Sunday, November 27, 2016


What was I thinking?   How could I elect to roll the dice on one of the most notoriously busy, frantic airline travel days of the year, of any year?  

Ever since mid-month, when I realized that I had bid a schedule with a trip departing on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, my palms have been sweaty.  I've been more than a little on edge.  For weeks, I've been checking the "loads" (projected boardings) on my airline-employer's flights from ATLANTA to Houston today, as well as those of our principle competitor.  The numbers were close from the start but no closer than those of any typical Sunday in September, say. 

Though my Amsterdam trip doesn't depart from Texas until late afternoon, I had already decided to start my journey early, lest unforeseen adverse weather conditions or some other similarly unpredictable phenomenon develop somewhere in our route system and snowball, impacting the keystone of the South.  My ace in the hole is a vacation pass (greatly enhances my standby boarding priority) which, combined with my 32-year seniority, should yield a seat regardless of the strategies of more junior standbys.  But my gamble was to NOT sacrifice the rare and precious vacation pass, but rather to save it for an actual vacation, since it's my last one of the lot whose validity runs only through the end of this year.  30 days or so, sure, but one never knows.

My target:  an 8:25am departure showing 3 seats available, only.  Using a vacation pass, I was sure a thing as one can be when traveling standby.  My plan to save the vacation pass and use a pass at my normal, personal priority placed me well down on the list, behind those much more junior but who had chosen to make the sacrifice that I calculatedly eschewed.  The result was that I slid to #7 on the standby list...with 3 seats available.

The airplane was a few minutes tardy arriving from its previous assignment but boarding started reasonably soon, anyway.  The 2 agents working the departure wasted no time in clearing the 3 standbys whose priority put them into the 3 open seats.  I am now #4.  Experience tells me that the more quickly they complete normal boarding, the more accurately they will be able to determine who of the revenue passengers has no-showed the flight and to release those seats for standby use.

I noticed a rather robust-looking gentleman (the robustness resulting from gym time) laggardly approach the gate with 2 boarding passes.  He attempted to swipe both, though he appeared to be traveling alone.  After a bit of confusion, he explained that the second pass was for a colleague who would not be traveling.  He swiped it because he wanted the seat next to him to be vacant.  (Little explanation as to why was necessary.  His shoulders were as broad as 1 1/2 economy seats.). When the agent explained that the flight couldn't be reconciled properly following his plan, that the vacant seat would be filled, the man's color (on every visible skin surface) reddened and he became clearly unhappy.  His eyes bulged and blood vessels pulsed quite notably (his thinly-veiled rage possibly resulting from another catalyst of his robustness). 

After some discussion, he calmed, conceded that he would not be riding solo today, and walked quietly to the boarding door.  The agents made a final call, including the names of specific parties who hadn't yet boarded.  Once the paged individuals reported for departure or their unoccupied seats were otherwise assigned, the last remaining seat was released for standby use.

"REECE!", they called.  "Mr. Reece, you'll take the last open seat:  16D."

After dropping my rolling bag at the end of the jetway, I entered the cabin and began to search for an overhead spot for my tote.  As I came nearer and nearer to row 16, one fact was inescapable, The Hulk was sitting in 16C.  Actually, the lion's share of him was in 16C but big chunks were hanging out into the aisle and a size able portion covered roughly half of 16D, leaving only a small sliver of the seat back visible.

That small sliver was my ride to Texas.

My expectations of the welcome I'd receive were a bit worse than the reality of it.  He was clearly unhappy to see me coming but not too demonstrative of his unhappiness.  For about an hour and a half, I've been turned sort of sideways in my seat, the right portion of my back and shoulder against the fuselage while his bulk rises and falls in childlike slumber, caressing my left side.  Up and down, up and down, sometimes quickening sometimes slowing, the pace and pattern evidence of a rather large life.  The sensation is like having one's side caressed by a rising, falling slab of tattooed concrete.

We've finally begun our descent for arrival.  I've needed to use the onboard convenience for a while, alas. There's a stirring on my left.  A hamhock of an arm reaches up to adjust the air vent, forearm poised squarely in my line of sight, as though I'm not here, all 215 lbs of me.  Then it falls again into place, occupying a good 30% of the space where the left side of my body should be.  Back to the rhythm of a gargantuan life:  up and down, up and down.

The houses are getting bigger. My bladder us getting fuller.  But it's almost over.

I rolled the dice and I won.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Adjectives and Adverbs

"What is a good book to read?"

I boarded the rush-hour train north at Airport Station on a chilly afternoon before Thanksgiving and took the first forward-facing seat near the door.  At Garnett, I think it was, a man about my age breezed on and took the seat perpendicular to mine, facing inward.  He was dressed much more appropriately for the cold than I:  a toboggan, hoodie sweatshirt, tradesman's pants (I assumed "a painter", for some reason) and comfortable-looking, well-worn shoes.  He had the newspaper in his hand, opened to the crossword.  So I assumed that he was looking for an appropriate word when he asked the question:

"What is a good book to read?"

"How many letters?  Have you tried 'novel'?", I asked.

At first he appeared confused, then glanced down at the paper, "Oh, no.  I was just curious about what you'd been reading lately.  You look like someone who reads."

"Well, I seem to read a lot of James Patterson novels.  Do you know them?"

"Yes, I do.  They're an 'easy read'; detective stories and such.  Which do you prefer:  the Women's Murder Club series or the Alex Cross series?"

"One reason I like them so much is that they require very little of the reader.  They're easy to put down and pick back up again.  Plus, you develop a relationship with the principle characters across the series that helps move from one book to the next."

"You know, I read that Patterson only made $95 million last year.  I guess he's a little off his game."

"Maybe we should start a GoFundMe benefit for him!", I said in reply.

After exchanging trivia and speculation about James Patteron's finances and those of his many co-authors, my new friend asked, "But what kind of books do you REALLY like?  Patterson is more a pastime than a devotion."  (Interestingly, that was my thought exactly.)

"Well, to be honest, I've always been a huge fan of Fitzgerald, though he's a subject I haven't thought of or discussed in a while.  His romantic style is sort of out of favor these days."

His eyes lit at the mention of Fitzgerald's name.  "The only one of his books I've ever read is GATSBY.  But I loved it so much that I read it over and over again.  Isn't it interesting how tragic Fitzgerald's life became?  He had everything...very much like Gatsby.  And what was his wife's name?"

"Zelda.  The parallels are fascinating.  If you have the chance, you really should read some of his other work."

Then, he segued, "Did you ever read THE ROAD?"

"Cormack McKenzie, was it?"

"McCarthy.  It was so brutal and in your face.  It was the most beautiful thing I've ever read.  Do you think people are really like that?"

Just then, the man crossed his left ankle over his right knee, the bottom of his foot clearly facing in my direction.  I don't think that my face gave me away in my utter surprise and shock.  Where there should have been a shoe sole, there was nothing.  I didn't want to stare but at first (and last) glance, it looked like nothing more than the bottom of a foot covered in a filthy sock.  What?  My entire perception of the "reality" of this meeting and conversation suddenly changed.

" naturally, I'm anxious to read some of his other books.  What was that movie that did so well based on one of his books?"


