Tuesday, December 23, 2014


I needed 3 cups of firm, tart apples for a cake recipe that I haven't tasted in over 40 years. I stopped into the nearest market to pick some up. The market just happened to be a "cost plus" wholesaler. 

I collected my 3lb bag of "Granny Smiths" and queued at the customer service counter behind 1 other patron to pay. I couldn't help but hear the conversation between the patron and staff member.  It was clear that neither was enjoying what most of us would describe as prosperity in their lives. "My man and all my kids are with me. My place is decorated from bottom to top. Of course, I couldn't afford to do much but my mom is helping out", said the staffer. 

The patron matched her, "I'm just so lucky that my mom is still with us now. We didn't expect her to be."

In spite of the difficulties and obstacles that both faced 2 days before Christmas, I could best describe them as ebullient, full of the joy of the season. "My best wishes for a Merry Christmas!" And "please remember me to your mom" were how they parted. 

When I stepped to the counter, I was greeted with the same warmth and familiarity, as was the patron who followed me, I noticed. 

Having just yesterday left The Woodlands, TX for the drive down, I couldn't help but recall how sterile it felt when I ventured out there to shop last week, how cold. If ever a place could be associated with prosperity and success, The Woodlands could.  

It's not how much you have. It's what you make of what you've got; appreciation. 

What a special little place this is!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Vespers: Choral Evensong

The setting of the Sun on a wintry day in the far north is almost anti-climactic. If it's never fully light, of what significance is the early darkness?

Upon entering sanctuary, the warm smell of incense hangs in the air. The flickering of candles subtly illuminates the darkness within, punctuated by the shimmering reflections of gilt, all around. The ambient chill is held in abeyance by the warmth of atmosphere.  Calm. 

A single voice rises, pitch-perfect. Two-score voices respond, in velvety harmony.  Underscoring the melody and harmony, the colossal organ speaks profoundly of that which is mightier than man. The liturgy in song is as remarkable as it is rare.  The near-perfect acoustics of the nave and apse conspire to transport the spirit to a heavenly place:  a truly altered state. 

For a fraction of an hour, in one small space, fewer than a hundred brothers and sisters live and breathe in the perfect peace of faith. 

"For whenever two or more of you are gathered in my name..."

May the peace of the season be upon you, now and always. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Why can't I? Ch 3

"You can cancel the main for 8D.  He's calling it a night.", Scott said as he rounded the corner into the galley.  8E had long since withdrawn from the service and surrendered to slumber, now that all of the drama and uncertainty of our rolling delay and aircraft swap were behind us.  At this point, their holiday plans were hinging on whether or not Captain Hill could make good on his promise to "fly the paint off of this bird" and get us to AMS quickly.

Our 1545 scheduled departure had morphed into an actual time of 1815; significantly tardy but well done, all things considered.  The not-knowing is what really ramps up anxieties:  can we/can't we, will we/won't we, should we/shouldn't we.  Of course, anxiety therapy is the REAL job of the 21st century airline professional.  Our marketing department is quite successful in raising our customers' expectations to spectacularly unrealistic heights.  Then we, in the operation, are tasked with tempering and managing those expectations, in light of the realities of machinery, weather, political instability, global terrorism, etc.

How do cogent, successful human beings become so detached from reality anyway?  Are we really so susceptible to the outrageousness of hype?  We WANT to believe that the implausible is possible.

At breakfast time, the atmosphere in the cabin was perceptibly "lighter".  Captain Hill was able to fulfill his speed commitment and it looked as though we would be arriving at 0915lcl, only about an hour past our scheduled arrival.  After service, when everything was buttoned up for landing, I put on my jacket to say good-bye to our guests.

"It was our pleasure to serve you today.  I hope that everything was satisfactory and that we'll see you again soon.  Thank you for flying UNITED."  The folks seldom have much to say after the short night's rest but feedback this morning was positive.  "Nice job."  "This could have been so much worse."  "Wow, how did we make up so much time?"

