Humans basically suck. Wait, that’s not exactly my opinion about such. I love people, I simply think humanity sucks. Why would I say that? One has to simply read the news (and only as it pertains to airline travel) to come to the same conclusion. What’s that you say? Passengers acting like jack-asses on airplanes? Say it isn’t so! But I’m afraid it is so. I’m afraid it’s been part of “the deal” of commercial aviation since Orville and Wilbur were cruising around with an extra body on the machine with them. So what’s changed in the last 100 years? In my opinion, the following sums it up perfectly. I once heard a flight attendant, you know the folks that have to put up with 99% of this nonsense, describe it to me like this: “Neiman Marcus taste on a Walmart budget.”
How do I feel about a “passenger Bill of Rights”? You really have to ask? Here’s the basic deal. For the fee you are paying my airline (and hence to me) I promise to: fly you from point A to point B without a scratch…period, end of sentence. Are you paying for split-second on-time service? Are you paying for a “fine dining experience”? Are you paying for more electronic gadgetry than your average teenage gamer owns? I truly wish ALL of these things on your next experience with air travel, but for the same amount of money for airfare as decades ago (adjusted for inflation), if you get NONE of those things (other than the Point A to Point B thing), then you are still way ahead of the game.
Case in point; years ago I had a lady in my face, screaming at me (yep, the spittle was flying) because I wouldn’t launch my little Beechcraft 99 and fly her through a line of thunderstorms. I calmly spoke to her about the limitations of bad weather flying, etc., but she was having none of it, and the spittle-bath continued. I offered her an alternative. “Mam, I mean no disrespect (well, maybe just a wee bit), but if you would like to travel from here (Knoxville, TN) through the length of Tennessee and most of Arkansas to Ft. Smith like they did in the last century, then be my guest.” She had the “huh?” look staring back at me; so I was forced to feed her a small dose of history. “You know Mam, bouncing along for a month in a Conestoga wagon, being chased by savages and cholera?” She neither got my point, nor appreciated my sense of humor. Mattered not, ol’ “Mr. Cumulonimbus” prevailed that evening and we rolled into Ft. Smith after midnight.
(A Scheduled Skyways Beechcraft Model 99 on the ramp at Tulsa, Oklahoma circa 1980. Good old N5SS, I spent many an hour in her loving arms. Photograph courtesy of Ellis M. Chernoff.)
The human experience of riding on airplanes can be worse than riding the bus nowadays; trust me, I get that. As us “boomers” will tell you, it didn’t used to be like that (even when I began as a professional pilot way back in 1979). Back then, the planes were usually about ½ full, thus allowing one to spread out and not be smashed into a jet cabin like sardines. Truthfully though, people just seemed to just be more civil toward each other back then. Although air travel “for the masses” is obviously a great thing economically, it can be a huge challenge when you put hundreds of humans in a tight tubular beer can, and make them behave for several hours on end (while serving them liquor no less…lol).
As recent news media coverage shows, taking an airplane trip can sometimes become nightmarish. Are the airlines sometimes at fault? Of course they are! But in their defense, very few people have the slightest concept of the complexities of keeping the whole parade marching in the right direction! Try not to forget, when the airliner parade gets wonky in New York, it WILL affect your jet coming to LAX take you to Tampa. Remember the toy named “Slinky”? What happens at one end of the “snake”, eventually makes its way to the other end. And no (contrary to popular belief), the airlines do not have “spare airplanes” sitting around waiting to be used. Do restaurants cook “spare T-bones” to just sit around in case someone needs one? Of course not…that would be amazingly stupid. In the airline biz, if it’s not in the air, it’s not making money…in fact, it’s costing you money. Trust me, everyone from the CEO to the lowly ticket agent scanning your boarding pass, wants your jet out of the gate on time!
The bottom line is this: if you fly enough times, things WILL get pear-shaped! It’s just a fact of life. O.K., genius, with that amazing piece of “wisdom” spewed forth for all of humanity to marvel at, what would your worldy advice be after 40 years in this madness? Learn to relax, learn to breathe, chant your mantra, think of puppies and balloons…hell, I don’t know. Whatever lets you stay in your “happy place”…99.9% of the time, there is just no reason to act like a jack-ass.