"Yep, that's it.  They say that that Spanish actor really did a nice job in it."

The train had progressed quite a bit on our journey since the beginning of our literary conversation.  Suddenly, with no advance warning or introduction of intent, my train-mate rose from his seat.  The train slowed as we neared Midtown station.  We stopped.  The doors opened.  He turned and exited.

Our conversation was over.  Our relationship had ended.  Is something wrong with me that I feel sad about that?

Adjectives and adverbs are the words we use to describe, to account for, to attempt to ally others to our view and our opinion.  Which?  What kind of?   How many?  When?  Where?  How?  I wonder at how different our world might be with only nouns and verbs.

The man I met and spoke with on the train wasn't my superior or my subordinate.  He was neither rich nor poor.  He wasn't a homeless man.  He wasn't an "altered" man.  He wasn't an erudite man.  He wasn't a well-read man.  Though I've described him subsequently as all of those things.  In those moments, in our unique reality together, he was really none of those things.  As uncertain as I am about what "kind" of man he was in that situation, I'm equally uncertain about what "kind" of man I was in that situation.

He was a man.  And so was I.

Monday, September 26, 2016

An idyll of contentment

When my dad died on Labor Day 2012, he and my mom had just celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary a few weeks prior.  To contemplate spending so long with one other person, faithful to one other person, committed to one other person, caring for and about one other person is beyond "possible" for many, beyond "likely" for most. Their 56+ years together weren't perfect but perfection is not the nature of life.  Neither is perfection the nature of happiness with another person.  Happiness is a fulfillment born of wanting for another more than wanting for self.  Differences and challenges provide a tension that encourages growth, both separately, as individuals, and together, as an unique entity.

56 years is a rare achievement. Yet my (paternal) grandparents were married for 73 years before my grandfather preceded my grandmother in death by only days.  Both were well into their 90s.  I have no doubt that Mom and Dad would have challenged that longevity absent the unpredictable influence of fate; in this case, cancer.  Dad and Mom didn't both survive that challenge together.  But the love they share did.

So should I be surprised that as I wake today, I rise to celebrate my own 30-year commitment with one whom I have described as "the best person I've ever known"?  When I consider our milestone, the years fly by like nanoseconds, punctuated by the bright flashes of opportunities, some victories, some insurmountable challenges that helped us to grow...together.  Like every other couple, we have faced darkness and difficulty along with light and comfort.  Unlike many, we withstood the ravages and grew closer to what has ultimately become "us".  At every juncture, there were choices to be made.  We did the best we could.  We survived.  We persevered.  We thrived both because of and in spite of whatever circumstance had in store for us.  In typical fashion for us, we spend today's milestone in separate hemispheres but we are far from separated.

Contrary to anything I would have ever believed possible or likely, we nurtured a young life in our home. What a responsibility.  What a privilege.  What a blessing.  If ever you want to challenge your committed relationship, bring the responsibility of caring for another life into the mix.  Parenting is the ultimate test and most important job that anyone will ever face in my estimation.  If anything, maybe we tried too hard.  I believe there was an expectation that we would fail.  Looking back now, I think we did just fine.

"Thirty years" means that we likely have more days together behind us than we do ahead of us.  That is a sobering realization.  Advancing in life with the one you love is like sharing a bottle of fine wine.  The exuberance and anticipation at the pop of the cork are replaced with savoring and appreciation as the bottom of the bottle becomes a clear inevitability. 

Love. (Please take note that this lover of adjectives has allowed that simple, 4-letter noun to stand on its own merit, just as it should). Love, in all its guises, is humanity's prime directive.  As pivotal as it is, love alone is not enough to sustain a successful relationship over time.  One element is even more integral to success and it is a gift that the one selflessly bestows upon the other.  If love is the cosmic force that draws two souls together, then respect is the universal superglue that bonds them.  

Respect is the force that allows us to accept and even to defend the differences between ourselves and those we love.  It is the recognition that two entities don't have to be (and maybe shouldn't be) clones of one another to form a lasting bond.  In the end, our diversity is our greatest strength.  It allows each of us to bring to bear our unique powers and make our bond together more impervious.  Respect is that most critical of things, that most common of things:  a simple choice.

On this special day, I'd like to conjure an indelible image from my childhood memories...

Mom, Dad, David and I often visited Dad's parents at their farm home.  We usually went after supper but knew not to arrive too late.  My grandparents retired with the Sun and the chickens, as most folks did whose lives were inextricably tethered to the land.  

There, in the fleeting remnants of the day, we'd quietly arrive on their familiar front porch.  My brother and I would sneak a peek through the lace curtains of the front room window to see what we almost always saw, what we had come to expect to see:  Papa and Granna sitting closely together in their chairs, side-by-side in front of the dying embers in the fireplace, sometimes revisiting the events of the day, sometimes just basking in the glow of one another's company and the waning light and warmth of the fire.

An idyll of contentment.

From an early age, I knew what real happiness would look and feel like.  I thought I recognized it on this day, thirty years ago.  

I did.  

I still do.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

One Year Later

I like to find and celebrate the greatness in those I work with, no matter the title, no matter the responsibilities. I tend not to do it on my timeline in consideration of my airline-employer's social media policy. But rules have their exceptions, even those rules that are self-imposed.

A year ago, my company turned the corner on a dark chapter which had culminated with the public excoriation of our chief executive over some extraordinarily questionable dealings with powerful officials at one of our largest hubs. His actions were a disgrace to our business reputation and could potentially result in charges for he and our organization. Our Board of Directors acted. The CEO in question was replaced by a board member with no previous experience in our arguably highly specialized industry.

I'm fond of saying that not all leaders are in leadership positions and that not all those in leadership positions are true leaders. But when a "natural" leader is placed into the proper leadership position, marvelous things can and will happen. Kismet.

September 8, 2015 was a pivotal date for my airline-employer, having suffered through years of "muddling through" a less-than-optimal merger of equals. It seemed that we had all the pieces to a tediously complicated puzzle. What we lacked was a competent puzzle master to help guide us in placing the pieces. As unprepared and ill-equipped as some seemed to think him, our puzzle master began his work.

Less than a month later, on the cusp of a momentous and long-overdue "labor summit" with all our principle work groups, both he and we suffered a setback. Health issues, life-threatening health issues we learned subsequently, threatened our leader and our future with him at the helm. For more than a third of the year since he joined us as our CEO, our new leader has been "out sick", culminating in heart transplant surgery which would have been the end of his work life just a few years ago. But for him and for us, his new heart was a turning point.

Every day, we are faced with the "intersections" in our life, as I call them. Those intersections require us to act based on what we know, what we think and what we believe. Often, the decisions are as simple as what to have for lunch. But on a handful of occasions during our life, they are momentous to the degree that all subsequent intersections are affected by the one. As far as my work life is concerned, today is the anniversary of such an intersection.

As Yogi Berra might have said, "we came to a fork in the road and we took it." The story is as much Hollywood as it is Wall Street but drama sure can make things interesting.

My opinion: one year ago, our puzzle found its master. The pieces have only just begun to fall into place.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

An Olympic Adventure

The people and “climate” of Brazil have always been warm and welcoming, never moreso than during the past few weeks when they’ve hosted South America’s first-ever Olympic Games.  It’s the (seemingly) gratuitously bureaucratic side of the place that can bring any great plan to a screeching halt.

