Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Pod People (WARNING: Content may not be appropriate for all viewers.)

Yesterday, I was deadheading (traveling as a passenger) from Newark to Houston on a 757.  As hub-to-hub flights usually are, this one was booked to capacity.  Since I was in uniform and on the manifest as a "deadheading" working crewmember, I was allowed to board with the actual, working crew.  I took my seat at 20C (exit row, aisle) and prepared for the onslaught of "boarding".


The longer I do this job, the more convinced I am that I will never HEAR or SEE "it all"!

Of all the frightening things I saw and heard, none was more so than this:  I looked up from reading USA TODAY and was eyeball to business with an impressive set of male genitalia, unencumbered by foundation garment and only marginally masked from total nudity by a suggestion of "gym shorts".  My eyes continued an upward arc hoping-against-hope that the owner's face would register something akin to embarrassment at having forgotten such a critical step in preparing for interaction with the traveling public.  Alas, the face revealed only the vacant "I am an island unto myself" stare so common these days.

In fairness, I suppose that the marketing of one's penis & testicles is no more remarkable than the ubiquitous "boob show" that has become so commonplace.  If I'd employed the camera on my iphone, I could have easily assembled a CATALOG of store-bought boobies on the same flight.

Is it possible that they were all drunk, or altered, or maybe there was a casting call for the next iteration of "Jersey Shore"?  Sometimes I think that the movie "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" wasn't so much sci-fi as it was prophetic.

Pod people...


When you think of the Berlin Wall, do you think of the ugliness of oppression or the beauty of the triumph of the human spirit?

The nature of humanity is to not be defeated by obstacles but rather, to assimilate, eradicate and celebrate them! Just one of the lessons of the millennia....for those who care to learn.

- at Mauerpark, Berlin.

Friday, April 26, 2013


That's how many DAYS old I am today.

When expressed in those terms, it makes me wonder, "what the hell have I been doing all this time?!"

Maybe it's time to alter my path a little...

18,980 days behind me. How many to go? It's a mercy that we have no way of knowing.

The photo is me at 6,580 days (give or take) as an exchange student in Ljungbyhed, Skane, Sweden.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

My Favorite Things

Have you ever wondered how "travel professionals" make their mobile lifestyle work?  All of the comforts and necessities that make home, "home", are notably absent when one spends most of his/her time on the road.  What tips, tricks, and gadgets help the road warrior successfully traverse the planet as effortlessly as you traverse your living room?

Tip #1:  "Everything in life is habit."  Thus spake my Great Aunt Hulda Abernathy when she was well into her 9th decade of life and I totally concur!  Think about your "routines", both good and bad.  While most of us prattle on about being "in a rut" and how spontaneity is the key to happiness, the reality is that habits are the backbone of our daily existence.  The KEY is to form fewer bad ones and more good ones.  If you build and follow healthy, regular habits, they will serve you both at home and abroad.  For example, whenever I fly to Asia (Japan is a 14 hour non-stop from Houston), I know that I will end up on "the backside of the clock" which is particularly confounding to the body.  I find it much easier on my profound circadian rhythm to allow my body to remain on my "home" time, especially since I will be returning home in just over 24 hours.  Some think it odd to work-out in the hotel gym at 2 a.m. then return to the room to watch the TODAY show live, via SLINGBOX (a future installment of "My Favorite Things").   For me, it just makes sense.

Comedian Richard Pryor once said, "old people don't get to be old by being stupid."  I guess he must have met Aunt Hulda somewhere along the line!

Another key to staying "grounded" when you're a world traveler is to establish what are the intrinsic benefits of your time at home...what are the things at home that make NOT traveling special?  Just today, I reveled in my latest lunch obssession.  It is non-descript, perhaps even a little "iffy" looking at first glance, but Corkscrew BBQ off of Budde Road in the Woodlands, TX is some of the best barbecue I've ever eaten!  Having been raised at the feet of a recognized "Jedi Master" of barbecue, J. Neal Reece, I'm pretty sure that my opinion can be relied upon.  My particular favorite is the "healthiest" BBQ alternative, smoked turkey breast.

Turkey breast can be a monumental problem for the BBQ master because the process of smoking can dry and toughen the meat since there's neither fat or bone to help keep it naturally juicy and flavorful.  It often arrives at the table the consistency of shoe leather and, although I've never eaten a shoe, it probably tastes about the same!  Somehow, the folks at Corkscrew present tasty, juicy, tender, turkey breast EVERY time:  the combination is a BBQ Home Run!  Of course, the traditional brisket, pulled pork, sausage and chicken are top notch but they don't present the smoking challenge that turkey breast does.

When you combine their obvious smoking talents with some novel presentation approaches, you have one of the best BBQ experiences available; reasonably priced, PERFECT location (minutes from my front door), and friendly proprietors.  The combination is hard to fault.  There's just one thing...they frequently SELL OUT within an hour or two!  Even before noon, early-arriving patrons can be disappointed to learn that their favorite meat is already gone.  When asked why they don't simply "cook more?", the Corkscrew folks replied that they cook 600 lbs. every day, that's their full capacity.  Whatever their secret, it's a winning recipe that has been recognized by local media, The Woodlands Villager and The Houston Chronicle, as being "best of the best."

Did I forget to mention that they accomplish all of this out of a trailer parked on a vacant lot?!

Visit my friends at Corkscrew BBQ on Facebook:

or on their website at:

Better yet, visit them in person.  If you're a BBQ lover, you WON'T be disappointed!  While you're there, if the guy with the ridiculously pierced ear lobes (friendly, patient & helpful) asks, tell him that "Tony" sent you.

He won't have a clue, but maybe it will make you remember that a friend shared one of his "favorite things".  Then, it will be yours to PAY FORWARD!

More favorite things next week...you WON'T be disappointed!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

6,000,000 to 1

My first recollection of hearing about the Nazi persecution of Jews is from Mrs. Palmer's Geography class in 5th or 6th grade. I have a "factual" mind, so whenever I come upon a topic, I begin to recall the "facts" I associate with it.

