I am not a fan of waking early. But, I will admit there’s a certain appeal to flying early in the morning. Without the normal daytime background noises, airports are quiet at the break of day. Every once in awhile, the calm is disrupted by a departing or arriving aircraft. Jets sound better slicing through clear, quiet air.
We were the ones making some noise at 5:00am on an April morning in Austin, Texas. As the Citation reached takeoff speed, I rotated into the smooth air. An initial heading from the departure controller pointed us in the general direction of Montego Bay in Jamaica.
The call had come the night before while we enjoyed some barbecue at a hole in the wall in downtown Austin. We were instructed to ferry our aircraft to Montego Bay, pick up two passengers and fly them to Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos.
That’s how that job went… I never knew where I was flying until the call came in the evening. It seemed a little silly to be flying an empty positioning flight four hours down to Jamaica. It was also a little frustrating that it was my “go home” day. They were going to make me earn my seventh day of pay before airlining me home to Nashville.
Regardless of the circumstances, it’s hard to complain too much about flying around the Caribbean.
Three and a half hours after liftoff, I joined the localizer to runway 07 at Sangster International Airport. Typical springtime cumulus clouds covered the entire island, but they were high enough to still take in some of the local scenery. Jamaica is a beautiful island that I highly recommend to anyone looking for a tropical vacation.
We arrived at the general aviation ramp about an hour before our passengers wanted to depart. A very friendly man drove away with our passports and customs forms. He returned a few minutes later with all the paperwork. The locals seem to find a way to make everything simple and relaxed.
We stood next to the aircraft trying not to sweat too much in our company mandated long sleeve shirts. Departure time came and went with no sign of our passengers.
The same gentleman that handled our customs paperwork came back out to the jet about ten minutes after the departure time. He said there were no passengers waiting in the building and asked if we’d like him to look around the airline terminal. Sometimes, according to him, confused passengers went to the wrong part of the airport. His golf cart once again disappeared in that direction.
He returned unsuccessful. We made a call back to the States to report we were thirty minutes beyond departure and there was no sign of anyone looking to fly to Providenciales.
We sat in the air conditioned jet and waited. It was not uncommon for passengers to be late. Many figured they had a private jet at their disposal and it wasn’t going to leave without them. My cell phone had no service but my flying partner was able to receive the very expensive calls. Our handler (helper) continued to check the GA and airline terminals while we waited for the phone to ring.
Then, the phone rang.
“Yes? Uh huh. Okay. What?” my flying partner said as his eyes began to bulge in disbelief.
After a brief pause while the person on the other end of the line further explained the situation, my flying partner said, “Well, that’s a colossal f**k up.”
That’s an exact quote. It’s seared into my brain.
He hung up, shook his head and relayed the news to me: “Apparently, our passenger called a few weeks ago to get a quote for a trip from here to Providenciales, but never called back to book the trip. The customer service rep accidentally booked it as a trip instead of a quote.”
Scheduling viewed it as a live trip and allocated an aircraft and crew. They passed it along to dispatch and sent us on our way to chase passengers that didn’t exist.
We had flown an airplane all the way to the foreign island for no reason.
Our dispatcher instructed us to “get lost” for a little bit while they figured out how to patch up the mess.
We joined the handler in his golf cart and headed over to the airline terminal. Once inside, we settled into a table at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville restaurant and ordered a couple of hamburgers and sodas.
In general aviation, there’s a long standing reference to the “$100 hamburger.” Pilots fly an airplane to another city, eat a burger at the airport restaurant and fly back home. Before the price of avgas skyrocketed, a typical Saturday jaunt coast about $100.
As we sat there eating, I mentally computed the cost of the previous and upcoming positioning flights.
I was consuming a $5,000 hamburger.
Fortunately, my portion of the bill was delivered by the waitress and covered by my per-diem.
After lunch, all the required arrangements were made for us to fly back to the States. We flew empty to West Palm Beach, secured the aircraft and received our airline information to fly home.
By the time I flew up to Atlanta and connected to Nashville, it was nineteen hours after lifting off out of Austin. The day was a complete waste of time, money and other resources… even if I was flying around the Caribbean.
A few years later, I was on vacation with my wife in Jamaica. We purchased “real” airline tickets to avoid getting bumped as non-revs. However, that doesn’t always guarantee seamless travel.
After a very relaxing few days, we arrived at Montego Bay’s terminal with plenty of time to catch our flight home. After clearing security, we learned our aircraft had mechanical problem. We were told it would be a few hours to obtain the part and fix the jet.
My wife gave me one of those classic “now, what?” looks.
“Let’s go get lunch,” I said. “I know the perfect place.”
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