An Ask the Pilot Christmas

Memories of holidays aloft.
Plus, the worst Christmas song of all time.

December 22, 2013

SO THE HOLIDAYS ARE HERE. I could and perhaps should note that December 21st marked the 25th anniversary of the Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, but let’s not fixate on that. This is the busiest travel weekend of the year, and the last thing people want to be thinking about is disaster.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), roughly 750 billion people are expected to fly between now and New Year’s Eve, 96 percent of them connecting through Atlanta.

In fact I don’t know how many people are projected to fly. I haven’t been listening. In any case, it’s the same basic story every year: the trade groups put out their predictions, and much is made as to whether slightly more, or slightly fewer people will fly than the previous year. Does the total really matter to the typical traveler? All you need to know is that airports will be crowded and flights especially full. Any tips I might offer are simple common sense: leave early, and remember that TSA considers fruitcakes to be hazardous materials. (No joke: the density of certain baked goods causes them to appear suspicious on the x-ray scanners, slowing down the security line.)

Normally I work over the holidays. As a bottom-feeder on my airline’s seniority list, it’s an opportunity to score one of those higher-quality layovers that are normally out of reach. Other pilots want to be home with their kids or watching football, and so I’ve been able to spend Christmas in Egypt, the Fourth of July in Belgium, Thanksgiving in Cape Town.

That’s how it works at an airline: every month you put in your preferences: where you’d like to fly, which days you’d like to be off, which insufferable captains you hope to avoid, and so on. There are separate bids at each base, for each aircraft type and for each seat – i.e. captain and first officer. The award process then begins with the most senior pilot in your category and works its way down. Each pilot’s “line,” as our months are called, is filled with trips until reaching a certain number of pay-hours. When it finally gets to the dregs, lower-rung pilots have their pick of the scraps.

Eventually the process reaches a point when there are no more published trips to give out. Those pilots left over — the bottom ten or fifteen percent — are assigned to what’s called reserve. A reserve pilot has designated days off, and receives a flat minimum pay rate for the month, but his or her workdays, given out in multiple-day blocks, are a blank slate. The reserve pilot is on call, and needs to be within a stipulated number of hours from the airport — anywhere from two to twelve, usually, and it can change day to day. When somebody gets sick, or is trapped in Chicago because of a snowstorm, the reserve pilot goes to work. The phone might ring at 2 a.m., and you’re on way to Sweden or Brazil — or to Omaha or Dallas.

Carriers outside the United States do it slightly differently. Seniority isn’t quite the all-powerful currency that it is here, and schedules tend to be more equitable (or, um, more “socialist,” as I’ve heard it argued).

I’ve been on and off reserve over the past couple of years. It’s an unpredictable way to live. Among the challenges is learning how to pack. What to put in the suitcase when you don’t know if your next destination will be warm and tropical or freezing cold? (Answer: everything.)

Looking back, holiday flying has provided me a few of those sentimental oddities a pilot files away in his mental logbook:

One of my favorite memories dates all the way back to Thanksgiving, 1993. I was captain of a Dash-8 turboprop flying from Boston to New Brunswick, Canada, and my first officer was the always cheerful and gregarious Kathy Martin. (Kathy, who also appears in my “Right Seat” essay, was one of three pilots I’ve known who had been flight attendants at an earlier point in their careers.) There were no meal services on our Dash-8s, but Kathy brought a cooler from home, packed with food: huge turkey sandwiches, a whole blueberry pie and tubs of mashed potatoes. We assembled the plates and containers across the folded-down jumpseat. The pie we passed to the flight attendant, who handed out slices to passengers.

Quite a contrast to Thanksgiving Day in 1999, when I was working a cargo flight to Brussels. It was custom on Thanksgiving to stock the galley with a special holiday meal, and the three of us were hungry and much looking forward to it. The trouble was, the caterers forgot to bring the food. By the time we noticed, we were only minutes from departure and they had split for the day. I thought I was going to cry when I opened the door and saw only a can of Diet Sprite and a matchbook-size packet of Tillamook cheese.

The best we could do was get one of the guys upstairs to drive out to McDonald’s. He came back with three big bags of burgers and fries, tossing them up to us just as they were pulling the stairs away. Who eats fast food on Thanksgiving? Pilots in a pinch.

On New Year’s Eve, 2010, I was flying over the city of Bamako, Mali, in West Africa. Fireworks explode only a few hundred feet from the ground, but enough of them together provide a unique spectacle viewable from a jetliner. At the stroke of midnight, the city erupted in a storm of tiny explosions. The sky was lit by literally tens of thousands of small incendiaries — white flashes everywhere, like the sea of flashbulbs you sometimes see at sporting events. From high above, this huge celebration made Bamako look like a war zone.

Not that I work every holiday. I’ve spent a number of them traveling on vacation.

And with that in mind, here’s some advice:

Do not, ever, make the mistake that I once made and attempt to enjoy Christmas at a small hotel in Ghana called the Hans Cottage “Botel”, located on a lagoon just outside the city of Cape Coast. They love their Christmas music at the Hans Botel, and the compound is rigged end-to-end with speakers that blare it around the clock.

