Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Passenger of the Day: All in the Family

I've been very lucky in the arena of medical incidents in my career. The first one I had was within my first few months of flying. It's one of those you things you never forget, like your first kiss, your first speeding ticket or the first time you realized you hate fruit cake.

I was working on a 727 and we were taxiing for takeoff from Chicago. There was a commotion a few rows from the back of the plane; a man was having a seizure and the passengers around him began to go crazy. I heard someone yell for a spoon to put in his mouth, something you never want to do. If anything, too many people already have silver spoons, but never place anything in the mouth of someone in the throes of a fit.

He recovered quickly and was taken care of by medical professionals, who were able to enter the plane via the air stairs in the tail of the aircraft. What a wonderful feature to have, as it saved us from taxiing all the way back to the gate.

On another flight bound for Ontario, CA, we had to divert to Las Vegas for a woman who had the worst panic attack I've ever seen. We were only 90 minutes late to Ontario, and could have arrived sooner, except that we came in so fast, we had to wait for the brakes to cool down.

My favorite experience (if you can call it that) was on a flight where I was the purser and a man had fallen ill on our way to Washington, DC. I called for medical assistance and a doctor came forward, as well as a nurse. They tended to the patient and the flight attendants working in the back took over as I returned to first class and continued to communicate with the captain. The captain asked me if it was serious enough to divert. The doctor, upon my asking this question, suddenly went from saying this was serious and the guy needed medical help right away, to saying, no, I think he will be fine to get to DC. Obviously, this doc had an important engagement he didn't want to miss. It was too late for a good tee time, so who knows...

Mostly, I encounter people who simply need a bit of oxygen. We ask for medical help, and I don't think I've ever been on a flight where there was no one available. The key is to ask for anyone with medical training. If you ask for a 'doctor on board', you may miss someone who could be a vital help, as even a veterinarian has the basic skills to assist where no one else does.

The worst we get is the occasional vomit on the floor, which we must clean up. I had one so bad, I worked for half an hour with a beautiful plastic apron and mask on my face, sprinkling lemon scented powder all over the mess, scooping it up with a flimsy scooper and finally placing down a large blanket to cover the mess.

Keeping my skills current, I was recently on a flight home from Lima, Peru. I was working the aft galley and a woman looking a bit pale entered. She didn't speak English, but we had 2 language qualified flight attendants in the galley. She was not feeling well and clutched the walls. She went down and someone shouted for oxygen, which I obtained. I knelt down, turned it on and began to place the mask on her. She shooed it away and rolled to her side. Someone said she was going to be ill and asked for a bag. I moved back, praying it wasn't going to be of the projectile variety.

She recovered and I got the oxygen on her and a call went out for medical assistance. Shortly, we had an RN and a doctor, who seemed very comfortable taking her pulse, comforting her, moving her purse out of the way. I had taken gloves from the AED to hand to him and thought it very odd that he refused them. No one refuses gloves when dealing with bodily fluids! Turns out, the doctor was the woman's husband. He spoke to the language flight attendants and mentioned that she was also a doctor.

Soon, another woman, young, attractive, straight black hair, was hovering nearby, offering her medical assistance as well. I told her that with the doctor and the RN, I felt we had it covered. But this was not just another soul offering medical assistance, it was the couple's daughter. It was then that I noticed the doctors very nice gold watch and the patient's leather Gucci purse. I wanted to ask if the daughter was single! Was everyone in their family in the medical field?

In the end, our patient recovered quickly, which was a good thing, as the bag that was delivered for her to be sick in was clear and I could see that, like me, she had the chicken for dinner. The sooner we got that out of the way, the better we'd all be! She soon was on her feet headed back to her seat. Another happy passenger taken care of by a team of well-trained flight attendants who were happy to assist and to do what we do best...take care of passengers.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Passenger of the Day: The Lovers

International pre-departure can be as fun as your 5th fruit cake of the holiday season- trying to maneuver the aisles during the busy boarding period to ask first class passengers for drink orders, taking and hanging coats, passing out amenity kits and menus and answering questions. All that and while not getting paid; the money starts flowing when the brakes of the plane are released, not when we start sweating for the needs of first class passengers, the neediest of whom seem to be upgrades from economy.

