As a young child in my small, snowy New England hometown, Christmas and aviation were among my greatest sources of excitement. Indeed, I could hardly have imagined one without the other. To me, Santa was foremost a pilot, one skilful enough to soar through driving snow, bitter winds and the Arctic’s long night.
And his flying sleigh, however unlovely in comparison to a jetliner, could nevertheless carry all the gifts — the first atlas of my very own, a brightly illuminated globe, one more model of a British Airways jet in need of careful assembly — that kindled my hopes of someday taking to the skies myself.
Today, as a long-haul airline pilot and reluctant adult (at least around Christmastime) the meaning of December 25 has changed. I understand, for example, that while children fall asleep on Christmas Eve, many adults (especially those tasked with our safekeeping, such as first responders) are hard at work, and many, including military personnel, are far from their loved ones. For those who work as flight and cabin crew, meanwhile, Christmas can be heart-warming but also bittersweet — a time when many of us pack our suitcases in order to help tens of thousands of travellers get home.
To be clear, the carols that promise silent nights — and for those crossing northern latitudes in late December, Christmas is mostly night, albeit one reliably decked with spectacular auroras — aren’t entirely wrong. Though billions of people around the world don’t mark Christmas, it is nevertheless the year’s least busy day for air travel. According to OAG, a provider of flight data, in 2019 — a representative pre-pandemic year — worldwide capacity (ie the total number of seats on scheduled flights) on Christmas Day fell by 23 per cent compared to August 9, the year’s busiest day.
For those crossing northern latitudes in late December, Christmas is mostly night, albeit one reliably decked with spectacular auroras That headline figure, however, conceals dramatic regional variations. For example, on Christmas Day, intra-European capacity was 59 per cent below the year’s peak, while in the UK, domestic capacity was 99 per cent lower. In the United States, domestic seats fell 26 per cent from the year’s peak — though the year’s quietest day was in fact Thanksgiving, when traffic dropped 42 per cent. In contrast, Christmas capacity in countries such as China, Japan and Pakistan (where the public holiday on December 25 commemorates the birthday of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country’s founder) wasn’t far from average. Perhaps counter-intuitively, capacity reductions at Christmas may require longer periods away from home for crew members. If a route is not operating on Christmas, then the crews rostered to fly home on Boxing Day or December 27, for example, may need to travel out earlier than usual to achieve their legally required rest. On our Boeing 787 fleet, approximately 60 per cent of crew members will be at work or on call at some point between Christmas Eve (a Saturday) and Boxing Day.
For Christmas Day itself, the figure is around 40 per cent. That’s higher than the UK figure for all transport workers (around three per cent, according to 2018 government figures) — though, predictably, it’s not quite as high as clergy (46 per cent). For some, of course, a Christmas abroad, even if celebrated a day early or late, is a treat — a break, perhaps, from festive rituals that may have become a little too routine. The typical camaraderie among crew members is intensified by the knowledge we’ll be spending our Christmases together, and by the sense of mission that comes from knowing that we’re making it possible for so many to be with their loved ones at a most important time of the year.
An in-flight entertainment channel dedicated exclusively to Christmas films helps customers get in the mood, as do special menus: a great many turkey dinners and mince pies will be served in the world’s skies next week, perhaps accompanied — as one of my cabin crew colleagues recommends to her customers — by a festively red-hued Kir Royale. Santa Claus makes the switch from his sleigh to an early aeroplane, c1921 © Alamy When I speak to retired crew, Christmas trips are often among the most memorable journeys of their career. I recently met Howard Wright, a former pilot, at an event for my new book at Elliott Bay, the storied Seattle bookshop.
Wright, who flew the Boeing 727, 737, 757 and 767, returned home after one Christmas trip to be met in his drive by David, his five-year-old neighbour, who shook with excitement as he shouted: “Did you see him? Did you see him? Did you see him?” When Wright affirmed that he had indeed seen him — neither needed to specify whom — David ran off down the street, past the Christmas trees glowing in the windows of all the homes, shouting “He saw him! He saw him! He saw him!” Pete Smith, another pilot, retired in 2003 — the year I began to fly commercially — after decades of flying the 737 and the 747. He recalls a Christmas in the early 1990s, when in-flight visits to the cockpit were still permitted.
Once in the cruise, he and his first officer donned white beards, strung decorations and a set of Christmas lights around the flight-deck door and sent word to the youngest passengers that their flight was helping to deliver some of Santa’s presents. One child after another came to the cockpit, where they received a “Santa’s helper” badge — and, perhaps, a window on to a future career.
Source : FinanciaTimes