Although you can count among those people able to tolerate Christmas music — in moderation, in context, and so long as it isn’t Sufjan Stevens — there is one blood-curdling exception. That exception is the song, “Little Drummer Boy,” which is without argument the most painful piece of music ever written (worse even than Grant Hart’s “You’re a Soldier” from the final Husker Du album). It was that way before Joan Jett or David Bowie got hold of it.

It’s a traumatic enough song in any rendition. And at the Hans Cottage Botel they have chosen to make it the only — only! — song on their Christmastime tape loop. Over and over it plays, ceaselessly, day and night. I’m not sure who the artist is, but it’s an especially treacly version with lots of high notes to set one’s skull ringing.

“Ba-ruppa-pum-pum;ruppa-pum-pum…” as I hear it today and forever, that stammering chorus is like the thump-thump of chopper blades in the wounded mind of a Vietnam vet who Can’t Forget What He Saw. There I am, pinned down at the Botel bar, jittery and covered in sweat, my nails clattering against a bottle of Star lager while the infernal Drummer Boy warbles into the buggy air.

“Barkeep!” I grab Kwame by the wrist. “For the love of god, man, can’t somebody make it stop?”

Kwame just smiles. “So lovely, yes.”


A 2011 version of this article ran on the website Salon.

And while you’re at it, please give my blog over at BOSTON.COM a holiday click or two.


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33 Responses to “An Ask the Pilot Christmas”
  1. Jeff says:

    Patrick: I think you should drop the first paragraph, based on your own advice contained therein.

  2. flymike says:

    I think the first paragraph is fine the way it is . . .

  3. Tom says:

    Early in your piece you mention that 750 Billion people are going to fly between now and New Years….. not sure if you’re just exagerating or not but 750 million would be a lot. If your number is correct I better start booking a dozen flights to do my share….

  4. Eric Welch says:

    I’m not sure where that 750 billion number came from. My guess is it might be 75 Million, although even that seems a bit high since in 2011 the total airline passenger traffic through ATL for the entire year was 92 million, still a staggering figure and the IATA has reported a drop in airline passenger bookings. 96% of even 75 million would be 72 million, a number I think it unlikely they could handle in two weeks.

    • Patrick says:

      >> I’m not sure where that 750 billion number came from. <<

      It’s a joke. The 750 billion, and the thing about Atlanta. Just a joke.

      – PS

      • chandelle says:

        Got that, if a bit late :)

      • This thread about them not getting the joke is only slightly less funny than your original joke. I think there’s a new law that goes into effect for 2013. You actually have to tell people when you’re being sarcastic.

        I’m sorry about Little Drummer Boy. For me it’s Feliz Navidad. I have an unhealthy hatred for that song.

        On that note, have a Feliz New Year. Or something.

      • Paul says:

        Oh, I dunno, Patrick – that feels like about the number of people I have in line in front of me at TSA screening whenever I fly SWA out of LAX…

      • Jim says:

        I think Capt. Smith has dreams of piloting 747-800s into Atlanta.

  5. Bill Combs says:

    Just curious, but have you been in Budapest over New Year’s? The sheer volume of red, green, and white fireworks over the city was breathtaking, and the steady boom-boom-boom sounded as if we were inside a 40-minute drum roll.

    I remember looking outside my balcony with a clear view of Ferihagy (now Liszt Ferenz) airport the hour after midnight, and seeing planes take off towards the north. And thinking how I envied the passengers who had to have been treated to an unforgettable view.

  6. Robert Stevens says:

    One of Facebook friends mentioned that there is an LDB game. It’s simple — the person who hears Little Drummer Boy the latest in a particular Christmas season wins. I made it all the way till the afternoon of the 21st, so while the world did not end, my portion of the LDB game did.

  7. Gary says:

    The only Christmas music I can listen to are Sufjan Stevens and the Low CD.

    Do you dislike all of Sufjan’s music?

  8. Reza Gorji says:

    Hi Patrick:
    I really enjoyed your piece. Tonight I be working on call at a University Hospital as an anesthesiologist. I’ve been on call many times during Xmas and New Year’s eve in the past. Some of the things we see on these nights are amazing and rival your experiences working on such days. If it snows, we get snowmobilers who get drunk and fall into cold lake in Upstate NY or hit a tree at 100 mph and get body parts severed. If its relatively warm, we will get gunshots to different body parts!! The best weather seems to be a cold damp rainy night where folks stay home and out of trouble!!
    Have a nice holiday.

  9. Mike says:

    Am I missing something — SkyMaul is $93.00? For a book?

  10. James says:

    Without a doubt, the best Christmas song is “Hey Santa” by the UK Subs. It perfectly sums up the holiday season for a child.

    And, in case you were unaware, after three months of the new year, all passengers will be required to fly through Atlanta — even if they’re flying LNY-LIH. Apparently, it was a rider in the Department of Transportation funding bill that slipped through.

