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Louts, Service Dogs, (In)tolerance and Tact

September 30, 2015

I finished a four-day trip yesterday. As scheduled, it looked good. 11 legs taking me coast to coast and to numerous cities in between with a total flight pay of over 25 hours. That’s pretty productive around my lowly seniority number.

Some guys don’t like so many takeoffs and landings. I’m just the opposite. I love them. After all, I like flying—paws on the wheel and throttles, feet on the rudder pedals—not monitoring the autopilot.

So, yes, I liked the flying. Gorgeous weather everywhere (this time of year is my favorite), gratifyingly gentle landings of my accord and enjoyable layovers in places I don’t usually get to visit.

But the trip was miserable. And it had nothing to do with the actual flying, or the airplane. It had to do with the captain I worked with. Simply put, he was a lout. An oaf. A toolbag. After four days, I couldn’t wait to get home.

I enjoy decent relative seniority in my airplane and pilot base. As such, I am given my monthly schedule approximately 2 weeks prior to the next month. Each trip assigned therein will show cities, departure times and layovers. They will also show the person with whom I will be working—my Captain.

Knowing the details of ones’ trip is valuable. I can pack for the beach or the snow, as appropriate for the layover city, maximizing my quality of life while on the road. And when I know who’s paired up with me, I then have the luxury of recalling whether or not we have flown together. Again—quality of life stuff. But in a domicile as large as mine, I fly with people new to me on a regular basis.

The cockpit of my plane, the Boeing 737, is snug. Not Learjet 35 snug—that’s an airplane that you pull on like a pair of bike shorts. But really any cockpit isn’t necessarily spacious. And when there’s just two of you, together for four full days, individual personalities present themselves. For better or worse.

“Don” (not his real name) walked up to me as I sat at a long worktable within our preflight planning room at O’Hare. Don is not a lineholder. He’s a reserve pilot. On call.

“You going to DCA?” he asked.

I looked up from my iPad, recognizing him immediately. I’ve flown with this guy before. He was not the fellow I was originally scheduled to fly with. Don’s filling in for him. I offered a weak smile and handshake. But inside I grimaced.

I noted Don didn’t wear our pilot union pin on his tie like virtually every other pilot at our line—except for the scabs. Don is not officially on our master pilot scab list—he hasn’t crossed any picket lines as far as I know.

The simple display of our pilot union pin on our tie is a tradition steeped in pride, forged by strikes and picket lines and driven by unity. Unions have strength in numbers. Our pilots have for years shown their support of our union and the piloting profession simply by wearing the pin. It is as much a part of our uniform as the epaulets we wear on our shoulders. To us, showing up to fly without our union pin is like showing up without pants. We wouldn’t dare think of it—on many levels.

Don’s pin didn’t fall off, either. Not wearing your union pin in the center of your tie is an aggressive, deliberate act. We had this “pin” discussion the last time we flew. He just didn’t like our union, that’s all. This was his way of showing his displeasure, among other things, of his placement on our company seniority list after our merger.

And I could not convince him otherwise. Then again, it’s not my battle to fight. If he wishes to be thought of as a “slick tie”—in other words a scab, a pariah, that’s his problem. Scabs are treated with indifference at the very least up to and including cold distain and hatred. If you wish to have any semblance of warmth and respect at our workplace, you would never scab. And you would always wear your pin.

Oh the irony. The position as captain that Don presently holds was fought for vigorously by his union. So are the payscales that he happily accepts. But the union pin? He summed it up for me when we flew together for the first time.

“That’s nothing I want to associate with. I got screwed by the seniority list integration. They’re all douchebags.”

Unions work for the collective good. Not for the individual. So much for Don and his feelings of unity.

“We’ve flown together, right?” his forced joviality spilling out of his mouth. I nodded yes. We had. A few months ago. Although I recalled flying with him, I couldn’t remember where. It didn’t really matter. I didn’t like the experience. So I blotted it out of my mind.

“How you doin’?” I offered, feigning interest.

“Oh great! I picked this trip up because there were two that I knew I would get and this one paid more and so, I just scooped it up!” he bragged.