I approached the couple in 4K and L during the boarding process. She was attractive with dark features, straight black hair pulled back, a striped blouse under a black sweater and a cheery disposition. He was equally handsome with a full beard and wore a tee shirt and gray sweatpants. Very classy for first class, and quite comfortable, which apparently wins the contest. He was more into the young woman seated next to him than anything else.

Ignoring their attire, I smiled and asked if I could bring them anything to drink. My tray was already full of sparkling wine, orange juice and water; should they ask for these popular selections, it would save me a trip back up the aisle full of people headed to coach. Swimming up stream with a tray of drinks always brings the fear of bathing someone in a concoction of sparkling wine, orange juice and water. My poor heart.

He smiled back and said no, thanks. I looked to the young woman, who turned to the man attached to her right hand, and whispered to him. He looked into her eyes and then looked back to me to say that they would indeed like some sparkling wine. I smiled again and placed their drinks down, moving to the next row of seats.

Several passengers seemed very excited about their travel. Santiago, Chile was our destination, a new route for Mother Airline. Actually, we had the route many years ago. Santiago was always the city that got away from me. After the events of 9-11, I was furloughed, but spent time away from work taking advantage of my flight benefits. I made one big trip a month and had gone to such places as Hong Kong, Milan, Brussels and Taiwan. Santiago was the next destination on my list when Mother Airline called me back to work, so I didn't get to make the trip; and then we stopped flying there. Since starting again, a lot of passengers are taking advantage of the renewed route.

During the initial beverage service, I asked to take the lover's drink order. He declined my offer. Again, the young woman, now with her feet on the seat and her knees up to her chest, turned to whisper to him. She looked back to me like she had won a prize and he spoke up that they would like another glass of sparkling wine. “Oh,” she added, “and a glass of water for both of us.” “So, she does speak,” said my inner voice.

This is how it went every time I offered anything to them. He would say no, like a polite guest in a stranger's home, too timid to actually take up any offers of hospitality. She would lean into him, whisper in his ear, change his mind and he would then accept the offer. She seemed to have the power over him to accept any of my offers. Would you like dessert? Would you like a cheese plate and port wine? Would you like to smell this rotten fruit? Would you like to chew on this piece of glass. Would you like a fruit cake?

The Lover's, as we all started calling them, continued to hold hands and look longingly into each others eyes. They sighed and laughed. They did everything the same; like twins. What he ordered, she ordered. What he watched, she watched. She would get up to use the lav, then he would. It was the purser who pointed out that sweatpants on a man in love don't do enough to hide his passion.

We looked on in awe, the three of us working in first class, all agreeing that we wished we had someone to steal kisses from on a vacation flight to a foreign country. The others from the back all came up to steal a peek at our lovers- giggling, smiling and in a world that only they occupied at 37,000 feet.

Passenger of the Day: Mr. Ebola

Health scares come and go and I've never understood them, nor have I fallen for them. I remember in the months after 9-11, the media going berserk about a few cases of possible ricin; a poisonous white powder found in packages sent to a few of our leaders and possibly left in aircraft lavatories. To watch the news, one would think a ricin apocalypse were on the brink of breaking out and if we didn't heed the warnings of the talking heads, we'd all parish to bequeath the planet to the cockroaches. But I don't recall anyone dying from it in the US (and I am unable to find reports of deaths on line in writing this).

When SARS broke out, I lost my job for a few months because people stopped flying. When first reported, again, one paying attention to the news reports would think the world were about to end. A report issued in the early months advised those paying attention that a common disease like influenza kills 20,000 people every year; 200 times as many people who had died of SARS.

But new health scares are what sells. Bird flu, penguin pox, fox news syndrome, hokey-pokey disease and most recently it was Ebola getting people's attention. There were 18 cases of Ebola in Europe and the US. But to hear the chatter from friends and even some of my flying partners, you'd think there were a few zeros behind those 2 digits. I spoke to a friend who told me he'd kissed someone who had just been to Africa, and he was waiting for the incubation period to end to see if he had contracted the disease. Dr. Penguin assured him that, while he may have contracted something, a deadly African disease was not on the short list!


