I’m not a good flyer. I am not even a poor flyer. I am what you might call a royal pain in the ass when it comes to flying on a passenger aircraft. Ironically, I know vast amounts of aviation history and intuitively understand the mechanics and systems aboard every major airliner and can identify specific models of airplanes and production marks simply by taking a brief look at them. I’m also very much capable of taking up the left side seat in a variety of light aircraft, the Cessna 172, in particular, but ultimately if its got a single prop and runs on avgas I can probably fly it.
I do not like to fly commercial.
I used to love flying commercial. I spent the bulk of my youth happily ensconced onboard Lockheed L1011’s, Boeing 727, 737’s, 757’s, and 767’s flying a quick 45 minute flight from NY LaGuardia to Boston Logan or NY LaGuardia to DC National. The widebody flights almost always were on the celebrated Kosher Clipper flights departing almost every 15 minutes from one of the three New York City airports and arriving at one of the three South Florida fields, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach International and of course Miami. Back then, even in the early 80’s, it was still reminiscent of the golden age of flying. At LaGuardia for instance and for a very brief amount of time you still had to walk out of the hanger to board an Eastern Air Shuttle 727 bound for either Boston or Washington! I remember being invited to tour the cockpits of almost every plane I flew on, and of course always receiving my plastic yellow and gold pilot wings at 30,000 feet in the air!
Then I had dry spell between 16 years old and 19 where I did not fly at all. Not even once. The very last flight I was on departed Dulles, Virginia, late in the evening and arrived at Fort Lauderdale 3 hours later. And the curtain closed on my time as a enthusiastic flyer.
At 19 years of age it had been 3 years since my last commercial flight and out of nowhere my Dad invited me down for the weekend from Tampa to Boca Raton, and he had even gone so far as to purchase my airfare on some airline I’d simply never heard of but later became very acquainted with, Southwest Airlines.
The Friday I was to depart I had just gotten my first paycheck from MCI, Inc. and was feeling a little, shall we say, uh, elitist. I ponied up to the Southwest ticket counter 45 minutes prior to my flight to check in and promptly said “well, I just got a very nice paycheck in my pocket, how much do I need to give you to upgrade to your finest first class seats?!”
“Sir, there aren’t any first class seats available on this flight”
Well, thats to be expected it is just 45 minutes prior to departure after all. “Thats fine, I’ll just take the next flight, which I think is Southwest 1836 to Fort Lauderdale, in, ah, I guess another hour and half..”
“Sir, I can change you to 1836 and you’ll be in the first boarding group, Boarding Group A, but there are no first class seats available on that flight either.”
Huh, I guess the flights are just full…probably should ask..”Ok, then I uh, well, I guess I’ll just go on this flight then, I’d like a window seat as close to door 1 as possible, if you don’t mind!” I said with a cheerful smile on my face.
“Sir, on this flight, because we’ve talked a bit, you’ll be in Group D boarding, and probably won’t be able to find anything other than a middle seat available…”
Slowly the realization that I’m not processing what the ticket agent is saying and that she’s trying to tell me something important…”So, ok, I don’t really care what time I board the aircraft as long as I do actually board it prior to it leaving the jetway, so, I guess group D on the original flight will be fine, can you please check if a window seat will be available?”
“Sir, at this time, you might be better off going on 1836 if you want a window seat. This flight is full and you’re still not at the gate, I don’t think you’re going to find a window seat. I can change the flight for you easily enough and it won’t cost any extra….”
Now I’m positive something is wrong. When I detect problems I go into troubleshoot mode the same as I would if your computer had failed in front of me. I queue up rapid fire yes or no questions in my head that tend to at the very least annoy the other person, but, more often than not, really agitate them!
“Ok, the flight is full, yes?
“If I go on this flight, I’ll be in group D boarding yes?”
“If I board this flight as part of Group D, I most likely will not get a windows seat, yes?”
“Is there some kind of penalty attached to being in Group D, like for being late, paying by credit card, or something?”
“Ok, can you assign me an aisle seat for this flight?”
“can you assign me an aisle seat for 1836?
“Is 1836 full?”
“Is there a flight after 1836 going to Fort Lauderdale?”
“Whos on first?”
“Sorry, just wanted to see if you’re paying attention! Ok, can you assign a window seat for me on that flight…?!”
“No??!! Why the hell not?”
And this was the part the ticket agent had patiently waited for and lead me by the nose to discover the true horror of flying Southwest;
“Sir, you should know that all flights on Southwest are operated as coach only and we do not assign seats…”
What the holy hell of cheap ass no rent Piedmont kinda shit is this??
“We’ve found that our customers prefer it this way and believe me you should go on 1836 in the next hour and you’ll see why people loving flying Southwest!” says the now happy agent, fulfilled in her righteous bosom of cheap airfare for all!
Uh huh. Well, at this point it didn’t matter anyway as the flight I was going to take was already pushing back from the gate. So, armed with my big yellow Group A placard slash boarding pass, I proceed to the gate to await the vaunted boarding of Group A onto Southwest’s Flight 1836 Nonstop service from Tampa International to Fort Lauderdale / Hollywood International Airport.