When I arrived at row 8, I wasn't sure what to expect.  Both D and E had been unconscious most of the flight. Now was the time for the opera anxiety to ramp up again, in light of their planned connection.  8D was smiling and gracious, as one might expect.  But, other than when expressing outright anger, 8E has one of those "neutral" faces that is almost impossible to read.  Who knew what was going on behind those intense eyes?

"Gentlemen, have you consulted united.com about our progress?"  8D, "Yes.  It's almost unbelievable that we're only an hour late.  It looks like we might make it to VIE in time, after all."  "Wonderful.  I'm sure that our GS Representatives in AMS will be waiting for you.  Thanks for your patience and thanks so much for continuing to choose UNITED."

8E, "I wasn't confident in our chances.  You guys really pulled it off tonight.  I want to apologize..." as he extended his hand.  "Mr 8E, I certainly understand.  I didn't take it personally.  Your plans were aggressive; maybe too aggressive.  But it looks like you'll be able to enjoy Der Rozenkavalier, as planned."

A light conversation about the plans that Philip and I had made ensued.  We landed.  Rene, our top-notch GS Rep in AMS took over and, I assume, they all lived happily ever after.  I haven't heard anything to the contrary.

Philip and I did NOT get to Lohengrin, as we'd planned.  Oh well, it's the nature of the business, isn't it?  Instead, we enjoyed a nice supper at a favorite Asian restaurant and a nice stroll, ending up at Grand Hotel Amrath-Amsterdam, an Art Nouveau confection of a building whose history is as fascinating as its architecture and decoration.  But that's another chapter...

In retrospect, as disastrous as this overall scenario must sound, the pieces of the operations puzzle seemed to come together as designed:

Issue:  Rolling delay over a seemingly minor MX issue.  Resolution:  Timely, calming, informative announcements and appropriate crew presence in the cabin allay growing anxiety.

Issue:  MX issue unresolvable.  Resolution:  Replacement aircraft available and ready for crew and customers, already cleaned.  Re-catering accomplished in a timely and competent manner.

Issue:  Customer uncertainty and anxiety.  Resolution:  Again, the announcements were of great help.  Each department handled its component of the irregularity efficiently and in a customer-friendly way.  Both aircraft were WiFi-equipped, so customers could track our progress inflight in real time.

Issue:  Unreasonable expectations (our stock-and-trade)  Resolution:  Calm, confidence, poise, tact and timing.

The End?

Friday, December 5, 2014

Why can't I? Ch 2

"So, what does the GS Desk know that we don't?", he asked. I was thinking exactly the same thing. Our situation must be a little graver than we'd been told. I reassured them both that I'd let them know right away if I learned anything more and quickly finished my welcomes in the rest of the cabin, offering follow-up drinks as I went. (This, too, became an issue as the pre-departure kit had been removed and our liquor was still in bond. Ugh.)
When I returned to the galley, I noticed that a water service had been started in UE. Then Scott, the ISM, stuck his head around the corner and said we should get all of our catering supplies back into the original carts and carriers. It looked as though we would be doing an a/c swap. I began doing just that, fully intending to return to 8D and E to let them know the latest when...
"Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the Captain..."
We were on an aircraft parked at E4. There was another 777 waiting, already cleaned, at E18. Despite 30 years of previous experience to the contrary, what I observed was one of the most orderly and timely widebody aircraft swaps possible. The caterers did an excellent job of quickly, carefully moving our prepped supplies (I didn't lose a drop of milk from either of the 1/3-full cream pitchers!), customers methodically made their way between birds, and the crew was allowed onboard the new plane almost as soon as we arrived at the gate. That NEVER happens!
As we approached E18, I saw 8D and E standing in the Group 1 queue. I tempted fate and walked over, "This is going as smoothly as I've ever seen, gentlemen. I am cautiously optimistic about your chances." 8D smiled, of course. You can imagine the look on 8E! I asked, "May I ask what you have plans to see tonight?"
This is when 8E really surprised me. He turned and had immediate diarrhea of the mouth! "Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss. Curtain is at 2000..." He went on and on about how they'd looked forward to it, how they'd booked and paid online and were continuing an annual tradition of a different opera in a different city each year, etc, etc. I listened as my crew filed past to go onboard. When I had a chance, I mentioned that my partner, Philip, and I were doing practically the same thing in AMS in an annual tradition of our own. "We were planning to see Wagner's Lohengrin but didn't pre-purchase the tickets becasue we didn't want to take a chance..."
The look on his face was priceless. He went from angry to "I knew I shouldn't have been so impetuous.." in a split-second. That was my chance!
"Try not to beat yourself up about it. We're making good progress here. Looks like we might not be as late as we thought!" All the while I was thinking, "Who in their right mind would book and pay for something important and expensive scheduled within a few hours after an arrival from an international CONNECTION?!"
"Well, I'll see you onboard in a few minutes." With that, 8E smiled. It wasn't a big, all-is-well-with-the-world-smile, but it was a good start.
To be continued...

