Jumpseat: Going Italian

Airline pilots are wired to find Irish pubs anywhere in the world — and Milan is no exception. iStock

I scanned the bid sheet, expecting to find the usual potpourri of trips. London. Rio. Buenos Aires. São Paulo. But wait, what’s this? Milan? Hmm … I could do for a change of scenery. In addition, a month of Milan trips would add a little extra in the paycheck because of the longer flying time and the fact that I would not be on my usual reserve schedule. I hadn’t been to Italy since my days of flying the 767.

Although I had reviewed the appropriate charts and procedures for Milan at home, I arrived early to JFK ­Operations just in case the route required additional attention. A little more than an hour before departure, I clicked on the computer keyboard and requested the flight plan. Surprisingly enough, it hadn’t been processed. A call to our dispatcher elicited a response of “I haven’t had time.”

Apparently, the dispatcher was swamped with problems on other flights. He acknowledged the tardiness but indicated that until he had an opportunity to review the data, the flight plan wouldn’t be available. OK … well, this was a first. In that case, the relief copilot and I would begin preflight preparations at the airplane and retrieve the flight plan at the gate when it was available.

Although a tardy flight plan and a slightly tardy copilot threatened to become a slightly tardy departure, another event became the problem. With frustrated expressions, two of our gate agents entered the cockpit. Because of computer glitches involving two airline reservation systems that were about to be merged, the agents were trying to rectify approximately 20 duplicated seat assignments.

With the seat-duplication debacle solved, albeit 45 minutes past departure time, we pushed back from the gate. Unfortunately, problems would continue to haunt us. As we crept forward in the long conga line of departures on the parallel taxiway for Runway 4L, our final takeoff data had not made its way to our aircraft communications addressing and reporting system (ACARS) printer. Despite verbal prompting over the radio to our airline’s operations personnel, the data was not forthcoming. The reason: Because of the earlier difficulty, load calculations were being performed manually.

Although I did my best to maneuver the airplane off into the holding pad as we neared the No. 1 position for takeoff, ATC wouldn’t allow us to remain. Because of the tight real estate, apparently, a rule existed whereupon only a narrowbody ­airplane was allowed to pass, but another widebody jet could not. Before long, we were instructed to take the taxi of shame down the active runway. As I predicted, the ­takeoff data became available just as we exited. But now our fuel situation had the potential to burn below departure requirements.

The copilot stated our concerns to the ground controller. He sympathized with our plight and considered a taxi route to the other parallel runway. In the end, the time required to reach the other runway would have been the same as rejoining the line. I elected to shut down an engine to conserve fuel. Eventually, we departed into the night sky with fuel to spare.

Because of turbulence reported at higher altitudes, our dispatcher had filed us across the North Atlantic track system at FL 290, untypically low. Unfortunately, the clearance from Gander Oceanic that appeared across our lower display screen had us flying at FL 370. A short negotiation process began. We won the battle but lost the war. Our ride was intermittently uncomfortable even at the lower altitude.

About two and a half hours into the flight, my rest break arrived with a new crisis. As the relief copilot slid into my seat and I stepped out the cockpit door, our purser, the lead flight attendant, presented me with a medical problem that had been brewing in the business-class cabin. A passenger with a history of low blood pressure had consumed a beer. Shortly thereafter, she was found unconscious in front of a lavatory door. An emergency room doctor and his RN wife responded.

Although the passenger’s expression was wrought with uncomfortable angst, the story had a happy ending. Perhaps the ER doc’s recommendation of a lay-flat, first-class seat was the appropriate treatment. She made a complete recovery and returned to her original seat just before our landing.

While en route, the copilot and I reviewed a series of complex arrival and transition procedures. The procedures involved various waypoints and speed restrictions. After becoming familiar with the nuances, we were handed off to the Italian controller. The controller offered an enthusiastic buongiorno and promptly gave us a vector to intercept the ILS for Runway 35L with no restrictions. We were approximately 80 miles from the airport. So much for stringent procedures … I was already starting to like Milan.

Our arrival was uneventful. The taxi to the gate was just as uncomplicated. The customs process involved a simple flash of our IDs. And about an hour later, we were at the hotel. Although it was five-star, my room assignment was not. Unfortunately, I got the well-appointed room directly across from the elevator and directly across the street from the outdoor cafe. Fortunately, the garbage trucks timed their well-announced appearance within a minute or two of my wake-up call the next day.

Prior to retiring for our respective naps, we formulated layover plans to visit da Vinci’s “Last Supper” later that afternoon. Despite a warning from the concierge that the visit usually required a one-month reservation, we braved an appearance nonetheless. We were greeted with bemused and weary expressions that, translated in any language, meant “no way.”

Good professional pilots always have an alternative plan when facing adversity. In search of entertainment worthy of our attendance, my copilots and I proceeded via the subway to the Milan canal district. Not only did we find sustenance and an enjoyable experience, but we also discovered an Irish pub. (Airline pilots have an instinctive ability to find an Irish pub anywhere in the world.)

For our hotel pickup to the airport the following morning, we began the day with the first issue. Our airplane was arriving late from JFK, a common occurrence apparently for a variety of reasons, depending on the phase of the moon. In any case, our departure time was delayed by an hour.

The next glitch was mildly comical. A jitney bus with the recognizable logo of our transportation company was parked outside the hotel entrance, but we found no sign of life in the way of a driver. Assuming the bus was not ours, we waited. After a period of time and impatience, one of our flight attendants took the initiative to investigate the parked jitney. A knock on the door produced a driver half asleep in a ­passenger seat. His fatigue seemed to disappear after loading the bags of 14 crew members.

We were greeted at the airport to a day of low ceilings, low visibility, a wet runway and a slight tailwind. The conditions didn’t present insurmountable problems, only that we all had to be on our A game if anything went awry during the departure.

The terrain threat of the Italian Alps necessitated a complicated departure procedure involving RNAV waypoints. The SID required careful review. The buffet-size selection of transitions made it difficult to predict the clearance we would actually receive.

Beyond our operational ­complications, the first-class cabin was apparently having issues of its own involving catering. Our veteran flight attendants solved the problem with a heavy dose of assertiveness. I was informed of the details with a metered amount of verbal venting, an unstated job description of the captain.

During the process of completing our preflight tasks, we were interrupted by the seemingly endless stream of ground personnel making various requests in and out of the cockpit. ­Although most of the folks were respectful and amiable, it eventually got to the point where I had to raise a hand in traffic-cop style just so we could complete a checklist.

As it is with many jobs, preparation can be the most tedious and the most challenging aspect.

Once my copilot moved the throttles forward for takeoff, the power of two 90,000-pound-thrust Rolls Royce engines helped to make the remainder of our trip just another day at the office.

Italy has once again been conquered … well, at least in respect to my airline career.

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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