Sky really can be blue over the rainbow

A couple of weeks ago, I was flying between Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Jacksonville, Fla., sitting in the third row from the back on a 737 with about 130 people aboard. I had an aisle seat. In the middle seat was a pilot from another airline who was deadheading his way home.

“Deadheading” is the term for when an airline employee — usually a pilot, first officer or flight attendant — catches a ride as a passenger on a plane either to the next flight in the rotation or home. Most industries would come up with a far less disturbing expression than “deadheading,” but this is the airline industry, the group with the motto, “Sardines of the sky.” Their other choices, in addition to “deadheading,” were “fireballing” and “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

In any case, this captain had been flying passengers for three days and now he was finally going home for the weekend. And he was a pretty big guy, and that middle seat in the back of a 737 is not exactly a Barcalounger. We chatted during the short flight up the Florida peninsula, and the main thing I took away from our conversation was this: He loves to fly. He loves to fly so much that he endures surprisingly low pay, days at a time away from his two young children and the indignities that come with deadheading home in the middle seat at the back of a 737.

I fly often, and so I chat with lots of pilots and flight attendants, and this fellow was not unique. Most love their jobs. These days, an era when airlines are doing all they can to remain profitable and soon will be stowing small children in the overhead bins to make a little extra money, flight crews put up with a lot so they can have the privilege of flying. The days when pilots and flight attendants led glamorous lives with spectacular perks are history.

A few days after I met this pilot, I ran into Carol, a good friend and Lincoln neighbor, at Gate F-14 at Philadelphia International Airport. It was about 5:30 in the afternoon. Just for the record, Philadelphia has some of the best and worst concourses in the country. I love their A concourse; I loathe their F. Clearly these concourses were named for school grades. F is dark and depressing and has rows of turboprops parked outside that look like they belong in the Smithsonian.

Unusually attentive readers will recall that Carol flies 50-seat jets for a regional airline, and years before that, when she was a teenager, she was my family’s cat sitter. Although there are more and more female pilots, she says that some passengers still are surprised when they see her at the controls.

“The other day when a woman was boarding the plane, she saw that the two of us in the cockpit were female and said, ‘I hope you two know what you’re doing,'” Carol told me that afternoon when I ran into her at F-14. She was in her pilot’s uniform and trench coat, looking every bit the pilot. She was not going to be flying me back to Burlington that evening, as she has in the past, but was instead going to be deadheading back to the Green Mountains.

Except that day we didn’t get to fly back together. There wasn’t room for her because passengers come before crew. (Believe it or not, most airlines really do care desperately about customer service.) She would catch a flight three hours later. Instead of returning to Lincoln around 9 p.m., it would be midnight by the time she got home.

Her response? “Don’t worry about me. There’s a kiosk down by F-7 with excellent sandwiches that even a pilot can afford.” She was smiling and was completely sincere. For her — for many pilots — the skies really are blue when she’s over the rainbow.

The next time you’re on a flight and you think you have it tough in the amenities department as a passenger, just remember: Chances are your captain, first officer and flight attendants have it even worse.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on April 18, 2010.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.