My Flight Attendant crew and I deadheaded (rode as passengers) into position from Houston to Sao Paulo overnight arriving in the early hours of the 21st.  I particularly looked forward to meeting new colleagues from the “other side” of our companies' merger of almost 6 years (yet still flying separately as distinct, pre-merger groups), having a chance to chat and to see for myself, to prove to myself that we really aren’t that different, after all.  We deadheaders were greeted at the gate and invited to come onboard to get settled by the working Purser and several other members of the cabin crew.  In aviation, routes, seniority and available flying are everything.  Though the Houston/Sao Paulo route is one that has gone back and forth between pre-merger subsidiary groups repeatedly, there was no rancor between us, the smiles were genuine, as seemed the feeling behind them.  Maybe everyone was on his/her “party manners”.  That's not so uncommon at a first meeting.

Once in GRU (Sao Paulo), my charter crew was set to meet at 1245 the next day for our bus ride back to the airport.  From our layover hotel in the financial center of this enormous city, a trip to the airport can be quite an odyssey.  With that in mind, we were all assembled there on time.  But our bus wasn't.  At “go” time, a hotel representative informed our ISM (onboard leader, equivalent to a Purser) that the bus would arrive closer to 1305, due to a miscommunication.  That time slid closer to 1315.  Our scheduled ferry flight to Rio (we would operate the airplane without passengers to get into position for our charter) was to leave GRU at 1500.  It was a relief to find that the midday traffic was lighter than usual.  We arrived with an hour to spare....or so we thought.

Our normally scheduled flight departures leave from Terminal 3 which is used for substantially all international operations.  We passed through Terminal 3 security and approached the Immigration control kiosks.  There was some question about our status as we were not, strictly leaving Brazil right away.  Should we retain our landing cards (normally surrendered at departure) and keep our passports unstamped, in the event something should occur that would prevent us from leaving Brazil as scheduled that night?

The question drew conflicting answers.  Kiosk officers consulted their superiors, our GRU station manager, Ichida-san was summoned, and telephone calls were made.  Prior arrangements had been made for us to formally “exit” at this point, since we planned to leave Brazil immediately upon our return to GRU with the Olympians.  But there was a new "Chief of Police" (Ichida-san's term) on duty today and he thought otherwise.  By his directive, we were told to leave Terminal 3, walk a fair distance to Terminal 2, enter the sterile area there as domestic crew and then be bused to our waiting aircraft on a hardstand (airstairs rather than jetbridge) back at T3!

While attempting to do execute that new plan, we encountered misunderstanding-related problems at T2 security, then at the hardstand transportation area.  I reminded Ichida-san that a similar trip was happening in September for the Para-Olympics.  He said that his staff had gone to great pains to clear all arrangements for this very special trip and thought that they had matters well in hand.  It seems it was the willfulness of a local bureaucrat that had changed the plan.

When we arrived at our aircraft (767-400), we were surprised that our Flight Deck Crew was onboard, having SUCCESSFULLY entered the sterile area as normal, via Terminal 3, surrendering their landing cards and having their passports stamped.  Without the assistance of our 3 Portuguese speakers to bridge the language gap, they had accomplished what we could not.  (There's a great deal of kismet involved in successfully planning and executing anything "outside the norm" in Brazil, in my estimation.)

As late as the departure of our ferry flight from GRU to GIG, none of our 39 BusinessFirst (premium cabin) seats had been assigned, yet our economy cabin was near fully-booked.  We expected that VIPs would receive upgrades from Economy, at some point.  We learned what that point would be in flight!

About halfway from GRU to Rio de Janeiro (GIG), a total of 38 minutes, we discovered that all 39 seats would now be occupied by special customers upgraded from Economy.  Accessing the onboard wifi, we used our LINK (an iPhone 6Plus that serves as manual, onboard sales tool, and universal "connected" resource) to verify this information.  We took advantage of the resources available onboard (the LINK, wifi and paper) to put together a seating chart and learned that we would indeed be serving 20 US Olympic Gold medalists, 4 Silver medalists and 11 Bronze medalists.   Several weeks ago, upon learning that this flight would be a quasi-Olympic charter, I did some prep work.  I gathered a passenger manifest and created a spreadhsheet in the configuration of our aircraft cabin.  I plugged in each passenger, by seat assignment, then added his/her Olympic sport or affiliation.  As the games progressed, I updated the data with medals won by individuals and teams.  At this juncture, it was just a matter of getting the right passenger in the corrected seat.

We were so excited.  But our excitement was tempered by the practical:  the GRU station had catered the premium cabin for 27 and told us to only expect 15 occupants.  Now there would be 39!  "Folks, it's loaves and fishes time!"

Upon our arrival, the GIG station did a cabin security sweep and we prepared for boarding.  In spite of the short flight time back to GRU, we intended to give our special guests the full Businessfirst treatement, including a pre-departure beverage service. We knew that we would be boarding through 1L (forward-most left door), funneling everyone through the galley where we’d be working to serve those pre-departure beverages.  What an opportunity to meet the people we'd spent 2 weeks watching compete on the world stage...but we'd be busy.  I remembered my friend Christi telling me about an iWatch feature that allows you to control your iPhone camera remotely.  So, I set my phone up with the camera app open, perched atop a tissue box in a corner of the galley and chose the correct app on my watch.  No matter what I was doing, I could monitor the traffic flow on the watchface and “snap” photos remotely as our athletes passed through.

As the boarding flow slowed to a trickle, our ISM announced that we all  (Flgiht Attendants) needed to bring our passports to the boarding door.  Authorities were insisting that our departure from Brazil be processed before we left GIG to return to GRU.  (They said that we SHOULD have cleared immigration formalities before leaving GRU.  Ironic, huh?)   Their insistence drove a half-hour delay which made some of our guests anxious about their onward connections, all on other flights of my airline-employer from GRU.  Delays provoke anxiety.  One way we thought ofcalming that anxiety was to involve our guests in OUR excitement at having them onboard.

That’s how the idea for the Medal Panorama camera shot was born!

“Would the medalists seated in A-zone mind retrieving their medals so that we can take a “class picture”?  We’ll be happy to email it to anyone who wants it…it’s bound to be a keepsake moment!”  It was a welcome distraction from an uncontrollable miscommunication.  Everyone happily obliged.

Did you know that you have to be perfectly still to get a good panorama shot?!  I didn’t!  But THEY did!  As I started the left-to-right sweep of my phone, I heard someone calling down a seat mate, “Be still or it won’t come out!”  Such a special moment!

The brief flight and abbreviated service went smoothly.  Several of our stars said they were surprised to be treated to BusinessFirst…they never expected it.  And me?  I’m simply blown away by the grace and poise of our Olympic royalty.  What an unexpected, irreplaceable experience that 40 minutes was for me, personally.

We landed in GRU and all dispersed to our onward flights for the journey back to the USA.  Several of our Olympic guests came with my crew tonight to Houston…as did the wonderful working colleagues who brought my crew down 2 nights ago.  Having those folks welcome us who knew what we’d done today eased the way to sharing the experience and excitement with them.  Carmen, Christie, Neil, Sue, Nolan, Janet, Kim and Jesus felt like welcoming family, anxious to see us and to hear our news of the day.

