Ask the pilot

Lives of the not so rich and famous: What do pilots do when they're not in the air?

Published April 16, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

The voting period for the Ask the Pilot readers' poll has been extended another week. Please send your choice of favorite and/or least favorite airline prior to next Friday, April 23 to Ask the Pilot. Thanks to everybody who has voted thus far. Responses have been, let's just say, emotional.

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There is no such thing as a typical pilot's schedule. Years of service determine how often a pilot flies, where he flies, and how long he gets to stay there. Having resided on a few seniority lists myself, in both high and low standing, I have fond memories of three-day layovers at the JW Marriott in Mexico City, where the guestrooms showcase exposed beams, Aztec ceramics and floor-to-ceiling views of the mountains (smog permitting). Then again, I get the shakes remembering nine-hour rests at ashtray hovels in Lansing, Moline, and Bloomington.

I once spent an entire month's rotation paired with a captain so distrustful of our usual accommodations that he carried a private stash of sheets and pillowcases on every trip. "Are you an idiot? Haven't you ever heard of scabies!" (This same fellow, maybe it's worth mentioning, also packed a supply of antiseptic wipes in his shirt pocket -- for disinfecting the rims of soda cans.)

There's a presumption -- a holdover, maybe, from the industry's glamour days -- that airline crews are given the poshest digs in town. A frequent flyer once asked me which of the big-name chains, in my opinion, employed the most helpful concierges. I had to look up "concierge" just to make sure it meant what I thought it meant. More often than not we're sent to perimeter properties -- decent places, but the kind of fast food hotel you find everywhere. You've seen their Lego-shaped contours and over-fertilized lawns all over the country: Fairfield, Courtyard, Hampton. My ballpoint pen collection is like a drive down I-95 or a loop around La Guardia, and I possess an unsettling ability to tell a Holiday Inn Express from a La Quinta by the color of the in-room carpeting.

The majority of layovers leave little or no time for sightseeing. Rest and recovery, not local attractions, are the tasks at hand, and thus pilots come to think of their destinations not as cities, but as rooms, beds, and amenities. "Where are you off to?" a colleague might ask.


In my cargo-flying days I would choose my trips in strict deference to three criteria: the tastefulness of wallpaper, the firmness of a mattress, and access to free food. Forty-eight hours in New York are arguably more fun than 11 hours in Dallas. That is, until you've spent back-to-back nights at the Sunrise Executive Hotel, out in Lynbrook near Kennedy airport. When the Hyatt at the San Francisco airport stopped allowing us into their executive lounge for hors d'oeuvres, I began bidding Miami instead, where the complimentary breakfast at the AmeriSuites included pancakes and fresh fruit.

Those fortunate enough -- i.e. senior enough -- to hold international runs tend to receive more upscale lodgings. Before the implosion of my career in '01, I'd spent the better part of three years flying back and forth to Europe, chiefly to Brussels, Belgium, home to my airline's main cargo hub and most enjoyable layover.

In Brussels we were spoiled. I figure I've logged close to a hundred nights there in the Hilton on Boulevard de Waterloo, where the facecloths are folded like lotus flowers and the man who comes to fix your toilet is wearing a suit. We'd get the executive floor, up on 23, with CD players and a vista of the imposing, if perpetually scaffold-enshrouded, Palace of Justice. Even on a three-day stint I felt bad leaving the room. Why bother sightseeing when I could lounge around in my Hilton bathrobe watching the BBC and slipping out at cocktail hour to the exec lounge's open bar? And then, each morning, the sumptuous garden-side buffet: full American breakfast with omelets cooked to order.

In the Brussels Hilton, even more so than in the cockpit, at last I felt like, well, an airline pilot, in that '60s movie, Pan Am captain sort of way. Qantas captains, I'm told, still receive a contractually guaranteed suite at every layover. Maybe that's true, maybe not, but sometimes on arrival the Hilton staff would ask us, "Who is the captain?" and offer him the choicest room. Once, after an especially late arrival and every room booked, even as a lowly second officer I was given a full suite with a six-person hot tub and eight-place dining table. The walls in that room, I'm sure, would have told stories of NATO generals. The dazzle of flying isn't totally buffed away; you just need to know where to find it. And it won't be at a HoJo's in Pensacola.

The windows at the Hilton don't open beyond a few inches. This, I take it, is a measure to keep guests from opening up their rooms to the vicious winds that constantly swirl through Belgium. One night, unable to unlock the fridge, I decided to put a sandwich and a Diet Coke (er, Coke Light in Eurospeak) in a laundry bag and hang them out the window to stay cold. Trying to maneuver my wrist through the gap, I lost my grip and down went my sandwich and soda, 23 stories to the street.

Antwerp, I'll insert here, is a prettier city than Brussels and a semi-regular day trip. Antwerp's gorgeous train station alone was worth the visit. Other routine excursions were to moody Ghent (St. Bavo's and a famous van Eyck), tourist-choked Brugge (Michelangelo's "Madonna and Child"), or the three-hour train to Amsterdam (everything else).

