Ruminations from the Ramp

Ruminations from the Ramp

Ruminations from the Ramp

By Tony Vasko

May 2001

We work in an industry where performance is closely measured. As we have seen from recent congressional hearings here in the U.S. and some very unfavorable news coverage, late flights rate right up there in the public's eye. We are partly to blame as many of the airlines have a "siege" mentality when it comes to delays. They draw into their shell and tough it out.

In the good old 1950s, Lockheed Air Service maintained many of the smaller operator's aircraft at the then Idlewild Field. A good customer of ours was Trans Caribbean which had recently gotten rid of its venerable DC-4 and early DC-6 and was flying some newish leased DC-6Bs. Since I was working for Lockheed and not the airline I was not eligible for passes. Still, Trans Carib supported me and I was going to support them.

The occasion was my honeymoon. I had met and wooed my bride and in early December we were married. We still are which makes us nearly unique among our kid’s friends. But I digress. Since it was December we decided we wanted fun in the sun so Puerto Rico was our choice. Who better than the airline I worked on to take us down? Eastern Airlines and Pan American were the other possibilities, but I was determined to give my business to Trans Carib.

No problem and best of all they had a flight at a little before midnight that would allow us time to recover from the reception. We presented our tickets at the counter in the old "Temporary Terminal" building at Idlewild. This was a row of connected Quonset type buildings with various add-ons. There was not too much activity at 10.00 p.m. at night except around the Trans Carib's counter. If we were not the only "continentals" in the crowd of passengers lined up, we were nearly so. Mostly they were Puerto Ricans going home for the holidays. Their mood was festive and there were many children. The agent took our tickets and said they would soon announce the boarding for an on schedule departure at 11.30 p.m.

Having spent a lot of time working in this terminal I took my fair bride upstairs to the "Greeks" for a little coffee and maybe a piece of apple pie (Editor’s note: see GSE Today, April 2001!). I was perhaps showing off to her a bit and wanted her to see where I labored. There were no windows on the ramp level so you could not see what was going on outside. Upstairs you could as the observation deck came off the Greeks. Ominously, when I looked out, the lone Trans Carib DC-6 sitting on the ramp had a bunch of my buddies swarming over number 2 engine. The prop was in feather. Things did not look good. Since the aircraft represented 50 percent of Trans Carib's fleet, they were not going to roll out a spare.

We went back downstairs and I parked my wife in a corner and slipped out through an adjacent gate. Security was not the tightest in those days. No one was going to search us or our possessions, or ask if we had packed our own bags. I went across the ramp out to the airplane. As I had feared, the engine had backfired on the way in. That was a sure sign of an upper land failure to one of the pistons and in spite of a prompt shutdown and feathering, there was metal in the sump and an engine change was needed. There would be no flight until the other DC-6 got back from Puerto Rico at about 7:30 a.m.

I went inside and explained the reality of piston engined airliners to my wife. In her inimitable confidence in me, she asked, "Can't you fix it?" I had to admit I could not. I wondered how the airline was going to handle this little matter. They had apparently picked up all the tickets for the ticket counter was now deserted. They had made sure they had picked up all the tickets because Eastern down the hall had a late night flight too. They made no announcement either. No sense in alarming the passengers after all. Besides they might take their ticket back and try to use it on Eastern.

The passengers got a bit restive as departure time neared. The Eastern blocked out and now we were the only herd of passengers in the terminal. Departure time went and no announcement. No agents in sight either. A passenger slipped behind the empty counter and tried the door into the inner offices. It was locked, and I knew they had already slipped the big wooden bar across the door on the inside. He pounded on the door, but got no response.

The mood changed. A delay was obviously going on, but what was there to do? No doubt it would be a short one. A guitar came out and there was some singing. After all, what is an hour or two when you are returning to the sun? By two in the morning, however, the mood had evaporated. There was some more determined beating on the door to the inner office with no response. Then some loud yelling. I prudently moved well away. More beating and then the sound of wood breaking. They had taken some of the timetable racks off the counters and broken them up. With some paper added they were piled against the door and then set afire. If they wouldn't come out they would smoke them out.

