Monday, April 7, 2014

My Deadhead Odyssey

I dedicate this blogpost to my friend Seth Miller and all the "road warriors" for whom my experience today is just another day at the office.  All day long, I found myself thinking, "what would Seth do?"  (I'm happy to say that I didn't follow what I was certain to be his advice on some very key points; alcohol consumption, for one.)

Toward the end of March, I traded my scheduled Tokyo trip on April 9th with a colleague who was to fly April 6th.  The move would strategically allow Philip and me more time to get to Pensacola to check on the progress of our "retirement project" at Navy Point.  The early Tokyo flight, for which I traded, is a new frequency that just started on April 1st.  When I learned several days ago that our trip's originating flight leg was cancelled and that we would be "deadheading" (deadheading is when a crewmember is paid to ride as a passenger in order to cover a trip) to Narita (Narita is the larger of the 2 major airports serving Tokyo.  It is also the name of a small town nearby, housing a well-known Buddhist temple), it certainly changed the complexion of my decision to trade.  Houston-Narita is a +/- 14 hour non-stop flight.  Though I've worked it often, I've never been a passenger on such a long flight before.  Just imagine, all the things I hate most about flying as a passenger (confinement, sitting for extended periods, lack of control, confinement, boredom, confinement, dehydration, mind-numbing fatigue, confinement, etc) would be extenuated to a degree that I'd hoped never to experience.  This was to be just another example of the sage thoughts of my first Flight Attendant supervisor, "There are 2 kinds of people:  those who have and those who are going to..."

Charged batteries on the PEDs, shelf-stable snacks, a lumbar support pillow, hot water bottle, ice bag, and a suspension of dread accompanied me to my EconomyPlus aisle seat on flight 7 this morning.  22C was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, as I'd been attempting to change to an aisle seat ever since learning that I would be deadheading.  Crew Scheduling assigned every crewmember a window seat, a situation ill-suited to my 54 year-old male physiology.  (Of course, every seat on the flight would be full and then some...since our earlier flight had cancelled and those customers must also be re-accommodated.)  I was quickly joined by another Flight Attendant in 22A whom I'd never met and we anticipated the pending arrival of our middle seat seatmate.  It was just a matter of time, wasn't it?

Not today!  The seat map on our airline's mobile "app" showed that 22B would be occupied but that hapless individual never showed.  What good fortune!  As is so often the case, our good fortune was fleeting.  A "person of size" assigned 2-3 rows ahead of us was in possession of a 30-35" wide posterior which simply did not conform to the limits of our 18" wide EconomyPlus seats  (EconomyPlus offers 4-5" additional legroom but no additional width).  When the working Service Manager, my friend Jamie, approached in the company of the gate agent, I foresaw what would be asked of me.  The gentleman of size, seatbelt extender in hand, followed them closely as they slowed and hovered near my seat.  Jamie bent to ask if I would change seats, as much to relieve the poor lady in 20B as to accommodate the subject genetleman's size with the additional space of the vacant center seat in my row.  "Of course.  I'm happy to help you, Jamie."  And I am.  How many times have I been faced with a similar predicament, only to make inquiry after fruitless entreaty of those simply to self-important to be of assistance?  The gentleman was exceedingly grateful, as was the young woman who was to be my future seatmate and who now recovered the full use of her seat.  The prospect of 13 hours, 22 minutes "sharing" her 18" wide B seat was obviously not terribly appealing to her.

Our boarding was delayed somewhat by the maintenance department as they finished resolving one of the niggling little issues that can and do plague an intercontinental airliner.  The fact that our flight was destined for Japan and that many of today's passengers were, in fact, Japanese, aided us in mitigating the impact of that delay.  The Japanese are an extraordinarily disciplined people.  As one might expect, boarding was orderly and quick.  With the possible exception of my reseating experience, there was little to slow down what can be a cumbersome and frustrating process.  When I first flew to Japan, from Hawaii, in the 1980s, I was struck by the culture of discipline and the value that its practitioners place on order.  A full 747 could be boarded in a fraction of the time that the process would take to other destinations.  And I used to joke that flights to and from Tokyo were predictable:  when the flight landed 8-10 hours after departure, the lavatories were cleaner and more orderly than they had been when freshly serviced.  