During the scare, friends asked me what procedures and training we have undergone at Mother Airline in the wake of this new threat to our way of life. In return, I tell them I no longer pay attention to the news reports!

Our training is already in place for dealing with health issues, and since this latest one, named after an Italian bowling score (ebola a perfect game-a) is only spread via direct contact with bodily fluids, and not an airborne contagion, I'm not all that concerned. Our universal precautions and frequent hand washing do the trick.

This isn't to say that I totally ignore what is going on around me. I have the information I need, I have the tools and smarts to deal with the risks, and I have the knowledge that I have a greater risk of dying in a car wreck, from a tragic incident involving a mule or being hit by a fruit cake. Contracting the Ebola virus is extremely unlikely, but unlike with a mule, the potential threat is serious.

On a trip, to Oahu, Hawaii, I was in the aisle with the beverage cart during our initial service after taking off from Houston, when the girl I was working with came up to me with a bit of a frantic look on her face. “Why did they board the duty free catalogs and remove the Sky Mall magazines? We don't sell duty free going to Hawaii. This gentleman in the hat asked to buy some cologne and I told him we don't sell it. Then he told me he was disappointed to hear that, since he left his back at home in...” wait for it... “NIGERIA!” (Cue the music of impending doom.)

I looked over to see a very healthy looking man about my age, dark, black skin, nice shirt and a silly trucker-style ball cap, looking through a magazine. Yeah, he's a killer, and he's my passenger of the day; Mr. Ebola.

We advised the other crew members of the man on board who was transiting from a region of the world known to have a contagious disease, as we are trained to do. What didn't help things along was that a woman in 3A got sick in the first class lavatory after asking for an air sickness bag, and the flight attendant came to ask me if I thought we should lock it off. I asked if she had made a mess in there, but the flight attendant was too scared to open the door to take a look. She wanted to ask if the woman had come from Africa, but was too frightened. To quell her fears, I went to the woman and first comforted her, “I hear you're not feeling well, is there anything I can get for you?”

“Oh, no, I'm feeling much better,” she said, and she looked quite chipper and was smiling. She assured me that she had just had too much chai in the airport; 2 cups, back to back, in fact, and now that she got it all out of her system, things were feeling normal again.

“That's great, and you do look very well. By the way, have you been traveling to any place that would be of concern to us?”

She smiled, knowingly and I got the answer I suspected, a 'no'. I informed the nervous flight attendant, who seemed to have a large weight taken from her shoulders, and she thanked me profusely for dealing with the situation for her.

Later in the flight, I was told the story of when Mr. Ebola walked to the aft galley to purchase some food. In handing over his credit card, he first licked his finger, as if he were thumbing through the pages of a book. Ebola or not, that was sort of gross. I asked if surely she didn't handle the saliva-soaked credit card after his doing so. No, she turned around and got a paper towel from the dispenser, took the credit card in the paper towel, never touching it, and returned it to him in the same fashion. Nice.

I'm very sensitive to the manner in which I pick up trash from passengers. Five years ago, I contracted a virus, most likely from flying, that nearly took me from this mortal plane. I always use a bag for picking up trash and always wash my hands afterwords. I'm cautious, but not paranoid.

After we landed, a group of us went to dinner, and while the Giants played Kansas City on the TV, I asked, “Well, now that we all have Ebola, who's buying dinner?” Nervous looks were thrown around the table for a second, and upon discovering that none of us had bought into the fear, we all had a good laugh. Penguin 1—Ebola 0.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Adventures in Flight: Made in America

Houston Courthouse 
The first piece of furniture I ever bought was a queen-sized bed. I'd moved off campus into an apartment and needed a bed. If you lived in Houston in the 90's, you know there was one place to shop for a mattress - “Mattress Mack's” Gallery Furniture. He did his own commercials, jumping up with a wad of cash and a goofy smile exclaiming, “We'll save you...MONEY!” To this day when I see the exit sign off the interstate, I remember him also saying, “I-45 North, between Tidwell and Parker.” Effective advertising.