The first fact I associate with the Holocaust is "6,000,000".  I'm sure that figure is used liberally to instill a sense of awe and horror.  Frankly, I can't remember if it did or didn't.  At the risk of sounding cold, I'll just say that in this context, I only see it as a "fact".  And that bothers me...

It must have bothered others too.  Otherwise, the figure would have stood on its own merit and would have been so daunting, so troubling that there would have been no need for Holocaust memorials....and there are several throughout the great cities of the world.  I understand that Yad Vashem in Jerusalem is the epicenter of remembrance and factual documentation of this epic crime against humanity.  Yet, there's something about the memorial in Berlin, "the scene of the crime", the place from which all the evil eminated that struck a particular chord in me.  My fascination mounted as I entered through the "stellae" and descended into subterranean eeriness.

Cool, dark, quiet....as you enter, you're keenly aware of the expectations of you, the interloper.  After passing the 21st century-required security screening, you come upon a long, low reception desk:  coat check, information, bookstore, giftshop, polylingual audio self-guided tour rental, and reminders everywhere of the reverence expected of guests.  NO POSTED REMINDERS...NOTHING OVERT, just a subtle sense of where you are, why you are here and how you should comport yourself.  Everywhere, docents stand quietly with hands behind their back, ready to intercede as needed.

The atmosphere is dark and heavy as you move from room to room, the first, a timeline of how the rise of Social Democracy (Nazi-ism) led to a commensurate pressurization of the Jewish population to "GET OUT"...with a clear sub-message of "OR ELSE".  Nazi policy lost all subtlety in 1939 when a program of emigration and deportation of German Jews was replaced by "Aktion Reinhardt", a pointed plan put in place to ISOLATE and EXTERMINATE all European Jews, not just German.  The new policy coincided with Germany's move from passivity and pacifist to "blitz krieg" and aggressor.  "Aktion Reinhardt" was a formalized plan to eliminate 11 million European Jews, Gypsies (Roman), and homosexuals (although curiously, only male homosexuals were targeted).  As we moved from year to year along the timeline, the "6,000,000" figure was at last replaced in my mind by 127 died in a lorry (tractor trailor) from exhaust fumes; 32,000 were stripped naked, marched into a ravine, forced to lie face-down, shot in the backs of their heads, then bulldozers pushed in the sides of the ravine on top of them at Baba Yar in the Soviet Union; 111,000 were exterminated at an "award-winning" pace at the newly-designed extermination camp at Treblinka; a "rising star" of Jewish eradication hand-drew a map of Europe that he divided into regions under his command, each with a casket symbol and number of deaths, one region marked "Juden frei" (Jew free).  How could anyone in Germany have remained "innocent" of the horrors occurring all around them?

A white "pathway" on the floor leads you from one heavy, concrete bunker-like room to the next.  After the timeline room, you pass into a "family" room where you learn about the "familial" scope of destruction.  No part of European semitism can claim that it was untouched by the Holocaust.  As the Germans advanced, one of the first orders of business was to round up Jews, "relocate" them to concentration camps, exploit the labor of the fit, and ultimately, KILL all of them.  The fact that ANY survived to the war's end is miraculous in light of the Nazi determination to annihilate.  Many of the families were prosperous and influential.  One had family films made during the early 1930s which were shown on their wall.  What family in the US could have afforded the luxury of family movies in the 1930s?

I was most touched by the next room where individual stories were told, stories of husbands, wives, lovers, and children.  The innocence of youth was not spared the horror of "Aktion Reinhardt".  Those children that were too young or unfit to serve the Reich were annihilated with the rest who "served no purpose".  Suddenly, my attention was totally consumed by a short type-written letter.

The letter was written by a 12 year-old girl to her father to say good-bye.  It was found by the invading Soviet forces toward the end of the war and compiled with other documentation as damning evidence against the regime of the Third Reich.  What remains of the letter is sentiment:  the original hand-written text is long destroyed and all we have for reference is the typed Cyrillic translation.  But for me, the sentiment of that letter is much more profound than the fact, "6,000,000".  The girl wrote that she knew she was to die and that she was afraid.  Likely no more than 4 or 5 sentences, the wording was the essence of an oxymoron.  It was at once factual, sentimental, woeful, uplifting, desperate, hopeful, death, life.

But in the end, a 12 year-old girl's good-bye to her father was the period at the end of a short sentence.  It was signed "Your daughter".

The sentiment of that letter was proof that essential human spirit can and will survive in the face of all evil.  It is a sentiment that we would do well to embrace in a world that seemingly darkens every day.

Somehow, the figure "6,000,000" never really struck a chord with me.  It certainly never resonated in me as much as the fate of ONE 12 year-old girl has.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Gander. Oh...Canada?!

When I wrote a while back about my airline employer's use of a novel aircraft solution for NYC -Berlin service, I overlooked one potential downside of that solution: seasonal wind variations. Well, I didn't so much overlook it as I sort of "put it aside" as seasonally irrelevent.

In the northern hemisphere, winds "at altitude" (the height at which aircraft normally operate) normally blow predominantly west-to-east. Most of the year, that simply means that an eastbound flight between two given cities takes less time (with tailwinds) than a westbound flight between the same two cities (headwinds). The directional variation in flight time is proportionate to distance traveled. For example, a 600 mile flight might only vary by a few minutes, directionally, wheras a 6,000 mile flight may vary by hours.

During the northern hemisphere's winter season, however, prevailing winds are notably more intense than in summer. So, scheduled flight times will also vary notably, in accordance. Often such weather variables can be predicted with some reliability. When it be becomes evident that winds will challenge the operational "envelope" of the aircraft assigned to a route (the 757-200 in this case), a longer range aircraft with similar capacity will be substituted (normally a 767-200ER). Although we are well into spring, weather variables do NOT respect arbitrary human boundaries.

