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
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!