Gear Up: Airport Standby

One pilot's favorite lament.

I endured two years in this man’s army during the Vietnam era (sometimes interesting, sometimes heartbreaking, mostly just mindless), had my neck broken (beaten up by a deranged young surgical patient), caught hepatitis (from a needle stick in the operating room — almost died), had prostate cancer (not amusing) and tolerated a surgical internship (in the old days), and yet none of these experiences comes close to being as maddening to me as airport standby. Maybe that’s an overstatement, but you get the point.

Airport standby is mostly a Part 135 phenomenon, but it’s also familiar to Part 121 and Part 91 pilots. It is just what it sounds like. In the Part 135 world, having a crew and an airplane ready to go allows for us to capture revenue when a “pop-up” trip materializes. Part 135 companies reason that they are paying the crew and that having them standing by and ready is sensible business strategy.

My fellow pilots, all of whom have been flying for a living much longer than I have, have developed skills for “airport appreciation day.” I am terrible at it. They will watch a movie or read a book or catch up on their expense account reporting. I just wander around the FBO, lost. So far, I’ve consumed a lot of bad FBO coffee, but I have yet to participate in a pop-up. What I don’t understand is why I find it so disagreeable. If I were in Fort Myers, Florida, for some other reason and I had nothing to do for a few hours, I’d gladly make my way to the airport, walk into PrivateSky, chat up a few crews and watch the airplanes. Why do I dislike this same activity when I do it for somebody else?

After years of flying privately, I was so enthralled with getting a Part 135 job that I couldn’t wait to hang around the FBO in uniform. I was one of the guys. I was flying a jet. Let’s talk. Now that feeling has diminished.

Our company has well-mannered guests. They are almost always on time, if not early, so I am not subject to the bane of Part 91 flying. Pilots who fly for owners have regaled me with tales of last-minute changes in plans (difficult when the airplane is fueled for a transcon and the boss wants to drop somebody off 90 miles away), vague departure times and instances like, oh, by the way, we stopped off at a great place for dinner, making us four hours late and jeopardizing the crew’s rest requirement.

When I started flying professionally, I quickly recognized that at my advanced age what matters most to me is the amount of flying I get to do per night away from home. As a retiree from medicine, the income is less important to me than it is to the younger pilots. Now, when I am away from home and just sitting, it is frustrating. I’d rather work than sit.

I think that part of what troubles me is that I’ve spent most of my life hurrying from the operating room to the outpatient area to a meeting and to home. So, sitting idly in the customarily cushy surroundings of a high-end FBO should be calming, but the pace is so different from the previous 60 years of my life (if you count school, college, medical school, residency, surgical jobs) that it is unnerving. Sometimes I go outside and just recheck the airplane. It gives me something to do. Maybe I can restock the liquor cabinet.

Truth be told, I’m guessing that my discomfort with airport standby is in part because it isn’t my idea. I’ve never been particularly good with authority (to say the least), and an activity that I would normally do on my own seems different when I am told to do that very same activity by an authority figure. This sensitivity is a personal weakness. It is part of the job at most companies, and it will be in my best interest to develop better coping skills. I’ve got to get over myself. Most pilots would kill (metaphorically) for this job.

That said, there are some pretty agreeable places to be for a day. My favorite is Meridian at Teterboro, New Jersey. The people at Meridian are especially nice and helpful, and we can sometimes intersect there with other crews from our company. If we get released in time, we can make a night of it together with other pilots. Meridian has an upstairs area, so you’re not lying around in full view of the high-end customers that habituate New York and its environs. There’s a movie theater, a sleep area, nice bathrooms with shower facilities and good Internet connections. I like to sit up on the balcony and see if I can recognize the celebrities that come and go down below. Once I saw a star and was told the young woman heading to a Gulfstream was a singer named Cyrus. I called my wife, Cathy, and told her I had seen Molly Cyrus, only to be told her name is Miley, you ninny.

Atlantic Aviation at Chicago Midway airport has lots of good celebrity sightings too, but you have to sit with the high rollers. The folks there are nice. They have good apples. It gets cold in the winter when the front door opens and racks of luggage are ferried in, though.

Landmark Aviation at Washington Dulles has lots of nice pictures of presidents and politicians. The people who come and go here are almost all businessmen with big doings in Washington, D.C. They come armed with leather briefcases, intent looks and grim smiles, making me wonder if their taxes are too high.

There are some outstation FBOs that can be fun, but usually it is hit or miss. It can be a long day at some of these locations, especially if they don’t subscribe to Flying. As a captain said to me at one of them, “We’re getting out of here tomorrow. The only way we won’t leave is if both engines won’t start.” These more rustic FBOs can have some interesting crew cars. One, in upstate Michigan, had an ancient Ford with more than 200,000 miles and no detectable floorboards on the passenger side. It was summer, though.

Part 91 flying can provide a different kind of sitting. The owner has the privilege of flying whenever he or she wants to go. This sometimes means that a crew can sit for days, waiting for the boss and her family to enjoy a week of skiing or sunning themselves in Cabo. It all sounds great until the third night that you have to say good night to the kids via FaceTime and your spouse is jealous because you are in such a well-known resort. Sometimes a spouse forgets that you are not billeted in the Ritz-Carlton, don’t have a rental car and are on a meal per diem. A hamburger can be pretty pricey in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Better hope for a fun copilot.

Last week I ran into a pilot for a famous country singer in the omelet line at a hotel near Teterboro. His boss was in New York to accept an award, and we compared notes. He was heading to Oklahoma, then Arizona, and finally Colorado for a gig. We were headed to Massachusetts, back to New Jersey, then Florida, and finally on to West Palm Beach. A few hours later, after we’d returned from Massachusetts, I saw him again at Meridian. “When are you leaving?” I asked. “A few hours ago,” he said smiling.

There are occasional bright spots in an otherwise boring day. Flying readers will frequently say hello and commiserate and we’ll take a picture together. It is nice to connect with readers who do the same thing I do, though one Part 135 pilot scolded me for “making this kind of flying sound better than it is.” I don’t think he was kidding.

Today I was waiting to see if they’d send us from Fort Myers to Tampa, Florida. That’s a 91 nautical mile trip that might take up to 27 minutes and 100 gallons of gas. I was thinking it would be nice to fly today and get into the air, if only for a few minutes. You’d think that removing the engine covers and preflighting the airplane, getting fuel and filing a flight plan for such a short leg would be onerous, but it would be a whole lot better than sitting here for another four hours. I know we have a Tampa-to-Charlotte live leg in the morning, so can’t we go flying now?

No, it turned out. I called the hotel shuttle, and 10 hours after we checked out, we checked right back in. Stop whining, Dick; tomorrow we fly.

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