When my company hired me two decades ago, one of the first things I noticed about many of my fellow pilots was that they were cheap bastards. I consider this to be a compliment to my fellow aviators.
These pilots were not cheap when it came time to splitting the dinner bill, as they were all quite gracious in paying up. As a new guy, I had many meals and drinks bought for me by the captains I flew with. “I don’t want your money, just do this for your copilots when you’re a captain”, they would say. A friend of mine had one captain sternly make him take back the money he had just given the captain, for the prior evenings’ dinner bill. They were in the cockpit when the captain thrust the money back at the copilot and said, “God damn it, I told you I didn’t want any fuckin money and when I say I don’t want your fuckin money, that means I don’t want your fuckin money! We have two more days of flying together dip shit and if I see one fuckin red cent come out of your pocket, I will cut your dic off and use it for a pitot tube!” A fraction of a second later the senior flight attendant burst into the cockpit and screamed, “Everything you just said went over the public address system, stop talking!” The captain had been resting his hands on the center console, where the radio panels are. He had accidentally pushed the transmit button on the console, giving all 150 people on board a front row seat to his dialogue. He was mortified. Both pilots looked down the center aisle of the cabin and saw 300 eyeballs bulging out of people’s heads in disbelief. They had not left the gate yet, and had another four hours with these people. The captain performed an emotional Mea Culpa, hoping an offended passenger would not file a complaint.
Hotels offer a plethora of freebies that end up in the homes of pilots. There are soaps, shampoos, lotions, sewing kits, amenity kits, and other things of strategic value. On the nightstands in hotel rooms, there usually is a pad of stationary and a cheap pen. The stationary pads are commonly found in the cockpits, on the built in clipboards, but the pens are too valuable to leave behind. If there are free newspapers at the front desk, we are certain to take one. At some of the better hotels you can find a newspaper and a Wall Street Journal at the same time, major score.
There is the story of the pilot who finally sends his first child off to college. The young adult returns for the holidays and proceeds to tell the parents everything they have learned. The parents are told many things, but their child was most impressed by learning that most bars of soap are actually very big and shampoo comes in bottles that are bigger than their thumb. Being raised on hotel toiletries brought home by the student’s father, the young person was ignorant to this important part of life, only because the father, a pilot, was a cheap bastard.
Discounts and deals abound in the pilot world. Almost every airport eatery and hotel restaurant offers a percentage off of whatever we purchase to eat. There are coupons for free drinks or buffets. I have seen 50% off in some places, which none of us can pass up. I was at a coffee shop in a layover hotel recently, getting ready to head to the airport. The young woman working the counter got me my coffee and handed me two big chocolate chip cookies for free. Of course I shyly refused, but she insisted that I take the cookies. “You never know when you might get hungry”, She said. I was trying to smile and not drool at the same time. This treatment is not unusual. I was walking through the Cincinnati airport once, when a worker at the Mrs. Fields Cookies counter waved me over. “You can have all the left over cookies for five dollars”, the counter person said. I walked away with three bags of cookies and boasted about my good deal for weeks after. I had realized that the cookies kiosk was closing and instead of throwing the cookies away, they would offer them all at a price no pilot could refuse. I scored those bags of cookies several times but got so sick of them, that I eventually refused the good deal. The same thing happened in Buffalo New York one night. We were doing a turn around, so we were there for about an hour. I ran down to the cafeteria and ordered some wings. The man working the counter asked if I wanted extra wings. I said, “Sure, sounds good”. He brought out three large to go boxes of wings, mild, medium, and hot. We stuffed ourselves. When ordering a meal where the food is scooped up in a predetermined amount, the generous workers dishing out the food usually add a partial scoop more, smiling at us while they do it. I have never seen a pilot tell them to take it back.
There is a good chain of communication amongst pilots, allowing us to share the free things or good deals in our layover cities. A fellow pilot told me about free coffee at the hotel coffee shop in Boston. He said, “You have to be in uniform to get the free coffee”. I mentioned this to my copilot the evening we arrived at that hotel. The next morning I was in the lobby of the hotel studying the subway map. We had the entire day off and I was interested in visiting a museum. I was surprised to see the copilot walk by in his uniform, seven hours before we were to be picked up. He marched over to the coffee shop and picked up a free cup of coffee, saving himself about $2.50. “You make me proud”, I said. He smiled, held up the free cup of Joe in a salute, and then proceeded to pick up a newspaper someone left on a chair. He went back to his room, drank free coffee and read a free paper. It doesn’t get much better than that.