  11. KevinT says:

    My wife got particularly sick of hearing me complain about Little Drummer Boy this year and called me on it, so I’ve had to bite my tongue and bear it whenever it’s come on in the car this past week. (Damn you SeriusXM Holly Channel!!!) How great a thrill to see my favourite columnist direct a bit of venom its way (and sorry about your Hans Cottage Botel experience…)

  12. Elizabeth Matheson says:

    Holiday flying — gobble gobble gobble and ho ho ho! I flew during BOTH the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. The fact that my family, chiefly my daughter and my parents, live halfway across the country propelled me into this madness.

    Thanksgiving highlights included boarding the plane and then almost immediately deplaning due to an electrical issue. With no other plane to take the place of the plane with the issue, we sat and sat while repairs were made. Many fun filled hours later, the plane was fixed, and we were ready to go. My two hour thirty-five minute flight from RDU to DFW only took nineteen hours! Fun times!

    Christmas highlights included playing “Let’s Change the Terminal” three times at DFW within the two hour wait I had for my flight to RDU. The weather was horrible and about a gazillion flights were cancelled for the flight back to DFW.

    All in all, everyone kept their wits about them and took it all in stride. Me — I just went to a hotel after arriving back so late on Thanksgiving as well as Christmas. There is much to be said for a long winter’s nap after some hectic travelling.

  13. Lizzy B says:

    I’m with you on the Drummer Boy – no question the worst song ever – pa rump a pum pum. Yuck!

  14. John Grochowski says:

    Patrick, as a long-time reader of yours, I immediately heard “Little Drummer Boy” when I read the headline. But I submit that the Chipmunks Christmas song is actually worse. My wife has a Hallmark ornament that plays that song from before we met that my kids insist on activating every five minutes. “Christmas, Christmas time is near…” Puke!

    Merry Christmas to you!

  15. Bob says:

    My most memorable Christmas: my wife and I were overnighting in a dump of a hotel in Windhoek, Namibia (we drive there, not flying) and celebrated in the hotel bar. One string of colored lights across the top of the bar, and the only other customers were a hooker waiting for business and her 10 year old daughter. Merry Christmas to all travelers.

  16. David M. says:

    I flew BOS-PBI the day after Lockerbie. It was quite a surreal experience in the airport, with everyone holding newspapers with the infamous photo. Sure made for sobering holiday travel.

    Curiously enough, we were also en-route somewhere within days of TWA 800 and Egypt Air 990, too. I suppose the moral is, don’t fly when I am traveling.

    I nominate Paul McCartney’s aural assault as the worst Xmas Song ever, but I must place the drummer boy at #2. Truly hideous.

  17. Paul says:

    Try Pink Martini’s version of “Drummer Boy” – it’s at least tolerable.

    Hard to say which version of “Drummer Boy” drives me up the wall more – the Harry Simone Chorale version or the Bing Crosby/David Bowie duet (try to convince me that somebody wasn’t taking some serious drugs what they suggested THAT pairing!)

  18. Ad aburdum per aspera says:

    Let’s face it, in accordance with the universal and possibly fractal nature of Sturgeon’ Law, most pop Christmas music from the last hundred years or so can make an otherwise reasonable person want to gnaw a strip of reindeer jerky and go drop-kick an elf. But there are some modern-day surprises.

    On the radio during a recent road trip I heard “We Three Kings of Orient Are”… in Navajo. And on one of the satellite dish music channels available in the motel they queued up Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas” (always welcome, but for a Christmas music playlist it had obviously been chosen on the title alone rather than actually listening to it).

    So, folk… what are you actually looking forward to hearing this Christmas season, other than “we’re overbooked by three seats and are offering a thousand dollar voucher, a night at the Ritz-Carlton, and a business class upgrade on the next available flight if you volunteer”?

  19. People.

    Robert Earl Keen: Merry Christmas From The Family.

    Best. Xmas.Song. Ever.

  20. dwberry says:

    As much as I abhor “Little Drummer Boy,” it’s a warm bath compared to “Dominick the Donkey,” of which I was blissfully unaware until I moved to Philly. Best Chrismas song ever: no contest, Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” Plus, it’s perfect for the holiday traveler.

  21. Avery Greynold says:

    Lockerbie is special. To passengers all crashes are equally bad. To a pilot crashes are types: Human error in real time, and avoidable. Equipment failure, often small details maturing to disaster, and preventable. And then there is mass murder coming at Christmas time. The pilots died because they were meant to.

  22. You were right to remember Lockerbie.

  23. Mark says:

    Watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is a good antidote to Christmas muzak.

  24. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    I have to agree on “Little Drummer Boy”, whoever does it. A hard second though is the one with the talking sheep. I’m sure if I were a shepherd boy freezing my privates off during a cold night in the ass-end of the Judean hills and a sheep started talking to me, I would start praying to keep the demon from possessing me next while I smashed its head with a rock. And what kind of “mighty king” has to tell people “listen to what I say”? If he’s so damned mighty they’d better listen if they want to keep their ears attached to their heads.
    Well, enough violent content.
    For me, the best Christmas songs are the Rosemary Clooney “White Christmas” with the spoken intro, and the original of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, where the line is “In a year we all will be together”, reflecting that it first came out during wartime. Honors also to The Pretenders, for “2000 Miles”.