My best friend can fly a wide bodied Boeing 767, but somehow can not boot up his his antiquated iPhone 4-ish to reveal the alleged cache of my old “road warrior war-stories” which I shared years ago in hundreds of drunken hot tub nights. (Yes, our wives were there – get your heads straight). While playing vintage pinball machines yesterday in Hendersonville, NC, I came across this old machine that reminded me of the band The Who and their song Pinball Wizard. I felt the time was right to bust out one of my better memories. The title of this blog is a blend of one of their song titles and a particularly memorable / crazy day flying the friendly skies. It involves directly and indirectly two of my favorite American Airlines (USAirways at the time) professionals. The story would not be possible without Kathy’s earlier intervention, but clearly Mary has the starring role.
If I had to guess, I’d say this wild day occurred somewhere in 2010, about a year after I reached the apex of my flying intensity. In 2009, yours truly flew exactly 182 segments with USAirways. I’d done 150+ segments a few times prior, but 182 was, is and forever will be, the most airline segments I’d fly in a year. Yeah, a story is forthcoming, but let 182 flights in a year sink in for a moment and pardon the math calculations that follow. 365 days in a year…..Taking weekends and holidays out leaves 260 work days. Take out an additional 20 days for vacation and that leaves 240 real working days where in 2009 I did 182 takeoffs and landings. Spread evenly across the year, I was flying on 76% of all working days.
Earlier in my career with 3M, as I flew from 30, then 60, then 90 annual segments a year, I’d get a kick out of recognizing USAirways gate agents and flight attendants. As I flew more and more, they’d begin to remember me. Often, a flight attendant’s memorization skills would be on full display when they’d look at me and say “Gin and tonic. Two limes, right?” This would then often trigger a seat mate to say something like, “Wow. Do you know them?” or “How do they know what you want to drink?” I’d just shrug and explain that I fly too much. Speaking of flying too much…one of the moments that solidified in my mind that I was onboard airplanes too much was when pilots would see me onboard or waiting to board and give me a nod or tip of their cap. When the pilots recognize you….that’s a whole different league of flying too much. Speaking of pilots, I remember the phone call from my best friend, who had been deployed near some lovely hot desert during much of the preceding year. “Hey brother…I checked my flight logs” he said…”and just to let you know…you did more take offs and landings than I did.” Yeah and he was a squadron commander of a C-17 group in harms way.
OK, back (more or less) to the story. One day a call from a familiar 336 area code brought a smile to my face. It was Kathy, the Director of USAirways Clubs (Get Out Of Jail Card reference from a former blog) and she’d like a few minutes of my time. Kathy explained that USAirways had established a new program for their top customers called Executive Services (Kathy, correct me if I’m mistaken). She explained that for a period of time, this program was complimentary and the company wanted to examine its’ marketability to offer it with a membership fee in the future. She explained that each customer in this program would be assigned to a specific liaison from USAirways and that employee would monitor customers’ travel itineraries and offer assistance making tight connections, rebooking missed flights etc… All I thought was “Wow, cool. I’m getting invited into a special program.” Then Kathy said, “Well, Mr. Zaik technically you don’t qualify for this program.” and reality set in. “But”, she continued, “A major part of this program is for the company to receive feedback from the invited guests.” Essentially, what I surmised from the conversation was that the people flying this much and in the new program were too busy or self-important to provide meaningful feedback to USAirways. That was my saving grace. Kathy explained that she always read and valued the feedback (colorful as much of it was) that I provided and it was that reason that she was personally inviting me into the program. I was thrilled! Finally, Kathy explained that someone named Mary Bush, my personal Executive Services Liaison would reach out and introduce herself in the near future.
OK, you are saying…there’s supposed to be a story in here, right? Yes….I’m getting to that in my circular reference sort of way. Wait….Hey Look – its a flying squirrel!
Fast forward a few weeks from Kathy’s invite. It’s a typical Friday morning and I’m flying home….this week from San Diego. I’ve got my 2A seat upgrades on a 1:00PM Pacific Time SAN-CLT and then a 10:30PM Eastern CLT-CHS flight getting home at about midnight. For some reason that I can’t remember, Lynn really wanted me to get home earlier. So, in uncharacteristic form, I gave up my first class seats for coach seats on an earlier outbound flight (perhaps 9:00AM Pacific) from San Diego that allowed me to make a tight connection in Charlotte and get home for dinner. Somewhere in the late USAirways days, I had gone 4 1/2 years without missing a single first class upgrade. This is when I was flying 150+ segments a year, so this is 600+ flights without setting foot in coach.
Onto the plane I walk, feeling good about getting home early but feeling pissed off that some other people were in my first class seats, soon to be eating a terrible quality breakfast at 35,000 feet. The jet was an Airbus 321 and I had an isle seat in about row 25, about ten rows from the back of the jet. As I solemnly walked rearward, the main cabin flight attendant calls out, “Hey! You lost or something?” I look up to a very familiar face of a flight attendant that is surprised that I’m not sitting up front. I explain that I’m trying to get home quickly and gave up first class seats for an earlier flight. She tells me how sweet that is and asks if there are any particular first class snacks I’d like once we get in the air. I tell her my favorite snack and she also says that any drinks I’d like are on the house. She said that I should give her some cash and she’d make change in the same amount and hand it back to me. Perfect. The master plan having been established, I sat down and looked forward in amazement, seeing for the first time in a long time how long these planes really are.
