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.