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A typical question I have been asked over this summer is, “Is it really as crazy traveling as depicted on TV?” I would have to say resoundingly, “Yes!” I am relatively shielded by most interactions with passengers by the cockpit door while flying as an airline pilot. However, I do have a mental image in my mind of the craziness while I am snacking on popcorn, observing the show, while the “pros” handle the various issues.
There is a protocol of how situations are handled, be it in the gate area, boarding the jet, taxiing, and inflight. Nowadays, with the advent of social media, pilots rarely engage with passengers. The videos can be taken out of context, similar to “ready, fire, then aim!” I have been flying as a pilot with my current airline for nearly 22 years and have heard and seen a lot of crazy situations.
1. A Sign Of The Times
When I was a new hire pilot at my airline, a typical entry-level position was on our Boeing 727 as a flight engineer. The Captain sits in the left seat, the First Officer (FO) on the right, and directly behind the FO is the Flight Engineer. The Flight Engineer did in the past what modern technology does now, they automate everything. Back in the day, the Flight Engineer did it all! From transferring fuel, controlling the air systems, and calculating random performance charts throughout the flight. There was a small table to plop your large paper manuals for work. If a passenger walked by the cockpit and the door was open, they might see the Flight Engineer sitting side saddle. I was in my thirties and it was still a little unusual to see female pilots at this time.
We flew our trip, landed, taxied to the gate, and secured the jet. Our old procedures were to make sure the cockpit door was open and to personally thank each passenger while wearing our pilot hats. I was a little busy and didn’t have a chance to stand up and put my hat on, but the door was open. While sitting at my engineer station, an elderly, loud man stood in the doorway in disbelief. He snorted, quite loudly, “Would you look at how lazy this flight attendant is! She didn’t get up once to serve us!” I smiled, chuckled, and rolled my eyes. I had been flying for nearly 14 years up to this point, so my skin was pretty thick. Now, in my old age, I just giggle and laugh at the silly things people say.
2. From Bad To Worse
Recently, while flying a trip from Los Angeles to London, cruising at a flight level of 35,000 feet, about three hours into our 11-hour trip we heard, “Ding, ding.” The sound when a flight attendant calls the cockpit. Typically, it is the Pursuer, the manager of all the flight attendants on board who makes these calls. The Captain normally communicates, and everyone in the cockpit can listen to the conversation.
A female passenger was quite dizzy and very lightheaded. The first steps are to notify and let the flight crew know what is happening. The Captain suggested using portable oxygen on the passenger with the Pursuer. It’s amazing what a little oxygen can do! The phone call ends. We wait. “Ding, ding.” “Okay, now it’s getting worse,” says the Pursuer. She explains that they gave her the oxygen, but now she’s sweating profusely and almost vomiting. The Captain asks the Pursuer if she made a PA see if there were any physicians on board.
The Purser hangs up. Now our conversation begins in the cockpit, “Are we going to divert if this passenger doesn’t improve?” A divert for a flight going to Europe is a big deal for everyone involved, mostly the passengers since we just can’t button it up and continue after we land. Minutes go by and we hear, ”Ding Ding.” “Okay, so here is the story. The real story”, explains the Pursuer. She tells us that she located a doctor and they both talked with the female passenger. She was nervous to fly and took a drug similar to Xanax. The middle-aged Asian man seated next to her, whom she had just met, offered to give her some type of edible Chinese herb to help her “relax.”
Oh boy! Are you kidding? So the doctor encouraged her to vomit, which she did. Luckily, she was able to lay in an empty row in the back of the jet and “sleep it off.” Meanwhile, the middle-aged man started sobbing and crying thinking he might be arrested if we were to divert because he had “herbs” that might not be legal in a different country. Can’t make this stuff up. I shook my head while making mental notes because I love to share crazy stories like this at the dinner table when I get home!
3. That’s Going To Hurt
I love flying in and out of Florida because the weather can be exciting and vibrant. While flying a domestic trip on the Boeing 737, we were departing from Tampa to fly a short trip to Miami. The tropics were kicking up quite a storm. While we were taxiing to the runway, the airport experienced a “ground stop.” This means that the airport and the ramp has shut down for some time until there are no more lightning strikes. That is why sometimes you don’t return to the gate and deplane because the ramp agents can’t go outside either. So, we waited it out near the departure end of the runway. 20 minutes turned into 40 minutes and 40 minutes turned into an hour. It was raining cats and dogs!
We are all waiting it out in a nice, air-conditioned aircraft. Some passengers in first class have the luxury of drinking cocktails. Too many libations on a plane can be a bad thing. We had a fairly new flight attendant and she was doing a great job catering to our first-class passengers. “Ding, ding.” The flight attendant calls us. “While we are waiting, I’ve been serving this entire time and we have a passenger who is getting belligerent. I am going to stop serving him alcohol.” “Good idea,” states the Captain. “Let me know how it goes.” A few minutes go by. “Ding, ding.” “Oh boy!” says the flight attendant, “This passenger is really upset. He won’t stay in his seat and he’s yelling profanities!”
Meanwhile, the ground stop has ended, but we are now waiting for ATC to sequence us back into Miami. The Captain decides it’s best to return to the gate and have the police there for us since this could easily escalate. As we pull into the gate, I see the police waiting with the gate agent to board the aircraft. After we secure the jet, I open the cockpit door and stand in the galley. I watch as the passenger is led off the aircraft and starts to have a conversation rather than a shouting match with the local police.
I’m thinking to myself, that’s not a good idea. All of a sudden, the passenger throws a “haymaker” and clobbers one of the cops on the side of his face! Oh, that’s really not a good idea! Again, I chuckle to myself as the cops handcuff him and take him to the pokey to sober up. More material for my dinner chat with my kids!
One of my favorite parts of my job is to be able to “share” these crazy experiences with my family around the dinner table. I love retelling the story; I am quite animated and enjoy the theatrics of a good performance! Ultimately, my goal is to help my girls grow up more responsibly and talk about the consequences of doing dumb things. I always say, ”The world looks a lot different from 35,000 feet!”
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