Second case in point; one evening I was at the gate podium (looking regal, like my job dictates), and a nicely dressed passenger (obviously a businessman) was tearing the poor ticket agent a new orifice because she would not upgrade him from the cabin with the “unwashed masses” up to First Class. She had calmly explained to him (more than once) that First Class was full, that there simply wasn’t a seat available. He wasn’t hearing it, and was being a class-A knucklehead…time to use the “Captain’s voice” and step in. I put down the flight plan, stepped in front of him and asked if there was a problem, and could I help? He did his tirade at me for a moment, and then stopped as he saw that my “I don’t give a sh*te” expression had not changed. I offered this, “Sir, have you not heard this nice lady explain to you that there simply are no chairs available in First Class? I suggest that you accept that fact, and sit in the seat this lady assigns to you. Or…the other option is for you to NOT go for an airplane ride tonight. Do I make myself clear?” He replied, “Yes”, and wandered off to crawl back under the rock in which he came from. Apparently, he was far more “deserving” of the big seat in the front of the jet, than the person that he wanted the agent to pull out of said seat. Narcissism (and it’s evil twin sister “entitlement”) has been perfected to a fine art form nowadays. To quote someone that had a bit of an issue several years ago: “Can’t we all just get along?
I penned this piece several years ago, but since then I’ve had a few more “episodes” that I thought needed to be added. I titled it “Get Off My Plane” to share a few yarns about some of the times that I’ve had to throw someone off my airplane (or been a part of this act). The level of stupidity that some folks show on airplanes (and at the airport) is legendary. Thankfully, when things do go awry in the world of wing-transport, the vast majority of us do indeed act like humans and not morons…and for that I give a huge “thank you”.
“Get Off My Plane!”
A locally famous news story told of an elderly woman in her vehicle about the time of the morning rush hour. As she was speeding down the freeway on-ramp, a disgruntled driver cut her off, swerved toward her, and forced her over to the grassy shoulder. He approached her open window, proceeded to reach in, and pummeled her with his fists! Isn’t it just lovely what humanity is capable of doing? To make a horrible incident even worse, this person turned out to be a (wait for it) physician on his way to work! Makes me wonder what happened to “First, do no harm.”? Shortly after his episode of violence, he boarded an airplane and fled the country. Justice was served however, for when he returned to the United States, he was immediately brought up on criminal charges. He is now doing some sort of community service for his little “indiscretion”, thus paying his debt to society. Needless to say, it stands to reason that his poor victim will be scared by this until her end of days. One question…I wonder if his mal-practice insurance covers this type of event?
The Psychiatrists call it “road rage”. We’ve all heard of it, some of us may even have been a victim (or perpetrator) in this collective insanity. Where did it start? It matters not. What’s causes such behavior? Who the hell knows? How about just being a member of the human (rat) race. For decades, this sort of anti-social behavior used to be mainly confined to the earth-bound sect, but things have changed for those of us that do our life’s work in orbit. We in aviation are privileged enough to have our own version of this nonsense; we call it “air rage” (I’m certain some highly paid bureaucrat came up with that one). Recent events got my juices flowing recalling the incidents of “mis-behavior” that I’ve witnessed over the years on my aircraft. The following will be a (short) compilation of some of the ones that stand out. As the title suggests, many of these individuals were either pitched off the jet before launch, or arrested upon landing.
I grew up in the era when airline travel was something special. We dressed for the event, were on our best behavior, and felt like it was something to be enjoyed and cherished (not simply endured like nowadays). My first airline flight of memory was New York to Frankfurt in a TWA Constellation in the mid-1960s. My father was being transferred from Fort Lewis, Washington to whatever “kaserne” was used at the time by the U.S. Army in Nuremburg, (West) Germany. He was to pilot his helicopters around Europe (thus protecting us from the red horde poised to come pouring through the Fulda Gap), and my dear mother, four siblings and I were enroute to join him. Once seated on that beautiful red and white airliner, I was amazed at the world I had just entered. I distinctly remember the red cloth seats, folded curtains on the windows, friendly stewardesses dressed in their tailored uniforms, and the sounds (and rumbles) of the four big Wright 3350 engines as they came to life that evening on the ramp in La Guardia. It was all so magnificent, and we were bathed in a feeling of departing on some grand adventure.
(The TWA L-1049 Constellation…grace and power in one package. Photograph courtesy of Jon Proctor.)
The story changes there, for an hour or so into the journey, the cabin crew settled into their routines and served us a meal in the little plastic cafeteria-type food trays. Being your average nine year old, I wolfed it down without pausing to taste what I was actually eating. I then guzzled my carton of milk, and settled back to listen to the engines drone, all the while straining in an attempt to eves drop on the adults having their post-supper cigarettes and cocktails. The twilight had given way to ink black darkness, and somewhere in the vicinity of our “coast out” point over Newfoundland, we entered a weather system. At this point, the flight became a night-long ride on the State Fair roller-coaster. We were enjoying a version of the ugly weather that the north Atlantic can dish up for ship and plane alike. Cruising at our massive altitude of 20,000’ or so, did not allow the Captain to climb above the turbulence. Nowadays, in the big Boeings, I routinely saunter up to FL390 and watch the lightning dance its duel below me, casually sipping a cup of hot coffee in smooth air. But that would not happen on this night, and we paid the price. I spent the next few hours in the cabin of the big metal bird, bouncing along back and forth, all the while watching (and hearing, and smelling) the chubby kid to my left loudly depositing his dinner into a conga-line of sick sacks.