Our Newark to Berlin flight is normally schedule to be a little over 8 hours while Berlin to Newark is over 9 hours. But this week, the winds aloft are blowing so unseasonably intensely, that we arrived in Berlin on Saturday morning after only 6 hours, 49 minutes in flight! Our flight plan was scheduled to be so short that we were required to delay departure by over half an hour from Newark because we would be arriving too early in Berlin...the airport wouldn't be open (an entirely separate topic). Conversely, our return flight today was dramatically lengthened due to intense headwinds. Had we been able to fly it "non-stop", it would have taken over 10 hours.

I say "if" because we, in fact, did NOT fly non-stop from Berlin to Newark today! We made what is called a "technical stop" in Gander, Newfoundland for additional fuel. Fuel stops, as they are more commonly known, occur more frequently than most are aware. Generally, they don't mean that you can't reach your destination without extra fuel. They mean that you can't reach your destination or your designated alternate city with the fuel onboard, given prevailing conditions. In our case, prevailing conditions included the intense headwind, "iffy" weather at Newark AND the potential of issues arising from the recent federal cuts in air traffic control staff resulting from "sequester".

So, we were on the ground in Canada for approximately an hour. The net result was that instead of arriving in Newark at 12:50pm, as scheduled, we arrived at 3:30pm. The ensuing chaos to our passengers' plans and operation could have easily justified the additional cost of "up gauging" to a larger aircraft. But unlike the dead of winter when the planners in our NOC (Network Operations Control) Center look for and expect this kind of wind phenomenon, this weekend's circumstances were not predicted. Do I have to explain how our passengers felt about our irregularity?

So many factors play crucial roles in airline performance and we, all of us, take it for granted that the technological resources exist to master all of those circumstances. Of all the things that ARE within our 21st century span of control, weather is NOT one of them.

Inconvenience and complications aside, I kind of like the fact that we can't control everything! Don't we occasionally need a reminder that we're "only human", after all? It's strangely comforting, really.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


As we arrived in Newark EARLY this morning on our deadhead flight from Houston, we made that last banking turn onto our final approach...the approach that can send chills up your spine no matter how many times you've seen it. We leveled out of that right-hand maneuver to follow the Hudson River to our landing at Newark. New Jersey passes on the right side of the aircraft and the unmistakable "profile" of Manhattan appears on the left.

From seat 21A, the landmarks become clear through darkness and the late-spring drizzle: the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, then a series of lower, clustered skyscrapers. Descending, proceeding further down the island into lower Manhattan, an unrealistic anticipation rises at the prospect of seeing the monumental twin towers of the World Trade Center. Even though they stand now only in memory, the memory is so profound, so clear!

Suddenly, a spear of preternatural white brightness pierces the darkness, pointing upward. The sentinel that is Freedom Tower stands guard over what is essentially a memorial to the loss of America's innocence, its new-age LCD lighting distinguishing it in the dark as its unique height and form distinguish it in the light.

On September 11, 2001, America lost the innocence of youth. Collectively, we suffered the same right of passage that each of us must individually when we discover that we are mortal, that we can be harmed, damaged, killed. It is the ultimate milestone and, once passed, changes forever the way we see ourselves, each other and the world.

In memory of all who must perish so that those who remain behind MIGHT LEARN from their loss...

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

"The Flight Attendant Life"

An opportunity to catch up with a dear, old friend; hours spent chatting like you'd only last seen each other a few weeks ago instead of years; morning comes and you arrive in one of the world's great cities where after a few hours of rest, a wonderful meal and more conversation await; the prospect of a relaxing flight home, booked less than half full, a multi-dimensional "homecoming"; pay and per diem as though you're really WORKING for it...

Ours is a singular existence! We often have the TIME and opportunity that others on the "outside" can only talk, read or dream about. For me, this life & lifestyle were a choice, for some, it was happenstance. However we came here, I think we're all glad we did.

Living life with no regret....today, in Amsterdam.

Sunday, April 14, 2013


Other than in a religious context, I don't believe that "absolute truth" exists as anything but a concept.

Volumes have been written about how two people can be placed in a room, exposed to the same sights and sounds, removed from the room without the opportunity to communicate about what they'd been subjected to and questioned. Invariably, each will report having had an almost totally unique experience! How is that possible?

Because we're human. We view our life's "truths", our realities through the lens of our own life experience.

Whose truth is the "real" truth?

(With thanks to my dear friend and neighbor, Kathleen Getchas Falato, for inspiration.)

Saturday, April 13, 2013

"Do you want to play with me?"

On a bad day, my life is good. On an average day, it's pretty awesome and on a good day, well, you can do the math!

My life and lifestyle are the envy of many of my friends with all the going-and-coming, time off, great benefits and overall freedom. Early in my career with my airline employer, I was on a fairly aggressive "management track," heading up with energy and vigor. But I wasn't particularly pleased with the toll such an aggressive path took on my personal life. I certainly wasn't comfortable with the aggressive, kill-or-be-killed personality that I was cultivating. My parents were getting older, my life seemed to be flying past the windows of the supersonic career jet that I was tethered to, and I saw many of the "benefits" of my career choice in the rear view mirror. Somehow, it seemed I was losing control of my own destiny and I wanted it back desperately. So, I took back control!

I returned to "line flying" as a Flight Attendant after being warned more than once that to do so was career suicide. Since some of the "footholds" to boost myself up the corporate ladder were the backs of co-workers, I had to re-establish peer relationships with many and regularly dined on "crow". But as I regained control of my work, work schedule, and life, I convinced myself that "career suicide" was just the right option at just the right time in my life. I can't say that I've ever regretted that decision.

My near 30 years of seniority afford me a sublimely manageable, flexible schedule full of options. I see myself now working to live rather than living to work.

During my father's recent 3+ year cancer fight, I was able to be with he and my mother at critical times and for extended periods. Often, a foreseen appointment which we imbued with so much import was just the tip of the iceberg. The time before and/or after when we anxiously anticipated or nervously ruminated about health developments was absolutely critical. How could I have hoped to provide the material comfort and support that I did if I had been committed to a conventional work schedule? That tragic series of events ended with Dad's death on Labor Day 2012. Or did it?