I was briefly in the company of 35 medalists; a DREAM come true for a devote of all things Olympic, like me!  I made the acquaintance and formed fast friendships with 8 of my new colleagues in the process.  In a 32 year flying career, today was a standout day for me, an adventure of Olympic proportion.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Credit where credit is due!

Big SHOUTOUT to our Santiago flight kitchen!

We had only 9 customers in B Zone on 846 departing Santiago de Chile night before last, so I "floated" to Economy Class to lend a hand.  After the service, I sat down with an Economy meal before my break started.  Tray, utensils, plasticware, it all looked the same as "normal" but...

The couscous salad was BRILLIANT!  Fresh, subtle flavors with just a suggestion of pungent onion and pepper.  I haven't enjoyed couscous since my days in the Latin Quarter as a poor college student and NEVER did I enjoy it unheated.

The chicken entree was a Mediterranean preparation of white meat chicken with tomato-based sauce, black olives, capers, and a smattering of goat cheese.  It was FRESHLY PREPARED!  The clincher on this dish was that I found a whole bay leaf in mine.  A bay an Economy meal.

The quality of the salad and main more than made up for the choco-flavored (read fake) Cool Whip desert which looked much nicer than it tasted.  The "mousse" was underwhelming and left a "synthetic" aftertaste.  I stopped after one spoonful and am regretting that one.

Overall though, GREAT JOB!

(I wish I'd had my phone in my pocket for a quick photo of the bay leaf.  I'm almost doubting my memory of it!)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Ku'u home

Yesterday, after morning traffic had dissipated somewhat, my mom drove into town for an overnight visit.  Our plan was to spend the afternoon with my widowed aunt and and her daughters at Northside Hospital's Cancer Center.  My aunt was recently diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer and was to have a procedure to stint a biliary duct that had been blocked by the growth of a cancerous lesion.

As Mom, Philip and I had a light lunch, we were mindful of the fact that my aunt has been unable to eat meaningfully for months.  She has been so wrapped up in the care of her second husband (my uncle died some years ago), that her own health has suffered without remark, with hardly even any notice.  If it weren't for the unusual metallic taste in her mouth and the recent yellowing of her skin, we might still think that Aunt Laura "just wasn't eating right".  The fact is, she's hardly eaten at all and her body is noticeably wasted.

To myself, I wonder, "What is the point of sitting with the girls during the procedure?"  But the answer is self-evident.  It's a demonstration of love and care.  It's a repayment of the kindnesses we received when Dad was in decline.  It's a distraction from the galvanizing fact that a life we value is about to end.

In a pre-operative appointment, the physician was hopeful that the stint could be placed endoscopically, a quick, efficient procedure from which Aunt Laura could quickly recuperate.  Once the duct was open, many of her symptoms would be alleviated.  The tumor would still be present.  The prognosis would still be grim but she would gain some immediate, day-to-day relief.  Most importantly, she would have a bit more time free from disease-related stress to plan and make decisions. If the endoscopic procedure didn't go well, they would place the stint via an open procedure, meaning longer recovery and increased likelihood of complications.

The girls, daughters, daughter-in-law and granddaughter were gathered in support of their mom.  A quick pre-op visit revealed that Aunt Laura was at peace.  Just the day before, she had secured a supportive accommodation for her husband who suffers from age-related memory issues.  Were she able to join him there, the facility would welcome her in an apartment-like setting with her husband.  So many concerns were addressed with that one decision and commitment.  But the one that mattered most and most immediately was never at issue:  Aunt Laura was at peace with the idea that her time on Earth was nearly done; she was confident in her physician and reliant upon the Physician.  Her composure must surely have been a gift to the girls.  It was to me.

As her procedure began, we sat together in the surgical waiting room, engaged in the idle prattle of the concerned, a thin guise for the fear and uncertainty that prevailed.  We reminisced, smiled, laughed and supported those we love with the good-intentioned distractions that serve so well.  After an hour or so, we learned that the procedure had gone as planned and that Aunt Laura would be free to go home in another hour, or so.  This hurdle had been cleared handily.  There would be time and relief now to prepare for the next hurdle and for the end of the race.

When Mom and I returned to the apartment, an appetite-stimulating aroma wafted out as the door opened. Philip had been busy doing his part to support the cause, preparing his Aunt Anne's Butter Chicken, jasmine brown rice and broccoli for our dinner, left warming on the stove until he returned from afternoon yoga. Mom and I shared some wine while waiting. By the time he got back, we were ready to be comforted by Philip's culinary expression of love and support.  Dinner was the perfect period at the end of a lovingly-written sentence. 

In retrospect, what Mom, Philip and I did was so little.  In reality, what we did was very nearly all that matters in life.

If, in our very "busy" lives we can't take time to help our fellow travelers along their path, what, exactly, are we here for?  We concern ourselves with so much that, in the end, is of little real consequence.  Why is that?  To distract ourselves from our own mortality?

"Denial is not just a river in Egypt."

To be continued...(thank God!)

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Epilogue: Surprise & Delight

We learned as we gathered at the gate that a significant storm system was moving into the Chicago area and could result in delays at O'Hare.  The captain seemed to think that we would still have a window of opportunity to operate our flight at near the scheduled times.  We boarded our completely full aircraft and departed, as normal.

As we taxied toward the departure runway, I thought it odd that we made a left turn, crossing the active departure runway, onto the taxiway between arrivals and departures.  The sound of the #1 engine spooling down as it does upon gate arrival confirmed my suspicions.  We were being sent to the "penalty box".  A ground stop had been declared at O'Hare and our departure would be delayed indefinitely.  The captain did an admirable job of explaining our situation, adding that he would give us periodic updates.  The flight attendants immediately offered water to customers parched by the mid-summer heat and understandably anxious from the news.  Just their presence in the cabin calmed things, I think.

Updates came but they didn't hold much good news or much promise that good news would be forthcoming.  The captain's calm, professional delivery kept anxieties to a minimum.  As we approached the hour mark, the cabin crew offered snacks and a mix of soft drinks.  Unhurried and friendly, the atmosphere remained calm. The gentlemen behind me actually joked about missing their connecting flights.

At near the 2 hour mark, the Captain's news was decidedly not good.  We had been given a takeoff slot hours in the future and the crew would reach their FAA-mandated maximum duty period constraints long before then.  They were making a last-ditch appeal to Air Traffic Control via our dispatchers in Chicago to advance our place in line.  But it was clear that he wasn't hopeful.

A collective moan rose in the cabin.  The cancellation of a full flight between the nation's two largest air hubs sounded like disaster because it certainly would be for those affected.

Without warning, I began to simultaneously hear and feel a rumble from the left hand side of the plane (I'm sitting in the window seat at the left emergency exit). I recognized the familiar engine start as soon as it began.  Seconds later, "Ladies and gentlemen, we were successful!  ATC has moved us to the front of the line. If we leave right way, we're going to Chicago.  Everyone take your seats as quickly as you can."

