Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Airline Chronicles Chapter I: Destination, New Hampshire

In the procrastinating tradition of this blog, here is a post I promised last week but due to the holiday and traveling, never got around to posting...the long-delayed official first chapter to my second blog series.

When we last tuned in (many months ago) I had just finished my training to get my FAA license, and received my first job offer for a position as an aircraft dispatcher, a job which I am still doing today, over ten years and five airlines later. As I previously mentioned, the airline that offered me a job was called Business Express Airlines, and offered regional (feeder) service for Delta and Northwest throughout the northeastern United States.

I had been a member of the New Mexico Air National Guard prior to getting this job offer, and I was able to transfer to a new unit in New Hampshire after I started with Business Express. However, I discovered that the traditional weekend Guard schedule didn't mesh too well with an aviation career (since as a new employee I always was scheduled to work on weekends) so I ultimately got out of the Guard when I left New Hampshire. But let's get back to the main story here...

This was my first professional job ever (not counting the four years I spent in the Air Force) so I was pretty excited to be heading up there. I loaded up all my stuff in the back of my pickup truck (which I had just gotten a camper shell for) and headed out. It took a long four days of driving but my truck and I made it with no problems, and I arrived at the first of February, 1995, in Portsmouth, NH. As I was to discover, winter is the slow time of year in that part of the country.

Training for the job consisted of about two weeks of classroom stuff, and two weeks of on-the-job training. I also got to do my very first "jumpseating" which is a nickname for riding in the cockpit jumpseat. An FAA requirement for my job states that five hours of this is required every year. When I first started in the industry, many years ago, this was beyond cool to me. Now, while I still enjoy doing it once in a while, the thrill has definitely worn off. However, it is still a good way to understand more about my job and how pilots deal with my department.

I was a little rusty, having finished my training at Sheffield several months previously, but I'm pretty good at computers, and once I started on the desk I got the hang of things fairly quickly. At Business Express (or BusEx as we usually referred to it) there were four dispatch positions, two or three crew schedulers, and in the middle of the room, a coordinator, who handled all the aircraft swaps and determined which flights to cancel if necessary. He relied on the dispatchers to help him make the go/no-go decisions during periods of bad weather, but we left the aircraft routing up to him (during my tenure there, all of the coordinators were male. I don't know if this changed after I left or not. However, the manager of dispatch, who hired me, was female.) Below is a picture of yours truly circa 1995.

Work was definitely interesting and sometimes challenging, especially during bad weather. I lived through my first Nor'Easter shortly after I arrived, and the following winter was a heavy snow year...we must have had four or five of them. This combined with summer thunderstorms could make for busy times at work, especially since we had a fairly high workload.

Before any commercial U.S. flight can depart, it has to have a dispatch release prepared. We averaged around 65 releases per ten-hour shift when I was at Business Express, giving you less than six minutes per flight to prepare each one. While on a good weather day, this was not a problem it could make for hectic times on a bad weather day when you're looking at more weather information (does the flight need an alternate or not? What are the braking conditions like at that airport?) so I'd say we definitely earned our pay.

I spent my first few months in New Hampshire living in a winter rental in Hampton Beach, NH, at a hotel that was being remodeled along Ocean Boulevard there. It has since been renamed as the Atlantic Motel, but when I lived there it was known by the less romantic name of Motel 391. At $90 a week (furnished) including utilities, it wasn't a bad deal at all, although it was a bit of a drive to work. I was to discover as the summer drew closer just how BUSY Hampton Beach could get when the tourists arrived. For this reason, I decided to look elsewhere for permanent accommodations when selecting my apartment, and I ended up in a place in Dover, NH, about ten miles from Portsmouth.

I really liked Dover because, in addition to being cheaper than Portsmouth, it was also closer to the mountains, making it that much easier to go hiking or sightseeing. And, should I desire to go to the beach, it wasn't far from there either...but I've always been more of a mountain person. Two of my favorite hikes when I lived there were up Mount Major (easy but fun and with nice views) and Mount Washington (rather challenging but worth it!) For those of you interested in winter Olympics trivia, Mount Washington is part of the same mountain range where Bode Miller grew up and learned to ski. As longtime readers of this blog are aware, my own attempt at skiing in New Hampshire was rather less glamorous.

It sounds like Dover has gotten rather trendy in the years since I've left but when I lived there the trendiness was more confined to the Portsmouth area. I think that a magazine named the Seacoast New Hampshire area as one of the best areas to live in the whole country several years running, and it's sent property values there skyward. For instance, the apartment where I lived (which was a SMALL one-bedroom) has recently converted to condominiums selling for over $100,000 each. I realize that compared to a big city that might seem like a bargain, but when I lived there, you could probably have bought a small home for that same price. Oh well.

As I mentioned, the winter of 1995-1996 was an especially rough one, which basically shut the airline down for several days. We'd been having some financial issues (due in part to a greedy owner) and ultimately, the aircraft company that we leased most of our planes through forced the company into Chapter 11. This was of great concern to me since I used my flight benefits to travel back and visit my parents a lot, and I didn't like the idea of getting stuck in New Hampshire with no relatives nearby should the airline go out of business. But after the initial shock, things actually proceeded more smoothly than they had immediately prior to the Chapter 11...however, my boss and the department head both put in their notices about the same time, so I started looking for new work also. The department had quite a high turnover rate throughout the time I was there, due to the low pay...when I finally left, after just over a year, I was fourth highest in dispatcher seniority out of about fifteen dispatchers.

Looking back on things, I probably would have stayed longer if I'd known how things would turn out. My department head who left was replaced by someone that I got along with much better, and ultimately, the airline did survive. I guess things were touch and go for a bit but Business Express eventually got a codeshare agreement with American Airlines, and later was bought out by the parent corporation of American, AMR, to become part of their express carrier, American Eagle. The airline stayed in New Hampshire for a couple more years after that, but was eventually incorporated into American Eagle's own offices located near Dallas, Texas.

At the time, leaving seemed like a no-brainer to me since I went to a larger airline, with jet equipment, that was located only abut 180 miles away from my parents' house in Albuquerque. It was still a regional carrier, but they had jet equipment, which Business Express had when I first started (the jet in the linked photograph is actually a bacosaurus relative) but later got rid of after the ski season ended in 1996. I had to pay for my own move, which I financed by selling my pickup truck (I guess that's become a familiar pattern recently) and loaded up my small apartment full of stuff onto a U-Haul in April of 1996 to proceed on my way to Farmington, NM. I also got a pay raise, and the cost of living in Farmington was a bit lower...but as you will see in my next chapter, things aren't always as good as they seem at first glance.

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