Ask the Pilot Christmas, 2018

Once Again, it’s Memories of Holidays Aloft, and the Worst Christmas Song of All Time.

December 20, 2018

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 Ghana. The year before that it was Scotland. This year, late on Christmas Day, I fly to London. 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 eighth annual installment of “An Ask the Pilot Christmas.”

I traditionally start off with some gift suggestions, but this year I really don’t have any, save for a shameless plug of my book…

That’d be the spiffy new second edition of 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. The ideal, kick-ass stocking stuffer for for the frequent flyer, nervous passenger, or world traveler on your list. He said, modestly. 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.

In the second edition, published this past summer, all seven chapters have been updated, revised, and in some cases totally rewritten. Approximately 20 percent of the text is all-new. Look for the copy with the “Revised & Updated” seal in the upper left corner. 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.


And now, the re-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 when seen 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 pulsing sea of lights you 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 me 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 at 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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16 Responses to “Ask the Pilot Christmas, 2018”
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  1. PeterS says:

    Bah Humbug, to you, too, Pat!

    My two memorable holidays in the air were a long ago Thanksgiving Eve, and this past New Year.

    A long time ago, when my wife and I were newly married and kidless, we traveled with a pilot friend to ferry a plane from Laconia NH to Whitefield NH. We arrived at Laconia at dusk, and the battery was dead (I think it was a Cessna). So my friend tried to charge it, and eventually had me hold the brakes on while he hand-propped the aircraft. By the time we got airborne, it was well past dark. We flew over Mt Washington in a crystal-clear night with the full moon illuminating the icy summit. It looked like a giant frosted cookie, and is still one of my strongest holiday memories. We slept overnight in an unheated office at Whitefield, then flew another plane back to Laconia, where we drove frantically to my wife’s parents’ for Thanksgiving.

    New Year’s Eve, 2018; we left SeaTac at 23:57, after spending the holiday week with my son and his family. As we climbed out over Seattle, the fireworks started bursting below us. Again, it was a nice, clear night, so we had a good 5 minutes of looking down on the city with little puffballs of light bursting everywhere. The best part was the upgrade to bed seats my lovely wife had purchased, so I was able to get four hours of good sleep before we arrived in Boston.

    Happy New Year, everyone, and safe travels.

  2. Richard says:

    I suspect you’ll be tickled to read that Alexandra Petri, columnist for the Washington Post, chose “The Little Drummer Boy” as the worst of her 100 ranked Christmas songs:

    Also three years earlier:

  3. Avron Boretz says:


    Thank you for writing “FAQ” not “FAQs”.

    Have a happy December 25th. Hope you’re not flying to Gatwick.


  4. Speed says:

    Worse is Jose Feliciano’s Feliz Navidad.

  5. Geoff says:

    I won’t quibble about the exact number, but units are important (to physicists anyway). 750 billion travelers? Best keep clear of Atlanta next week – it might collapse into black hole!


    Loved the books – both of them.

  6. RJT says:

    Too bad about the song. Should have been the dogs singing Jingle Bells.

  7. I don’t understand your extreme antipathy to this song. Have you ever heard the version by Pentatonix? It’s gorgeous!

  8. JamesP says:

    I never tire of The Pilot’s annual Tales of Holidays Past. I can’t decide which is my favorite tho – Thanksgiving 1993 or Thanksgiving 1999 lol.

    My worst involved a turkey sandwich from 7-11 on Thanksgiving, 1981. But at least it wasn’t McDonald’s!

  9. Tom says:

    I loved the story about “Little Drummer Boy” the first time I read it, and I still love it. Thanks for re-sharing!

  10. Julianne Adamik says:

    I bought your new book — loved the first one so much I couldn’t wait to read the revised one! Only got through the first chapter, however, when my neighbor came by, saw it, and begged to borrow it. I caved in. He’s a pilot with American Airlines. 🙂

  11. Janet says:

    Love, love to read your blog. So funny !!!

  12. I too dislike Christmas and always try to get away from it.
    This year, I went to Canada, where they do have Christmas, but I don’t know anyone, so I can be alone.
    In previous years, I went to countries where Christmas isn’t such a big deal (Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Brazil) or where they celebrate it two weeks later (Montenegro).