Don liked to brag.

This is what I remember most about my first experience with Don. He liked to talk about himself. Brag. Boast. Gloat. Crow. On and on. It was going to be a long four-day trip for me, I thought ruefully. But Don seemed as happy as a pig in shit.

Suffice to say, on our first leg, Don wasted no time regaling me with all of the exceptional things that he had been doing since we last flew together. He apparently just got back from Munich after touring Europe with his new fiancé in his shiny black BMW M4 sports car that he had just purchased over there. They lived it up, he cackled, driving through Switzerland, Italy, Austria, the undersea world of Atlantis, probably. 5 star hotels. Fine dining. 200 kilometers per hour on the Autobahn in his German car. I think he saw the Loch Ness Monster. Twice.

Now back stateside, Don lavished me with photos of a 7000 square foot house he, a divorced father of two, and his fiancé are buying. Combined, there will be their four kids and the two of them living under its massive roof.

“It’s so much more affordable than around here! And you know what I’m paying in taxes? 3,000 bucks!” he exulted. “That’s probably less than half of what you’re paying around here!”

At least he remembered that I lived nearby. Of course he has to commute 4 hours each way whenever he has to come to work. My commute is 10 minutes. My car barely warms up. My 3 brothers and I lived in what I considered a huge home when I was growing up—2000 square feet. But Don likes his space in the middle of nowhere, I guess.

The grand tales continued. Rock climbing. Skiing virgin double black diamond runs in fresh powder. Mountain biking—but not where he presently lives. “I grew up in California, so I know mountain biking. You can’t mountain bike where I live.”

“Really?” I said. I’ve always enjoyed riding my mountain bike wherever I could ride it—even on a street (gasp!). Don scoffed.

He would always ask where the local gyms were at each of our layover hotels. He sounded like a fitness nut. But with his ample spare tire, he was hardly Charles Atlas. After witnessing him devour such health food as fettuccini Alfredo and three egg omelets with a side order of everything, I kinda thought he was making his goal of acquiring a beach body a bit of an uphill slog. He was being a little hypocritical to his waistline.

On and on, Don’s stories foamed from his mouth. Lusting over massive $5,000 Breitling wristwatches, GoPro cameras and his new laptop computer that he had to show me. Plucky tales of derring-do in King Airs and helicopters in one of his prior lives.

I have some tales, too. But he never asked. I dutifully sat in the right seat of the plane, verified it was pointed in the correct direction, radio calls answered right away, checklists completed.

Don asked me nothing about myself. Nothing. No questions about my life, my beautiful wife, my sons, even the old softball standby—my prior employment. Nada. Zero. Zilch. Any details he knows about me are because I offered it. He just never asked.

Mostly, after I was done reading every word of text I carried with me, I just worked on my “two o’clock stare”. That’s when you’re so bored—or over this boob sitting next to you that you just turn your head about 60º to your right. Even a dull undercast cloud deck is more thrilling than one more story about how Don spends his paycheck.

I know what you might be thinking—I’m just jealous. He’s got it all. And I am every shade of green with envy. Who wouldn’t be? He’s even a captain with our airline after only being here for 10 years. (I am into year 15.)

How do I answer this with anything other than “no”? Easy. I don’t compare myself with him, or the likes of his kind.

My life is totally different from his. My desires, beliefs and responsibilities point in such markedly different trajectories that they could travel around the world a million times and never intersect. My car is 11 years old. My house is 1650 square feet. My watch was 45 bucks. I don’t know how to ski. I have a special needs child.

I’ve heard it said somewhere that the act of comparison is the biggest thief to joy. I believe this to be true. If there’s something I love in my life, it’s joy, in whatever form it takes.  Don’t try to steal my joy.

But back to my trip with Don.

Don had one more personal tic, and it was pretty disgusting.

Don farts.

Ask anyone who’s ever shared a small space with someone else. It could be an office, an elevator, a cockpit. If someone is flatulent, you’re gonna find out quick. Even if you don’t hear it, you’ll smell it—and it’s not going to be fresh lavender or pumpkin spice.

