Little Rock, Arkansas, circa 1998
In my hotel room after a late dinner on a Thursday evening, I packed my suitcase for an early morning flight home. The phone rang. The president of our company invited me to travel to Nashville for a Friday lunch meeting before going home to Charlotte.
Not because I wanted a lunch in Nashville. What I wanted was to go home. But my work experience suggested that telling the president of your employer “No” qualified as a CLM – Career Limiting Move. My career advice for the day is to avoid CLM’s.
And always speak in TLA’s (Three Letter Acronyms) because it makes you sound knowledgeable.
But how to get to Nashville? By car, five hours. Doable but not pleasant. Could I fly?
I called my preferred airlines to see if they could get me to Nashville. Good news of the day – direct flight from Little Rock to Nashville. Better news – they could get me on a flight from Nashville to Charlotte after the lunch so I could get home for the weekend. Best news – Upgraded seat Nashville to Charlotte.
“Unfortunately, sir, I will have to waitlist you for the Little Rock to Nashville.”
“How long of a list?”
“No worries, sir, you are number one on the list.” One of the rare perks of flying frequently – moving to the top of waitlists. “I am quite confident you will be on that plane.”
“Good news. Hope I can get an aisle seat.”
The agent laughed and replied, “I can guarantee you will have an aisle seat if we get you on that plane.”
“How can you do that if you can’t get me a seat assignment?”
“Sir, every seat on that plane is an aisle seat.”
Several years before, I regularly flew between San Juan and Mayaguez, Puerto Rico on a CASA C-212, a plane that seated just over 20 passengers. CASA stood for Construcciones Aeronáuticas SA out of Spain. My Spanish was rudimentary, but I knew “casa” translates to “house.” The only flying house I had ever seen was a key plot point in the Wizard of Oz, an event which did not end well.
Over the years of flying on that plane, I grew uncomfortable. The flight was hot, noisy, and turbulent. One of those planes crashed attempting to land in Mayaguez in 1992 killing everyone – two crew and three passengers – just a couple of weeks before I was next to be onboard. When I expressed shock over that accident, co-workers told me that a previous CASA C-212 crashed while attempting to land in Mayaguez in 1987 killing the pilot and co-pilot and injuring the four passengers.
Believe it or not, I drove between San Juan and Mayaguez rather than fly after learning those details.
For those of you counting the number of crew, planes that small are not required to have flight attendants – just a pilot and co-pilot. The co-pilot handles the safety announcements and then disappears into the cockpit not to reappear until the plane has landed and reached its gate. Envision “Lord of the Flies” on an airplane and you have the concept.
Ready for my small-plane adventure, I arrived at the Little Rock airport early, cleared security, and walked to the end of the one and only concourse to my gate. Six of the airport’s gates are along the concourse and the other six gates are spaced around a large, circular room at the end of the concourse. Because of that configuration, the waiting area was six pie slices of seats – one slice of seats for each gate.
My particular gate had two commuter planes parked at the bottom of a flight of steps. No air conditioned and covered jetway convenience. You walked outside and enjoyed the elements – and the roar of airplanes, the smell of fuel, and other amenities.
But before that pleasure, I needed a seat on the plane. The gate agent was a young man in a crisp uniform. He hadn’t worked in the airline industry long enough to be surly. Instead, he smiled as I approached. “Good morning, sir, how may I help you?”
“Yes, I am waitlisted on the Nashville flight. Wanted to check in and see if a seat has become available.”
He glanced down at the screen and answered, “I am sorry, sir, but you are still waitlisted. The good news is that you are number 1 on the list, so we should be able to get you a seat. First, however, I have to handle the Charlotte flight. Once that flight has departed, I will board the Nashville flight through the same gate. It should just be a few minutes.”
I stepped back amongst the crowd. Gate agents at the other gates – each a different airline – called for the boarding of the first flights of the day. The crowd dwindled.
Our own young gate agent picked up his microphone and recited his preflight announcement. His voice reeked of enthusiasm as he continued, “And now pre-boarding for anyone needing extra time.” A lady with an infant checked in.
