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Divert to Kenai (or “How To Test A Pilot”) – Part 9

August 21, 2015

As I see John approaching our aircraft, I rise out of my seat. There is only space to stand in a 737 cockpit if Logan moves out of the way. He does so, backing into the forward galley. Hearing John’s shoes skipping up the portable metal stairway leading to the open front door, I lean out of the now fully warmed cockpit and peer into the doorway.

“What’s the news?” I inquire.

John doesn’t answer me. Instead he motions me to join him in First Class. That’s where Becky, Joann and Heath are seated. Each is slumped in one of the wide, navy blue leather-trimmed seats absentmindedly poking at their smartphone. Unlike last night when we arrived, cellphone service seems to have been miraculously restored at the Kenai airport. Logan follows behind me after I follow John.

John looks at all of us to make sure he has our attention. Joann is last to put her phone down.

“The company doesn’t want to do the bus thing.” He exhales with a sigh. John is referring to my suggestion of chartering a handful of buses to deliver our ‘non-secure’ passengers to Anchorage.

He goes on. “They said that the single road between Kenai and Anchorage has just recently reopened after last night’s snowfall. And the buses would have to come from Anchorage anyway. Company reports there are no buses for us to use here in Kenai.”

In my mind I picture that solitary two-lane ribbon of pavement winding through the remote wilderness connecting Kenai to Anchorage. There are mountains between here and there. It’s probably not an easy drive either, especially after last night’s snowstorm. Avalanches are common around here.

John tells us it is 158 miles to drive from Kenai to Anchorage. But only 52 miles by 737—a mere 20 minute flight. Fickle weather notwithstanding, travel by air is easily the most convenient way to go from one place to another. I once read that there are more pilots per capita in the state of Alaska than any other state. No wonder.

“Am I going to get fired?” Logan suddenly blurts out.

“What? No!” John stammers.

It’s obvious that John wasn’t expecting this question.

Now, other than the distant whine of the APU, there’s a pronounced silence in the cabin. The echo of Logan’s query and John’s reflexive answer hangs in the air. Until now, I sensed a certain nonchalant regard toward the whole predicament by Heath and Joann. When John is caught off guard by Logan’s question, even they now look alarmed.

I look up at John. I expect him to provide some supporting information as to why Logan, Becky, Heath and Joann should not fear for their jobs. But he doesn’t say anything. Perhaps he’s formulating a response, but with each second that passes the tension in the cabin rises.

Well, if he’s not going to speak, I will.

“No one’s going to fire you.” I begin.

Still vitalized after reaching the same conclusion that Logan and Becky have, my head shakes at the thought of any flight crewmember losing their job over trying to protect the safety of themselves, their passengers, fellow crewmembers and their aircraft—let alone the reputation of the airline. To me, it’s an absurdity.

Words come fast for me now. “You’re just doing your job. The one the company had you spend almost three months in training for. Where you learned the ‘CUS’ words. You know, ‘concern’, ‘safety’, ‘uncomfortable’…”

That’s a reference back to our company mandatory crew resource management training given to all pilots and flight attendants. Each word is a gradual escalation of the perceived threat.

“…And I’ve heard you use every one of these today,” I add. “Correctly, too.”

It appears that John has been mulling over what to say, given his delay in saying something—acting like a Captain—what leaders are supposed to be doing. When he does I will shut the hell up. I practically feel like I’m speaking for him already. But I’m not the captain here.

As if resigned to play the role of leader, he finally speaks—weakly. “Nothing’s gonna happen to you.”

That’s all he says. John’s statement falls gracelessly through the air and lands with a thud.

I blink twice. He’s just rehashed what I’ve already said. The tone is gutless. He’s not going to convince anyone. No support for Logan and Becky and the courageous stance they’re taking.

Frankly, I don’t know if the jobs of Logan and Becky are safe. And neither does John. The tension remains.

Up until this point, I have not mentioned much of John or his background. But it is common for pilots who share the snug confines of a cockpit to quietly size up each other. The question “What were you doing prior to us?” is often posed upon first meeting. It’s a deceptively open-ended query that basically asks, “Given that we are at the top of the commercial aviation food chain here, what kind of flying were you doing to get to this level?” Translation: Tell me your flying chops, mister.

