Ask the Pilot Christmas, 2017

Another Great Book to Stick Up Your Stocking. And, Once Again, it’s Memories of Holidays Aloft, and the Worst Christmas Song of All Time.

December 18, 2017

I don’t much like Christmas, if you must know. The phoniness and thunderous commercialism of it all. Plus, I never get any presents. Typically I work over the holiday. Last year it was Scotland. The year before that it was Paris. This year I’ll be in Africa. But while I can run, I can’t really hide. Nobody, not even a sourpuss likes me, escapes this grotesque juggernaut of make-believe goodwill and endless consumption. (Though in some ways, maybe, this is for the better. Certainly as a website curator, I ignore it at my peril, especially if I hope to make a few dollars from Google ads.)

And so welcome to the seventh annual installment of “An Ask the Pilot Christmas”!

First things first, here are my 2017 gift suggestions. Traditionally I do books:

My no-doubt choice for Book of the Year goes to Matthias C. Hühne’s Pan Am: History, Design & Identity. Hühne’s prior book, the somewhat similar Airline Visual Identity 1945-1975, was one of my best-of-the-year picks for 2015, you might remember. These two elegant volumes complement one another beautifully, and anybody who deems themselves a pasionado of the airline biz needs both of them.


So much of airline history has been told graphically — in the liveries, travel posters, promotional brochures and advertising copy of the world’s great airlines. It’s amazing, the level of attention and resources airlines once devoted to the finer points of their branding, and how gorgeous so much of it was. This is particularly true with Pan Am, a carrier whose almost limitless visionary spirit spanned continent after continent, decade after decade. Some might argue there have been “too many” Pan Am books produced since the airline’s demise in 1991. On the contrary, there have been too few — or too few really good ones, at any rate. My favorite might still be Barnaby Conrad’s Pan Am: an Aviation Legend, but here, M.C. Huhne’s unmatched, and probably unmatchable collection of images brings us into the heart and soul of history’s most influential and important air carrier. For serious collectors, premium (and fabulously expensive) editions of both of Hühne’s books are available, including ones with hand-crafted metal and acrylic glass cases.

And I just can’t let it go, can I, without a plug for Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel. Questions, Answers & Reflections, the on-again, (mostly) off-again New York Times bestseller authored by Yours Truly. It’s informative, thoughtful and funny; seven addictive chapters of FAQ, essays, rants and memoir, covering everything from the nuts-and-bolts of flying to airline customer service to the yin and yang of global travel. The perfect take-along for your next flight. He said, modestly. Click the photo below and you’ll be taken to the book’s Amazon page. For ordering options in Canada, Europe, Australia and India, click HERE.

Or maybe this isn’t such a good idea? Published in 2013, the content is showing its age, and it might be smarter if I ask you to hold off until the spiffy second edition is published this coming spring. It’ll contain about 30 percent new material, including an overhaul of some of the more lazily written sections. But for those who can’t wait, it’s still a kickass stocking-stuffer for the frequent flyer, nervous passenger or world traveler on your list.

Book Cover With Bestseller Credit

And now, the posting of a perennial favorite…


SO THE HOLIDAYS ARE HERE, and according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), roughly 750 billion people are expected to fly between now and New Year’s Eve, 96 percent of them connecting through Atlanta.

In fact I don’t know how many people are projected to fly. I haven’t been listening. In any case, it’s the same basic story every year: the trade groups put out their predictions, and much is made as to whether slightly more, or slightly fewer, people will fly than the previous year. Does the total really matter to the typical traveler? All you need to know is that airports will be crowded and flights especially full. Any tips I might offer are simple common sense: leave early, and remember that TSA considers fruitcakes to be hazardous materials (no joke: the density of certain baked goods causes them to appear suspicious on the x-ray scanners).

Normally I work over the holidays. As a comparative bottom-feeder on my airline’s seniority list, it’s an opportunity to score one of those higher-quality layovers that are normally out of reach. Other pilots want to be home with their kids or watching football, and so I’ve been able to spend Christmas in Egypt, the Fourth of July in Belgium, Thanksgiving in Cape Town.

That’s how it works at an airline: every month you put in your preferences: where you’d like to fly, which days you’d like to be off, which insufferable captains you hope to avoid, and so on. There are separate bids at each base, for each aircraft type and for each seat – i.e. captain and first officer. The award process then begins with the most senior pilot in your category and works its way down. Each pilot’s “line,” as our months are called, is filled with trips until reaching a certain number of pay-hours. When it finally gets to the dregs, lower-rung pilots have their pick of the scraps.