My colleagues in the cabin today were friendly and helpful during boarding, traits which tend to "ratchet down" the air of anxiety and stress that often accompanies this critical phase of a flight.  The aircraft itself appeared tidy, spacious, well-thought-out and comfortable, I noticed from a passenger perspective.  Cleanliness is a critical component to that all-important first impression.  The Service Manager's announcements and those of the designated Japanese speaker were EXCELLENT:  calm, unemphatic, well-toned and enunciated, the epitome of professional.  It was clear that the ISM, Jamie, did not deviate from the company's announcement script and her delivery was perfect, in my estimation.  (Whether or not the Japanese speaker deviated from script, I really couldn't say.)

I felt a certain pride as the crew were called to their positions in the aisle for the video safety demonstration.  They exuded the unmistakable air of assuredness and comfort of place and function.  The video began, its tone underscored by RHAPSODY IN BLUE.   I thought to myself, "if I didn't hear, see and participate in this day-in and day-out, I would find it all to be truly impressive."  It impressed me anyway!

13 hours, 22 minutes from take off to touchdown today.   Wow, even as I write this, I glance up and learn that we have 12 hours, 24 minutes remaining.  After 30 years of flying, it is still almost unfathomable to me that a vessel larger than my 2200 sq foot home, weighing hundreds of thousands of pounds and accommodating 267 passengers, their belongings and supplies for their needs for an entire day can leave the ground under its own power and stay aloft for such an extended period of time!  My grandfather, Harold Reece, who taught science in the public schools of North Georgia for nearly 50 years would be incredulous.

As I looked up from my vegetarian lunch tray of Chana (chickpeak) Massala (the option today was an Asian-inspired chicken dish) I noticed that AIRSHOW precisely predicted that we were exactly 12 hours from arrival at Narita.  The cabin crew has been quite efficient to deliver and recover a first round of drinks, lunch and second drinks in an hour and 22 minutes since takeoff.  A third lunch choice, tradttionally a beef option, was eliminated by my airline employer at the beginning of April, likely for cost reasons.  Of course, marketing the decision as being "health friendly" by only offering chicken and vegetarian entrees is the purported  rationale.  Ours is a nation, a society locked in the throes of an epidemic of obesity.  In stark contrast, most Asian cultures manifest a self-discipline that puts them at odds with issues of overweight.  That contrast is underscored by the populous of today's flight.

Now, at 32,000 feet with 5938 miles remaining to fly, the truly tedious part of the trip truly begins.  The crew is clearing the cabin from the prescribed 1st service, my fellow travellers and I are setting in, and somewhere near the four corners of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, I notice that the remaining 11 hours, 23 minutes will take us almost directly over Salt Lake City, Northeastern Nevada, "coasting out" over Northwestern Oregon on a northwesterly arc which traverses the Aleutian Island chain before gently turning to the Southwest, toward landfall over Eastern Honshu, the island upon which Tokyo is located.  Near the midpoint of our flight, the crew will over a sandwich and ice cream service with beverages and, shortly before landing in Japan, another hot meal, a brunch, and final beverage.

I normally have NO problem filling time and space with words.  Today, you may be relieved to learn, will likely be an exception!  This former "Continental" Boeing 777-200ER offers hours and hours of individually-controlled seatback video programming in addition to the AIRSHOW, to which I keep referring.  Undoubtedly, I will spend some of my "free" time today engrossed in such mindlessness, noise-cancelling headphones assuring that I am undisturbed by others, even in such unnatural proximity.  (I purposefully haven't indulged as yet because I am annoyed by just how effective the noise-cancelling headphones are when I'm a working crewmember and attempt to interact with those who are blissfully unaware.)  Even with my poor hearing, I want to at least be unencumbered when someone attempts to interact with me.