With mixed emotions, I recently performed my civic responsibility by serving Jury Duty. Driving to the courthouse downtown, I passed Parker and remembered, “I-45 North between Tidwell and Parker.” Twenty-seven years after buying my bed, he's still there. So, on the way home, after not being used, (it would have been a boring DUI case, anyway; I'm sure the guy was guilty) I stopped in.

What used to be a small, somewhat dumpy metal building with furniture outside under a large shade structure, is now one of the largest furniture stores in the country; quite grandiose, with large statues, water fountains with live tropical birds, a huge rotunda and even a display of live monkeys. Being Houston royalty, as it were, it wasn't too surprising to see several areas devoted to his ego, with plaques and photos and displays of Jim McIngvale alongside other Houston royalty, presidents, and sports legends.

What got me most were the numerous US flags and the continuously running infomercial on the many TV screens throughout the show room with an annoyingly twangy country song going on about god and country, images of Old Glory waving, of a Marine and his bride on the steps of a church, of families and children eating hot dogs, and there was a much older, but still sort of goofy looking, Mattress Mack declaring how his furniture store now leans toward items made in America. Red, white and blue. God. American proud. Sappy music sung by a nasally challenged man. 'Murca!' (the term a certain inept president recently made famous).

Chilean friends being silly
Earlier this year, I had my first trip to Santiago, Chile. I'd never been to South America until transferring to our Houston base, and it's been great getting to know the culture of our neighbors to the south. Upon meeting some friends of a friend, I was asked how I liked Santiago. I told them how much I loved the huge Andes Mountains and hadn't expected the city to be so much like America, with Denny's, P.F. Chang's, Fuddruckers, and all the standard fast food restaurants, of course. They looked at me like I had two heads, “Well,” they said, “you ARE in America.” South America.

Of course, I was.

I'd fallen into that trap that so many from the US fall into; thinking America is all there is. People in South America see themselves as American's too. Made in America, technically, means it could be
made in Canada, or Chile, or Argentina. We seem to forget that we are not the only Americans.

One of Mack's monkeys
Ever since my new friends in Chile reminded me that we are all American's, I've tried to be more aware of how I use “American”. It's impressive how people can stand so tall and proud for their homeland. I wish as Earthlings, we could stand a little more in unison of the fact that we are all on this rock together and try to get along a bit more comfortably.

I'm fortunate to have the kind of job that really opens one's eyes to new concepts, as well as the chance to explore new cultures. I once heard that after being a flight attendant for a while, you learn enough to earn a college degree, and this situation reminded me of that. I love seeking knowledge and exploring new worlds and learning new insights. The world to me has gotten so much smaller with this job. And so much better understood. I wish more 'Murcan's could do the same.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Passenger of the Day: The Rotarian


Often, when I'm tired, I get a bit loopy. I'd been up before 6:00am for 4 days in a row and this was a long day, starting in Houston, flying to Phoenix for a 2-hour sit, then to Denver for nearly 3 hours before flying back to Houston; not my favorite kind of day. Three legs in a day is rough with 3 boardings (for which we are not paid), 3 galleys to set up on 3 different planes, long sits between flights (for which we are not paid), and 3 times taxiing out for takeoff on the jump seat trying not to nod off. It was a long 13 hour day for which I was only paid for 7. It's a damned good thing I love my job!
One of the ways I combat such a day as this is to allow myself the chance to be a bit silly. I flirt a little with the ladies when doing the exit row verifications by asking if they are over 15, and asking the men if they are intoxicated...yet. When asking if they are willing and able to assist with the emergency exits I end by asking that they not 'practice', which always gets a few chuckles. I chat up the children, asking if they are out of school, where they are traveling to, and if they've flown before. I enjoy conversing with passengers, making them feel welcome and comfortable and trying be humorous when I can.