Eventually the process reaches a point when there are no more rostered trips to give out. Those pilots left over — the bottom ten or fifteen percent — are assigned to what’s called reserve. A reserve pilot has designated days off, and receives a flat minimum pay rate for the month, but his or her workdays, given out in multiple-day blocks, are a blank slate. The reserve pilot is on call, and needs to be within a stipulated number of hours from the airport — anywhere from two to twelve, usually, and it can change day to day. When somebody gets sick, or is trapped in Chicago because of a snowstorm, the reserve pilot goes to work. The phone might ring at 2 a.m., and you’re on way to Sweden or Brazil — or to Omaha or Dallas. It’s an unpredictable way to live. Among the challenges is learning how to pack. What to put in the suitcase when you don’t know if your next destination will be warm and tropical or freezing cold? (Answer: everything.)

Looking back, holiday flying has provided me a few of those sentimental oddities a pilot files away in his mental logbook:

One of my favorite memories dates all the way back to Thanksgiving, 1993. I was captain of a Dash-8 turboprop flying from Boston to New Brunswick, Canada, and my first officer was the always cheerful and gregarious Kathy Martin. (Kathy, who also appears in my “Right Seat” essay, was one of three pilots I’ve known who had been flight attendants at an earlier point in their careers.) There were no meal services on our Dash-8s, but Kathy brought a cooler from home, packed with food: huge turkey sandwiches, a whole blueberry pie and tubs of mashed potatoes. We assembled the plates and containers across the folded-down jumpseat. The pie we passed to the flight attendant, and she handed out slices to passengers.

Quite a contrast to Thanksgiving Day in 1999, when I was working a cargo flight to Brussels. It was custom on Thanksgiving to stock the galley with a special holiday meal, and the three of us were hungry and much looking forward to it. The trouble was, the caterers forgot to bring the food. By the time we noticed, we were only minutes from departure and they had split for the day. I thought I was going to cry when I opened the door to our little fridge and saw only a can of Diet Sprite and a matchbook-size packet of Tillamook cheese.

The best we could do was get one of the guys upstairs to drive out to McDonald’s. He came back with three big bags of burgers and fries, tossing them up to us just as they were pulling the stairs away. Who eats fast food on Thanksgiving? Pilots in a pinch.

On New Year’s Eve, 2010, I was flying over the city of Bamako, Mali, in West Africa. Fireworks explode only a few hundred feet from the ground, but enough of them together provide a unique spectacle viewable from a jetliner. At the stroke of midnight, the city erupted in a storm of tiny explosions. The sky was lit by literally tens of thousands of small incendiaries — bluish-white flashes everywhere, like the sea of flashbulbs you sometimes see at sporting events. From high above, this huge celebration made Bamako look like a war zone.

Not that I work every holiday. I’ve spent a number of them traveling on vacation.

And with that in mind, here’s some advice:

Do not, ever, make the mistake that I once made and attempt to enjoy Christmas at a small hotel in Ghana called the Hans Cottage “Botel,” located on a lagoon just outside the city of Cape Coast. They love their Christmas music at the Hans Botel, and the compound is rigged end-to-end with speakers that blare it around the clock.

Although you can count among those people able to tolerate Christmas music — in moderation, in context, and so long as it isn’t Sufjan Stevens — there is one blood-curdling exception. That exception is the song, “Little Drummer Boy,” which is without argument the most cruelly awful piece of music ever written. It was that way before Joan Jett or David Bowie got hold of it.

It’s a traumatic enough song in any rendition. And at the Hans Cottage Botel they have chosen to make it the only — only! — song on their Christmastime tape loop. Over and over it plays, ceaselessly, day and night. It’s there are breakfast, it’s there again at dinner, and at every moment between. I’m not sure who the artist is, but it’s an especially treacly version with lots of high notes to set one’s skull ringing.

“Ba-ruppa-pum-pum;ruppa-pum-pum…” as I hear it today and forever, that stammering chorus is like the thump-thump of chopper blades in the wounded mind of a Vietnam vet who Can’t Forget What He Saw. There I am, pinned down at the Botel bar, jittery and covered in sweat, my nails clattering against a bottle of Star lager while the infernal Drummer Boy warbles into the buggy air.

“Barkeep!” I grab Kwame by the wrist. “For the love of god, man, can’t somebody make it stop?”

Kwame just smiles. “So lovely, yes.”


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18 Responses to “Ask the Pilot Christmas, 2017”
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  1. Paul Schnebelen says:

    Guess I should have bought the Pan Am book back in December – it’s going for about $600 now! Airline Visual Identity is available new for a more reasonable $60.

    More importantly, it’s mid-spring – Patrick, any word on the new edition of Cockpit Confidential?