I can't help noticing that in the EconomyPlus section of the cabin, a substantial number of our customers are wearing headphones of the "BOSE" variety; expensive and effective.  Of course, there's quite a lot to be said about effective noise reduction.  DISCOVER magazine published a fascinating article about the fatigue-inducing and -perpetuating effects of constant noise.  Noise is often overlooked for the degree to which it contributes to fatigue and stress, especially in travel.  I'm quite conscious of it at this moment as the low-frequency droning of the engines is superseded only by the high-pitched "ringing" in my ears (tinitis) that I've suffered for the last 15-20 years, no doubt, a by-product of my vocation.

Hours drag....

With less than 500 miles to go, the crew turns up the cabin lights for the pre-arrival brunch service.  In the interim, I have screened 4 feature-length films, 2 recent releases and 2 classics, along with 2 vintage episodes of SEX AND THE CITY.  My ears are aching from the noise-reduction earbuds I've been using, my right foot is aching where I fractured a metatarsal a few years back, and both legs have a general "numb" feeling which I suspect is the result of extended sitting compressing my lower spine (my theory based on nothing but my opinion.)  As with the mid-flight sandwich and ice cream, I decline the food offered in favor of 1/2 a 12" subway sandwich that I bought in Houston which has pretty much surpassed it's "use by" date/time.  As they clear the cabin, the crew offers arrival documents for those remaining in Japan and we receive an update on our ETA from the cockpit as we start the gradual descent from 36,000 feet.

Once the aisle is somewhat clear, I make my 11th and final productive visit to the onboard facility.  I consciously made these visitis at regular intervals, as much for the preservation of the integrity of my lower back as for the other relief provided.  I consumed just over 2 liters of water during the flight:  more than some but much less than some colleagues.  Dehydration, like ambient noise, is the constant nemesis of the 21st century air traveler.  Even the most frequent flyers, those who sport the expensive BOSE noise-cancelling headphones, underestimate the beneficial effects of adequate hydration in flight.  

Dehydration, noise, pressurization and poor ambient oxygen concentration all conspire to overwhelm one's state of well-being on extended flights.  They are supplemented in this battle by high-fat, high-sodium onboard food offerings.  One seldom arrives at his/her destination after a flight of this duration feeling rested, refreshed, or even moderately healthy.

Upon arrival at our Narita layover hotel at around 4pm local time (2am Houston time), a 6 hour nap on my stomach helped to somewhat restore the lordosis I'd sacrificed to my Economy seat.  Philip and I met at the hotel gym at half past midnight for an hour's workout.  We had dinner together (healthy options brought from home) afterward, picnic style.  Now, shortly before 4am local, I'm ready for another nap before working the flight home later this afternoon.

When offered the chance to work a flight of this length or deadhead, I think I'll take the EASY option:  I'll WORK every time!  It's highly likely that the next time I work the Houston-Tokyo trip, I'll be extra sympathetic to the situations of those in my charge.  The crew on today's flight set the bar high, indeed.

Thank you to my colleagues, the Flight Attendants of flight 7 IAHNRT 6APR!


  1. I loved this! Felt like I was right there with you the whole time. I agree working is far more fun and less exhausting than flying as a passenger. Gives you a reminder of just how uncomfortable it is to sit in such a cramped space for such a long time. I often thought that as a flight attendant I should fly as a passenger every once in awhile just to be more understanding. You forget when you are working and chatting with your crew members, just how very long the day is for those who are paying to ride. I will say that I am super impressed that you made it to the gym after such a long day. I never made it to the gym in NRT one single time. A gal needs her beauty sleep, especially when you are old enough to have over 25 years of seniority. My best to Phillip, I miss him.Really enjoyed this Tony. Thanks!

  2. I don't really drink that much on board, though still probably more than I should.

    And you actually did do pretty much what I would. Watch the moving map, keeping track of where we are and where we're going. Slip in a movie (usually from the "classics" selection) here or there and nap a bit.

    And I don't blame you for preferring to work it. Being up and having something to do - even if it is work - is almost always better than sitting there and knowing you just have to stay put.

    LGA-IAD-FRA-HAM//HAM-STR this week (in HAM now). Cheers!


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