Thursday, January 29, 2015

Airline "Camelot"

In Memory of our Dear Friend, Pam Hart Cole
Requiem Sempiternam

If ever there were a family inextricably linked with Continental Airlines, it was the Hart family. 

Jess Hart was one of Continental's earliest pilots and a personal favorite of airline founder Robert F. Six. Jess was Pam's grandfather.

Jess's son, Pam's father, Bill, grew up in aviation and, predictably, followed in his dad's footsteps and flew as a pilot for Continental. It was there that he met a lovely young hostess, named LaRue Johnson, who is Pam's mom. LaRue is soon to celebrate a birthday at her home in Kansas. She's well into her 90s, I believe.

In a way, in many ways, the Hart family was our "Camelot".  They became part of the company lore.  They epitomized the sheer beauty and glamour of aviation in its heyday.

Pam Hart was born to be a Continental Hostess, Stewardess, Flight Attendant and, as the job evolved, she was each to the "Nth" degree! I say "was" because we lost our beautiful, funny, loving friend a few Februarys ago to cancer. Even today, it seems unbelievable. How could something like cancer happen to Pam?

Earlier today, in social media, I posted a thread containing the pictures of Brandie W. (wearing her original 1969 Continental winter uniform for her retirement trip), Carole H. and Pam. I did so from a memory. When Pam was convalescing at MD Anderson and it was becoming clearer just how hopeless her fight would be, Philip and I drove down to visit and bring flowers or cookies or something. When we knocked and opened the door to Pam's room, there she sat in bed, with her knees drawn up, smiling, laughing, "holding court" with a room full of friends. It might as well have been a debriefing on a layover. But it wasn't. Above all, Pam was the hostess and lady. She knew how to entertain and to enthrall her guests, regardless of circumstance.

Among the gathered friends in her hospital room that day were Brandie and Carole. They were with Pam at the beginning in 1969. They were with her all along her airline journey, they were with her that day in the hospital and, from what I'm told, they never left her side. Along with a more recent but no less loyal friend, Linda B. (retired F/A and Registered Nurse), they pulled in close around Pam to protect, care for and love her any way they could, right until the very end. It was awe-inspiring and heart-breaking at the same time.

It strikes me as highly ironic that at about the same time that the last vestige of our Camelot ceased to be, so did our beloved Continental.  Life imitates Art imitates life.

"Don't let it be forgot that once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known

As Camelot"

Brandie W and Carole H flank Inflight Base Director Diane C who holds the obituary announcement of our friend, Pam on Brandie and Carole's Retirement Day (what very likely would have been Pam's Retirement Day, too).  Brandie is wearing her original 1960s era Continental Airlines winter uniform, the same uniform Pam is wearing in the photo below.

I'd say that 1969 was a very good year for Flight Attendants!

In this photo, Pam wears the "SST" wings.  Continental Airlines was the launch customer for the Boeing SST which was conceived to compete with BAC's Concorde.  The program was subsequently cancelled.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Your number is your number is your number!

"Your number is your number is your number."  How many times have I heard a very senior, now retired, F/A icon and friend say those words?  Our "number" is a critical factor in our Flight Attendant career. 

When "the numbers" were first announced for the Flight Attendant "Early Out" it was surreal!  An unprecedented movement was about to occur at a critical juncture in our airline's history. We would all be affected.  But I don't think we counted on just how affected we would be. 

Wave 1, wave 2...more numbers were announced. The first photos, posts, tributes, and good-byes began to appear.  Suddenly, the numbers had faces, names, personal connections that rendered this movement so profound, both to those going and to those staying.  Why?

Because it's not just numbers that we're talking about. We're talking about our friends. And we love them. And we grieve over the knowledge that we will never share the jumpseat with them again. 

Oh, what a great ride we had, you and I!  We're better for having come this far together. Now, you move on and I "move up".  But I'll never forget you. 

You aren't just a number. You are my dear, dear friend.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A Legacy of Humor

It's 0200 in NRT.  Time for the gym!  But before I go...

A certain 48-year F/A who is soon to be retired was reminiscing in the galley yesterday.  She was working A-zone aisle on a 13+ hour IAH/NRT flight where a very driven businessman was having cappuccino after cappuccino.  Preparing cappuccinos requires a trip to the B-zone galley (which is never conveniently vacant) and a time-consuming, labor-intensive process.  So, she made them all doubles.  The more she made, the more he wanted!

At about the 12-hour mark, it was time to offer the pre-arrival meal service.  Our senior friend was offering coffee and tea from the 1st cart and fully expected to make yet another pilgrimage to B-zone to prepare at least one more cappuccino.  When she arrived at the seat in question and asked, "Would you like coffee or tea?", she got a surprise:

"I'll have a decaf."

Before she could stop or filter herself, her jetlagged brain compelled her to reply with the most natural response imaginable...

"Are you shittin' me?"

At such a moment, there's no greater gift than a customer with a sense of humor.  Fortunately, he had one.

We stand on the shoulders, and great stories, of those who came before us!

Thursday, January 15, 2015


Of all the "big issues" I've faced in my 30+ year aviation career, my airline-employer's  recent embrace of outsourcing jobs traditionally performed by my colleagues is the most troubling to me personally.  It represents a sea change in my industry and has potentially far-reaching effects on my own career as a Flight Attendant.