A few minutes later, two younger guys (hell I was younger in this story) show up and sit in the middle and window seats. Other than the obligatory “Hey, What’s Up” nod, we didn’t really speak until we got into the air. They were headed to Myrtle Beach for a bachelors party chock-full of golf and strip clubs. Cause, hey….there’s not much else to do in Dirty Myrtle. Now disregard the fact that it’s perhaps ten in the morning. I live in East Coast time, so its automatically +3 hours from local West Coast time, right? Nothing wrong with having a cocktail at 1:00PM (if only in my brain). Here comes my friendly neighborhood flight attendant. Cocktails were $7.00 on USAirways, not that I bought them up front, but I know these things from listening to pre-flight safety briefs. I also know the interest rates and promotional free miles on a variety of credit card offers and to place the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting others. So, I’ve got that going for me…She asks if I’d like anything and I smile and say, “Two gin and tonics, please”. She hands me two bottles of Tanqueray gin, a can of tonic water and a cup and I hand her a $20 bill. She “makes change” and hands me back a ten and two fives. As she asks the guys next to me if they’d like anything to drink, the guy in the middle seat has a puzzled look on his face and I’m sure that he realized what she had done. They both ordered sodas and a few minutes later, the flight attendant comes back to me with about six small bags of cashews and sesame stick snacks from the first class cabin. The guy next to me looks at his shitty pretzels…then at my snacks and says, “Dude. Who are you?”
“Huh? What do you mean”, I say. He says that he knows I am drinking for free and clearly my snacks are better than everyone else’s. He asks if I work for the airline….or if I’m friends with the flight attendant. I just say that I’m nobody special and deny the obvious free drinks. Well, one thing leads to another and now somewhere over the middle of the country myself and the two guys are laughing and having a great time talking about all that Myrtle Beach has to offer. All of a sudden the flight attendant comes over and says to me, “I am so sorry, Mr. Zaik. I didn’t realize that you were traveling with friends.” She asks them if they’d like some better snacks and while confused, they nod their heads. She also asks them if they’d like something else to drink. I look at them and clarify “Cocktail. Do you want cocktails?” More or less stunned, they stammer out, “Sure. How about Jack Daniels?” A few minutes later, she returns with potato chips, mixed nuts and three Jack Daniels bottles for each of them, plus perhaps some more green bottles that smell like juniper for me.
“Dude. Seriously. Who the hell are you?” they keep saying. “Huh? Nobody”, I say. I should point out that on my way home from business trips, I am not a dress-up kind of traveler. It’s generally T shirts, shorts and sneakers all the way, making the treatment I’m receiving seem even more bizarre to my new seat mate buddies. We keep laughing, the drinks keep showing up and by the time we land in Charlotte, we are all pretty buzzed. The guys have a two hour connection time and I tell them that while I have to go right to my next flight, if they want to go to the airline club – I’d be happy to get them in. I told them to just meet me near our arrival gate and we’d walk to the club. When the unfasten seat belt sign went off, I stepped out and back into the allowing perhaps ten people to get behind the two guys and in front of me.
Well, as soon as I step foot into the concourse, a professionally-dressed beautiful blonde woman was standing by the boarding gate with a sign that said Mr. Zaik. It’s ten years later but I still remember the initial shock of seeing my name on a board while getting OFF a plane. I had never seen something like this. My knees buckled and my brain jumped between thoughts of something bad happening to Lynn or my parents…..or perhaps our house was burning down. I could not for the life of me surmise why someone so official-looking had my name on a sign. I thought it was Concourse C. C15 as a matter of fact… but Mary recently told me that it was D (D9 I think she said) and as Mary hadn’t been drinking, feel free to draw your own conclusions) – Wait…Mary? Who is Mary? Remember Mary, my Personal Liaison? It’s THAT Mary.
“I’m Jim Zaik. What is going on?” I said to Mary. She asks if I’m really Mr. Zaik and I say, “Of course. Why would you ask that?” She politely points to my two buzzed seat mates who for some crazy reason had told her that they in fact were the infamous Mr. Zaik. The seat mates were now staring at Mary and I, in disbelief that the same guy who got them food and booze onboard had someone waiting for him at the arrival gate. Through the haze of my buzz, I hear “Mr. Zaik. I am Mary Bush and I am your Executive Services Liaison. I’m sorry that it took me a few weeks to meet you in person. I have been following all of your flights but have been working with other people when you’ve flown through Charlotte. She mentioned something about a foreign head of state flying through Charlotte last week and that’s why she could not connect with me at that time. All the while, I have the sense of dread that something terrible has happened, but instead Mary, the personification of southern charm and beauty is standing next to ragged old me and two guys headed to a weekend of excess. I explain that yes, I’m sort of loosely traveling with these two guys and Mary asks if I’d like her to call a golf cart to get us to the Club. I explained that the walk (as in “walk it off”) would suit us well. So the four of us walk to the USAirways Club on Concourse C. As soon as we walk into an uncharacteristically quiet check in area, Mary announces to the staff something like, “Hello everyone, I’d like to present Mr. Zaik, our newest member of Executive Services” and everyone smiles and waves to me.
At that point…and not a moment too soon….I shoo away the other two guys who ask for the final time, “Who Are You?” and hang out in the lobby talking with Mary. Even though I’ve probably seen Mary a few hundred times coming and going through Charlotte, that first moment seeing Mary with the Mr. Zaik sign is indelibly burned in my memory forever. Before many of my flights from Charleston, Lynn would often tease me, asking if I was going to see my “Charlotte girlfriend”. Despite all of the stress working in the airline industry and with demanding, cranky frequent fliers like me, she was and is the personification of Southern charm and manners!
I wouldn’t trade our new chapter of full time travel for my old days of airports and hotels but memories like this I’ll cherish forever.