I worked the Hawaiian operation for several years. Our layover hotel was at a gargantuan hotel complex with three, forty story towers. Through the grapevine, I had found out that the rooftop of every tower had a hot tub on it with an ice chest of soda next to it. Access to the rooftop was limited to the expensive business rooms on the upper floors. This was by no means a deterrent to us pilots. I discovered that if I took the elevator as high as I could go without using a room key, I could then take the stairwell up the remaining floors, to the rooftop. I was not interested in the hot tub, but drinking a free soda and taking in the incredible view from forty stories up, was great. I spent many hours up there over those years and never saw another person on that roof. On my way down one day I decided to take the elevator from the highest floor. As I walked towards the elevator I saw a door open to what looked like a lounge. I walked into the room and realized this was a suite converted into the business club lounge.
The suite was gorgeous, fronting the ocean, filled with food, drinks, newspapers, and a self-serve bar. The best part of this situation was realizing that there were no hotel employees in the room. I was alone with platters of food, free drinks, and 24 hours off. I settled in like I owned the joint. I left two hours later, only when another hotel guest entered the room. I went back many times, but one day, when I walked in, I saw a woman sitting behind a desk. “Good afternoon sir, can I assist you?” she said. I wanted to say, “Yeah, can you just go away from this good deal I have?” I remained calm and said, “I am trying to find my boss, and I was told to meet him here.”
“Oh, no problem, what is his name, I can look him up and contact him.” she said.
I was digging myself into a hole. I politely refused her help and left quickly. I could tell she was eyeing me suspiciously. When I got to the elevators, I turned around to smile at her. Next to every elevator were a big bowl of tropical fruit and a stack of newspapers. In an act of defiance, I picked up a papaya, a mango, and a Wall Street Journal while smiling. The elevator arrived quickly and I left. I called the front desk and asked when the business lounge was staffed. I was told that at 4:30 every afternoon, the business lounge was staffed. I had my answer. From then on I made sure I never spent time in that room after 3:00.
I spread the word about the rooftop and lounge to my fellow pilots. One of my fellow pilots brought his wife with him on a trip to Honolulu. He convinced the wife to go to the rooftop with him and sit in the hot tub. It was a beautiful night and they ended up having sex, then more sex, then running around the rooftop naked. Just as they were getting back to putting their clothes on, a security team came out onto the roof. Both parties were surprised as hell to see each other. The pilot apologized to the security team as he was putting his clothes on, grabbed a couple of free sodas and left with his humiliated and unhappy wife.
There was a time when most airlines served good food, especially in first class. I am allowed to sit in first class when I travel off duty. The pass system at my company allows me to travel unlimited times a year. Some years ago a pilot told me that over the weekend he took his wife and children on a flight that was a round trip flight to another city. He flew out on the first leg enjoying a nice lunch and free drinks in first class. They were on the ground for an hour before the same aircraft with the pilot and his family still on it, returned to its point of origin. He and his family enjoyed a first class dinner on the way back, the children enjoying a few ice cream sundaes. That was how they spent their day and evening, enjoying free food, drinks, desserts, and movies. The monthly food bills were less than normal because the pilot was uncanny in his ability to be a cheap bastard.
Not that long ago I was riding to a hotel for a layover. Across the street from my hotel I saw a sign on the marquis of another hotel advertising free wireless Internet. My monthly schedule requests were due the next day and I needed Internet access to send my requests in. Instead of paying for the service in my hotel, I walked across the street that next morning to use the free Internet at the other hotel. I walked past the lobby and sat in a public area near a fireplace that had couches and coffee tables. As I was booting up my computer I saw a large urn of coffee across the room. “What the heck” I thought, it’s just a cup of coffee. I got up and fixed myself a large cup of coffee, just the way I like it. I was working on my computer with a solid Internet connection, drinking my coffee, when a hotel employee approached me. “Sir, the breakfast buffet is now open, would you like me to show you what we have this morning?” she said. Without the slightest hesitation, I said, “Why that would be great, thank you.”
I proceeded to make myself a waffle, gather a plate of eggs and bacon, a glass of juice, and a container of strawberry banana yogurt. I was still there three hours later when they closed down the breakfast area. I was asked if I would like anything else, so I asked if I could take a snack to go. I have shared this nugget with many of the pilots I fly with and they too have enjoyed a scrumptious morning buffet, across the street.
This story could go on and on as there are endless examples of pilots being cheap bastards, but there is one last example I would like to share with you.
About 16 years ago, I was an engineer on the Boeing 727. The captain brought a bag onboard at the beginning of our trip. He handed me the paper bag and told me to put it in a safe place. When we got to our destination that night, he asked me for the bag. During our four-day trip, each day would start out the same, he would hand me the bag, I would put it out of harms way, and he would ask for it at the end of the day. On the last day, as he handed me the bag, I heard the clinking of glass. “Be careful with that,” he said. I asked him what was in the bag. He told me there were about ten light bulbs in the bag. I asked him why he carried all of these light bulbs around. He said to me, “I take the burned out light bulbs from home and exchange them with the working light bulbs in our hotel rooms.” I was at a loss for words, but I remember thinking that this guy is one cheap bastard! I am honored to be carrying his torch, twenty years later.