Obviously, things are a bit different these days. My first encounter with “air rage” was totally unexpected. I was a year into my commuter airline career, and as a brand new Captain was sitting in the left seat of the venerable Swearingen Metroliner boring holes in the skies over the southern USA. At 24 years old that “fourth stripe” was weighing pretty heavy on the ol’ shoulders. The realization that now “the buck REALLY does stop here” was somewhat of a shock, but I was getting used to it. In terms of folks acting like idiots on flying machines, simply stated, I expected all adults to act as such while in and around airplanes. Boy was the next 30+ years going to prove me wrong. Remember if you will that this sort of incident was a pretty rare occurrence way back in 1980.
On this particular day, the First Officer and I found ourselves in the midst of a lengthy delay at our home airport in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It was a typical Spring thunderstorm-encrusted morning, but we had managed to fly a round trip to Tulsa and back, and were now mired in a lengthy delay for our departure to Little Rock. The weather had “unleashed the dogs of war”, and was playing havoc with any attempt at running our intended schedule on time. The obvious answer was to kick back in the baggage room behind the ticket counter, and get some R & R before our next bout with the cumulus monsters. That’s when we heard the shouting begin.
(The venerable Swearengin SA226TC Metroliner. We liked to call it; the “trauma tube”.)
We looked at each other with the requisite “wtf” look on our faces, and immediately headed through the doorway toward the ticket counter. Planted at the opposite side of the counter, stood the biggest, ugliest, wild-eyed looking red-neck character I’ve ever seen. He was one of those guys that have two names…you know, like “Billy Bob”, or “Bubba Fred”…we all know the type (he could have been cast in the movie “Deliverance”, and NOT to play Ned Beatty’s character). His tattered overalls, huge beer gut, and 3 day old stubble were actually not that out of place in this neck of the woods, but it was his demeanor that stood him apart from the rest of us in the human race. He was as big as a house, and he was boiling mad; never a good combination.
The young ticket agent trying to solve his scheduling problem was a friend of mine (it was a small airline, and we all knew each other), and she was one of my lines best agents. The fact that she was attractive and very polite always served her well in these types of situations. On several occasions, I had witnessed her defuse an angry passenger with her bright smile and charming Southern self. But today, that wasn’t going to work. “Bubba Fred” wasn’t hearing a word she was saying, and things were beginning to escalate. She was very calmly attempting to explain the complexities of what a mass of thunderstorms can do to her departures, but her calm demeanor simply wasn’t rubbing off on him. What he did next surprised the hell out of the F/O and me (and her too).
In the middle of her sentence, he started to physically come over the ticket counter! She recoiled with a look of disbelief and the First Officer and I stepped in. Being firm believers in chivalry and all that rot, he and I quickly positioned ourselves between the two in question. The fire in “Bubba Fred’s” eyes was unmistakable, and when he suddenly focused on two uniformed males positioned in front of him, he slowed his pace to a halt. But that begs the question… what was his next maneuver going to entail? We had no idea; we just braced ourselves for the expected assault, and accepted our fate. He suddenly snapped out of his fit of rage, and tried to compose himself. I’m sure that our shouts of: “wait a minute there mister!” (Or something like that, MAYBE mixed with a bit of profanity), might have helped him come back to reality. At this point, the agent became very pale, and quickly excused herself to the back room. I can’t say as I blamed her; I was probably a bit pale myself. Just what “Bubba Fred” had in mind is anyone’s guess, but there’s no question he could’ve snapped her in two without much effort (us too for that matter).
(Sporting my brand-new Scheduled Skyways Captain stripes waaay back in 1980.)
If I recall correctly, “Deliverance Boy” didn’t make ANY schedule that day. For as we were doing the stare-down routine, another agent called the security folks and they quickly whisked his big (redneck) ass out of the terminal, and off to a local lock-up. I spent the remainder of that day trying to sort out what had happened. We, of course, had seen our share of pissed off customers while flying at this little airline, but none that had gone from zero to homicide in the snap of a finger! Would he have actually committed bodily harm? I guess I’ll never know, but that was indeed a first for me. I subsequently never heard what became of him. I sometimes wonder if he’s still tied to a stump somewhere in northwest Arkansas. Shudder.