In other words, “What the hell do you know?” Or think you know.

Sometimes my captains are older than I, possibly near retirement age, with thousands and thousands of airline flying hours in their logbooks. Or perhaps a military veteran with scores of missions over territory hostile and friendly in addition to his “civilian” time. Maybe the captain was the lucky beneficiary of timing, blessed by the fickle, meandering gods of fortune with a hire date provided after only a few years of light general aviation flight instruction or charter work.  “Right place, right time,” we say.

Whatever the background is, each and every pilot must rise to a certain position on the company seniority list to even bid for a captain vacancy. Once awarded, this pilot must first pass a rigorous flight training regime and checkout. Any non-hackers are typically sent back to the right seat, where us first officers reside in our “apprentice” role with the hope that this seasoning will eventually allow a successful upgrade.

At this level, those that are awarded a coveted opportunity for captain upgrade seldom fail in their attempt. At our line, these promotions usually take many years in coming—at least 10 to 15 years on average. However, expansion by the company into new markets, the acquisition of more aircraft or, in John’s case, the pending merger of two airlines into one allowed him the chance to become a captain. At 40, John is five years younger than me. Though not unheard of, that’s relatively young to be a captain at a major airline.

From what little we touched on our mutual pasts during the course of our one leg flight to Kenai yesterday, John told me that he had been hired by our soon-to-be-merged partner airline back in 2005. Prior to that, John had been with one of our regional affiliate airlines, plying the skies over North America in 50 seat regional jets. Total time on the regional roster about five years, two of that as captain.

This is good seasoning, yes. As far as I can tell, John was not the beneficiary of any preferential hiring schemes sometimes concocted by human resource departments far removed from the flight line. His experience that led him into this Boeing 737 cockpit here in Kenai, Alaska is, at least, relevant and true.

Mine is also. I’ve been flying for over 27 years. My present employer (and hopefully my final airline) is actually my fourth major airline. I’ve also flown air freight, turboprop airliners and business jets big and small. I have specific type ratings in nine separate turbine aircraft. And prior to all of these jobs, I spent four years as a noble but lowly flight instructor helping to mint new aviators.

I’ve been a captain, too. Not in a Boeing aircraft, but in smaller jets. My five flight logbooks and the inked contents carefully scribed within are one of my most proud accomplishments. I have no doubt in my mind I could command this aircraft if given the opportunity.

But right now, that honor and responsibility has been bestowed to John. He retreats to the cockpit to stow his suitcase. His attempt to mollify our flight attendants has failed. Like a good wingman, I follow him. I feel he needs my support.

“You know the company’s gonna try to force them to fly,” John levels with me, his voice is just louder than a whisper. “If they don’t, they will get fired.”

I fall into my seat and sigh in agreement. We silently share a nod.  John and I may have different viewpoints on the risks associated with flying from Kenai to Anchorage this morning, but we do agree on a few things.

First, our jobs are safe. Specifically, my job is safe. After all, I am the only pilot here that has sided with Logan and Kelly regarding the risk associated with attempting our flight. I am sticking my proverbial neck out by doing so, however, because I may have to justify it well after this issue has been resolved. My pilot union membership provides me with robust legal council in the event of punitive action against me. Our company standard operating procedures, regulations and past precedence are firmly on my side. Additionally, the company has provided me with hundreds of thousands of dollars in training me to be as skilled as possible while flying the 737. They have a lot of money invested in me. If either of us got fired, it would be very costly to replace us.

Second, Logan and Kelly’s jobs are not safe. Neither are Heath and Joann’s. Although I just stated flatly to Logan that his job is safe to his face, the reality of the matter is I have no guarantee. Here’s why: to the company, a flight attendant is a relatively inexpensive-to-train, abundant commodity. For every flight attendant we have, there are scores that would love to do this work. Compared to a pilot, no specific prior experience as a flight attendant is necessary to be thusly employed for a major airline. And although our flight attendants enjoy the formal membership in a union, including legal support when necessary, both John and I know their attorneys are much weaker than ours. In other words, flight attendants are relatively expendable.

But we don’t say that to them.

Logan and Kelly and I have a point. Boarding up a bunch of weary, disgruntled and possibly inebriated passengers—all of whom had access to not one but two stores where they could purchase items prohibited from being carried onto a commercial airliner—then sending them off into the sky without being properly screened for these items (like they would be at any other commercial airport in our service network) is just too big of a risk to take.