I must say that did get a response. The Port Authority Police responded. The fire was quenched but no heads were broken. No Trans Carib agents showed either. The door stayed firmly locked and the frustrated passengers milled about. Three o'clock, four o'clock and someone burst open the doors onto the ramp. The crowd spilled out onto the tarmac. This provided no satisfaction as the broken Trans Carib was over at Hangar 7 by now. The police returned and had to get a bit forceful to herd everyone back inside, but the passengers were wearing down. It was a long night.

Five o'clock and six-o'clock came and went. Other airline counters started coming to life and, lo, out came some Trans Carib agents. They had some police with them so they could afford to be magnanimous. Each of us got a breakfast voucher good upstairs at the Greeks. You could have anything you wanted up to the full value of the voucher that was good for a whole 50 cents. Really, truly. Even in 1958, 50 cents did not get you much at an airport snack shop.

Seven o'clock and almost eight arrived, and in came the DC-6 from San Juan. Now the agents were out in force. By nine o'clock the plane was cleaned, fueled, and we boarded. The stewardesses had a tough time. The crowd was not mollified by finally getting into the air. The meals were the same ones packed for the flight the night before. A stale ham sandwich, a cookie, and either a banana or an apple all packed in a cake box with string tied around it.

Well, things have improved greatly now. You get to pick up your lunch bag at the gate and carry it on board yourself. The airlines all believe in full disclosure to the passenger when a delay is even thought of. I think I saw the tooth fairy.

For the public, no one gives a damn if the flight is late because the fuel truck broke down or the caterer is late or the wheels went flat or there is 11 inches of snow on the wings and it’s still coming down. Damn airline screwed up again. I am late, late, late, and who can I sue?

Within the airline, however, the cause of the delay does make a difference. In a perfect world the reason would be that we wish to learn from experience so we may correct the problems and so perform better in the future. In reality (often), the wheels in the company want to know why the delay occurred and then often turn it into who is to blame.

On-time reliability is a fetish in the airline business. Obviously, since we push for an on-time operation, advertise it, and rate the station's performance on it, delays are to be avoided. If they can't be avoided, the next best thing is to pass the blame for the delay to some other department. Maintenance is not immune to playing this game. Avianca was a prime customer of Lockheed Air Service. We performed much of their Constellation maintenance at Idlewild. Avianca was a good airline and had well trained, competent pilots and took good care of their planes.

As with all airlines they recorded the reason (read blame) for each delay but unlike many others had a simple method of determining who was at fault: "Last one off the airplane (with the exception of the one closing the door) buys the delay."

Joe S. was my lead mechanic. He was smart and very wily and was not going to take any heat for a delay if he could help it. We were working a No. 2 engine problem on one of the L-1049s and a delay became inevitable. The passengers were on board and everything was ready for departure, except that is for our little maintenance problem. We had diagnosed the trouble, the part was in hand, and the fix was in work but one problem remained - how to get out of having the delay charged to maintenance.

Joe left the airplane as I finished the repair. The Port Authority controlled the public address system that served the ramp in front of the terminal. Joe made a quick phone call and was back planeside in a minute.

"Will Avianca Captain Garcia please call operations immediately?" said the public address system. It was repeated for emphasis. Joe was smiling now.

The voice on the PA was very emphatic. The Avianca agent at the top of the mobile steps went into the airplane. In a minute he emerged with a disgruntled Captain Garcia who went down the stairs and across the ramp to the nearest telephone in the terminal, an easy 200 feet. Remember, there were no mobile radios on the ramp then. Joe and I busted our guts and recowled the engine. The logbook was signed and we stood politely aside like cats amidst the canary's feathers, as a puzzled Captain Garcia re-emerged from the terminal, strode across the ramp, up the stairs and into the airplane.

"Crew delay," said Joe to the Avianca agent as I gave the crew the hand signals for engine start.