Now I spend time with my recently-widowed Mom at her home or she uses my benefits to spend time with Philip and me in Houston; meaningful time that, I'm sure, helps her through her mourning period. As I write, I have returned to the hometown where I was born and where I spent the formative years of my life to help celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of our dear friends, Harold and Shirley Westbrook. Originally, I was to fly a Berlin trip this weekend but the flexibility of my schedule allowed me to exchange trips (trip trade) with another Flight Attendant whose place I will be taking to Amsterdam on Tuesday. I don't think that I could quantify the value of my work flexibility. How could I replace the lost "moments" in my life path that I might have missed otherwise?

While having lunch yesterday at the local "hoagie" shop in town (a 40-year institution in our small town), Mom and I were joined by Mr. Rogers, a family friend. We learned that his 5 year old granddaughter, Gracie, had been under inpatient care at Eggleston Children's Hospital in Atlanta for weeks with a congenital heart condition. As worrying as Gracie's circumstances were, Mr. Rogers began to talk about the truly tragic patient stories of this unique Georgia pediatric institution. He lamented about how many infants and adolescents were simply abandoned there, alone and sick, as vulnerable as vulnerable gets. Mr. Rogers' eyes became a little misty, his face heavy, as he related his encounter with one particular little boy.

As he and his wife exited the elevator on his granddaughter's floor, Mr. Rogers noticed a young black boy, aged 5 or 6, sitting in the door of his room nearby. He saw that the boy was all alone. Instantly, the lad had a smile on his face and a question on his lips,

"Do you want to play with me?"

How many times had he asked the same question that day? How many total strangers represented his opportunity for a diversion, a distraction from what must be a living horror of hour-after-hour alone, the monotony of nothingness punctuated only by a frightening medical procedure or a periodic nurse visit and "vitals" check? Who is responsible for this little fellow, set adrift on life's vast ocean alone, afraid, and sick? What was more important to this child's parent than caring for life's most precious gift? When did children become chattel? Please, tell me. Because I really NEED to understand!

"Do you want to play with me?"

Yes, I do. I really do. And I WILL...

Will you?

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Way F O R W A R D > > > >

In addition to authoring this blog, I am also the founder and co-Administrator of a sizable Facebook group comprised of frontline employees of my airline employer. Our focus is to work together to build harmony and unity between the workgroups of the two subsidiary airlines recently merged into one. We strive to create and maintain a positive, cooperative atmosphere, we empower each other by sharing methods and concepts, we encourage growth in our members by expanding perspectives and thinking "outside the box." Our group is called "The Way F O R W A R D > > > >".

Companies are institutions and institutions address issues in an institutional way. The Way FORWARD is an informal, grassroots movement of mutuality which isn't constrained in its approach to address the same issues. As a result, "common sense" can often prevail where "methodology development" is simply not required.

We discuss everything from our views on the future of the corporation to the best practice for taking a premium cabin meal order onboard one of our flights (trickier than you might think). We often compare notes to look for "best practices" to deal with everyday problems in our workplace. It's a virtual "meet and greet" that results in heightened communication and understanding between the two "sides" of the merger.

Although we arrive at our newly unified airline from different origins, each side with its own rich aviation history, we look to our future through the lens of our group's vision statement:

"I am the face of ...., the face that my customers will remember when they reminisce about their flight experience. I am honored to follow in a proud, storied tradition of service and safety.

I am committed to my own success, to the success of my colleagues, and to that of my company. The opinions of detractors who attempt to distract us from achieving our potential are just that: opinions and distractions.

I do not need a charismatic leader at the helm of .... to tell me that I am a good, worthy, respected member of a winning team whose future promises to be so much brighter than its collective past.

Because I declare it every time I put on my uniform and go to work....

One trip, one crew, one flight, one passenger-at-a-time.

THIS is the way F O R W A R D > > > >"

We recognize and reinforce those among us who epitomize our vision with a peer award that we call the ORDER of the FLYING CARABINER, or "CLIPPER", for short. Any member of The Way FORWARD may nominate a frontline employee (not necessarily a member of the group) for the award by posting a short narrative of what makes that employee noteworthy. Once seconded, the nomination must receive supporting comments from at least 10 other members. If successful, the nominee is presented with the CLIPPER (an engraved dual carabiner) and personalized notecard. It's all just a tangible way of saying, "Thank you for the job that you do. We are proud to work alongside of you."

Recently, colleagues from Inflight, Flight Operations and Customer Service all received the CLIPPER for the roles they each played in helping a customer make a perilously tight connection to reach his dying mother. The customer arrived in time and recounted for the press how these employees made the journey both successful and more meaningful.

We work for the world's largest commercial airline, yet we see ourselves as caring individuals who want to see and hear each customer as an individual...

"one trip, one crew, one flight, one passenger-at-a-time."

Thursday, April 11, 2013

What kind of plane is this, anyway?

I keep hearing this question from customers on my Berlin trips this month. Likely, because my airline is employing a rather novel solution in aircraft type for the Newark to Berlin service.

When commercial airlines began flying jets "overseas", most started with the venerable Boeing 707 or Douglas DC8. By today's standards, both were "narrow bodies" (neither is in service any longer) which featured 3 x 3 seating in Economy. The configuration was so well-received, that the 707 cross-section is more-or-less identical to subsequent Boeing narrow bodies such as the 727 and 737. Even today, the newest versions of the 737 and the soon to be introduced 737MAX feature this ubiquitous arrangement.

While narrow bodied airplanes have remained the status quo domestically, "capacity" in the form of wide bodied jets quickly became the choice for international flights between major cities, flights operated by what were once called "flag carriers." Led by the "jumbo" Boeing 747, aircraft like the Lockheed L1011 and Douglas DC10 with their twin aisles, spacious cabins, and "modern" amenities replaced the 707 and DC8 on lucrative, high-visibility international and long-haul domestic trips. Of course, all of this happened in an era when gasoline for your car was $0.25 a gallon. As the cost of petroleum skyrocketed, so did the cost of operating high-profile, gas-guzzling aircraft with 3-4 engines. Technology was improving and efficiency became as important as prestige when profit-margins were squeezed. Add the fact that "open skies" agreements and consumer demand led to the opening of many new international routes between "secondary" cities which didn't merit the excessive capacity of huge aircraft. So the previously sacrosanct "safety" issue of having more than 2 engines on aircraft in international service was replaced by the desire to operate at a profit and with a variety of origin and destination cities.

