Published in August 2015 issue

It’s the middle day of three back-to-back turns—pace yourself, Captain.

By Chris Manno

In fact, it’s the second leg of the middle turn, Dulles International (IAD), 19:00—time to get out of town: the elephant walk of international widebody jets is set to begin shortly. If we can push back even five minutes early, we can beat the line—and the wake turbulence delay.

Use the Captain’s invisibility cloak: the ability to do most pre-flight planning on a smart phone. Check the weather, the route, the fuel load. Add more fuel. Sign the release with a tap on the screen, then send a hard copy to a gate printer, all from the cockpit. Wait for it to finish printing then discretely and invisibly slip into the terminal to pick up the paperwork, directly avoiding the gate chaos.

Don’t make eye contact, don’t invite hassles, complaints, requests, anything that delays the door slam and brake release to get ahead of the fat boys headed for the runway. You still have to fly to Dallas- Fort Worth (DFW), drive home—then head back out to do the turn again tomorrow. Minutes from pushback; be invisible now.

But wait. Out of the corner of your eye, you see it: a teenage girl, on her phone, tense; next to her, what could only be her younger sister. In tears. No parents, no adults, just the agent telling them both, “You either board now, or you’ll have to fly tomorrow.” That sends the little one into big sobs.

Less than 15 minutes to the scheduled pushback. Could you maybe say you didn’t see any of this? But you did.

“What do you need?”, you ask the older, maybe 16-year-old, sister.

She puts the cell phone down for a second, plaintive. “She left her backpack at security.”

Sigh. The agent is looking at you pointedly, his eyes saying that we need to board now and shut the aircraft door. However, from the tears in the young girl’s eyes, you pretty much guess what’s in the backpack. I consider taking the youngster back through security—but then think better of it.

We’d have to run to the center of the terminal, down two escalators, onto the train to the main terminal, up two more escalators, then find the security checkpoint that might still have the backpack—then retrace our steps, all before departure time in 15 minutes. Not going to happen.

I catch the older sister’s eye. “You have some ID?” She nods. “Let’s go.” I head off at a fast walk toward the mid terminal.

“Wait here!” she tells her little sister, and the agent slumps the message “Damn you, Captain.” Big sister’s on my heels, asking, “Can we do this?”

Just shrug. “They’re not leaving without me.”


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We tumble down the two-story escalator two steps at a time, shoving past others like obnoxious travelers. I envision people watching and trying to figure out why an airline Captain in uniform is running away from a teenager in hot pursuit. I also remember the miles I ran that morning before flight.

Even though the automated voice is warning that the doors are closing—do not delay this train—I do anyway, holding the door as she jumps aboard. “It’s got all her school books,” she says, out of breath. Right: I have a big picture of a fifth grader hauling a load of schoolbooks on spring break.

“No worries,” I say, “It could happen to anyone.” She nods. “Special guys in there?” I ask casually. She smiles sheepishly. I don’t care: that’s a very real tragedy for a youngster, losing all the stuffed guys that mean the world to them. Not on my watch.

We spill out of the train on the far end, then WAIT: this will take us to baggage claim and out of the secure area—we need the TSA checkpoint! We dash back through the closing exit doors, then push through the boarding passengers and out the other side.

Two sets of identical escalators—both going down. This means we have to rush up the steps—but which ones? “Which security checkpoint did you use?”, I ask. She looks confused; they are identical, not sure how one could really know anyway. “Let’s try this one,” I say, rushing the steps.

We reach the TSA supervisor’s stand. He shakes his head. “No pink backpack here—try the other side.”

Figures. We run the length of the concourse and arrive at the opposite checkpoint. “You’re lucky,” says a cheerful TSA agent in a pressed blue shirt. “We were getting ready to send it to lost and found.”

Identification checked, signatures. She sees me eyeing her sister’s backpack, and says: “Uh, we need to start putting a nametag on this, don’t we?”

I nod. Lesson learned. It’s confusing, especially for kids traveling alone. “I was on the phone with my mom,” she says, “Hoping we could get someone to drive out here and pick up the backpack.”

“No worries,” I say, picturing the waves of 747s and A-330s pushing back and lining up for takeoff in my mind’s eye. “Anyone can lose stuff at the airport, especially at security.”

We retrace our steps as fast as we can, me feeling the morning miles, my new friend feeling and looking relieved. At the gate, she hands the backpack to little sister, who still looks mortified.

They rush down the jetbridge to board. I walk, telling the agent, “Just charge me with the delay.” He gives me a glare that says he was going to anyway, which I answer with a smile that says I don’t care.

The elephants have already started their parade and we squeeze into the conga line. Sure, I’d have some explaining to do a thousand miles or so west. But no one missed their connection in DFW, no one was unduly delayed and, most importantly, no one’s little world collapsed with the loss of everyone they loved. That, to me, matters a lot.

Because we don’t just fly jets. We fly people. That, and the occasional special teddy bear.