Seattle Flight 171 and Karmic Debt

It is said that life is balance. The good and the bad, the yin and yang, fortune and disfavor. Perhaps the Universe puts in some kind of effort to make sure balance is maintained – either in people as a group, or in individual people. Maybe people, subconsciously, make choices to maintain that balance – that’s for Psychiatrists to decide.

Today was my day to learn that, sometimes, balance is maintained for you.

Some background for those that don’t know: I work for a company just north of Seattle, WA. That’s not too remarkable, except that I live on the opposite side of North America – just west of Washington DC. My job has me work from my home-office for three weeks. The fourth week, I squeeze myself into an airplane seat, and fly back to my corporate-office.

This is my 5th trip back since starting this job in July. I’ve spent a fair amount of time flying this exact same route. I arrive at the airport at the same time, fly the same route – sometimes even getting the same seat. I’ve begun to recognize the flight attendants. The routine is well-worn in my mind. I don’t mind the trip at all, I still get a childish glee when we take off and land, and press my nose against the window watching the scenery go by 35,000 feet below me.

What was getting tiresome about this routine, though, was security. The waiting in line, the checking of ID, the inefficiency of it all. On my way back from Seattle, last month, I was stopped by somebody offering a month of free Clear status. Clear, for the uninitiated, is a program that can rush you through ID-checks, and get you to the security line much quicker. At Dulles, my home airport, that could save me upwards of 20 minutes. I signed up, gave up my biometrics, and breezed through. Wonderful!

When I got back home, I also signed up for TSA-Pre, which pre-screens you and determines your risk status. Background checks are performed, more biometrics are taken, and now I can skip through the line at the TSA screening! Sure, I still walk through the metal detector, and my bag is x-rayed, but I don’t have to take my belt, shoes and jacket off. I don’t have to take my laptop out of my bag, and I don’t have to go through the controversial millimeter-wave “naked” scanner. All told, I save between 30 minutes and an hour going through security. Well worth it.

Today was my first time using both services at once, and the difference was incredible! So easy. I didn’t feel rushed. I didn’t feel like human cattle being routed zig-zag through lines. I got to my gate in a leisurely 5 minutes.

My good fortune was compounded by my seating assignment on my plane. Alaska flight 171 is a 737-800. Twin engines, seating about 178, configured three-and-three (three seats on one side, three on the other in the main cabin). My flight, however, was maybe 3/5ths full. When I checked in to my flight yesterday, online, the web site told me that I was assigned to 20F – the starboard side window-seat. I had a seat-mate in the middle-seat, so I’d be locked in. There were, however, three entire rows over the wing that were still unclaimed. Would I like to change my seat? Hell yes, I would!

I chose 15F. Still on the starboard side, with nobody sitting on my row. I’m sure somebody would claim those extra seats, though, but there was always a chance they would stay vacant. When I boarded, I was among the last to board (I see no reason to willingly give up all my personal space for any longer than I have to). As luck would have it, my row was still vacant! I sat, buckled in, and watched the last few passengers trickle in.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune! I breezed through security like some kind of celebrity or king, and now I was given the holy-grail of seating assignments! Not only my entire row, but the next-row over, all to myself!

My seat gave me a commanding view of the starboard wing and engine. I didn’t mind the view at all, after all, I was getting such a wonderful seating assignment! As I gazed out over the wing, I noticed something. There was a single bolt missing from the engine strut fairing.

I didn’t think it was anything to worry about – that fairing was held on by 11 other bolts. Missing one wouldn’t be a big deal. Still, I thought it might be a good idea to tell somebody about it.

I fired up Twitter and sent them this helpful little informative tweet:

My expectation was that, once we arrived in Seattle, the maintenance crew would come out and pop a new bolt on, easy–peasy. What I didn’t expect, however, was my flight to be delayed while the maintenance crew was sent to the plane, inspect it, and pop a new bolt on, then and there.

I was panicking! I was fine getting to my destination late – Seattle was my final stop – but many on my flight were probably connecting to other locations! Would they miss their flight, screwing up their vacations, maybe not making it home in time to make an appointment, missing out on some life event? Job interview? Wedding? Dad on his deathbed?

All for want of a bolt.

After the maintenance crew replaced the bolt, the captain came over the PA and apologized for the incredibly minor maintenance. He said the work was already done, but the paperwork was a nightmare – forms had to be retrieved in Seattle, and faxed back to Dulles before the flight could be cleared for takeoff. The delay would be ANOTHER 30 to 45 minutes.

It gets worse. After waiting for 30 minutes, the maintenance crew returned to the engine strut fairing, and REMOVED the bolt that was just placed. From the way he was fighting with the bolt, it looked like the socket was stripped, and any bolt put in there would pop out eventually, perhaps in mid-flight. That happening would be worse than just leaving the bolt out and flying on 11 instead of 12 fairing bolts. He wrestled the bolt out, and covered the hole with duct tape. DUCT TAPE.

All told, our 9am departure was set to leave at 11am.

And just before takeoff, my pristine row of seats was marred by somebody sitting in a center-seat moving to improve his own lot in life. At least his karmic payment for withstanding my self-inflicted two-hour delay was to get a window seat when he paid for the middle.

I pulled a flight-attendant aside and told him what I had done. I showed him the pictures, and the tweets. Good-naturedly, he said, “Oh, that was you…? I heard somebody took a photo of it.” I apologized and told him not to be nice to me. He smiled and said that the maintenance crew should have seen that. Either he is an outstanding actor, or he genuinely believed it was better that I had done that than otherwise. Somewhere on the ground, meanwhile, somebody named Angel who manages @AlaskaAir’s Twitter says they’re going to “follow up with a gesture of goodwill and thanks.” They gave me a $75 credit towards my next flight. Pretty good for wasting everybody’s time, I guess.

That would be nice, though I wonder what I’ll have to do to pay for that karmic deficit.