Two-engine wide bodies from Boeing ad Airbus replaced their behemoth Multi-engine forebears on all but a handful of technically challenging services (dubbed ultra-long haul). The introduction of the extended range and long range 777 and A330 airplanes paved the way for the next generation of international aircraft: the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350 XWB (extra wide body) which ill both specialize in profitably serving "long, thin routes" (long is self-explanatory, thin implies not enough passenger demand for a jumbo aircraft.)

Some routes, like the one that I am flying this month (Newark/Berlin) require a different approach to operate profitably. These routes are known in the industry as a "short to medium, thin route", terminology which describes distance and demand. My airline has employed a rather novel approach to make this market work strategically. Within our fleet, we have several "variants" of just about every fleet-type we operate. The term variants can mean anything from winglet modifications to de-rated or enhanced engine performance to seating configuration. The aircraft in question, a Boeing 757-200 variant, utilizes several means to enhance its range and efficiency: it's Rolls Royce RB211 engines are powerful, efficient, quiet and Eco-friendly and when combined with its 6' blended wing winglets, makes the aircraft super efficient over distances normally outside this aircraft types range.

What surprises our customers the most is the seating configuration. These aircraft have essentially the same configuration as the original 707s and DC8s from the 1950s and 60s! Two x two in "business class" and 3 x 3 in economy, all on either side of a single aisle. I suppose it is a little startling at first glance, as we've all grown to think of "international" aircraft being wide bodies, with two aisles. But even this aircraft usage is not the most extreme. Lufthansa, our German alliance partner, employes the smallest Airbus commercial aircraft, the A319, to fly between German centers of business and industry and the U.S. Now THAT would be a market with very limited demand!

In spite of the shock of seeing a single-aisle aircraft used in international service, the 757-200 has proven to be unusually reliable and imminently suitable for the task. In "Business" class, these aircraft feature 16 lie-flat sleeper seats of the same size and manufacture found on our much larger 777s and 787s. The service offered onboard is identical to that on larger aircraft. Operating parameters are the same, insuring reliable, timely schedules.

The ultimate benefit of employing this unconventional aircraft solution is that it allows cities like Berlin and other "thin" destinations to enjoy non-stop service to major cities, like New York without a connection via a third city, saving HOURS in travel time. Berlin, Oslo, Stockholm, Shannon, Dublin & Barcelona are some of the cities where the 757-200 makes good business sense. To London/Heathrow, for example, the 757 allows us to replace one daily widebody operation with several 757 flights, providing better departure and arrival options for our customers.

Bigger is not always better.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


If this were my photo to name, it would be called "LIFE". Tender, delicate, beautiful, ephemeral. It is the perfect metaphor.  Thank you, Yokota Air Base, for this infusion of spring.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Other Side of the Coin

Last Friday, I recounted what it is like to travel as deadhead crew between bases in preparation for my weekend trip to Berlin. I'm afraid that I didn't paint a very rosy picture of my working colleagues on that flight, customer service-wise. I reported what I saw (indifference) and summed it up by asking, "Who sets the tone, the customers or the crew?"

Well, I flipped the DH coin for my trip back home to Houston from Newark today and was lucky enough to score the opposite "customer" experience. A last-minute equipment substitution and "re-crew" landed my partner Philip and me on a soon-to-be retired Boeing 767-200 (the smallest of our wide bodies) crewed by 6 six-month seniority flight attendants. This crew was the polar opposite of indifferent or detached. They were smiling and anxiety-RELIEVING during boarding; present in the cabin, willing to assist with bags or other issues, graciousness exuded from each of them I saw...it wasn't just one. The flight attendants that I encountered during those first crucial moments of interaction (what we refer to as Phase 1) were fully-engaged with who they were and what they were here to do. In retrospect, I remember distinct positive customer encounters involving 4 of the crew during boarding, alone.

To provide proper perspective, I was just an average passenger (albeit in uniform) in an average economy seat (25K aisle, no extra legroom) on an average mid-afternoon flight from Newark to Houston. So how does one reconcile the vast dissimilarity between my flight Friday Houston/Newark and the one today Newark/Houston? Again, I want to see this situation from the perspective of the paying customer.

In my own adventures in consumerism, I have realistic expectations about the service experience. I don't believe that anyone truly expects "over the top service" from any business on every service occasion. The very expectation of such a thing would likely render attaining it impossible. The Disney Corporation is often credited with the "wow" approach to customer service: deliver something more than the customer/guest expects. But it seems our society is run by the "Marketing Department" and we have been numbed into skepticism by those who over promise and under deliver. It seems to me that the Disney approach is just common sense and the opposite of the "marketing department" approach: under promise and over deliver. But as a baseline and above all else, CONSISTENTLY provide the product or service as promised. CONSISTENTLY!

Which brings me to the troubling aspect of today's flight: I feel as though the "tone pendulum" has traveled full swing from last Friday's flight to today's. While the service and "tone" of today's flight experience were faultless (and not egregiously "over the top" which can be off-putting), they illustrate only too clearly to me, the customer/observer, that we are consistent only in our inconsistency.

Consistent inconsistency.

Isolating a problem is usually the first step toward solving it. But any thought of solution will have to wait for another day...it's been a long time since my 0700 wake-up call in Berlin (just now, it's 2300 Berlin time.)

Think I'll spend the rest of the flight dreaming that they'll all be like this one from now on!

"Sweet dreams" from the guy in 25K.

Sunday, April 7, 2013


Brandenburg Gate seen from the West, looking East.