The next is one of my favorites, for it has all the makings of a good “Funniest Home Videos” type story. This buffoon was a classic, and each time I recall his little display, I can’t help but chuckle a bit. The year was 1988, I had made it to “the show” and was flying as a Second Officer (or Flight Engineer if you will) on the magnificent Boeing 747 for Northwest Airlines. Although the job as the third pilot was mostly very boring, there were times when it was anything but. This was one of those times.
It was late August, and we were scheduled for a night departure from Tokyo’s Narita International Airport southwest bound for a short stop in Okinawa, then on to Manila for our layover. Our flight was under the command of Bob H., and he was truly one of my favorite “Whale” Captains to work with. He was rather short in stature, a bit rotund, looked a little like Capt. Kangaroo, and had the quiet, calm make-up of Mr. Rogers. He was definitely one of the nicest, most even-tempered gentlemen that I ever logged time with in a cockpit. On this night however, all that was about to change.
As we were nearing our departure time (roughly inside the 30 minute window), the Lead Flight Attendant came into the cockpit to speak to us about a passenger that she was having an issue with. The person in question had just climbed the boarding stairs, entered the jet, and proceeded to become a pain her posterior (we were parked at a hard stand away from the terminal, so the passengers were bussed to the aircraft, and climbed up a covered set of boarding stairs…just like in the old days). He was a younger man, dressed in enlisted U.S. Navy “whites”, and was totally, completely “knee-walking, pie-eyed” drunk…I’m talking “God’s own drunk”. Apparently he stumbled through the boarding door, disregarded his assigned seat, found the nearest chair that suited him, and plopped his big ass squarely into it. She was more than a little miffed that he was boarded in this condition (a violation of U.S. Federal Aviation Regulations), and was truly upset that he wouldn’t take his assigned seat. She was on the flight deck to enlist our assistance. Being the good-natured “fatherly” type, Capt. Bob informed her that he would come downstairs, and “have a little talk with him”. I expected him to completely diffuse the situation with his laid-back temper and impeccable manners, so I turned back to my Flight Engineers panel and continued with my pre-flight duties.
(A Northwest Boeing 747-200 taxiing for launch at London’s Gatwick Airport. Photograph courtesy of Kevin Colbran.)
Within a few short minutes, Bob stormed back into the cockpit, slammed the door, looked at me red-faced and growled, “Get Operations on the horn, and have them send Security to the airplane! I want that ass-hole off this jet now!” Eh…Bob…it must not have gone too well, am I right? As he was climbing back into his seat, he began to explain to the startled First Officer what had just transpired. Apparently, as Bob approached him, the guy drunkenly looked up and asked “Who the hell are you… God?” With that brilliant utterance complete, he promptly leaned over and vomited in the seat next to him! As if that wasn’t enough, he then calmly pulled the seat cushion up and turned it over so (apparently) no one would notice. (This would’ve earned him a ticket on the “GET OFF MY PLANE EXPRESS” with me nowadays, but Bob tried a bit more diplomacy). He asked the young man if he possibly had a bit too much to drink, and maybe he wouldn’t mind going back into the terminal and “resting” a little before the next departure (he was obviously bound for the U.S. Navy base at Subic Bay in the Philippines). His reply was too lean over, get very close to Bob’s face, and shout a rather terse, “F*ck you, you asshole!” Hehe; that sealed it…a one-way ticket on the “G.O.M.P. EXPRESS”.
As I was trying desperately to get the Japanese NWA Operations agents to understand that we wanted the actual “security forces” to come to the jet (“ah roger, Northwest 003, we send ticket agent to the airplane.” “Negative, negative, we are requesting the security forces to the jet immediately!” “Ah roger, we send ticket agent to the airplane”), and realizing that I wasn’t having much luck with it, Capt. Bob decided to take measures into his own hands. He called the Lead F/A on the interphone, and gave her the following instructions. “Tell that S.O.B. that someone on the boarding stairs wants to talk to him, and when he stumbles off the jet to see who it might be….close the door behind him!” It worked like a charm.
The moment he found himself outside of the airplane all by himself, he went rather nuts. He began to pound on the boarding door (we could actually hear it from upstairs in the cockpit), but he apparently couldn’t figure out how to actually open it. The Lead F/A came upstairs to ask Bob what she should do if he got it open, and he replied with, “Point him toward the cockpit and get the hell out of his way”. His next statement was to me, “Bill, get the crash axe out of the holder and position yourself behind the door. If he makes it in here, you crack him on the head with that thing!” Cool!
Within a few minutes he stopped pounding on the door, and began a new tactic. He started to run around the outside of the jet, looking up at us in the cockpit and shooting us the finger! Needless to say, we were watching him VERY closely, and I must admit, we (occasionally) shot it right back at him. By now it was beginning to rain very hard, and he took this as the signal to rip his shirt off and do the Tarzan thing (why do ALL pissed-off drunks end up shirtless?). We had just gone from the ridiculous to the sublime. I didn’t know whether to laugh or be very concerned, or maybe both. One of the funniest aspects to all of this is that he looked remarkably like the late actor Chris Farley (no disrespect Chris)! His blubbery, shirtless, drenched body, running around our aircraft, coupled with the sheer strangeness of it all, was more than a little surreal and unnerving. I continued my quest to get someone to the airplane other than a gate agent.