I suppose outsourcing by airlines started, in earnest, with the "off-shoring" of call center work, a practice that is quite common with many American customer service companies.  Phone calls traditionally handled by airline employees at domestic call centers were efficiently transferred to call centers in third-world countries where English is commonly spoken and the labor to handle those calls is available for pennies on the dollar when compared to American labor costs.  Customers complained, but took advantage of the savings realized in the moderated pricing that resulted.  In fact, I'm wondering if the "WalMartization", as it's commonly known, of America has driven the process of outsourcing.  Consumers want what they want and are accustomed to receiving it at the price they want to pay.  Businesses feel the pressure to compete with similar businesses and in "the rush to the bottom", outsourcing is the predictable result.  

Just last year, my airline-employer, in an effort to keep costs in line with a huge competitor, announced that approximately 600 customer service jobs at smaller airport stations primarily served by small regional aircraft would be outsourced.  Jobs traditionally performed by union-represented, well-trained, skilled, seasoned colleagues were put out to the lowest bidder.  Contractors providing "lowest common denominator" labor fought for the contract.  The jobs were filled by an unskilled labor force that would normally be found in the very lowest paying jobs in any community:  minimum wages, no benefits.  The company achieves the desired cost of labor, the contractor scores a windfall from the contract, the consumer enjoys moderated pricing for our product.  But that product suffers as a result.

I've seen the result firsthand at a small regional airport on the gulf coast.  When I first started frequenting the airport, all labor was provided by my airline colleagues.  The experience was consistent with what one would receive at any other station staffed by my airline-employed co-workers; consistent with even the largest stations.  Since the change to outsourced labor, the changes are more than noticeable.  There's no "ownership" of the customer experience.  Uniforms are not those of my employer but are those of the contractor.  Customer interactions are curt, often bordering on rude with a distinct air of "I don't care".   Product knowledge and skill levels have likely suffered most.  During a creeping delay last summer, I sat across the hall from the gate podium and watched the poor contract agent make an earnest attempt to inform and help anxious customers.  Unfortunately, his lack of skills and lack of knowledge about the most basic questions ("I'll miss my connection in XXX, what should I do?") yielded a lamentable result.  The agent absorbed and magnified the customers' frustration and eventually snapped.  The resulting Gate lobby announcement, made over a loud speaker that could be heard throughout the airport, was hostile, embarrassing, unprofessional and demonstrated the announcer's discomfort with the most basic use of the English language.  His actions worsened a spiraling situation.

Eventually, the aircraft in question was boarded and departed.  As a standby, I received a seat assignment from the frustrated agent.  I felt and feel earnestly sorry for him.  He was set up to fail.  Of course, I had the insight of knowledge that the other passengers did not:  this young man was not an employee of the airline. Those customers on that late aircraft, at least those within earshot, spent the next hour and a half discussing what had happened.  I remained quiet and tried to make myself small.  But I feel the embarrassment for what transpired now, as I write, as acutely as I did at the time. 

What do situations like the one I just described cost my airline and our outsourcing competitors?  Unless it can be quantified, most managers don't seem to care.  There has to be a dollar cost associated with it.  Otherwise, the only cost considered is the savings they've realized to offer the "same service" to our customer.  Only that service isn't the same.

So let's think about it:  what really drives outsourcing?

My airline is looking to remain competitive with other airlines who already rely on the cost-savings of outsourcing.  The consumer demands competitively priced product.  But what about the tangible difference in the quality of the product they receive?  Our culture of apathy simply doesn't seem to care; not enough to shop elsewhere anyway. WalMart doesn't seem to suffer by providing a marginal (at best) customer experience.  Or do they?

Who's the ultimate loser?  The skilled, tenured, locally-established airline employee for whom the offer of "an available opening elsewhere in the system" is not a viable option?  The locally hired, unskilled, poorly educated contract employee I doesn't even earn livable wage and receives no benefits?  The customer whose experience with our product has spiraled as a result of the process?  My employer whose reputation for customer service is spiraling as a result?  The remaining "insourced" employees who detect a not-so-subtle, anxiety-provoking shift in the traditional employer/employee relationship ("Am I to be next?")?  All of the above?

Perhaps the better question is, "who is the ultimate winner?"


Because institutions, such as big business, have an ethical and moral obligation to the communities who support them (whether or not the community demands it). 

Sunday, January 11, 2015


A few years ago, a group of twenty-somethings came together in a city that most could only dream about calling "home".  They lived together, played together, often worked together, "hung out" together, got into trouble together.  They became surrogate family for one another in their new home, far away from the familiar.

Their adventures were epic and epically mundane.  On many levels, they were "stars", while often being star-struck.  They had everything, yet survived on next-to-nothing.  It was a reality show in real life.

The cast was legion:  scores of leading "roles" supported by hundreds of supporting characters.  The sets were often exotic and, in memory, always bright and colorful.  New foods, new cultures, new ways of speaking a familiar language made the experience even more exotic.  The heroes were larger-than-life and, as is so often the case, their trials and adventures might have been meaningless without the presence of antagonists of equal stature.

While a pilot for the show aired in 1985, the main production was screened, in earnest, in 1986.  It lasted 7 GLORIOUS seasons, before being pulled by the network on a technicality.  Very successful "spinoffs" can still be found in locations around the country.  

All the great themes of life were portrayed:  love, hate, joy, sadness, wealth, poverty, good, evil, light, darkness...

If one were to pitch such a concept for production, it might carry a working title that is at once simple, descriptive, meaningful, evocative, nostalgic, romantic:  something like


1987-88 Flight attendants from the Continental Airlines Honolulu Base celebrated the "retirement" of the venerable beige uniform in the surf at Sandy Beach, near Hawai Kai, island of O'hau.  This photo is the property of and is used courtesy of my friend, Roxie Rivero, fourth from right.