At one point in the day, and I don't remember which flight this was, because they all tend to blend together, I met Bob. He was somewhere in his 60's with thinning hair and a mustache and had come to the back of the plane to use the lavatory. What I noticed about Bob was his bright shirt, on which were elephants, birds, zebras, gazelles, and lions and a somewhat tropical design. It was much like a Hawaiian shirt, but for the African animals.

The lavs were occupied, so while he stood there I complimented his shirt. He told me that he had at one time lived in Africa. Intrigued, I asked where in Africa, and he tried to explain the area west of Victoria Lake and he then got very nostalgic over how beautiful it was there. I admitted that I would absolutely love to see it.

Then I noticed something else about his shirt; something not entirely noticeable from a distance. Within the pattern were also rotary symbols from the Rotary Club. He was impressed when I asked about this, and eagerly acknowledged that he was a member. This opened up an opportunity for me to share my Rotary Club experience.

When I was in high school, I was involved in a youth leadership organization which allowed me the opportunity to speak to the Dallas Rotary Club members several times. I had achieved a type of acclaim to where I was soon being invited to events to meet high rollers in industry and politics at various social and networking events. I once had breakfast with the female CEO of the Chesebrough-Ponds Manufacturing Company, who would later donate money to our organization. I shared appetizers with Governor Ann Richards. I met bank presidents, city mayors, actors, athletes, car dealership owners and members of congress, often speaking in front of large groups of people thinking very little of it.
Being congratulated by a delegate after winning office in 1985

I found it somewhat natural to be in front of these people talking about myself and my involvement in student politics. Not only was I on the student council of America's third largest high school, but I was an elected officer to a state-wide leadership role in HERO- Home Economics Related Occupations (in those days, I wanted to be a chef).

It was through these talks and interactions that I lost any fear of public speaking and now allows me to make announcements on the plane standing proudly in the aisle and facing the passengers instead of hiding behind the bulkhead, as many flight attendants do. Years later, when I was the general manager of a multi-million dollar business, I found it easy to speak at various business council events in my town, networking with other leaders and promoting my business.

But I've never forgotten my breakfast meetings with the members of the Dallas Rotary Club, held in a fancy restaurant on the grounds of the Texas State Fair. Their interest in me and numerous invitations to come speak at their breakfasts opened many doors.

I thanked Bob for his involvement with the Rotary Club, which had been so generous to me. He looked a little surprised at this, so I continued, “The Rotary Club gave me 2 college scholarships, and I've never forgotten what an honor that was.”

Bob smiled and said, “You should become a member. It's a great way to serve the community.” He told me how it's no longer reserved for business leaders. Their membership started to shrink so they opened their ranks to just about anyone wanting to join. He said they even allow women now, after apparently losing a court case.

I assured Bob that I'd look into it and then a woman emerged from the lavatory. He started to enter and I told him he was going into the woman's lav. He did the usual shocked body-jerk when you tell someone this, and then I laughed, “I'm kidding Bob!”

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Adventures in Flight: Culinary Delights


One thing I learned early on in this career is that if you are going to a new destination, one of the best resources for dining and shopping information are the flight attendants on your flight. They've always been a wealth of information on where to find great deals, which restaurants will provide memorable meals and what are some of the grocery must-haves that should be taken back home. They know the bargains and how to get around.

Street pancake in Shanghai
When I was based in San Francisco, and traveling to China often, I learned about dining on the streets for breakfast, breaking my habit of eating at the costly hotel buffet. As deluxe as the buffet was, there was nothing like the dim sum, dumplings and street pancakes to be found for just a couple of dollars.

In Australia, I was taken to great pubs, not only for refreshing beer, but excellent pizza, while learning the history of drunken men being Shanghaied to work on boats to China.

My London layover is where I obtained my lust for clotted cream. The Belgian waffles in Brussels were heavenly. The best hot chocolate was near Notre Dame in Paris.