Tampa International is really a cool airport. it has people movers, bars, restaurants, and a cool late Jet Age feel to it. I was already impressed with it from just the outside, but then my heart skipped a slight beat on arrival to the gate. You ever see Duck Dynasty, Honey Boo Boo, or My Name is Earl?
If you haven’t, then the best way I can describe the people waiting to board flight 1836 is: Deliverance. Dueling Banjos and all the trimmings. Trucker Hats, Wrangler Jeans, beer can to spit Tobacy in… The new Flying Public!
Bong! “Southwest Airlines is pleased to announce the boarding of flight 1836 non stop service to sunny Fort Lauderdale on-board our special Boeing 737-300 “Shamu 1”! All Passengers in Boarding Group A, may begin the boarding process at this time and we know you’ll have a very special experience flying “Shamu 1″ today!”
Strange boarding announcement! I’ve never heard of them naming a plane for a SeaWorld killer whale before….Guess Anheuser Busch spent a few dollars here…oh well, whatever lets get this over with…
At the time of the boarding announcement I was in the smokers’ lounge area and hadn’t seen the aircraft pull into the gate…whoopsies!
I gather my old gray Samsonite suitcase and trudge off to the gate and behold! Through the windows sat what appeared to be a Boeing 737 painted as a FUCKING KILLER WHALE!!!!!
Holly Hell! I’m not getting on that thing!! Its painted like friggin Shamu!!!! Oh my god! Thats what they meant when they said “Shamu 1”! Wait a second! If thats “Shamu 1”,……then there are more of these damn things flying around!!!
“Hello, welcome to flight 1836” says the agent in front of. “yeah, uhm, the next flight today, is that also a Shamu plane? Its not that I have anything against uh, Sea World, uh I just don’t want, uh, should anything ah happen, not saying it would, but, I just don’t want my friends to remember me by “he flew the great Shamu in the Sky” uh, yeah”.
“Oh, ha ha! Thats very funny, Sir!” I’m sure you gonna love flying on “Shamu 1″ today, we have a great cabin crew and our pilots are just top notch today!” She says awfully cheerful for I suspect not having to fly the great killer whale of the sky!
Oh for Christ Sakes! What the hell is this bizarro airline smoking!
I move toward the Jetway, packed in to the gate like you would be inline for Mr Toad’s Wild Ride at the Magic Kingdom, and slowly feel some downward force sucking the line into the Whale’s door. I’m not happy. I’m not remotely happy! In fact, I’m trying to figure out just how badly its gonna suck if I bolt for the outside door for the apron and run for it! Nightly Local News sucky, no doubt, but, its a slow news day, CNN might pick the story up…..
Once onboard, I find the usual Boeing airliner cabin, clean, modern, comfortable. Granted the seats were orange and blue, but I’m from the late 70’s, weird colour combinations are the norm for me anyway and slowly I start to feel calm as this really isn’t so bad…As long as you can’t see the paint outside, it should normalize right?
A few minutes go by and the door closes I feel the old sounds of the port side jet beginning to spin up and the pressurization systems coming online. All this has happened before and will happen again. I’m ok.
BING-BONG “Ah, folks, from, ah the flight deck, I’m Captain Stuebeing, and my first mate today will be Issaac, your bartender! We’re looking at a normal on time departure from TPA arriving Fort Lauderdale, a little past rush hour today, so those on their way home tonight should encounter little traffic on I95. Weather is expected to be normal for Florida, whatever that is depending on the time of day, and we, uh, expect some slight turbulence on the way down or maybe not. On behalf of myself and Julie the Cruise Director, Isaac and the rest of the gang onboard 1836, we’d like to thank you for flying with us today, and boy we sure are proud of our airplane today, Shamu 1!. Flight Attendants: Please prepare the cabin for departure.” BONG.
I’m going to have a very long talk with my Dad about not putting his only son on bargain basement airlines ever again, if I should survive this Twilight Zone flight from hell!
BING-BONG “Folks, from the flight deck, we’re currently number 1 for departure, just as soon as this big ole 747 gets out of the way and lets us go very fast down the runway till we leap into the sky like a bird or, ahem, an airplane!””
Of we go into the Tampa twilight heading out over Tampa Bay and back to the normality of flight. I figure at this point, best case we get to Fort Lauderdale and this will be over or we crash and this will all be over. After a flying time of less than 40 minutes we arrive on the runway at Fort Lauderdale, but not before this happens while reverse thrust is applied:
BING-BONG “Whoa there big Fella, we don’t want to miss the gate do we??”” which gets a big laugh from the entire aircraft……
After all is said and done, I’ve arrived in Fort Lauderdale in one piece. I’ve flown on an airplane painted like a killer whale. I’ve listened to the pilots crack jokes on the intercom. And I’m still here. I can’t wait to tell my Dad all about my flight, but;
He forgot me at the airport.