East and West have played such important roles in the recent history of this fascinating city. Seminal events of the modern era took place in the nooks and crannies of the newly-vibrant metropolis. It all seems so at odds with modern Berlin but some of the most sinister and anxiety-provoking institutions of all time were birthed or found fertile ground here: the Nazi party, Fascism, Gestapo, SS, Stasi, Stormtrooper, Black Shirts, Brown Shirts, Swastika (originally a benign, positive symbol with roots in Buddhism), the Third Reich, der Fuhrer, Aryanism, "extermination", ethnic cleansing. The term "nationalism" reached a connotative nadir under the regime whose heart beat in Berlin.

Here, places became characters with leading roles on the world stage. Yet oddly, on a brisk sunny day in April 2013, those key characters sit silently and smugly defy us to ignore or forget the monumentality of the lessons they taught.

"Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it."

My first impression of the city, the characters, both human and inanimate, the "vibe" of it all?

Fascinating. Utterly fascinating

And as I watched the late news from BBC1 before retiring, did I see prophetic echoes of the Third Reich yet in other parts of our world?: Goose-stepping troops fronted by a borderline personality who leads an "also-ran" Nation with delusions of grandeur. Unfortunately, this ticking time-bomb has limited range nuclear capabilities.

Sakura. 25 degrees F in Berlin. Makes springtime in Japan seem almost balmy (which it isn't!)

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Luxury Hotel Layovers

It's a glamorous life! Made even more so by a 2am arrival at a luxury hotel room.

My second floor room has a lovely view and jarring audio: every 20-30 minutes, around the clock, this "thing" roars to life. I don't know what it does, but I pray that it serves SOME critical purpose!

Springtime "snowfall". Sakura.

To See Yourself through the Eyes of Another

What an interesting month April is promising to be! In addition to flying to a city that I've never before visited, I am "deadheading" all month to and from Newark, where the Berlin flight originates. Isn't "deadheading" an interesting word?

Essentially, deadheading is riding as a passenger in order to be positioned to operate a trip. Unlike traveling standby on my own during time off, deadheading is confirmed, positive space. In fact, deadhead (or DH) crew have "must ride" status, meaning that they will displace revenue passengers, if necessary. In certain circumstances, as happened yesterday, a DH crewmember can be "converted" to work the flight if operationally required. But if this happens, the DH crew are converted in REVERSE seniority order, most junior first. For pay purposes, a DH assignment is paid at exactly the same rate as any other work assignment. Although it may seem like a paid "joyride", DH duty carries plenty of restrictions about what a crewmember can and cannot do.

One of the most interesting aspects of DH to me is that I have the opportunity to see myself, my colleagues, my company as others must see us. What a conglomeration of humanity marches, slogs, strides, sometimes stumbles into the cabin of a commercial aircraft! While I don't have insight into the unique perspective that each of them brings onboard, I share with them there bird's eye view of the "face" of my company. And what conclusions do I draw?

1. Terminal & gate area: Modern, efficient-looking, seating a little crowded, not really welcoming or anxiety-relieving.

2. Aircraft (737-800): Modern-looking, CLEAN, seating a little crowded, confined, attractive, professional, safe.

3. Technology & entertainment: Ultra-modern, choices, pricey, no wifi?, high quality, functional, value.

4. Food & beverage: Variety, pricey, sufficient, available (2 complete bar services + one water service on this 3 hour flight).

5.. Staff: YOUNG, attractive, indifferent. During the pre-departure exit row briefing, the assigned F/A noticed a young man who was too young to sit in the exit row. She resolved the situation competently and professionally with a minimum of fuss or anxiety.

Overall impression: The millions spent on facilities, technology, aircraft, entertainment, food & beverage and upkeep all paled in the light of the cabin crew's utter indifference. Perhaps their approach to this flight could be characterized as "uber-professional", that they were above the role that they were there to perform. I am not sure what the appropriate characterization would be but it was palpable and set the tone.

Example: During the safety demonstration video, all cabin crew are mandated to be in the aisle at their "demo position", facing customers and invoking the look of a safety authority. Two flight attendants were in my sightline: one was animatedly chatting with a colleague who was standing behind a bulkhead out of view and the other was staring at the floor, looking as if she'd just learned her childhood pet had died, for the entirety of the video. And the tone was SET!

Lesson learned: For all of our professional prowess, trappings of safety & efficiency, thorough completion of our mandated duties, NOTHING supersedes the warmth & welcome of a genuine smile, desire to serve, and friendly approachability. I cannot fault the crew on yesterday's DH flight in any technical aspect of the completion of their duties.

Alas, I can also truthfully say that, all things being equal, where is the paying customer's reason to choose us over our competition? We all offer essentially the same amenities at essentially the same price. How do you make YOUR buying decisions? Do friendly, approachable, warm, welcoming staff make a difference?

Who "sets the tone", the customer or the crew?

Friday, April 5, 2013


A Friend in Need...

Several weeks ago, a colleague from my Houston domicile (base) fell vicitim to a tragic illness while on a layover in Frankfurt, Germany.  For reasons still unknown, Randy* lost consciousness while inside the layover hotel elevator and fell, striking his head and causing himself a grievous injury.  When he was discovered, he was still unconscious and rushed to a nearby hospital for care where he remains in a critical care unit.

I'm sure it was a most difficult trip home for the remainder of his crew, concerned for his welfare, still unsure of the severity of his injury and with no real assurance that he would survive the calamity.  But airline crew don't really have a choice in such circumstances, the trip assignment must be completed.  Thankfully, the pervasive nature of social media alerted the remainder of our domicile as to his circumstances and the next Frankfurt layover crew picked up where our friend's crew was compelled to leave off.  Visits, cookies, cards, good wishes:  if these have healing power, our colleague should be healthy by now!  But he isn't.

