Monday, July 21, 2014

Nothing by Chance


You dedicated devotees of classical aviation literature recognized my title, stolen from Richard Bach. Bach and I diverge on the question of what or who constitutes higher authority. (I’m talking way, way high.) But we agree that what happens to us happens not by chance, but by design. And the events surrounding my last days at the airline validate that belief—at least to me.

I was awarded a line for July, my last month. Such a surprise. Just as I'm making my way to the exit the seniority list is beginning to flow in the right direction. No matter. At least now, though, I will have had some control over how that exit transpired. The company remained cold; there would be no assistance in getting me into a decent retirement trip. It was all up to me. 

My final trip in my schedule would be Sao Paulo—not a good one. It is all-night flying, a relatively short layover, and visas were required of my accompanying family members. I decided that if I had to do that, it would be just a “fade away” trip. No fanfare. The family would stay home. But if only I could trade the Sao Paulo trip for the Frankfurt trip. That would be the ticket—a 50 hour (2 night) layover that returned in the daytime. And no visa required. I set about researching which captains had that trip in their schedules the week I needed the trade.

I took my list to the flight office seeking phone numbers. Verboten! Can’t give them out they said. But the secretary would dial the numbers for me. Okay. She dialed the first number. I got a voice message. I left a humble plea asking the recipient to trade me his Frankfurt trip for my Sao Paulo trip so that I could get my family along on a grand retirement finale.

Then on to the second captain. I got an answer. “Is this Captain XXX?” I asked. There was a hesitation. I thought I had gotten a bogus number. Then a drawn out, “Yeeeeessssss.” It sounded like a line out of a Pink Panther movie, as if the guy thought I was an IRS auditor or something. I gave him my speech. He said July was also his last month and he had all Frankfurt trips and didn’t want to trade any of them away. I bade him a happy retirement and his only response was a click of the phone line going off.

The third call got another voice mail. I had high hopes for the fourth call because I knew the guy personally. He had always been a very likeable person and all the co-pilots loved flying with him. He said he was very happy to hear from me and congratulated me on my retirement. I got pumped up. Frankfurt, here we come! Then surprise and disappointment. “Alan,” he said, “I hate, hate, hate, hate… (there were at least 6-8 ‘hates’)…going to Sao Paulo. I really don’t want to do that unless you can’t find anyone else. Call me back if you can’t.” I thanked him and resolved to not ever call him back. (Besides, Sao Paulo isn’t at all a bad layover.)

The fifth call yielded another voice mail and the sixth got a guy on the golf course, who flat turned me down. He was busy with his game. None of the guys I left voice messages with bothered to call back, except the last one.

I thanked the secretary for letting me use the company phone and went to the lounge to nap and ponder. (I had a late departure for London). Half an hour later my phone rang and it was the last guy I called, Captain Eric Brown. I didn’t know him. His opening remark was, “I would be honored to trade with you for your retirement flight.”

And so Eric and I set in motion the protocol for a private pilot-to-pilot trip trade, done via computer inputs. The result came back: Unable trade: Illegalities. I called the crew desk and asked them why. They didn’t know. I asked them to manually put the trade through. The terse reply: “We can’t do that.” I asked to speak to a supervisor and got the exact same verbiage.

The next day I called the chief pilot’s office. As expected he was not in and I got an underling. The underling scratched his head over my predicament, said from what he could see it was a legal trade, and he would place a call to someone else to see what the problem was. At this point I had abandoned hope and told the family that Frankfurt would probably not materialize.

Two days later I checked my schedule and the Sao Paulo trip was gone. In its place, Frankfurt. I called Eric. He had already found out what happened. One of the first officers scheduled on the Frankfurt trip was over age 60. The computer’s logic rejected the trade because the FAA does not allow two guys over aged 60 in the cockpit together. At least that’s what I, and most everybody else thought. But the head guy in scheduling knew that the FAA’s rule was intended for normal scheduling purposes. In other words, the FAA does not want the airline to routinely schedule two over-sixties together. Last minute adjustments that go contrary to the rule are okay. So the trade went through. I told the family we were going. The secretary that lent me her phone fell to work setting up the arrangements to get my wife and two of the three sons positive space tickets and reserve a second hotel room. She was great.

After all this transpired I asked some first officers if they had ever flown with Eric, and what he was like. Several had. They praised him highly—a great captain, they all said. Eric restored my confidence in my peers. I think there are many more like him than not.

So, was I too critical of the company a couple of posts back when I wrote about its cold-as-steel apathy toward what is regarded as an airline pilot’s most important trip? No. I don’t think so. They do only what is required of them by agrement with the pilot's union, although they do produce a nifty retirement trip brochure telling what they can/can’t do for the trip. The last sentence in the brochure offers a hint that there is at least some human spirit and wit left in the behemoth corporation: “You only get one retirement trip per career.”

Next time, the trip, and parting thoughts.

p.s.: Rusty made it back from Buenos Aires a day after I had to leave him down there.
Sunrise over the Andes. 

Wow, let's take some pictures.

Ouch, get the blast shields out.

 From my last 757 trip last month: my last flight over the Rockies