Truth be told, we all do it from time to time. I have been known to stink up the joint several hours after a plate of steak fajitas and a glass of milk. But I will fess up to it, too. And if I have access to a bathroom, I’ll excuse myself and try to purge my colon of the offending material.

But Don wouldn’t fess up. The first few times I smelled something, I thought it might be the lavatory immediately aft of the cockpit. This proximity can make the occasionally dropped monster dookie rather fragrant up front where us pilots live.

But on this trip, that wasn’t the case. We could hear people opening and closing the lavatory door. When I smelled something evil for the second time (day one, leg one), the seatbelt sign was on and we were about to land. There was no one in the lav. I gagged. It smelled like rendered pork fat. Don said nothing.

During leg two, it happened again. Day two, more stench. I waited for him to say something. Silence from Don. It’s about the only time he wouldn’t be blathering about how he spends his money.

Did he think I didn’t notice? That I couldn’t smell? Was his nose broken? How much gall did he possess? What the hell was wrong with him? He indeed was a pig in shit. Full of shit, too.

By day three, I had had enough. Sure enough, leg one, after he told me about his fantastic three egg omelet he inhaled at the hotel restaurant, I got to smell what it was like as his digestive tract turned it into lethal mustard gas.

“Was that you?” I turned to look at him.

“Yes” was his sheepish but instant reply. I caught him. Worse, I called him out on it.

“Oh my GOD! What the hell, dude?” I said incredulously, fanning the invisible fumes with my hands.

“Oh don’t be a pussy!” he shot back, like he was a sixth-grader on the playground and I wasn’t being tough enough.

And now he’s calling me names. Nice guy, this Don.

“I’ve got to fly four more legs with this dude,” was all I could think about.

“Really, it’s disgusting. Please, use the bathroom. Something.”

I offered him a solution. What was I going to do? Get off the plane and call my chief pilot saying my captain was gassing me out of the cockpit? Was it gross? Yep. Uncouth? Of course. But reason to walk off of a trip?

Not really.

A call to our union Professional Standards committee wouldn’t do much, either. Those wheels rotate slowly, likely not to get back to captain Smallbrain Stinkypants for several days. Perhaps if I just wore my oxygen mask for the rest of the trip…not a bad idea.

However, sucking on a hose for 5 hours enroute to Baltimore didn’t sound pleasant to me, either. Those masks aren’t exactly comfortable.  Though the thought of breathing like Darth Vader did secretly delight me, because I knew it would have driven Don bananas.

Which led me to our final day together—yesterday. The aforementioned transcon flight from LAX to Baltimore. Weather gorgeous the entire way, as it had been for our whole trip so far. At least there wasn’t much I had to deal with outside the aircraft.

After I was done with my cockpit preflight duties, I decided to stretch my legs and retrieve a cup of orange juice from the galley. There, I noticed our passengers were beginning to trickle aboard our plane. The first one I saw, a middle-aged lady, was clutching a leash. I looked down to see a long-haired dachshund wearing a worn grey and red vest with a patch that said “service dog” on the side. I smiled.

My son Alex has a service dog. She is an amazing creature.

But I also didn’t make a big deal about this lady and her dog. I merely watched as the dog led this lady to the first row of coach seats and gingerly hop onto her handler’s lap after she had settled into her seat. I didn’t need to know anything more.

It’s a bittersweet feeling of pride and sadness I feel whenever I see someone else with a service dog—a child or an adult. Some people call them guide dogs. Some call them comfort animals. Whatever they call them, I think these creatures are wonderful. They do incredible work.

But they are not pets.

Presently, the topic of service animals aboard commercial aircraft is controversial. Legislation codified and signed into law in 1990 called the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) makes it illegal for any U.S. airline to deny anyone possessing such animals access to air travel.

The ADA does not define what a service animal or comfort animal is. Indeed this law is pretty vague. It goes further by saying that any airline, or its’ employees, cannot ask any questions regarding said animal—other than what the animal provides the handler—comfort, tethering, tracking, etc. No written documentation, proof of training or other certification is required.