Thursday, December 4, 2014

"I can't do that..." Ch 1

"There's no way I could ever/would ever do that!"  How many times has that thought crossed my mind when someone has suggested I try some new concept or approach at work?  We get into our routine, into our comfort zone and it becomes very easy to say, "I can't".

Over the last few years, I've been making a more conscious effort to get OUT of my comfort zone.  The more common question for me these days is, "why can't I?"  If you've followed me for a while, you've read about some of my little theories and experiments; some more successful than others.  But the underlying theme is always, "Make our customer feel welcome and valued in the first few minutes and the rest will be easy."

That's a little easier said than done from the B-zone galley of a 777!  Working that position successfully is all about planning and setup.  The key preparations are accomplished during that critical first few minutes of customer arrival onboard.  It's generally unlikely that the B-zone galley Flight Attendant would ever have much face-to-face interaction with customers but especially not during boarding.  Besides, there are 2 Flight Attendants in the aisle whose express purpose is to get folks settled in.  Who needs a third?

A week ago, as our crew gathered for the departure of flight 58 to AMS on our Thanksgiving 5-day trip, I noticed two very nattily dressed gentlemen approach the gate podium, looking anxious and excited.  They consulted with the agent and took spots in the queue for Boarding Group 1.  (Our plane had arrived on-time but was still being cleaned and catered.)  Something about their appearance and energy told me that it wouldn't be the last time I'd see them that afternoon and evening.  I was right.  They were seated in 8D and E, B-zone front and center.

Once the lion's share of boarding was complete, we learned that a seemingly minor maintenance item on one of the cargo doors would likely delay departure for up to 30 minutes.  That lessened my own anxiety level because it meant I would have more time to get things in order.  But as often happens, the "update in 10 minutes" proved not to be promising.  Since most of my tasks were complete already, I put on my jacket and set out to say "hello" to our customers.

When I work premium galley, I'm actually able to do this about 20-30% of the time, circumstances allowing.  "Hi, my name is Tony and I'm the Flight Attendant that you won't be seeing very much this evening.  I'll be working for you in the galley.  If there's anything special that I can do for you, please let me know.  I'm happy to do what I can."  The responses I get can be interesting:  a smile, a laugh, a "thank you" are the most common.  8D and 8E surprised me.

8D was so gracious, his body language was relaxed, he had a smile on his face when he said, "Nice to meet you Tony".  8E was the polar opposite.  His face was red and drawn up in a look so sour it would curdle milk.  "We have pre-paid reservations for the opera in Vienna.  Do you have any idea how long this will be?"

"I don't but this captain is very good about keeping us informed.  I'm sure he'll let us know."

"Well, the Global Services desk has already sent a message that they're protecting us on a flight from AMS to VIE that's 2 hours later than what we booked.  We're not going to make it and our trip will be ruined."