March 2, 2021

Frequent Flier: Intrepid on the Set, but Rattled by Frail Planes

One afternoon, I was looking out the window of my apartment and I saw David Duchovny walking down the street. I called a friend and told him about seeing the “X-Files” guy. My friend then told me how huge the television and film industry was in Vancouver.

I heard about an audition for the “Ninja Turtles” TV series here. I went and did a front flip over a stuntman who was about six feet tall. I got the job and have been working in the stunt industry ever since.

I really enjoyed flying when I was younger. I’m 42 years old now and I’m not crazy about it. Maybe it has to do with being older and having a family. The one thing I really do like about flying is that it shows you just how connected we are.

I was traveling to New Zealand quite a bit since I was working on “The Hobbit” as the film’s sword master. On one of the connecting flights I was taking on my way back home, I noticed one of the flight attendants trying to get my attention. He spotted my stunt crew jacket and wanted to ask me if I was a stuntman. It turned out that the flight attendant knew the stunt coordinator who gave me my first full-time job as a double for the lead actor in a TV series.

Meeting people isn’t always that great. I was chatting with a seatmate, who turned out to be the former wife of a producer of a show I was working on. She wouldn’t stop complaining about the guy. I wanted to change seats. She just wouldn’t stop talking and telling me details about the marriage I did not want to know. There were no empty seats, and it turned into what seemed like the longest flight from Los Angeles to Vancouver ever.

Stunt work does push the boundaries, but safety is obviously very important. I realize flying is safe, but I don’t like not being in control.

I remember flying to Bucharest to work on a Jean-Claude Van Damme film. I was catching my connecting flight in Amsterdam and I was surprised by the age of the small, crowded airplane I was supposed to board. It was ancient and the fabric was ripped off the seats.

I was making my way down the aisle and I passed an older woman who was holding a chicken. I thought for a second maybe it was a fake chicken, but the thing clucked and ruffled its feathers, so I knew it was a live chicken. I turned to my co-worker and said, “We’re going to die.” Actually the flight was O.K. and the chicken was a good passenger, much more relaxed than me.

I was flying from Calgary to Vancouver recently. When we reached cruising altitude, the plane turned around and started rapidly descending. The pilot announced there was a crack in the cockpit window and we were heading back to Calgary. I was with my family, so my wife and I tried to stay strong for the kids, but we were both worried.

Actually, I was the one who was most worried. My kids and wife were doing pretty well. When we landed, I told them I was driving to Vancouver. I’m sure my kids thought I was just being funny. I wasn’t.

By Steve McMichael, as told to Joan Raymond. E-mail:

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The Minutiae of an Airline Merger

Airline mergers are complex and tough to pull off — witness the troubled marriage of People Express and Continental Airlines in the 1980s or the continuing problems in integrating America West and US Airways six years after their merger. So when Delta Air Lines acquired Northwest three years ago, executives knew they would have to resolve major labor, technology and financial issues.

What they had not fully anticipated were the thousands of tiny details that go mostly unnoticed by passengers but can make the difference between a successful merger and a failed one.

All airlines have their own way of doing things, developed over time and through labor negotiations. All have specific working rules, flying procedures, maintenance schedules and computer programs. And all have their own cultures. Delta always thought of itself as the gracious host. Hence its flight attendants poured the requested drinks. Northwest was the practical carrier; its attendants just handed over the can.

“It was like Noah’s ark out here,” said Peter Wilander, an executive at Delta responsible for in-flight services. “We had two of everything.”

Delta executives agreed earlier this month to discuss the minutiae of the Northwest merger to make the broader point that combining two airlines is an incredibly difficult task. The Delta-Northwest tie-up is now widely seen as a success, and that view laid the groundwork for two other, more recent mergers: United Airlines with Continental last fall and Southwest Airlines and AirTran, which was completed just last week.

“If you look at the history of mergers, the assumption was that you couldn’t do them successfully,” said Richard Anderson, Delta’s chief executive. “Everybody had come to the conclusion that these things are too big, too complex and too unwieldy to manage.”

Delta’s merger with Northwest was announced in April 2008 and closed in October of that year after receiving regulatory and shareholder approval. And yet it still took 14 more months for the airlines to fly as a single carrier, in January 2010.

Delta scored a major point by getting its pilot unions to agree to a common contract by the time the merger closed. Many analysts said this gave the airline a critical advantage by getting a crucial labor group on board from the start.

But that did not put an end to Delta’s labor issues. Flight attendant representatives accused the airline of using intimidation tactics after they lost a bid to unionize the carrier’s work force in November. The matter is under review by the National Mediation Board, which could call a new election.

Meanwhile, flight attendants from Delta and Northwest continue to work under separate contracts, each with their own work rules, and cannot be scheduled to fly on the same airplanes.

And some merger-related work is still going on. The last Northwest plane was repainted only six weeks ago. Delta expects to spend another year completing an inventory of all airplane parts and maintenance procedures into a new database.

Each airline has hundreds of different technologies that book seats, print tickets or dispatch crews that need to be integrated. Failure here can leave thousands of travelers without a seat if bookings are misplaced.

Delta’s chief information officer, Theresa Wise, said the airline had to merge 1,199 computer systems down to about 600, including one — a component within the airline’s reservation system — dating from 1966.

The challenge, she said, was to switch the systems progressively so that passengers would not notice. Ms. Wise, who has a doctorate in applied mathematics, devised a low-tech solution: she set up a timeline of the steps that had to be performed by pinning colored Post-it notes on the wall of a conference room.

A major switch happened when the new airline canceled all Northwest’s bookings and transferred them to newly created Delta flights in January 2010. It required computer engineers to perform 8,856 separate steps stretched out over several days.

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Delta Will Offer Buyouts As It Cuts Flights and Staff

Delta has been planning to cut its schedule by 4 percent starting in September. In a hotline message to employees on Friday, Richard Anderson, the chief executive, said Delta needed to reduce the costs that went with those flights, too.

“In order for our business to thrive we must think of the current high fuel prices as a permanent reality of our business,” Mr. Anderson said.

He said Delta workers whose age plus 10 years of service equaled 55 would be eligible for early retirement. Buyouts will be available for workers who don’t meet the requirements for early retirement but have at least five years with Delta. Both are voluntary.

In October, Delta said it would add 1,000 flight attendants, including recalling 425 who had been on a voluntary furlough. A Delta spokeswoman, Keyra Johnson, said that hiring was mostly finished and was not affected by the new voluntary offers.

Airlines have been raising fares to cope with higher fuel prices, and many have been scrapping growth plans they had for this year. Delta is adding flights during the first half of the year. Airlines generally reduce flights in the fall because leisure travel drops off. Delta’s reduction beginning after Labor Day will be 4 percent below its service levels at the same time last year. Delta said last month it would park 140 planes over the next year and a half, 20 more than it originally planned. The planes coming out of its fleet will include some of its largest jets, used for international flights.

Stock in Delta, which is based in Atlanta, fell a penny, to $11.21 a share.

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