Therein lies the problem. Some people abuse this. Airlines typically charge customers to transport pets aboard aircraft. If they are small enough to fit in a bag which is also small enough to fit beneath the seat, that’s where the animal must reside. That goes for a snake, dog, cat, bird, pig, whatever.

But if they cannot fit beneath the seat, these animals must be transported as cargo in approved carriers and loaded beneath the aircraft with all the luggage.

The problem is, airlines charge money for this now. And some people don’t want to pay. So what some have done is buy a vest that says “service animal” or “comfort dog” or something like that. After all, it is the word of the handler of the animal as to what the animal provides as “service” or “comfort”.

But most people are truthful. In my experience, most animals denoted as “service” or “comfort” are truly that. No need to question it.

After I returned to my seat with my cup of orange juice, Don plopped down in his.

“We got one of those ‘comfort animals’ aboard the plane. What a joke.” Don sneered.

Don has struck a very sensitive nerve of mine. I could not contain my disgust.

I tried to say it with as even a tone as I could, but my voice cracked.

“Uh, Don…my son has a service animal.”

I look up at Don. His puffy face looks shocked. He’s pale.

He’s also speechless.

For once, I’ve gotten him to shut the hell up.

After about 10 seconds of merciful silence he tries to retort. “Well, there’s no doubt that they provide comfort…”

“Then why are you even saying anything then?” I interrupt. “What difference does it make to you?”

There’s acid in my tone.

“Well. They just abuse the system, that’s all. They are just trying to get their pets a free ride.”

Ah yes. A conspiracy. It’s a conspiracy to rob our company of 100 bucks.  They may as well have been reaching into Don’s wallet for the Benjamin.  That’s all Don can come up with.

I just looked at him and shook my head in disgust.

“It’s like those handicap stickers on cars. You can buy those things online. I used to see them all the time when I was a sheriff.”

More stories from my captain the cop.

He might have seen some abuse, I admit.  These fakers ruin it for all of us honest people that benefit from these wonderful creatures.

Don’s not done, though. “My brother was severely injured in a car accident. He has one of those placards, too.”

I am sorry to hear about his brother. But at least he can still talk. He can even drive a car.

Comparisons are the biggest thief to joy, remember?

We have one of those handicap parking placards ourselves. And we use it only when Alex is in the car with us. The fraudulent use of these placards is a stiff fine. We would never think of it. Neither do most people.

And most people wouldn’t with animals, either.

“Frankly Don, a tiny minority abuse many privileges we enjoy here in our society. And if it takes mandatory certification of each service animal to stop it, I welcome it.”

I’m pissed.  “Our service animal already has achieved this. But the law doesn’t require it.”

First the slick tie. Then the bragging. Then the flatulence. Now the intolerance and ignorance. I am so done with this asshole.

“The vast majority of animals carried in the cabin of aircraft as service animals are just that. Don’t believe the hype,” I say in my most withering voice.

I look at Don for a moment. His face is blank. He says nothing. Just like when I spoke with him about wearing a union pin.  I fall back in my seat and look straight ahead.

And like the bell saves a boxer staggered against the ropes, our gate agent pokes her head into the cockpit.

“You guys got everything you need?”

Don looks at me then mumbles, “Uh…yeah. We’re good.”

A minute later we push back. 10 minutes later, we’re airborne. 174 souls and one service dog.

And one grade A, lower-case “c” captain.

I don’t think I said one non-aviation related word to Don the entire way to Baltimore. Thankfully, he didn’t say anything much, either.  I was done listening.

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  1. Michelle Durand permalink

    Very well written…hopefully therapeutic for you to write! You are a great person and teacher. Hopefully “Don” digested your information.

  2. permalink

    Love, love, love the way you write! This is so beautifully done…am laughing…and crying in my morning coffee!……enjoyed every word. Peggy

  3. That poor guy must be *miserable* if he has to spend so much time telling himself how awesome his life is. *hugs* Glad you set him straight on one issue, at least!

  4. I certainly don’t miss flying with people like that. “Steal my joy” indeed.

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