Finally after what seemed like an eternity with this madman loose under the jet, the REAL security forces showed up. They bounded out of their little pickup truck and began to chase him around the airplane! (I promise you this happened; you can’t make this stuff up) We watched like spectators at a rugby match (of course cheering for the guys with the billy-clubs), and within a few minutes they chased him up the covered boarding stairs. With three heads pressed to the left side cockpit window, we watched the stairs begin to rock back and forth rather violently (they must’ve been “disgruntled doctors” too, for I think they were pulling some Jackie Chan marshal arts moves on him). Eventually, with one on each leg and arm, they dragged him down the stairs unconscious, pitched him into the bed of their pickup truck, and off they drove. Japanese Security forces = 1, drunken Navy “Chris Farley” dude = 0.
(Before doing my preflight walk-around in Tokyo. It ALWAYS amazed me just how monstrous this machine actually was!)
The only addendum to this story concerns a bit of mischief on my part. An hour or so later, as we were winging our way toward Okinawa, Bob was busy filling out his report on all of this. I thought maybe a bit of fun was called for, so I pretended to be on the number two Comm radio with the NWA Tokyo personnel. I was playing it up well, with more than a few lines like, “Oh, oh. You gotta be kidding me. Really? That’s not good…not good at all! Of course I’ll inform the Captain. Roger Flt 003, out.” It was more than Bob could stand, so he turned and asked whom I was talking to. I couldn’t resist, “Well Bob, you know that moron we just had pitched UNDER the jail in Tokyo? Well, that was Operations saying they have a message from the State Department and that we screwed up big-time…seems he is the SON of the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines!” You should’ve seen the look on Bob’s face. I probably took a couple of years off his life…sorry Bob, just kidding.
When, in 1994, I upgraded to my first command of a jetliner, I tried to emulate the manners and patience of the gentlemen like Bob that I had flown with over the years…but it wasn’t easy. My first experience with calling the authorities to meet the aircraft came one day as we were inbound to Miami in the Boeing 727. The Lead Cabin Attendant informed me somewhere around the halfway point of the journey that she had to “cut off” (stop serving liquor to) a passenger in the First Class cabin. Apparently, he was getting more than just a bit buzzed, and was becoming a first-class asshole. My reply was “Great, do what you have to do, and if he gives you any grief, you tell him it was MY decision to cut him off”. She left, and I turned back around to busy myself with the business of flying the jet.
As fate would have it, at our arrival time into the Miami area, a thunderstorm was directly overhead the airport. Since I have a distinct “no landings in the middle of thunderstorms” policy, we entered a holding pattern to let it move out of the approach corridor. I made the requisite announcement over the P.A. system informing everyone of our small delay. I also added that it was due to the fact that a thunderstorm was over the field, and that in about 15 minutes (or less) it would move out of our way, and we would proceed inbound to land without any problems. I hung up the P.A. mic, and settled back to watch the offending cumulonimbus with my usual awe and amazement.
Very shortly after my announcement, the cockpit door opened, and in came the (now pretty upset) Lead F/A. She informed me that the disgruntled passenger had informed her that: A) he was a Doctor, was extermely afraid to fly into thunderstorms, and was going to prescribe himself alcohol for his “condition”, and B) would SUE ME if she refused to comply with his “prescription”. Good heavens, now I’ve seen it all! I calmly turned to address her (thinking of how Bob would’ve handled it I’m sure). I remember telling her to say something like this, “The Captain wanted me to tell you that you are the SECOND most afraid person to fly into thunderstorms on this airplane…no one gets to be more afraid than him. He also wants you to provide him with your name, your address, and your “Dr. License number” (I didn’t know if they actually were issued one or not…but thought the bluff wouldn’t hurt), so he can have them available when he gets in touch with the American Medical Association. He says that he’s sure that the AMA will be VERY interested in a doctor that is prescribing alcohol to himself to cure his fear of flying.” I will have to admit that I gave him a high grade for being creative with the booze-prescription thing…lol.
