Wednesday, August 9, 2017

United by the Friendly Skies

Remember how much fun it was to come off an airplane, make that walk up the “jet way”, and find some smiling face waiting for you at the top?

I think about that every time I come off an airplane these days. It used to be that when someone went to the airport to pick you up, they parked the car, came inside, and went down to the terminal gate to wait for you to come off the plane.

Now, of course, when you go to pick someone up at the airport, it’s like going through a drive-thru at a fast food place – you drive slowly in a long line of cars, looking for the person you’re there to pick up, knowing you can’t stop unless you see them. If you don’t see them, you have to keep going, circle the airport, and come through the line again. If you do see them, you get to stop but you better be quick and get that door open for them while throwing their luggage into the trunk before airport security comes over to tell you to move along.

I used to fly a lot. Most of the time it was for work, so there was rarely anyone waiting for me at the top of the ramp at the jetway. I’d walk through the access door and see those hopeful, expectant faces look at me for the briefest of seconds, then quickly move on to see who came through the door next because I wasn’t the one they were looking for. But it was kind of fun to see all the smiling faces, hear the squeals of excitement from wives or husbands waiting to hug their loved one, the kids running to greet grandma or grandpa who were coming for a visit.

Now, of course, you just come off hoping to get the attention of an airline attendant who can tell you your connecting flight is not at the gate it says on your ticket but is now two terminals – a 10 minute train ride and 15 minute walk – away, but they’re already boarding that flight so you probably won’t make it.

Recently I came off a flight and suddenly thought, “What was the captain’s name?” Do airline pilots – captains – even introduce themselves anymore? I can remember a time when the flight always started with “this is your captain, Ted Stryker, welcoming you aboard …” or ending with “on behalf of Captain Ted Stryker and the entire Chicago-based flight crew, welcome to Orlando and thank you for flying Pan American…”

Maybe they still introduce themselves and I’ve gotten so used to it that I no longer listen.

Not that it really matters. In all the times I’ve begun to ascend into the friendly skies, I never had the speaker come on and hear “This is your captain, Ted Stryker …” and the guy next to me say, “Oh, he’s really good! I always try to fly with Captain Stryker!” It’s not like you go buy a ticket to fly and the reservation agent says, “Where are you going?” and you say, “Well, tell me what route Captain Ted Stryker is flying. I always fly with Captain Ted.”

My parents used to live across the street from a Delta airline pilot. He was a great guy, and a good neighbor. One time he asked me to deposit his paycheck because I was going to the bank. I’m not sure why he asked me to do that; I’d never ask someone to deposit my paycheck for me. Although, come to think of it, he certainly had nothing to be ashamed of. This was the 1970s, when being a pilot was still pretty glamorous, and I don’t know if he was paid weekly, twice a month, or monthly, but I do know that paycheck I deposited for him was about half to a third of what I was making in a year in my first newspaper job (of course, I started out at $150 a week).

But as a sportswriter, I flew quite a bit. And being in Atlanta at the time, I flew Delta a lot. Every time I flew, I listened for the pilot to make his introduction just in case it was my neighbor. It never was. I’m not sure what difference it would have made if it had been, although I guess I could turn to the person sitting next to me and say, “Oh, I know this guy. He’s really good. And you’ll never guess how much money he makes!”

I always thought of pilots as these real adventurous guys, the old “daring young men in their flying machines” kind of image. When you think about it, they are really just glorified cabbies. Their job is to pick you up at point A and get you to point B safely. Unlike cabbies however, you can’t say something like “there’s an extra 20 in it if you can get me there in 15 minutes!”

Pilots do what they are told. They fly at the elevation they are told to fly, and mindlessly follow the directions given them by “the tower.” You know, as in , “the tower tells us we’re No. 19 for takeoff, so settle back for a few minutes and we’ll get you airborne just as soon as it’s our turn on the run way.”

You know what I’d like? A pilot who had been a cabbie, who didn’t care about stop signs or speed limits and could dodge cars, bikes, pedestrians, garbage cans, baby carriages, and knew all the shortcuts to get you where you wanted to go.

Just once, I’d like a pilot say, “the tower tells us we’re No. 19 in line for takeoff, but you know what? To heck with them – we’re not waiting,’’ and the next thing you know he pulls out on the grass between runways and starts accelerating past all the other planes who are waiting in line, making a run for the open run way. We’d all be looking out the window, terrified at first, but then seeing all the other schmucks sitting in the long line of planes being forced to wait their turn. We’d all starting yelling, “Go, Captain Ted! Go!” And at the last minute he swerves back on the paved part of the runway at the front of the line and the next thing you know we’ve got lift off!

I mean, what are they going to do? We’re getting ready to take off into the wild blue yonder, and if he gets us to Point B on time or even early … well, that’s the kind of guy I’d want to book my next flight with, regardless of where he was going. It’s the kind of guy that when he came on and said, “This is Captain Ted Stryker…” you can bet I’d turn to the guy next to me and say, “Oh, this guy’s good. Fasten your seatbelt. You’re not going to believe what we’re about to do …”

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