  2. Eric in NH says:

    Not only are the flights full, but passengers are carrying a particularly heavy load: winter coats and boots plus Christmas gifts. My outbound flight this season was delayed over an hour while they moved passengers around the cabin (families with small children forward of the wing, displacing adults traveling solo or in pairs) so the plane would not be too nose heavy. To JetBlue’s credit, they got the flight out without making anybody deplane in BOS.

    As for Christmas music, my personal bete noir is “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer”, thanks to a bad marching band arrangement I had to play over and over again when I was in high school. The message of the song–about a reindeer who is shunned and mocked for being different, until it turns out he has exactly the thing they need to operate the sleigh–strikes me as a broken Aesop, with Rudolph expected to forgive his former tormenters after he saves their bacon. I can tolerate the original Gene Autry version or the Willie Nelson version, but I find most other versions to be musical torture.

    And while I’m ranting, I’d like to call out the parents of the family of five on my SEA-BOS redeye flight this weekend who sat in the exit row while the kids–the youngest a toddler–sat in the (non-exit) row behind, the toddler screaming for Mommy for a significant part of the flight. I was under the impression that being responsible for children too young to sit in the exit row themselves disqualified them from sitting in the exit row.

  3. Mark says:

    Recently watched ‘Catch Me if You Can’ with DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale Jr., loved the scenes where he is surrounded by PanAm stews, counterfeiting company paychecks with model plane logos, etc. That era adored pilots.

  4. Mike A says:

    Wow, Pan Am: History, Design and Identity must be quite a book, hard to believe over $3200.00 for a book!

  5. J Kevin Brady says:

    Great Patrick,

    You know how I feel about Pan Am, having worked for them, flying all over the world in Seat 1A.

    Your comments on the “Botel” had my wife and me in hysterics. It’s right up there with the dry ice in the toilet story.

  6. phoenix says:

    I dunno, I quite like Vince Guarladi’s take off the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, “My Little Drum”.

    Mariah Carey’s “All I want For Christmas”, on the other hand, I will take afterburned jet blast to.

  7. JamesP says:

    Flying during the holidays can be really messy (ATL today, anyone?). Luckily, nobody in my family is *that* into Christmas, so I’ll be jetting across the country to see Dad in early March 🙂

  8. Chris Miilu says:

    The old Pan Am was wonderful; I took my first real flight on Pan Am. The seats were large enough to sleep on; the attendants were lovely. I have a friend who was an attendant on Pan Am. I know nothing about profits and data. Pan Am was a wonderful airline. I

  9. Louie Lowe says:

    think i like it!

  10. Mike C. says:

    Agree about the songs, except this one:

    The performance itself is amazing, all must agree.


  11. Jonny says:

    I hear you Patrick about Christmas and I can relate as well. We must admit to some benefit from the shitshow that Christmas has become. You keep employed by butts in airplane seats and I through seagoing containers of sundries and whatnots destined for central Alaska. I have a question, would you give up the career you so love in exchange for a less consumptive populace?

  12. Dan says:

    Patrick: If you are able to tolerate Christmas music, then you are ahead of me. I wear earbuds to go grocery shopping sometimes during December just to drown out the awfulness. Oddly, though, I do kind of dig the Drummer Boy–Joan Jett’s version rocks pretty well, and the Dengue Fever cover adds singing in Khmer and some nice sax. Worth checking out.

    • Jonny says:

      Dan what were you listening to in your earbuds?? If you like the Little Drummer Boy you might like Chet Atkins version as well. At the risk of sound sappy, I think the mythical story of the adolescent percussionist is representative of the true meaning of Christmas. The works of Gregorian Monks also do justice to some of the truly fine seasonal music.

  13. S says:

    “SO THE HOLIDAYS ARE HERE, and according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), roughly 750 billion people are expected to fly between now and New Year’s Eve, 96 percent of them connecting through Atlanta.”

    Surely, you mean million not billion?

  14. Mitch says:

    Patrick, have you ever spent Dec 25th somewhere that does not observe Christmas? Israel for example.

    • Richard says:

      Mitch, there are lots of Christians who are residents of Israel, not to mention those from elsewhere who want to visit over Christmas. See here, for example (from the Israeli government, no less):

      • Mitch says:

        Patrick, in Israel, there will not be any “rum-ta-tum-tum me and my drum” on the radio or in any stores or restaurants. But [no] thanks for the ear worm.

        Richard, you are correct that there are many non-Jewish residents and visitors in Israel. They all observe their own holidays in their own ways. However,Dec 25th is a day like any other – schools, businesses etc are all open if it’s a workday. [just to complicate things, Israel’s work week is Sunday-Thursday]

        BTW, Hannuka in Israel is a minor holiday. It’s only in the USA that it has achieved any kind of parity with Christmas