Folks were seated and the flight attendants had the cabin cleared of service articles as quickly as I've ever seen it done.

"Flight Attendants, please be seated for departure."  The guys behind me laughed, "I don't think they needed to be told!"  No, they didn't.

At present, we're flying a strange arc out to the west of Chicago in order to circumnavigate and come in behind what the captain described as a Level 4 storm, "the kind that can uproot trees."  Fine with me!  I don't hear any arguments from the Type-As seated all around me, either!

And, if anything, I'm prouder of my airline-employer's performance today than I was earlier, in spite of our 2-hour plus arrival delay.  Anyone should be able to do a good job under perfect circumstances (we weren't able to do even that for a while, sadly). 

It's a customer-pleasing, expectation exceeding performance under uncontrollable circumstances that separates the truly good from the merely passable.  I used to work for the truly good.  I'm excited to think that I may have that opportunity again before I retire.

I have a really, really, REALLY good feeling about that.

P.S.  As I exited the airplane and stepped onto the jet bridge, I overheard a woman behind me say, "They did a really good job!"

Yes, they did. 

Surprise and Delight

Few things excite me like making a real-world report as a surprised and delighted customer of my airline-employer. I'm traveling Atlanta/Chicago today at 1701, prime time. 

I arrived at the airport via train at 1535. Upon checking, I learn that my flight is departing on-time.  Checking a little deeper, I learn that the aircraft for my flight will be arriving early from ChIcago. 

I stop into the Club, upstairs, near gate 10.  As soon as the elevator doors opened, I noticed it.  I knew in an instant that the sophisticated, modern, attractive yet subtle aroma I smelled had to be the much-hyped "Landing",  my airline's soon-to-be signature fragrance. To confirm my suspicions, I asked the smiling agent who greeted me. 

"Yes, it is!  I'm can't believe how many people have remarked upon it."

As I moved into the club area with food and drink, I wondered if it might be too much, if "Landing" might not mix well with eau de red pepper & Gouda soup. But the transition was actually pleasant. 

As I write this, I'm enjoying a crisp, refreshing glass of nicely chilled prosecco.  Muted conversations all around me and the occasional laugh reveal calm, relaxed customer experiences; the sounds of the anxiety-free. 

And I'm thinking, "Now, this is the way an experience with My company
should feel, taste, look, smell and sound."  There's nowhere I'd rather be today. 

I'd love to share that experience with you. I hope I did.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Unanswered Prayers

When we received the text from our son, Joaquin, a few weeks ago, Philip and I didn't quite know what to make of it.  He wants to be a Flight Attendant?  a Flight Attendant for our airline-employer?


For several years now, Joaquin has been building his life in sunny southern California, working in real estate.  He just earned his real estate license and is the Transaction Coordinator at a well-known brokerage in Los Angeles.  He’s been making steady advances, earned well-deserved recognition and seems as content as we’ve ever seen him since he arrived there.  “Restless”, while it applies to many a young adult seems particularly appropriate for our favorite young man.

But we learned long ago to allow nature to take its course where Joaquin is concerned.  Rather than questioning this new direction, Philip took the lead and I followed in asking how we might support him on the venture.  We provided internal referrals, of course, and placed letters of recommendation in his hand when he flew to Houston last week for his final interview (not that he needed our support.  Joaquin has always been a most persuasive individual.)

Not unexpectedly, he was offered the job!  His F/A Training class has a June 21st start date.  So why aren’t we celebrating?

After much back-and-forth, should-I-or-shouldn’t-I, factual comparisons and the gut check that is a rite of passage for many his age, Joaquin has decided to focus on his career in real estate.  Are Philip and I disappointed?  Yes.  

And no.

There would be no greater honor, no greater validation of the life we’ve built together, than for Philip and me to have the privilege of pinning "our wings" on "our boy."  That moment would be indescribable, really.  But now that we have that rather selfish thought out of the way, we’re so grateful to know that we have instilled in Joaquin the wherewithal to make his own decisions in a logical, rational, methodical fashion; to do what’s right for him.

In a way, his having thought to pursue our way of life is validation enough.  Our way of life created so many opportunities for a young man in need of a break in his life.

One way or the other, we know that our li'l Homey will fly.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Where were you in '62?

May 10, 1962

I tend to personalize important dates to help put them into context. Perhaps you do too?

Fifty-four years ago today, I was a diaper-wearing toddler and John F. Kennedy, Jr. showed great promise as our youngest-ever American president. (His son, John-John and I were the same age). America was the undisputed leader of the free world and the Iron Curtain was a de facto divider of good and evil.  My family and I were eagerly awaiting the arrival of a new baby (May 28th, my now 54 year-old brother.)

American aviation was as diverse as it would ever be with players in every niche, ginormous to decidedly local. One of those players was Trans Texas Airlines who was growing and hiring hostesses to support that growth. 

Gaye Burns flew from Shreveport to Houston for an interview (with a change of planes in Magnolia, Arkansas). She left her 4-year career as a long-distance telephone operator and took to the sky in the venerable DC3. What a life-changing decision she made!

A few years later, TTA started flying to Mexico and changed its name to Texas International. In the early 1980s, TI merged with Continental. 

Now Gaye regularly flies to Germany with one of the largest airlines in the world. It's my good fortune to be flying with her in this, her anniversary month. 

"Hi!  I'm Gaye", delivered with such energy and exuberance  (and double entendre) that you're certain you've just met a force of nature!  (You have.)

And her customer "thank you and good-byes" are another unique Gaye signature, "Thank you for spending the night with us!"

Gaye is, I dare say, unforgettable.

Congratulations to our friend and colleague, Gaye Burns McFarland and many happy returns of the day!

We are so much better because you are here!

Saturday, April 30, 2016

It's not over...

I followed my nose inside Blew Inn from a steamy morning's yard work. The unmistakable aroma of creole fills every nook and cranny; it smells like Christmas on the Gulf.  I foresee a just-In-time visit to Joe Patti's for the last key ingredients.

Our birthday week is ending with an in the ground investment of our gifts:  dwarf Japanese maple, bald cypress, confederate jasmine and those red shrubs that bloom pink feathers in the spring.  All that's left is pine straw and water and regular visits to keep the jasmine under control.

It has been a memorable week for Philip and me.  There are so many changes in our little world.  Maybe the biggest is the reality that he is officially retirement age.  The plans we've made (mostly him) are coming together. The unknowns of the future can be frightening.  We'll do what we can and ride this wave wherever it takes us.

Retirement age or not, it's far from over.  

To be continued...

Monday, April 25, 2016


Any day that starts with one's body perpendicular to the surface of the planet is a good day! (A day that starts otherwise still has potential and potential is what life is all about, isn't it?)

I spend the better part of my waking moments counting my blessings. They are far more than anything I could ever deserve and I am so grateful of that awareness. Unless it is earned, nothing has any real, lasting value; least of all, life.

As my journey unfolds, now well into the 6th decade, I don't begrudge any obstacle or difficulty. Each had its purpose. The particular timing and circumstance of each has made me a better, more complete human being. Rather, I dismiss the "high points" and "bellweathers" because they taught me very little. Value and meaning are derived from striving and accomplishing: small, innocuous victories can be and have been the most precious.