“Well, I’m going to go back inside and tell them what’s going on,” John rises out of his seat to walk back outside to the terminal building where our passengers wait expectantly. It’s been at least 45 minutes since we arrived back at the airport this morning. I watch John dial his phone and hold it to his ear as he walks away. He’s probably calling the FODM again.

Logan waits until John leaves to speak.  “Is he pissed?” I hear Logan call to me from first class. I rise out of my seat again and head back to answer him.

“No. Just frustrated,” I start. “We’re just stuck, that’s all.”

I break out my vocal highlighter.  “Listen, I feel strongly about this. You feel strongly about this. Kelly feels strongly about this. But the company doesn’t agree with us.” I sum it up again. “We are stuck. But—“ I pause for effect and look straight at Logan. “None of this is your fault.”

Logan looks away and exhales in disgust. “That’s not the way it looks to me,” He says.

“But that’s the way it looks to me. And I’ll back you up on it.” And I will, too. If anyone from the company asks me what happened, I will back my flight attendants up for standing up for what they believe to be the safest, lowest-risk course of action here.

Suddenly, within my uniform coat pocket, my cell phone rings. Up until this point, my cell phone has shown zero service connectivity at the airport in Kenai. Although the phone worked fine at the hotel in Soldotna earlier, I haven’t tried to place any calls on it since.

I pull it out and look at the caller ID. The same South Bend, Indiana number appears just like it had while I was eating breakfast with John this morning. I know no one from South Bend except for one person—Cam, from the Chief Pilot’s office in Chicago. He’s the boss of me and almost 2000 pilots there.

I tap the screen to pick up the call and hold the phone to my ear. “Hello?”

“Dave…this is Cam,” Cam’s tone of voice is low and forceful. It is markedly different from the relatively ebullient timbre of our earlier conversation. “I hear you’re having a problem flying to Anchorage up there. Care to tell me what’s going on?”

There is no mistaking his tone. Cam’s upset. He’s even leaned on the word ‘problem’. Knowing the following conversation will reflect greatly on my immediate future both here in Kenai and long term as an employee of the airline, I step quickly down the aisle towards the back of the plane. I need the privacy.

“Sure, Cam…” I clear my throat to begin. “I’m concerned about this plan of ours to take these people for a flight without screening them. It’s full of holes…”

Cam challenges me on my definition of the word ‘holes’.  I hear a mixture of skepticism and distrust.

I take a deep breath and go on to carefully describe to Cam our odyssey at Kenai ever since we landed here last night. In chronicalogical order I rattle it off.

No ACARS radio to communicate. The single cell phone that we had to rely on. The deicing we had to get. No jetway. No TSA. The airstairs someone from Era had to find for us. The toilets that showed full. The majority of our customers that were more than 8 hours without food. Even the pizza guy wouldn’t help us. Plus, only one jet fuel truck on the whole airport. Then, even after getting the proper amount, discovering that the fueler had pumped it into the wrong tanks.

We run out of duty time and the flight cancels. Then the passengers wanted their bags back. Then we had to empty the water system and rescue four dogs from the aft baggage compartment in sub-zero windchills. Then we get surrounded by half of our pissed-off passengers when they find out that there are not enough hotel rooms for everybody in Kenai.

Which brings me to today, where we find the company has done little more than provide food and blankets for our hapless customers. Nothing regarding security of the aircraft. No passenger screening. Just the assumption that we pilots and flight attendants are going to be a-okay with the idea of loading up our poorly-treated customers, some of who have been drinking all night—and all of whom had access to two stores where they could have purchased weapons or other prohibited materials. And other than us, there is no one who can help us screen them. No ground security coordinator. It’s all on us.

And when two of our flight attendants tell John and I their concerns, how uncomfortable they are, and how they think safety is now being compromised, I reach the same conclusion they do. That is—their fears are valid. I don’t want to go flying either.

“Cam, I was hired by the company back in 2000—almost 14 years ago. Recall back then that each and every pilot and flight attendant had to participate in several days of cockpit resource management training—together? You remember that, right?”

There’s a noticeable pause before Cam replies, “Yes.”

