorry.”

I slowly got up and turned away. I remember mumbling to no one in particular, “So, that’s that.”

As I walked out his door without further comment he said, “It didn’t used to be that way around here.” I didn’t look back.

I found a quiet place and sat and tried to make sense of it. Even if I was lucky enough to find an open Frankfurt trip, or any other exactly when I needed it, it would be too late for all those other arrangements. Those things needed time and coordination. The promised reserved seats had to be booked early, not hours before I got the trip assignment.

I rubbed my face and stared at the floor, unbelieving it had come to this. The company and the union—if the flight manager had been right—had thrown me and all other retiring reserve pilots under the bus. My 25 years of service—most of which I spent as a line-holder, not as a reserve—meant nothing. I didn’t feel special in the least. I was simply a paper clip used and thrown away in the everyday business of corporate commerce. There would be no fini flight. My family had been talking about it for weeks. Some of them wanted to go along. What would I say?

The vision of Bill sitting across that table looking down at his salad came to mind, and his statement, “I plan on just fading away.”

I guess that's what I'll do too.
"Old soldiers never die. They just fade away."
--Gen. Douglas MacArthur
The northern Andes decompression escape procedure depicted on the EHSI.

 I just spent ten and a half lonely, dark hours in that office.