I spent my 26th birthday on the airplane (a DC10 "PUB") and was surprised to have it celebrated by my crew. I very nearly spent my 56th birthday (actually, 4/26) on a trip to Sao Paulo, Brazil and was bowled-over in surprise to have it celebrated by my crew. Yet the two experiences were as different as daylight and dark. So much has changed in 30 years.

26 year-old Tony was younger, thinner, tanner, "hotter". But, if it were up to me, I'd want to spend my time with 56 year-old Tony. Behind that crooked, imperfect smile, broken glasses and considerable amplitude is the realization of the potential that means the most: kindness and care, the evidence that love leaves in its wake.

We are each stones in the stream of life. Caught in and propelled by the flow of time, we accompany, we abrade, we shape one another into the beings we are meant to be. How we accomplish that is up to us.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Does it show?

"You've probably been flying a really long time, huh?", the wide-eyed lady in 16J asked me as I took my place for the safety demo video at the beginning of the first of 2 Houston to Sao Paulo trips Thursday night.  Smiling my "make sure you smile because the whole plane is watching" smile, I tried to imagine on what level that might be a compliment!  My truthful answer, "a bit more than 30 years" led to the follow-on, "Wow!  All for U (my airline-employer)?"  "You bet!"  (Did you really think she wanted the whole nitty-gritty?  Yeah, me neither.)

Turns out, that was her opening gambit to wrangle an upgrade to one of the Business Class seats she could see going vacant from her vantage point.  She wasn't successful.

I had noticed the regal-looking lady in 19F having a fairly intense, one-way conversation with our gate agent prior to boarding.  Onboard, I confirmed that she was our only HVC (high-value customer)  in Economy this evening (a "1K") who had what she characterized as a "tight" alliance partner connection in Sau Paulo to Salvador.  I'm comfortable that we ALL (the crew) were intimately aware of the details of her connection within the first hour of our flight.  She was one of those "energy black holes" for whom more is never enough.  (The forecast of a significantly EARLY arrival in GRU (Sao Paulo) did nothing to allay her anxiety about missing the connection.  Surely, this wasn't her first rodeo!)

And so it began...the Groundhog Day moment of realization that no matter how prepared I think I am or how happy I am to be here doing my thing, the first random interaction seems like sabotage.  Do you ever wonder, "who plants these folks in my path to test me?".

We've seen evidence enough lately of what can happen, as unimaginable as it is, when we allow circumstance to overwhelm us.  Friends, we have control.  Circumstance will only prevail when we allow it.

"I'm afraid that service upgrades can't be handled onboard.  I'm sure that my colleagues working this side of the cabin will make you very comfortable."  "Shoot.  Well, I'm glad we got a nice Flight Attendant, at least."

If she ONLY knew!

"So, you don't think I'll have any trouble getting to my 1020 departure to Salvador?"  "Anything can happen.  But I can't imagine it being a problem, especially for a seasoned traveller like yourself.  It was booked as a legal connection and our arrival should be at least 15 minutes ahead of forecast.  Also, there are always at least 2 customer service staffmembers meeting our arrival.  One of them assists with connections.  I also want to say 'thank you', Ms. Barrera (not her name), for your continued support of our company.  We really appreciate your loyalty."

The 9+08 flight rolled on, obstacles presented, obstacles overcome, just like most days at work.  But this leg didn't have that "something" that makes it feel special.  I didn't know that that "something" was just a few hours away...

We were booked heavily to start with on our return.  As we gathered for the hotel van, our ISM (onboard leader) informed us that GRU/Chicago was 13+ hours delayed with a mechanic and that we would be packed to Houston as a result.  OK.  A quick look at the seat map revealed that it was going to be HVC City tonight, "GS"s and "1K"s all through Business Class and at least 3 "GS"s in Economy.  We also had a large group which we learned early on, were Mary Kay conventioneers, many of whom were unaccustomed to flying.  The potential for issues during boarding and flight was growing exponentially.  And, predictably, the issues presented themselves...

Our first customer was only somewhat ambulatory:  he could stand but required assistance to move to his seat (21L with J & K occupied on this full flight).  As our ISM assisted his steps, I engaged in a light back-and-forth to establish level of need.  "If you need us, just ask.  Ozzie and Donna are working this aisle but I will keep an eye out for you too.  Just make eye contact and I'll know."  What a smile of relief that brought from someone accustomed to being apprehensive in such situations.  Apparently, our group members were all close friends or new friends or soon-to-be friends because their entry into the confines of the cabin were an occasion for conviviality and bonding.  The aisles were impassable with back-slapping, loud-talking group clots forming everywhere.  The young mother with two very small children needed attention.  1 of our 3 GSs in Economy (a displacement from the ORD flight) somehow scored a center seat and wasn't terribly happy, It was a time for pro-activity when avoidance just seemed like such a good alternative.

Issue by issue, my colleagues and I addressed away anxiety, Minute by minute, the cabin filled as did the overhead bins which, thanks to very cooperative students, were arranged perfectly to achieve maximum capacity.  That in and of itself is a feat!

As things settled somewhat, I noticed the cute couple in 25JK trying to take "just the right" selfie and thought "we've got this under control, it's time to come out of character a little."  The result is what you see in the photo.  They couldn't wait to post it and, though they spoke only Portuguese, asked for my permission from a colleague.  "Sure!  But only if they send a copy to me."

Friends, what you see isn't "typical" me, or just silly me, or even red-faced from steroids for allergies me.  That photo is "I love my job" me.  When I see it, I remember that moment and how it felt to have things "in hand" again.  It reminds me that I'll be doing it all over again tonight, when I return to GRU.  And that's so cool.

When you love what you do and feel that you do it competently, even well, that is a success beyond all others.  Philip would probably say, "you look high."

Well...if the shoe fits...

(BTW, our 3 "GS"s all remained in Economy and all were ultimately quite happy.  We personally thanked each for their business, provided a leftover amenity kit and the commitment that we would do all in our power to assure them a safe, comfortable trip.  At the last possible moment, I was able to move Mr. "I" from his middle seat in 17B to a last-minute no-show's aisle seat, 18D.

Our semi-ambulatory customer in 21L didn't eat or drink the entire flight.  He confirmed that he'd done so so as not to inconvenience the customers in 21J&K. As soon as we arrived and it was practical, we got him to the toilet.  He left us with a water bottle, an amenity kit and prayers for his continuing journey.  What a gem of a human being he is.  What a privilege it was to serve him.)

Sunday, March 27, 2016


The Brazilian "Wall Street", Paulista Avenue, was closed to vehicular traffic today. I stood in the median to film this video which I shared with my family in Georgia while we had lunch "together" via FaceTime. 

You can hear a musician singing in the background. On my return to the hotel, I noticed that he was quadriplegic and his accompaniment was a karaoke boombox. What caught my attention was his song selection:  I BELIEVE I CAN FLY. 

Initially, it seemed ironic to the point of ridiculous. But something told me to linger and listen. What this being lacked in vocal talent, he made up for in enthusiasm. To believe that one can do the unlikely, the impossible, the unimaginable, like sharing Easter lunch with family on another continent, is the challenge that life sets before us. 