After he relayed my message to “Herr Doktor”, he became even more adamant about his “prescription”. He now began to call the Lead F/A and myself a few choice names and the threats continued…sorry, still no booze. With this, I directed the Second Officer to call Miami Operations, and have them stand by to meet the jet with the security folks. He seemed to by highly pissed-off when we reached the gate (I remember he wouldn’t look me in the eye), and when the big guys with the “badges” met him upon deplaning, life changed for the good doctor. The authorities weren’t going to buy his “prescription” excuse for interfering with a crewmember in the performance of their duties (a federal offense); they just thought that he was being a prized asshole. They promptly arrested him, and escorted him off to the “cross-bar motel”. Later I began to think, “Hey wait a minute, I’ve used alcohol to cure lots of “problems” in my life, maybe he was on to something there”….just kidding of course.
(A rare sighting…a Boeing 727-100…when I was a new hire at Northwest Orient we referred to them as “the Stubby”. Within a few years of my joining the line, they were all sold. Photograph courtesy of Jon Proctor.)
Redeyes…oh gross! I’m not talking about what my baby-blue peepers tend to look like at the end of an all-night flight-sim/beer drinking binge…nope, I’m talking about those airline flights that leave at midnight, and arrive at roughly the time the sun is peeking over the eastern horizon. One might ask, “Who in their right mind would want to go to the jet-port at that un-Godly hour and sit next to a fat guy snoring for five hours?” You’d be surprised; these flights are almost always full to the gunnels (I would guess it has something to do with cheaper fares). And since my jet is the “super-star du jour” for hauling lots of bodies out of metropolitan airports (relatively) quietly at midnight, then I get to enjoy these types of missions during the majority of my domestic trips.
One night a few years ago, we launched out of “Sin City” (Las Vegas) long after sunset, with our destination being my home domicile of Minneapolis/St. Paul. This leg would be the end of our four day 757 trip, and except for the “night owl” thing at the end, it had been a very enjoyable time spent on the road (read, little or no hassles during the trip). Needless to say, many times leaving Vegas, customer issues on the jet seem to come as fast and furious as the bells ringing on the slot machines! Inbound you have happy drunks, outbound you have broke/tired/dehydrated/(at times) pissed-off drunks….I prefer the happy ones. I’ve thrown lots of folks off the jet in KLAS, and needless to say, it’s not one of my favorite destinations in our domestic system.
On this night however, all things seemed to be in harmony. We boarded the folks without incident, taxied for a runway 25R RNAV departure, and with a very quiet ATC shift in progress, we began to feel like we were the only jet in the sky. McCarren Departure Control handed us off to L.A. Center, and without asking for it, the nice lady at the big, glowing “Pong” screen, cleared us direct to KMSP! For all the bitching about redeye flying, sometimes the middle of the night is the best time for flying. [This coming from an ex-teenage paperboy that delivered the news at 0400 every morning, and a former night-freight hauler that would launch my Piper Navajo over the Scandia Mountains east of Albuquerque at midnight every night bound for Lubbock, Texas.]
(A PA-31 Piper Navajo. It was my first actual pilot job after college. Single pilot, night freight over the mountains was “interesting” to say the least.)
When things at 2 a.m. are working with my karma, the weather is smooth and clear (with the ground lights and stars like two blazing fields of diamonds), the ATC folks are silent and loving it half as much as I am, the customers are all a slumber, the steady purring of the two big Pratt and Whitneys is music to this old pelican’s ears, and the required cup of “Joe” is like something from the porcelain vase of the nectar of the Gods. In other words, all is right with the world.
That is exactly how this night would begin, but not how it would end. Somewhere over the sleeping plains of Nebraska, the chime in the cockpit announced that one of the cabin attendants wanted to speak to us. I naturally assumed it was something to the order of…”Captain, a passenger wants to know what the name of that little town is…” (like I would know? And, like I would care? Lol). This time, it was a bit different. After answering the interphone, one of the young men (cabin attendants) requested to come onto the flight deck to talk to me. Sure…come on up. He came into the cockpit, quickly took a seat in the jumpseat immediately behind my “throne”, and began to regale me with his tale of woe.
(The Boeing 757 jumpseat. Definitely NOT the most comfortable seat in the house.)
It seems that not all was right in his world, for on this flight there was on particular passenger that did not like him. My answer was something like, “OooooKay, and how is that playing out with the service you guys are doing, etc?” He informed me that the service was finished, but this man didn’t like him, and he knew this because of all of the dirty, hateful looks this person was sending toward him. By now, of course, the First Officer was giving me the proverbial “side-long” glances coupled with a smirk or three. I knew exactly what was going through his 71/4 hat size…”Well, oh exalted great Captain, my Captain! Just how are you going to deal with this little “emergency”? He hates me Captain…boo hoo!” I shot him a dirty/hateful look, and turned back to “Billy” (not his real name) and continued with the “counseling session”. “And how does this make you FEEL Billy?”