Whichever the city, Belgium's weather is perpetually gray, and fog wandering became my late-night layover custom. We'd touch down at BRU about 1 a.m., and what to do until the buffet at six? I'd change into my sneakers and head out solo for a long, multi-hour stroll through the pre-dawn mist -- past the Royal Palace and along the park; cutting left to the spectacular Grand-Place, with its gables and filigreed rooftops; up toward the Botanical Gardens and seedy Gar du Nord; then down the length of Waterloo.

The last of these red-eye constitutionals took place the night I had my arm smashed by a drunken Ethiopian vagrant. My elbow still aches from the contusion, having fallen backwards against the curb while dodging the man as he slashed at me. The stressful part wasn't the fall, or even the pre-dawn police car ride to a Belgian hospital, but having to call in sick for the trip home, a predicament that cost my airline untold thousands of dollars. The flight was delayed a full day in wait for my replacement, who had to be flown in from the States and legally rested.

I was given a ticket home on Sabena, and that's when it got fun. I'd done duty out of Brussels countless times, but there is something about taking that cab to the passenger terminal instead of the cargo ramp. And the thrill of adding another airline to my list. Sabena may have lacked the excitement of a Royal Jordanian or an Aeroflot, but boarding the big Airbus had my adrenaline going like the time in '86 when I rode that old Tupolev into Leningrad. A thrill, even stuck in coach, and even with my arm wrapped in gauze and dripping with orange anaesthetizing gel.

In the days after my injury, rumors of the mugging began to circulate, all of which were heavily exotified and none none of which I denied. Through whispered embellishment, versions included one where I was knocked unconscious by a gang of marauding Moroccans, and another where I was chased and beaten by a girl's pimp. "I heard some guy broke a bottle over your head."

If you're wondering: as veteran of four dozen countries, most of them off-the-clock leisure trips, a list of the author's all-time favorite hotels draws from a mix of layovers and vacations. I've stayed everywhere from a tent in the Kalahari to the Singapore YMCA, and I've come to prefer the less conventional venues --- rainforest lodges, independently run inns, boutiquey B&Bs. Those of you not used to far-flung travels should know of the remarkable deals to be had this way. On the secluded north coast of Bali last summer, a split-level hilltop cabin with balcony and view of the Java Sea cost $12 per night, including a home-cooked breakfast carried dutifully up the path each morning by the owner. Or the Kelebek Hotel, set amidst the bizarre scenery of Turkish Cappadocia. Forty dollars a night for all modern conveniences, handwoven rugs and beautiful Anatolian kilims -- in a room carved from rock.

Yet who am I to deny it: nothing is a more indulgent pleasure than a night or two in a gleaming five-star highrise. If Mexico's JW Marriott is forever my top choice, first runner-up has to be its namesake twin in Bangkok, Thailand. Coming from 14 days in Laos last month, the sudden comforts of bowing hostesses, daily fruit basket, and an orchid on my pillow, were lavish to the point of intimidation.

Bangkok is a frustrating, steam-cooked cauldron of a city. It's also home not only to some of the world's best hotels, but some of the best hotel deals. Two Marriotts, a Peninsula, a Shangri-La -- they're all here. And with some prudent haggling you can frequently snag a luxurious room, perhaps overlooking the Grand Palace or the mustard-colored Chao Phraya, for the cost of a parking lot view at the LAX Ramada.

If money is no object, the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, bills itself the world's first seven star hotel. These star ratings are slippery and subjective, but the Burj's helicopter landing pad and "underwater seafood restaurant" might have something to do with it.

Finding a pornographic magazine in your hotel is called a "hit." If you bother to look, you'll uncover a dirty mag in about one of every 12 or 15 rooms. Look between the mattresses, though another common spot is in the bureau, beneath the drawers but still inside the frame. You have to pull the bottom drawer completely from its tracks.

Of course, this knowledge comes to me secondhand. That's my story and I'm sticking to it; I worked with a guy who'd been in the hotel business who showed me how to yank apart the bureaus and look inside. "It's pretty common," he explained. "The workers hide them in there." I have no idea which workers he was talking about, since the only ones with routine access to guests' chambers are the house cleaners, who, almost without exception, are women.

I never knew anybody to have scored a hit in the Mexico Marriott or the Brussels Hilton -- testament either to an undersexed clientele or a hardworking cleaning staff. Hits were common at places like the AmeriSuites in Miami, and one comes to sense a direct correlation between the character of the porno and that of the hotel. You might unearth a copy of Libido -- the Journal of Sex and Sensibility in a room at the San Fran Hyatt, while Juggs would be an appropriate discovery at the Sunrise on Long Island.

In Brussels the raunchiest option was a pick between Hilton's own in-house publication (this month featuring an interview with a fully clothed Wynona Ryder) or a free copy of the Economist.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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