Our airline employer arranged to have Randy's family members transported to Frankfurt to see to his care and to provide family support for his convalescence.  Thousands of miles from home and without warning, Randy's family is now struggling to cope with these incomprehensible circumstances and the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that they present.  As if to add insult to injury, my domicile flew it's last Frankfurt layover on March 31st.  The Frankfurt domicile of our recently merged company began flying the Houston-Frankfurt trip in the OPPOSITE direction (with a Houston layover) on April 1st extenuating our ability to provide direct support and comfort to our friend!  What a great time for the "cavalry" to crest the hill with support and supplies, no?  And exactly who would the cavalry be in this situation?

I'm heartened to say that our NEW friends and colleagues from the "other side" of this merger have stepped up to fill the gap.  A combination of Frankfurt domicile management staff, company & union EAP (Employee Assistance) staff and concerned Frankfurt-based flight attendants (one of whom co-Admins a Facebook group with me) are involved in supporting Randy and his family.  What a comfort to ALL of us to know that we can depend on each other in time of crisis!

A certain amount of fear, rancor, speculation arises from the merger of two gigantic companies (maybe small ones too, but the big ones are my current area of expertise.)  The relief provided by friends yet unmet, faces yet unseen, voices unheard, goes a long way to alleviate the anxiety of such undertakings.

I understand that Randy is making steady improvement:  he has regained consciousness, has begun to speak and has been moved to a lower level of care area of the hospital.  Now the seemingly endless slog of convalescence and recovery begins in earnest!  Hours upon days upon weeks in a hospital bed in a foreign country surrounded by medical professionals whose first language is NOT English, family coming and going as their own lives warrant.  (As I type, I am helping coordinate an effort to get Randy some "time passing" material for the remainder of his hospital stay with my Frankfurt-based co-Admin who has Houston layovers this month!)

I've always assumed the adage was, "A friend in need is a friend indeed."

Now, I'm quite sure that it's acutally, "A friend in need is a friend in deed."

Randy is a very fortunate man!  We are all so fortunate to have our new airline FAMILY.

(*for privacy reasons, I have substituted the name "Randy" in my recounting of events.)

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Gifts from the Orient...

A few weeks ago, my crew, 250 or so customers and I "diverted" to Yokota Air Base, Japan when winds at our destination airport (Tokyo/Narita) exceeded our landing limits.  While we only spent a couple of hours at Yokota, that visit made an impression on all of us who interacted with the expatriate Americans based there. Those wonderful folks are passing along photographic "gifts" of springtime in Japan.  Of course, the sakura (cherry tree) is front-and-center in those photos.

They are exquisite and I want to share them with you, Dear Reader...

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

New Challenges...New Opportunities

Perhaps you've heard the news, "Boeing 787 grounded worldwide!".

Since my employer is the first US-based operator of this revolutionary new aircraft, our fleet of 6 (8 by the end of the year if deliveries are resumed) is directly affected:  5 are currently parked in a remote area at Houston Intercontinental Airport and their lonely-looking sibling is the "red-headed stepchild" among a combination of 30 or so Japanese cousins (ANA and Japan Airlines) at Tokyo's Narita International Airport.  You might ponder, "what's the big deal?  It's just 6 airplanes."  Those 6 airplanes had an integral role in the near-term and long-term growth plans of my airline and my Houston/International-based peers and I are DIRECTLY affected by the fallout of their grounding.

Our base is unique in that we were to operate ALL of the scheduled services of these 6 aircraft.  Roughly speaking, that's 11 flight attendants x 6 aircraft x 7 days a week and services ranging from Lagos, Nigeria to Amsterdam, London, Tokyo and Shanghai.  From my base's perspective, it is a very big deal!  Almost 50% of us have gone onto "reserve" (on call) status for the past two months, since there isn't enough scheduled flying to create a normal level of "hard" lines of time.  Some folks with 25 years of seniority are now "on call" for the first time in decades.

One temporary relief solution that the company has employed is to "force" flying normally accomplished by other bases into our base.  Many of us will be working flights from Houston to other "hub" cities like Washington, D.C./Dulles or NY/Newark.  Alternatively, we are positioned to these cities by "deadheading" (riding as passengers) which is considered a normal work assignment and for which, we receive full pay.  Once staged as required, we will operate to cities we wouldn't normally serve from our Houston home:  Berlin (Tegel), Brussels, Dublin.  So, in a manner of speaking, the 787 debacle is resulting in some extraordinary opportunities.

My partner, Philip, and I are heading to Newark tomorrow to start our first assignment to Berlin.  Being a history buff, the prospects of exploring the city that was a central character in the saga of Nazi Germany is beyond tantalizing.  I recently completed a fascinating "novelistic history" from the perspective of William Dodd, pre-War US Ambassador to Germany.   In the Garden of Beats was written by Erik Larson and the city of Berlin is a featured player.  Post-WWII, Berlin's role as center-stage for East-West drama intensified and reached a crescendo with the fall of the Berlin Wall in the Reagan-Gorbachev era.  Post-reunification Berlin has reclaimed its position as national capital and center of German life.  I am excited to explore landmarks whose names have become so familiar.

When one door closes, another one opens.  Stay tuned!

Seymour's Epilogue

The ocicat breed is known for its athleticism and very "canine" behaviors; it's the cat that behaves like and seems to think that it is a dog.  Seymour was no exception.

He loved to play "fetch" with a favorite pompom, to always be with you but never "need" you, to be vigilant of strangers and protective of "his people", jealous of his toys etc.  Whenever a door opened to the outdoors, he considered it his personal invitation to go on a "walkabout" and visit neighbors...sometimes BLOCKS away...until he found just the right new people to befriend.  We learned early on to add a "Hello, I am Seymour" tag with our phone number to his collar and got SO many late night calls, "are you missing a really big cat?"

His athletic abilities were astounding.  Once, while seated on his hind quarters, he spotted a Texas-sized mosquito that was hovering above the drapery rod, near the ceiling.  Defying credulity, Seymour lept from that seated position and snagged the mosquito (surprising the mosquito almost as much as he did me!)

Seymour is resting now with some of his favorite, well-worn toys:  including an effigy of a former president whom he loved to toss high into the air and snag again before he hit the ground.

