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.