“Well Billy, I’m sorry the guy in 15D doesn’t like you…but we ALL can’t be liked by EVERYONE, right? I know it makes your job uncomfortable, but how about this…how about you just stay away from the guy, get one of the other guys on the crew to serve him, you just “play in your corner of the playground”, and he can play in his “corner”. How does that sound?” I asked him to describe his nemesis, and as it turned out, I distinctly remember seeing this person as he boarded the jet. He was one of the last folks to board, and (in my humble opinion) he was very distinctive looking for many reasons.
To begin with, he was wearing dark sunglasses (and it was indeed midnight when he walked onto the jet). Now I know that means you are one super cool, bad-ass vaquero. And I also know that my personal uber-bright personality means I get to “wear my sunglasses at night” (they should make a song about that…lol), but I’m not sure his did. Also, he was sporting some of the coolest looking fingerless, leather driving gloves I’ve ever seen! O.K., again, I get to wear those in the cockpit because I’m actually “driving” this big-bad mama-jamma at 500 knots and cool enough to own it…I’m just not sure he was. I will say, the awesome gloves did match his black leather pants…word up dude. And lastly, to round out his ensemble, over his thug T-shirt, he was proudly displaying the requisite “Mr. T. Starter Set” gaggle of gold chains! There truly must’ve been at least 50 chains on that young dude’s neck! Made my own neck sore just looking at him! So, needless to say, the guy was feathered out in his best “gangsta wannabe” regalia, but for some reason, he and “Billy” just were not groovin’ on the same cosmic plain. Just lovely. I really need to chat to whoever is in charge of dishing out MY karma…
(The current queen of “grace and power”…the Boeing 757. The jet I’ve called home for the last 20 years [with her big sister, the 767]…thank you Mr. Boeing. Photograph courtesy of Kevin Colbran.)
Things seemed to be “all quiet on the western front” for the next hour or so, but shortly after the end of their last service, and about 15 minutes from us beginning our re-entry maneuver, I once again get the “Bing-bong” (and blue light) on the overhead Alert Panel telling me that (most probably) “Billy” and “Mr. T” were not sharing recipes over a cup of chamomile tea. Sure enough it was “Billy”, and upon letting him into the cockpit, I noticed that his uniform had taken on a strange new color. It seems that square in the middle of his white shirt, a very large, very dark, very wet brown spot had suddenly appeared. “Billy” was almost in tears, and through the anger (and some sobs) I finally gleaned what had transpired. Apparently he had approached “Mr. T” to talk peace terms (or something), and had been rewarded with a full cup of coffee (NOT from the porcelain vase of the nectar of the God’s mind you) smack dab “on time/on target” into the middle of “Billy’s” starched white shirt! “SHACK!”
“Billy” of course wanted him arrested upon landing, and truth be told, I was beginning to lean in that direction myself. Its one thing to interfere with a crewmember in the performance of their duty (again, a federal offense), but this was not the “he won’t turn off his cell phone” type of issue. This fell under the actual “assault” of a crewmember category, and we had now squarely escalated to “DEF-CON 2” territory. Of course, dousing “Billy” with Folgers is hardly the same as coming at him with a battle-axe, but it’s still assault, and the die had been cast. This moronic “gangsta wannabe”, with his butt in MY seat 15D, was about to feel some love courtesy of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport Police Department! I’ve seen them in action, and when it gets to “DEF-CON 1” with these guys, it can get ugly in a heartbeat. Their sense of humor gauge does not exist.
Of course, protocol has changed since 9-11, and I won’t go into all of our procedures (for obvious reasons), but one thing hasn’t changed…getting in touch with the “Mother Ship” and getting them in the loop is still an important step in the process. Within a few minutes, I was on the horn with our Dispatch Office, giving them the scoop (incident, name, seat number, etc.), and the “scales of Justice” were about to begin their tilt toward our beloved “Billy”. A few minutes later, Dispatch hailed us on the radio with a juicy little tid-bit of information concerning our perp. It seems that “Mr. T” was the 20-something son of one of the airlines employees! He was a “pass rider” as it were, and the only reason he was on the jet was because the dear lady that gave birth to his worthless behind had (as part of her compensation package) pass travel benefits. Needless to say, when you travel as an employee of the airline (or as a dependent of an employee), your behavior is closely scrutinized. Our company employee handbook lists all the things you CANNOT (read DARE NOT) do while riding on a pass, and while throwing a full cup of steaming hot java on one of the flight attendants isn’t listed…it’s damn sure implied!!!
LMAO! Oh my God! The moron is the child of an employee? I requested two things from the Dispatcher. First, to indeed have the airport security forces ready to meet the jet, but secondly, to please give his dear mother a phone call (I never met the woman, but I’ll lovingly refer to her as “Big Momma”) and inform her of the antics of the “pride of her ovaries”. Also, please ask her if she’d be interested in driving to the airport to meet us at Gate 2 in roughly 45 minutes. He told me to stand by, and within about 3 minutes came back with an “affirmative” on both accounts. It seems that “Big Momma” was an early riser, and would LOVE to be standing by at sunrise when we dock.