And it's not just in foreign lands where I learn of great foods. I discovered the Cuban sandwich on a Miami layover (served with fries that had been dusted in Parmesan cheese, a trick I now use to impress guests at home). I have a very hard time with my weight, as I love eating and when visiting a region with great food – and what region doesn't have great food?- I must indulge. Burnt ends BBQ sandwich in Kansas City, crab cakes in Maryland, cheese steaks in Philly, churros in Mexico City, butter in Paris, steak in Argentina, Indian food in London...the list goes on.

Argentinean steak

I love checking out local grocery stores when I travel to another country; there's nothing like seeing the fresh food in Asia, which often includes large frogs! When in Sao Paulo, a flight attendant took me under her wing to show me the great coffee and then a product that really held my interest: liquid garlic. I don't cook enough at home, but I just had to buy some for Mom, who got it for Christmas. She loved it, so I brought some back for my aunt, who cooks all the time.

Choco milk in a bag
My most recent hot discovery, and I'm most proud for having found it on my own, was in a grocery store in Lima, Peru. I marveled at how they sold milk in plastic bags; thick plastic bags that one must cut open with scissors. They had chocolate milk as well, and it was only a dollar for a bag with about a quart. I brought a bag home to find it was only about the best chocolate milk I've ever had. It goes really well with Besos de Moza, chocolate kisses filled with something akin to marshmallow, but softer. It's quite decadent and I can't stop buying it.

As the saying goes, “When in Rome...” and I don't mind if I do. Please pass the butter, I can diet when I'm dead!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Passenger of the Day: I'll Have the Diet Weapon


A friend of mine recently forwarded to me a story and asked my opinion. You may have heard about it. A Muslim chaplain and the director of interfaith engagement at Northwestern University claims she was subjected to racist comments after being denied an unopened can of soda by a flight attendant who said she feared she might use it as a weapon.

FA Penguin holding a Bro can of Coke
The passenger claims that after being handed a can that had already been opened that she asked for one still sealed, due to sanitary reasons. The flight attendant refused, citing company policy. The man next to her ordered a beer, which was delivered unopened. When the cleric asked why he got a sealed can and she didn't, she claims she was told because crew was not allowed to hand out an item that could be used as a weapon.


A further protest claiming discrimination prompted the flight attendant to retrieve the can of beer from the man, opened it, and then returned it to the bewildered gentleman. She then huffed to the cleric, and moved to the next row.

The cleric then asked the man seated across from her if he had seen what just happened. Not only did he see it, but he agreed with it, supposedly saying something to the effect of, ‘you Muslim, you need to shut the 'eff' up.’ He then leaned over from his seat, and said, ‘yes you know you would use it as a weapon, so shut the eff up.'

First of all, I thought I may have flown with this flight attendant. I was shocked one day while working the beverage cart, when a passenger asked for a can of sparkling water unopened and the woman I was working with refused. I later told my flying partner that I was disappointed she didn't give out the can, saying that if a passenger is going to spend a few hundred dollars on a flight on our airline, the least we could do is give a can of soda. After all, there is no company policy against doing so.

Second, my initial response to the story was that the man across the aisle needs to be taken out back and shot. Maybe not killed, shot, but shot in the knee or something equally as horrid as what he supposedly said to that passenger. I have a weak spot for such bigotry.

Third, that passenger needs to get over it; being given an unopened can of soda simply for sanitary reasons? Had she claimed she was Kosher, that might be different. Or just admit that you want a can to take with you. I'm more than happy to oblige, but let's not make up stories or just be ridiculous.

What does Penguin think?
Fourth, as far as using a can as a weapon, sure, yes, it's one of the things we have at our disposal at 35 thousand feet, but let's face it, passengers can bring on cans of their own, knitting needles, skate boards, and grandma's 13 year old fruit cake to use as a weapon. They don't need to wait for us to give out a can of freaking soda to get their hands on a weapon. This flight attendant needs to chill the freak out! That's what I think.

The story has been making the rounds on social media and I'm not so certain of its authenticity. I later found out that this was not on the major airline for which it was originally reported to be, but one of the express jet airlines who operates their own company using the major airline's name. That was a relief for me. Other than the woman I hope I educated about the unopened can, I'd hate to think of flying partners on main line airlines being this dim.