Monday, December 28, 2009

A Grinch who almost stole Christmas

I’m touched by what went down a few nights ago. The events which transpired on Christmas Eve befit the Holiday. Both the naughty and nice sides of human nature were on display, and I’m proud of the way people with my company and others responded to the situation.

Our story starts after a Philadelphia-Milwaukee round trip, where we incurred takeoff delays in Milwaukee because of not one but two airborne emergencies of Northwest Airlines and United Express planes. After uneventful outcomes of both we blasted off for the ‘City of brotherly love’, grateful that no one was had been hurt.

As a side note, a ‘monumentally impressive snow and rainmaker of a winter storm’ (TV Weatherman impersonation) was producing only a cold and constant rain at Brew City’s Mitchell field. Freezing rain or snow, which was then located to the north and west of Milwaukee, would’ve delayed us twenty minutes or more to de-ice and anti-ice our aircraft. The frontal boundary of this weather system eventually stretched like an upside down horseshoe from the east coast over the Great Lakes and down into the southern plains states. They had blizzard warnings for Iowa and Oklahoma on the same day. The best part is this big storm was moving slowly. They’ve had flood warnings in the east, from days of rain far ahead of the snowy part of the storm system. You can see from the weather map that moisture from the Atlantic Ocean is being drawn up the east coast and across the Great Lakes, helping to feed moisture to the already snow laden atmosphere.

Back to our Christmas story, to start it that is; kind of like the background of the traditional Christmas story, it takes a little to get it going. We arrived a little late in Philadelphia from Milwaukee, and were to swap into a new aircraft for a flight from Philadelphia to Albany, New York for our overnight. I had been flying with reserve Co-Pilots on this trip, and I called our Dispatcher to ask three questions: for a meal break for my Flight Attendant and I, where our plane we were to swap into was, and who my new First Officer (FO) was. He was fine with the meal break, as we had skipped lunch, and told me that our FO, a reserve pilot from one of our other bases, had been in PHL for two hours. Arriving at the gate with Chinese food in my hand, our jet was ‘cold and dark’, airline parlance for not powered up, no electricity and no heat. What it really meant was that my new FO wasn’t present, for some reason. I put on my best poker face in front of fifty anxious passengers and one mainline pilot/jumpseater, then the Flight Attendant and I walked down the jetway to the plane. After firing up the APU to prepare the plane I called Crew Scheduling to advise them that FO ______ wasn’t present. I was quickly concerned when Crew Scheduling was surprised that he wasn’t there and began trying to track him down.

My good Flight Attendant and I agreed not to board the jet until Crew Scheduling had found an FO for the flight, this one or a new one. He wasn’t happy about it, but we advised the gate agent of this, and I became worried that the flight would be cancelled. Crew Scheduling determined that ________ had commuted back to his base for the night, and they started trying to find a new FO for us.

Rachael, our Flight Attendant, brought sodas and water to our fifty Albany bound passengers waiting at the gate. A Gate manager who was helping oversee everything brought out pretzels to the passengers as well. By now we were the last Express flight out of PHL on Christmas Eve, and my optimism was fading fast.

I went out and spoke to a few passengers about the delay, trying to bite my tongue concerning what I suspected our FO had done: essentially ditched us, the company, and fifty Empire Capital bound passengers just before one of the Holiest days and biggest Holidays of the year. A passenger asked me about the new departure time on the monitor. It now showed a 9:40 PM departure time, 2:40 later than we had been scheduled. I called Crew Scheduling (CS) back to ask about it. They informed me that the pilots of a flight currently landing at Elmira-Corning, New York would reposition a jet without passengers back to PHL and the FO from that plane would fly with our crew to Albany (ALB) for the night. Good news!

CS and our Dispatch Coordinator had worked a Christmas Miracle. They had tried assigning ready reserve pilots (different than normal reserve) but they were off duty, no other reserve pilots were available in PHL, and they called to ‘junior man’ pilots but no one was answering their phones (understandably). They had done almost everything they could to find a pilot to assign this flight to, and the only trick they had left was to extend a crew who were still on duty’s schedule, fortunately it worked.

I hated the idea of canceling this flight on Christmas Eve. The visual I had of the suffering these people would experience in not making it to loved ones for Christmas Morning was difficult to me to bear. I’m very grateful that my company and others went the extra mile to find an FO and not cancel this flight. They did more than just avoid a cancellation and the expense of putting fifty customers up in a hotel for the night. They saved Christmas for them!

I’d like to give ‘gold stars’ to my Flight Attendant Rachael, the gate agents, and ramp agents for taking great care of the passengers during this delay, and staying to see our flight out, and especially to my airline’s Dispatch Coordinator and CS Personnel responsible for not canceling this flight and for finding a replacement FO. To strand passengers in PHL on Christmas Eve because of this would have been a very unfortunate thing to do. My company and the others involved spent thousands of dollars more than necessary to get this flight out, but I’m proud of their response in this situation.

I had asked the CS person if she could share any details with me about the first FO’s missed flight assignment. CS contacted him at 7 PM on the 23rd during an overnight stay, via a voice mail message, with the PHL-ALB flight assignment. He didn’t call back, and CS left him another voice mail message on this Christmas Eve during his day of flying. He didn’t return this call either and commuted back to his base after arriving back in PHL after flying three flights. CS wasn’t happy with this person’s actions, and it seemed that this situation would definitely be addressed by management, and rightly so.