I declare that I have no belief in "the impossible". It's a lesson I learned in an unlikely place from an unlikely fellow on a day where circumstances could have easily defeated me. 

I BELIEVE I CAN FLY. And I know I'm not alone in that belief.

I BELIEVE I CAN FLY  (Click the link for video.)

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Human Factor

The new CEO of my airline-employer personally contacted crewmembers laying over in Brussels today to check on their welfare and to lend moral support in these vexing times. By so doing, he distinguished himself in the eyes of those who matter most. His caring actions are aligned with his rhetoric. 

Even now, at the twilight of my own career, what a comfort it is to know that the "human factor" is back in play. 

The investments we make in each other are the ones that truly matter most.

Friday, March 11, 2016

On the day he died

Just because...

No matter how strong physically, emotionally, psychologically we may appear, we are essentially among the fragilest of creations.  Our life is like the tenuous flame at the tip of a paper match.  Poof, we burn brightly and with ferocity.

Poof, and gone.

On the drive to our layover hotel in São Paulo this morning, our driver pointed out the body of a middle-aged man lying in the median of the road, not five feet from where the traffic signal had stopped us.  Dead.

He was drowned by dramatic flash-flooding which occurred here in recent days, suddenly overwhelmed by the waters of the rapidly rising stream which runs alongside the roadway, normally just a brook.  He'd left his car, a very late-model VW with its door open perhaps 50 feet away in a bid to escape the flood. Sudden.  Unexpected.  Death.


The leg and bare foot which protruded from underneath a hastily-employed black plastic shroud revealed youth and vitality.  It also revealed lividity and the essentially ephemeral nature of our being.

As we made our u-turn at the intersection for the final jog of our hotel ride, a fair-haired, middle-aged woman arrived at the scene; obviously someone close to the fallen man.  Her reaction when the black plastic as moved to confirm his identity was chillingly visceral:  she withered in place like the ash on a lit cigarette butt in an ashtray.  Her world changed in an instant.

I will never forget the scene.  I will never forget the brutal reality of it for however long my "never" might be.

May he rest in peace, our fallen brother.  Peace be with all who knew and loved him but especially with the woman to whom he was so dear.  On the day he died, the heavens provided the most beautiful shroud...

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Timing. It's Everything.

Well, we survived another major news day for our airline family.  What does it all mean?

The answer to that question is as varied as the opinion and background of the person you ask it.  But the evidence is clear:  we have an astoundingly energetic, enthused, tenacious leader at the helm.  By all accounts, Mr. Munoz acquitted himself, not just well, but in spectacular fashion at BOTH of his 2 hour meet-and-greet sessions in IAH yesterday.  Firsthand accounts are still being posted.  I saw video in another venue of a one-on-one that was dauntingly frank, yet also open, candid, friendly and confidence-building.

I say all of this in the context of the day's news.  How difficult his task must have been standing on its own.  When coupled with breaking headlines that two of our institutional investors were making an "end run" on the boardroom at the same time, it must have been overwhelming to our man.  Yet, his poise never wavered.  He answered the call with an appropriately confident and confidence-boosting communication to the people who matter most:  you and me.  Put ALL OF THAT in the context of heart transplant surgery not even 90 days ago and frankly, I don't know of a word that sufficiently characterizes the circumstances.  Amazing?  Remarkable?  Inspiring?  Resilient?

I was not among those in attendance yesterday, though I was there in spirit.  It's no secret that I am a huge fan of this man, as are many of us.  We've wandered around in the darkness long enough.

As much as anyone, I love and embrace my past for what it was and what it has meant in my life.  But the past is done.  Those friendships will endure.  The resolve with which we meet the realities of today will steel us for our future.

The new UNITED has its leader.  The UNITED family has its patriarch.  It seems a really good time for us to release our pasts and move forward, together.

It's time for UNITED to be united, to quote a friend.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Where Angels Tread

Last night, I had a lovely chat with a beautiful friend and recently retired colleague, someone whose patience, quiet charm, restraint and love have taught me so much about being a better Flight Attendant, about being a better friend and about being a better human being. This leg of her journey with us is nearly complete, a fact which she accepts with characteristic dignity and grace.

We talked about silly things that don't matter. We talked about the things that matter most: life, love, friendship. She left me with a gift and a promise: "I'm happy. See you Thursday."

We honor those we owe by acknowledging our debt. Repayment isn't a possibility. We can only pay it forward.

There's no need to look far for the examples we need. Angels walk among us.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Good-bye, old friend...

Final flight of N7001U

(Click the link above for video)

At Continental Airlines, the 727-100 had 10 First Class and 95 Economy Class seats, if I recall correctly. The only galley was at midships and everything, First Class and Economy Class, was hand-run from that galley.

We used the aircraft extensively on the Houston/Mexico City route because of its performance capabilities ("hot and high", referring to climate and altitude). Since I started my life as a Spanish-speaker, this airplane was my home for the first year or so (along with the DC10-10 PUB which flew the Mexico City overnight trips). After First Class meal carriers were repositioned by the main cabin door next to the cockpit, the galley Flight Attendant would pull out the fore and aft galley service trays at the galley entrance and invert a meal tray to close the gap between them. Then, s/he would stack meal trays like cordwood, back and forth, for the 1 or 2 aisle Flight Attendants to deliver by hand. 

Turbulence = disaster!

Some of these aircraft had closing overhead bins. Some did not. It was quite a challenge, especially at Christmastime, to tell a planefull of folks bringing gifts home to their families in Mexico that they could not stow their portable space heater overhead in the open rack!

Good-bye, old friend! By comparison to today's aircraft, you seem positively Medieval! But, at the time, you were a dream fulfilled.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The balm that soothes

What is the highest, best use for social media?

In my opinion, when we take this powerful tool to amplify our ability to lift and support one another in our most difficult, most vulnerable moments, social media reaches its zenith: to help a distant, near-forgotten friend celebrate a milestone birthday, to console a colleague upon the sudden loss of his/her mate-for-life, to recognize the achievements of an individual or group upon the completion of a meaningful accomplishment, to listen and hear the REAL story in a loved one's day, not just the one that's being told overtly, to provide comfort to a weary, cynical world when no other comfort appears to be forthcoming, to celebrate selflessness and humanity when they are in woefully short supply.

When our friend and colleague, Rusty, posts a photo of his partner-in-life, Steve, declaring that they are "going out to eat" for the first time in months, he is declaring their joy. But unless you or a loved one has endured head and neck cancer or worse, the medical treatments for head and neck cancer, I'm not sure you can fully comprehend just how joyful an occasion it is. Eating, chewing, swallowing, digesting are the components of a process we all take for granted. When cancer treatments have interrupted that process for months on end, the body must be retrained just as is when learning to walk again after an auto accident injures the spine. It's an arduous recovery for the victim and almost equally so for the caregiver. It's like climbing Mt. Everest on your hands and knees; every advance fought for, every advance a victory.

So, to see Steve at table, wan smile in anticipation of partaking in that most human of activities, I want to cheer him on! He has fought for this moment and he hasn't done it alone.

For a long time, I've known my friend Rusty to be truly extraordinary. After 30 years of friendship, I'm learning how truly extraordinary Rusty is.