“Well, one of the things that stuck with me the most from that class was the use of the ‘CUS’ words, Cam. Remember those?”

My throat is getting dry and tight. I feel my pulse throbbing in my temples.

“Every one of those CUS words have been used this morning, Cam. And we as pilots were trained in that CRM course to listen for them,” My voice rises slightly and I slow my tempo of speech to put emphasis on each word. “I’ve been listening, Cam.

Maybe that’s my ‘problem’, Cam.  I’ve been doing what I was taught to do.

But he doesn’t hear that last quip.  It’s just my inside voice yelling.

My soliloquy concluded, I hold my breath until my Chief Pilot says something back. “So what do you suggest we do then?” he asks finally.

The response is at the tip of my tongue. I put on my best salesman’s voice and try to sell it.

“Charter however many buses it takes to accommodate everyone and drive them up to Anchorage. We will be more than happy to fly the airplane empty up there.” Sounds like a workable plan to us. I hold my breath again.

Another pause. “Nah. The company doesn’t want to do that.” Cam slams the door closed in my face.

“Listen Dave,” Cam fires back at me. “You gotta understand how hard we’ve been working on this issue ever since you guys diverted there last night.”

I press the phone as hard as I can against my right ear and use my left hand to jab a finger into my left ear to block out all ambient sound nearby. My right index finger mashes the Volume Up button on my cellphone.  I don’t want to miss a word he says.

“We have had our System Operations supervisor working with the Corporate Security desk. They have been working with TSOC in Washington DC…” Cam intones.

I’ve heard this before, I think to myself.

“…and they have taken our passenger manifest and carefully vetted everyone on the list against the national No-Fly database. And no one has come up as a security risk! No one!” Cam’s voice sounds like a barking dog.

“That’s fine, Cam,” I retort. “But none of those people who say it’s safe for us to fly are on the airplane with us.”

I gratuitously borrow this line uttered so succinctly by Logan just a little while ago.

I imagine this statement has caused steam to shoot out of Cam’s ears, because I only hear silence in mine.

Regretting it now, I try to tone down my swagger. “Listen Cam, my job as a pilot is to help identify risk and lower that risk level as much as I can for each situation. And to me, busing the people up to Anchorage is the least-risk scenario of our choices here.”

What Cam says to me next astonishes me.

“Dave, if we tried to lower the risk level in everything we do in our lives, we would never get out of bed in the morning.”

Whoa. My mind wrestles with this image Cam describes and I’m sent reeling. To think that my efforts thus far to lower the risks posed by this flight today are likened to someone so obsessed by it as to be paralyzed by fear is stupefying. In fact, it is preposterous. Cam has just insulted me, whether he realizes it or not.

I’m now standing in the corner of the aircraft rear galley, as far away from everyone else as I can be. My restless feet have carried me back here.  It’s still pretty chilly, but I feel my neck radiating heat. I pull at my tie to loosen it.

I know little about Cam other than seeing him a time or two while passing through the Flight Operations office at O’Hare. He’s at least 15 years older than I and has been a senior captain on our largest widebody aircraft for quite a few years. It’s a lofty position. Until today, I’ve never personally spoken to him.

“Cam,” I measure my voice as best I can. My body is shaking now. “This is my fourth major airline I’ve worked for. I’m not a spring chicken. This is not my first rodeo.”

I’m certainly no cowboy, nor am I nuts. I’m just some suburbanite twerp first officer who likes what he does, takes pride in his job and tries the best he can when he’s on the clock.

“With all due respect to you, Sir, now you’re disrespecting me.” I finish.

Thus far in my decorously long and somewhat tumultuous aviation career, I’ve never had to tell my boss that he’s treating me like shit. But that’s pretty much what I’ve just told Cam. I have no idea how he’s going to take it. (To be continued.)


Note:  Thank you, all readers of my little blog.  Interest in this true story of mine, along with other topics on which I blather, has humbled me.

I know many of you wish to hear the rest of my diversion to Kenai, Alaska from last year.  I have not forgotten you.

Alas, a perfect storm of writers block, family concerns and distractions with work have kept me away from the keyboard.  I apologize.  I will attempt to finish telling this tale as soon as I possibly can.


One Comment
  1. permalink

    And the suspense mounts!…..

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