(If I had a dollar for every sunrise these old eyes have seen from altitude, I’d make Bill Gates look like he lived under an overpass.)
The Lead Flight Attendant informed the genius in seat 15D that the Captain required him to remain in his seat until all of the other passengers have deplaned, and only then would he be allowed to depart the jet (I wanted to be sure and not miss the “festivities” that were sure to take place in the gate…lol). We began our descent as the smooth air and faint glow on the horizon gave way to an “accidental” giggle or two from the two aviators up in the pointy end. Lots of shaking of the heads, and comments like “what the hell was he thinking…his Mother could be fired, or at the very least lose her pass benefits over this!” With calm winds, clear skies and no traffic, MSP TRACON cleared us for a straight-in visual approach to Runway 12R, and with long practiced effort, we gracefully landed and exited the runway.
More giggles on the way to Gate 2, and when parked and all of the checklist complete, the F/O and I hurried the task of gathering our wares for a hasty exit to witness the show! As I stepped from the jetway into the (now mostly deserted) gate area, the first thing I saw were the two officers of “Minneapolis’ Finest” dispatched to the gate. They were standing against the wall, arms folded and grinning from ear to ear. Apparently their special skills were not to be needed this fine morning. That’s when I saw her; she, of the “Big Momma” clan. Standing about 5 feet tall, roughly 200 “on the hoof”, and with legs, torso and arms that would make Dick Butkus jealous. She had her “baby” pinned up against the wall, with one massive mitt around his neck, and was giving him a profanity-laced version of the “what for” that made my little virgin ears burn! All I could think of was: gloves, pants, Ray-Bans, gold chains and attitude…$2000! Look of shock and terror on an idiots face as his Momma whoops his ass….priceless!
As I strolled away with thoughts of another trip firmly in the books, and the pending days in the loving world of my wife and children, she stopped her “attitude adjustment” long enough to glance at me. We shared a moment, a look, a hint of a grin, and a knowing that only those that have “righted a wrong” can know. I quietly muttered, “You GO Big Momma…you GO!” And then I thought of how my karma was indeed back in its happy place. But what of HIS karma, and “Billys”….oh well, one out of three ain’t bad…right?
So those are some of the “best of the best”, but just for grins I’ll throw a couple more at you before I’m finished.
We had a guy bounce his “hockey-puck” airline sandwich off the back of a Flight Attendant’s head the other day while yelling, “We got better food than this IN PRISON!” The worst thing about it is he was probably right. As mentioned above, nowhere on the ticket does it say “fine dining experience”…does it?
I had to pitch a lady off the jet going to L.A. the other night (“pie-eyed” drunk), and she literally threw herself down to the jet-way floor immediately outside the boarding door. She then proceeded to kick, scream, and call me every “mofo” name in the book. Funny, I thought I knew all of those fancy curse words! I guess now I have a few new ones…lol.
One final snippet of airborne nastiness.
A passenger boarded the jet in LAX the other morning at 1 a.m. (another “redeye” bound for Minneapolis/ St. Paul), and promptly shoved a passenger that wasn’t getting down the aisle fast enough for him. The Flight Attendant informed me of his behavior; I called the gate agent, and guess what? A “GOMP” award for you, ass-hat…off the jet you go! Within a few minutes the gate agent came into the cockpit to ask if I was too busy to come out in the gate and talk to the buffoon that did the shoving. I told him that A) I was actually quite busy loading data into the Flight Management Computer, and B) to tell the guy that he knew the “rules of the playground”, and if he couldn’t play by the rules, then he doesn’t get to go for an airplane ride…simple as that. A few minutes later, the agent came back into the cockpit to hand me the close-out paperwork, and to inform me that he relayed my message to the dude that I threw off the jet. And what was his response? “He called you an a**-hole”. Funny, even after heaping such worthy praise on me, he still didn’t get an airplane ride that night.
I guess my reasoning behind illuminating some of humanities “darker” moments around airplanes is to say one thing. The next time you march onto an aircraft, don’t feel like the rules have changed…they haven’t. I was told many times growing up to “act as if your Mother were watching”. In fact I’ve dearly wanted to ask some of these people over the years (I would’ve LOVED to have said it to the doctor that beat the snot out of the old lady on the freeway), “what would your mother say, if she saw you doing that?” I’d be willing to bet that for most of them, having a flashback to their version of “Big Momma” kicking their butt for mis-behaving, would’ve resolved the incident post haste.