I send my love, support and best wishes to Steve and Rusty. I celebrate this victory with them from my little room in Brazil where, for a few minutes, we were back on the path together, where I reminisce about a similar path with my own dad, just a few years ago.

Love may not be the "cure" but it is most certainly the balm that soothes. In the end, isn't that all we have, all we need, as we approach our destinations together?

Thursday, February 25, 2016


“Shine ‘em up, Cap’n?”

The exuberant greeting I received from the gentleman manning the shoeshine stand at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport interrupted a certain reverie this morning.  As I returned to the conscious world, I found it difficult to believe that scarcely 40 minutes earlier, I was walking out of the new “town” home that I share with my partner of 30 years, Philip, a lovable mongrel named Maxi and an aging puss with an attitude, Lulu.

At 0727, I announced that it was time to go.  Philip wasted no time taking the stairs down one flight from our apartment to the parking deck and readied the car, while I wheeled my crew bags onto the waiting elevator.  Though we’re within easy walking distance of MARTA’s Lindbergh Center Station (1 1/2 blocks), the weather hasn’t been the greatest. So, I took Philip up on his offer to drop me at the station.  Three Northbound trains passed me on the platform before I boarded the next Southbound train for Midtown, Downtown and the airport at 0732 with plenty of other anxious commuters.  The train cars designed to accommodate travelers with luggage and those with bicycles are clearly marked.  Fortunately, I had stationed myself well and walked only one car-length to locate the appropriate carriage.  Within seconds, doors closed and my fellow travelers and I were swept southward, leaving the worries and hassles of rush-hour traffic to others.

On the hassle-free, if not luxuriously comfortable, train ride, I “chatted” with Philip, my mom and my friend, Linda in Texas, just reaching the end of her all-nighter shift in the maternity ward at Memorial Hospital, The Woodlands.  I checked-in online for my 0855 departure to Houston and checked the status of the flight (on-time).  Though there were several good alternatives to this early-morning departure that would have me in Houston with plenty of time to spare for my evening trip to Brazil, weather in the Northeastern US was wreaking havoc on aircraft routings.  2 of our late-morning departures were already showing delays and experience tells me that further weather issues could drive cancellations and the resulting “pile up” of passengers on otherwise open flights, a strong consideration to those of us who travel stand-by.  “Conscientious commuter” is a term that more than adequately would describe me.  The way I see it, I sit somewhere at the crossroads of “conscientious”, “obsessive-compulsive” and downright paranoid.  Better to while away the time anxiety-free in Houston than to fret, churn and second-guess myself in Atlanta as I watched flight after flight depart without me.

I breezed through airport security, using the Known Crew Member option and was only slightly slowed when a TSA agent just beyond the KCM kiosk randomly asked to swab my hands to run an explosives detection test.  Even so, I was through and on my way to the conveniently located “T” gates at just 7 minutes past eight a.m. A short time later, I arrived at the assigned gate for my flight to see the usual early morning gate denizens all in their usual places:  families with children, huddled together deciding the best game plan for boarding, seasoned travelers consuming an all-too-familiar airport breakfast (mostly expensive, sodium and fat-laden, incomprehensibly bland, nutrition-free fast food), neophytes excited at the mystery and possibilities of air travel, and the “type A”s already gathered in their assigned boarding group lanes, as though some wonderful prize lay waiting at the end of the jetway instead of a fairly new Boeing commercial aircraft.  The familiarity of people I’ve never met and will likely never meet again, all in their assigned places, playing the usual roles is comforting on some level, even if those people and roles typify a strange and illogical sort of dysfunction.

Within minutes, I heard the agent announce, “Wilkes, Reece”.  Clearly, she was calling standbys who’d been cleared for this wide-open flight.  But why only 2 names?  The standby list was double-digits in size, last time I checked.  I was the first to arrive at the podium and, presenting my picture ID, said, “Reece”.

“Would you prefer a window seat or an aisle?”

“Aisle, please, and thanks so much for asking!”

“Of course.  Would you object to sitting in Economy Plus in the Exit Row?”

“Not at all!  I call that ‘Non-Rev First’!”

“Then, we’ll give you 21D.  Have a nice flight.”

“I’m a new commuter here.  In fact, this is my first trip.  Thank you for starting me out so nicely.”

A day-changing smile dawned on her face as she “raised the roof” in response.  “We do our best!”, she said.  “And I appreciate it.”, I replied.  If she only knew how auspicious it felt to start my new reality in my new home on such a high note.  (Maybe someday she’ll read this.  Then she’ll know.)

“We’d like to offer a pre-board courtesy to our active military personnel, in or out of uniform.  Thank you for your service to our country.”  What a nice, warming touch that announcement is.  “Boarding Group 3, you are welcome to board at this time.”  It seemed more-or-less immediate that my higher number group was called, largely because the numerous “Type A”s in Groups 1 and 2 waste little time in asserting their importance by boarding expeditiously and authoritatively.

What greeted my fellow travelers and I at the end of the jetway (very WIZARD OF OZ, don’t you think?) was a newer B737-900ER sporting Boeing’s latest “Sky” interior.  It really is lovely, light, bright, and airy-feeling with the capacious yet space-saving tilt-closed baggage bins overhead and new, leather-clad Recaro seats throughout the cabin.  The entertainment options onboard these days are astounding.  I am connected to our high-speed onboard wifi as I type.  Most of our Mainline aircraft and many of our larger regional jets are also equipped with on-demand wifi entertainment options streamed to a customer’s own portable electronic device (laptop, tablet, phone, etc.)  Those aircraft that don’t have, like this one, will be receiving it soon.  I read yesterday that, in addition to movies and TV programming stored on onboard servers, my airline-employer is working on an agreement with LiveTV (our supplier) to stream live television programming in like fashion.  

Experience and intuition tell me that our cabin crew today is comprised of two of our newer Flight Attendants (we’re in the process of adding thousands) and two who are, shall we say, more seasoned (like me).  I want to single out the Flight Attendant making the onboard announcements because I happen to believe that announcement delivery is woefully under-recognized as a tone-setting anxiety reliever for most travelers. 

Written words, dictated by our employer and regulated by Federal Aviation Regulations, form the basis of our announcements.  Thereafter, personality, tone, emotion, professionalism, freshness (or fatigue), attitude, age, seniority, motivation and a host of other TERRIBLY subjective factors take over.  As an example of a concept that will be difficult to convey in writing, 


sounds markedly different from

“Thank you.

Welcome to the Friendly Skies!”

That iconic, signature line says so much about our company and about the individual delivering it.  Very little sets us apart from our competitors.  Our “hard products” are remarkably similar (perhaps unremarkably so) to those of the competition:  aircraft, seats, food, drink, etc.  What distinguishes us from our competition is in the hands of those who deliver the product, those whose intimate, time-protracted interactions with our fare-paying customers leave those customers with a feeling about their experience.  In other words, DELIVERY is the critical distinguishing factor.

Would that every day, every flight were executed as well as this one.  My colleagues and I, under the most excellent new leadership we might have hoped for, are working on JUST THAT!

The skies are exceptionally friendly this morning, thank you. 

Welcome to my new reality.  Welcome to my reverie.
Welcome to the Friendly Skies!