“Boarding Zone 1.” A dozen members of my tribe – bored, tired businessmen – checked in with their rolling suitcases.
“Boarding Zone 2.” Two people.
“Boarding Zone 3.” The seating area only had a few more people, far less than the number of people who had boarded in Zone 1. Two of those few presented boarding passes and walked down the steps.
“Boarding Zone 4.” No one moved. The agent grinned.
“Boarding Zone 5.” A handful of people boarded. He had three zones to go and seven passengers, including me, standing around. An experienced agent would have just called everyone. Not Mr. Enthusiastic.
“Boarding Zone 6.” No one moved.
“Boarding Zone 7.” Three people looked at their boarding passes and shook their heads.
“Boarding Zone 8.” The three walked forward, presented their boarding passes, and traipsed down the steps.
That left four people, including me, standing in the empty boarding area.
The agent’s voice boomed over the speakers, “Standby passenger Morales for Charlotte.” A gentleman stepped forward and was rewarded with a boarding pass. Three were remaining.
“Standby passenger Jenkins for Charlotte.” Another gentleman smiled and approached. He disappeared down the steps.
The gate agent spoke again over the P.A., “Final call for Charlotte.” The two of us remaining at the gate shook our heads.
The agent gathered his paperwork and disappeared down the steps to close the flight out with the pilot. I turned to the lone survivor at the gate. “Nashville?”
“Yeah. Waitlisted though,” he replied.
“Me, too.” I looked around the empty gate. “I wonder where everyone else is.”
He shook his head and shrugged.
After a few minutes, the gate door opened and the gate agent bounded through. He looked at the two of us, smiled, and organized his paperwork. Even though we both stood close enough to hear his every word, he picked up the microphone and spoke the preflight announcement, word for word the same as we had heard for the Charlotte flight, substituting only “Nashville.” His words echoed in the empty room.
“Now pre-boarding for anyone needing extra time.” I looked around the empty waiting area. No one was there to move. Even the gate agents from the other airlines had wandered away for some coffee and breakfast before their next flights.
“Boarding Zone 1.” I exchanged puzzled looks with my fellow wait-lister, and we both looked around. Not a soul was present.
“Boarding Zone 2.” I smiled and looked down at the floor to keep from laughing.
“Boarding Zone 3. Zone 3 for Nashville.” Nothing but echoes.
“Boarding Zone 4.” Crickets.
“Boarding Zone 5.” The other guy is shaking his head and could not help smiling.
“Boarding Zone 6.” No movement.
“Boarding Zone 7.” The young agent glanced around the room but no one approached.
“Boarding Zone 8.” Nothing.
The agent looked at his computer screen and typed. He picked up the microphone despite the fact that I stood within arm’s reach. “Wall. Standby passenger Wall.”
I walked the four feet from where I had stood to his podium. He studied my ticket, typed in a code, and printed a boarding pass. I pointed at the blank space where a seat assignment would be printed.
“I am sorry, sir, you will just have to take any available seat.”
As I was entering the gate door, I heard the P.A. Announcement, “Gordon. Standby passenger Gordon.”
I turned to see the only person in the gate area walk up to the counter, receive his boarding pass and join me walking down the steps. Mr. Gordon spoke as we crossed the tarmac to the waiting plane, “Maybe the other passengers are still on the plane. A connection or something?”
I shrugged, “Who knows? That was strange.”
The first officer stood on the tarmac beside the fold out door that doubled as steps onto the plane. I entered the plane, looked around, and realized the only person inside was the captain conducting his preflight checklist. I selected one seat. Mr. Gordon followed me and picked another seat. The copilot closed the steps, welcomed us onboard, rattled off the safety instructions. Satisfied that we were settled, he entered the cockpit. Minutes later, we were roaring through the air to Nashville – the passenger count equaling the crew.
I have always wondered if that gate agent would have done the same announcements if no one was on the flight. I can only hope he kept his enthusiasm throughout his career.