I and Rachael were angry and embarrassed, frankly, to hear of these events: angry at this employee, whom neither of us knew, and embarrassed that someone at our airline would do such a thing. While I don’t know his side of the story, it seemed to us that our FO intentionally missed his flight assignment, just in order to be home on Christmas Eve. For a reserve pilot to not call back about a new flight assignment to be flown on a scheduled day of reserve duty is very unprofessional, but even more so on a holiday like Christmas Eve.

I went back to preparing for our ‘Santa’ flight. Our jet’s wingtips were collecting frost, so I requested a de-ice. A PHL Operations Manager responded, but ultimately requested a change of aircraft because the deicing trucks had been shut down for the night, and the de-icing crews had gone home for the night as well (can’t blame them really). Our Dispatcher changed our jet to the one being repositioned to PHL, bringing in our new FO, assigned to our PHL-ALB flight. This plane was “negative APU” (APU inoperative) so I requested an air start cart (for the engines) and a GPU. The circus music had already replaced the Christmas music in my head, and it was getting louder. Fortunately and thankfully our ramp agents and gate agents had not abandoned us, and continued to take care of our needs.

With only the Captain and our ‘savior’ FO on board, our new jet arrived and parked next to our frosty one. The ground crew plugged the GPU (ground power unit) in and we had electricity on the aircraft without having to run one of the engines. Rachael, our new FO and I prepared it and boarded our 50 passengers for ALB ASAP. We pushed back just after ten PM, three hours late.

This night, Christmas Eve night, we had had a Grinch who tried to steal Christmas from our passengers, a selfish fellow with an ugly attitude, thinking only about himself and not others he was to serve. True Christmas spirit, that of giving, serving, and sacrifice, and ultimately of suffering, was not in him. It reminds me of how secular traditions – the commercialization of Christmas (giving gifts, Santa, etc.) and applied humanist philosophies try to steal it from it’s true reason: The celebration of the human birth of Immanuel, ‘God with us’ (Isaiah 7:14) , The prophesied Messiah for the Jewish people and all mankind, Jesus Christ.

There were many prophecies fulfilled just by the birth of Christ. Concerning his birth, the who it was, what would happen, when it would occur, where it would occur, how it would occur, and of what lineage the Messiah would be was prophesied of hundreds and thousands of years before Jesus birth. For two websites worth exploring these prophesies at, click here and here.

Why do I write of Christmas in this way, that it includes sacrifice and suffering? The original, true Christmas story had these elements. Mary and Joseph were certainly cursed at under the breath of others, and possibly ostracized by those who didn’t believe their ‘Holy Spirit conceived pregnancy while still a virgin’ story (Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:26-37) that no doubt made the rounds in their town of Nazareth. There’s suffering there.

The arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem that they made during the final stages of her pregnancy involved suffering and sacrifices as well. It was 70 miles, and tradition says that Joseph walked and Mary was on a donkey. The census, called by Caesar Augustus, was to collect taxes for the Roman Empire, and required that everyone travel to their hometown (Luke 2:1-5). By God’s sovereign plan this requirement enabled fulfillment of the prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, given by Micah the Prophet in Mica 5:2: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past.”

We humans love signs from the divine, and in the Christmas story, one of the signs ‘of the new King’ was given to ‘wise men from the east’. From Matthew 2:1-12, wise men from the east ask King Herod in Jerusalem “Where is the new born king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” Why did this signal to the wise men that a new King was born? According to a Bible guide I have, some astronomers calculate that in 7 BC Jupiter and Saturn lined up inside the Pisces constellation not once, but three times. On the ancient Middle Eastern horoscope, Jupiter represented kings, Saturn represented the Jews, and Pisces (fish) represented the Jewish homeland, so it seemed that a Jewish King was arriving at the Jewish homeland! Click here for a Theoretical Astrophysicist’s interesting opinion on it.

What a great sign this was! And I’m grateful that I received a sign this night, a skeptic might say it was coincidence, but I have faith in Jesus, and prefer to use it when I can. Our great sign this night was the name of our new FO, whose last name was ‘King’, I kid you not. He was easy to work with, understanding of the situation, he even called me sir, kept doing it too, even after I told him he didn’t need to. A ‘King’ who suffers and serves, he had those traits in common with the Lord.

If you’re thinking ‘baby Jesus didn’t suffer’ you’re probably right (except for the animal dung smell!), but suffering was part of his destiny. By reading the gospels one can see that He never turned away when faced with suffering and sacrifice. We Christians are quick to accept his serving, suffering, and sacrifice for us, but tend to be slow in accepting it in our own lives. However, In relationship with God through faith in Jesus as personal Savior and Lord and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us, we can grow to accept sacrifice and suffering with Joy. This sentiment is expressed in I Peter 4:12-16: “12Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. 13But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name."

Glory, praises, and all honor to all mankind's newborn Messiah and King!


Flying Kites Mom said...

Captain Craig- As you say, a sweet and sour story, but in the end, due to the fantastic actions of you and your company, a more sweet than sour. And in all of the details do I understand that you and your crew spent what was left of Christmas Eve and Christmas morning in a hotel in Albany? At least it sounds like you had excellent colleagues with whom to welcome Christmas Day away from home. All the best- LS-P

Craig said...

Thanks a bunch. Yes, we had a shortened Christmas Eve overnight in Albany, NY, in an empty hotel, and on Christmas in Cincinatti in an empty hotel also. I've had a few miserable Christmas holidays on the road, but this year we celebrated the week before, my timing dodged the snowstorms both in the east and at home during Christmas, so it really worked out well. Happy New Year!