There will be other pets.  There ARE other pets.  But there will never be another Seymour.

(Thank you for indulging my bout of emotion.  As many will attest, I'm not often prone to it..some say I'm totally immune.  But every once in a while, we ALL cross paths with something so powerful that it challenges our "reality" and blurs our vision so that we can no longer type.  It's just one of the worthwhile dimensions of life that help us to complete our journey.  Why would anyone want to miss out on it?)

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Rainbow Bridge

All 250, or so, of us arrive on the airplane bringing our reality, our life experience, our "baggage" with us. No two of us come from exactly the same place, yet we share an amazingly intimate time and space together. ..."Civility" compels us to play nice, to be on our best behavior while circumstances conspire to have us do just the opposite.

No doubt, I was not alone when I arrived on ship 15 yesterday carrying a burden from my personal life; a burden that despite my best attempts, kept asserting itself into my consciousness as I offered drinks and Yakiniku Beef from Houston to Tokyo. When Renee, a long-time friend whom I know to be kind and compassionate, asked about my partner Philip and what was happening in our lives, I shared that we were facing the ominous, momentous decision of euthanizing a beloved pet. I suppose I knew how Renee would respond and that's why I shared the news with her. Fully in-tune with our plight, Renee recounted the simplest, most comforting story imaginable:

When a pet dies, its soul goes to a "rainbow bridge" to wait. It lingers there, at the foot of the bridge looking back for you, its beloved master. When your time comes, you will join him or her at the bridge and cross over together.

We are each on our own path through life. I believe that those paths often cross for a reason. Renee provided what I needed when I needed it yesterday. It is my obligation to acknowledge it and pass it on.

In memory of Seymour, a noble friend and companion...


Civility in Airline Travel

I recently shared the story of a particularly insightful colleague whose concept it is to recognize and reward extraordinary customers onboard our aircraft.  You know the ones:  the gentleman who assists a lady stowing her bag, the frequent flyer customer who vacates his upgraded seat for a returning serviceman or woman, the altruistic individual who voluntarily relinquishes a more desirable seat so that a family can sit together.  While these examples of altruism are becoming more and more rare, they DO still occur.  I was feeling quite bullish on the whole idea when, this morning, I read the following posted in a high-traffic Facebook group comprised mostly of flight attendants for my airline (almost 6000 memebers):

"Guy gets on the plane and threw his jacket at me. It landed over my head like I was a coat stand.

So I took it off and threw it out the door.

... Mr Charming then complains to the captain who is coming out of the forward loo (while the aforementioned garment is still lying on the jetty).

Captain asks Mr Charming what he learned from throwing his jacket at me.

Mr Charming replies "they shouldn't let nasty fags on planes"

Captain says "Well you'd better get off then because there are two of us on here, Adam and me, and I'm guessing Adam feels the same as me: we don't want you on here. So get off"

Mr Charming walks up jetty and turns round to see captain blowing him a goodbye kiss.

Note to reader: Captain is straight and is just a really nice guy who always sticks up for us."

When I "amplified" my positive-thinking colleague's idea of promoting the positive in another social media group and characterized it as "promoting civility in travel", I was soundly castigated.  The term "civility" was deemed overly harsh by some of my peers.  Yet, when I consider the circumstances of the admittedly third-hand anecdote above, I think that "civility", or the lack thereof, is the perfect characterization for the here and now.  As if to provide me the ideal first-person insight into our declining civility on airplanes (and everywhre else, for that matter), a customer on my flight yesterday illustrates my point:

When working in the economy cabin, I position myself forward of the Door 3 bulkhead, center, so that I can make eye contact with as many customers as possible during boarding.  After only a trickle of our premium class customers had boarded, I noticed a rather peculiar-looking fellow very determinedly making his way down the aisle toward me.  His aim was clear:  to have my full attention before I became "distracted" by anyone or anything else.  My usual smile and "Good morning.  Welcome."  were met without acknowledgement, he immediately launched into, "I'm going to change clothes and I'll need you to get a hanger for me and hang these clothes (those which he was wearing at the moment) in the closet."  I'm not completely sure where my response came from but it was instantaneous (I think I had a "sense" about his level of need just from his purposeful walk toward me.)  "While I don't have those amenities to offer in economy, I'll be happy to see if we can accommodate you after all of our premium customers have boarded...assuming we still have hangers and closet space remaining."  Obviously disappointed at being deflected, he turned away and proceeded on to his exit row seat in the D zone.  I continued greeting, monitoring, assisting the other 200+ customers in my assigned cabin and momentarily put our interaction aside.

I did not know but could have guessed that mine was just the first of many "unusual" interactions the crew would have with this customer over the next 14 hours:  his demand of our galley FA that he receive a premium class salad as he was diabetic and economy salads were just not healthy enough to meet his dietary need, the fact that he changed his cothing AT HIS SEAT (jacket, shirt, tie, pants, shoes, everything but foundation garments) while others were boarding around him, he did somehow manage to prevail on a colleague to receive a hanger and space from our premium class closet, during the first beverage service he commandeered an entire bottle of water for his own use (we are not provided individual bottles for economy customers), he harangued different crewmembers at different times for practically all of the components of the premium cabin service (amenity kit, eyeshades, slippers, etc.) and did so suggesting that he had been solicited by the CEO of our company to provide feedback on his inflight experiences, a thinly veiled threat to accommodate him, or else.  He identified himself to multiple crew as a member of our airline's highest tier of frequent fliers for whom, it is widely know, we "pull out all the stops."  That one point alone is a documentable untruth.  I have learned since arriving in Japan, that many of his assertions were patently false or dramatically exaggerated.

Are these examples of CIVIL behavior?

I mean this rather extreme example to be less an indictment of an individual and more an illustration of the extremes to which unCIVIL behavior can reach.

What ever happened to the concept of "shame"?  When did we stop taking responsibility for our actions and behaviors and the impact that they have on those around us?  Welcome to the age of the narcissist!  (Narcissists aren't generally known for their civility.)