Keeping the Client Happy's just impossible

March 1, 2005

My job for the past several years basically has been flying clients around. Who are clients? Well, when I flew large business jets around for charter and fractional operators, they were generally people with a whole lot of money. Some were famous, some not so famous. Clients for me now are the airline passengers who have braved airport terminals in a post-9/11 America for what can only be described as Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. Will they be deemed worthy of passing through security, or will they have to give up their underwear again as a peace offering? Is their flight on time? Is their airline still in business — will it be around to honor their round trip and the frequent-flier miles earned, or is it about to go the way of the dodo bird? Are they flying on one of the airlines that still serves food? Does their airline believe in "more room throughout coach" or "more passengers throughout coach"?

Of course, after all that, flying with me — and the resultant pilot-induced turbulence and bone-crushing landings — doesn't seem so bad, clearly all part of a grand plan.

So now that we've established that a client can be just about anyone, what distinguishes a good client from a bad client? Well, it can be as simple as attitude. When I used to fly a lot of entertainment clients around, people used to ask me whom I had flown. And invariably the very next questions were, "What were they like?" and "Were they nice?" I think many of us want to believe that the positive impressions of our favorite entertainers are real. Like the kid who meets his favorite sports idol, we want them to match our expectations.


A few years ago, we took Gloria Estefan (one of the world's shortest and nicest people) and her family to Washington, D.C., for the evening for a benefit involving her new movie Music of the Heart. It was a big shindig and the ramp at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport was full of airplanes waiting for their clients to return.

While I was waiting for Estefan I took a tour of the ramp to check on our airplane. As I was heading back I stopped to chat with a guy heading out of the FBO as I was coming in. After a couple of minutes, I headed inside, never catching his name, but thinking he looked familiar. The customer service agent behind the desk saw the slightly puzzled look on my face and said, "Did you know that was Garth Brooks?"

After I recovered and made it back to the crew room, many of the pilots were wondering where their clients were and why they were late. We weren't even giving it a second thought. Before I went out on my Garth Brooks excursion, Estefan had called us from the White House to let us know that Bill and Hillary wanted to sit down and watch the movie with her family. She said she was sorry she would be late, and wanted to know if it was OK with us. No problem. I was impressed.

Other folks who met expectations? At least for me, Denzel Washington, Steve Martin, Bette Midler, Michael J. Fox and his family, Ernie Els, and Tiger Woods, among others. You can tell a lot about people by how they show up at the airplane. Most show up on time without an entourage, carrying their own bags, pretty much like you or I would. Heck, Tiger Woods drives himself to the airplane after a golf tournament, quietly jumps on board, and dives into his requested high-dollar meal — Chicken McNuggets, fries, and a Coke.


Unfortunately, it's not always that way. Personally, although I've heard of worse, probably the worst experience I've had was taking Mariah Carey from Teterboro in New Jersey, to Minneapolis, and back for a recording session. She started out by taking the entourage thing to a whole new level. The first to arrive, just about departure time, was a Chevy Suburban with her luggage. An hour later, her personal assistant and her dog arrived in a limo. Two hours late, Carey arrived via helicopter from Manhattan, and off we went.

The next day, Carey was scheduled to show after dinner for the return flight to Teterboro. We were ready on time, but no client. So, we waited. We called our dispatcher. No information. We waited some more. We ate on the airplane. We slept on the floor of the airplane. The sun came up. Carey showed up. We were not impressed as we flew back to New York. After we landed, the airplane emptied out pretty quickly, all except for Carey, who was curled up sleeping in the back of the airplane. Her assistant tried to wake her, with no luck. Finally after making everyone wait around for a half-hour, she left without a word. I wasn't really much of a fan after that.

The impossible client

Not everyone we fly is memorable because he or she is famous. Some are memorable because they are infamous. Infamous because they weren't very nice, or in some cases, tried to pressure us into doing something we probably shouldn't do.

This was a run-of-the-mill charter — pilot, airplane, and clients all going out for a short day trip. Ninety-nine times out of 100 it would have gone off without a hitch — unfortunately, this time there was weather and turbulence. The clients were appreciative of the pilot's professionalism and the way he handled the situation. All except for one client, that is. He decided to call the FAA and complain about the weather and turbulence. This caused the FAA to ask a few questions, which the air-taxi operator and the pilot didn't have real good answers to. Why? Because when the clients had called to book the charter the only airplanes and pilots available were not on the FBO's Part 135 air- taxi certificate. The clients were really insistent — they said they didn't care how they got there. The pilot and manager of the fledgling charter outfit went for it, as the airplane and pilot were in the process of being added to the Part 135 certificate anyway. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, the FAA only saw an illegal airplane, an illegal pilot, and an illegal charter.

Seems pretty cut-and-dried in the light of day — what happened? They simply got caught up in the aviation of the moment. You know, a situation where we may have the best of intentions, but that doesn't really change the fact that it is wrong. Things went from a relatively benign desire to help some insistent clients to a black mark on the pilot's record and a substantial deduction from the checkbook after a legal contest with the FAA.

Client impossible — pilot impossible

Sometimes the impossible client creates the impossible crewmember. Someone whose usually sound judgment becomes impaired by a desire to please or by simple pride. The pride that says, "I don't care who else turned this trip down — they're wimps, and we're gonna do it."

One impossible crewmember was one of the best people I knew. He was a nice guy, inviting all the out-of-town pilots over to share Thanksgiving with his family. Then he got in the airplane. Whether you were God's gift to aviation or couldn't find a runway with two hands and a localizer he treated you the same — as meat in the seat.

Our friend Dave was doing a hot crew swap one day as copilot onto this guy's airplane — he just jumped in and off they went. During taxi he realized the fuel gauge and the fuel total in the flight management system (FMS) did not match, and were in fact thousands of pounds apart. They had way more gas than they needed for the short trip to Boston, and Dave feared this would result in a very overweight landing. Dave started to fix it so the FMS could make the correct en route and fuel-use calculations. Captain Impossible told Dave not to do that. He told Dave that he didn't want the overweight landing in Boston recorded in case they were ramp checked by the FAA. Why? Fuel is cheaper there than in Boston, and he wanted to keep the fuel cost down for the client. Nice motivation, bad idea.

Luckily they were required to hold en route, so they ended up landing pretty close to maximum landing weight. At the hotel that night, Dave had the "if you ever do that again, I'm walking off the airplane" conversation with Captain Impossible. This cost Dave an opportunity to go on a month-long concert tour in South America with Captain Impossible — something that had sounded pretty cool before this incident. But Dave was OK with that. The last place he wanted to be with Captain Impossible was a place where company support and regulatory oversight would be nonexistent.

Sometimes the client can be terminal

One of the most public and egregious examples of the apparent influence a client can have is the Grumman Gulfstream III that crashed on approach to Aspen-Pitkin County/Sardy Field at Aspen, Colorado, in March 2001 (see " Terrain Tactics: Hard Knocks," November 2004 Pilot). The client was more interested in expensive dinner plans than the safety of the flight. And he influenced the flight crew into decision making that led them into the side of a hill in a snowstorm while well below minimums on the approach. We're naïve to think that this doesn't happen every day somewhere; it's just that we don't usually hear about it until it all goes bad. Sometimes impossible clients can be taken back to the terminal and sometimes they can be terminal.

Are you Client Impossible?

There's always a pilot and a client on every flight, even if there is only one person on the airplane. Sometimes the client and the pilot are the same person, and sometimes it's hard to recognize the situation for what it is and separate the two. Going or not going, continuing or diverting, should be solely the decision of the pilot. The client in you that wants to get to the ball game, or home to the family, to a hot date, or to work, needs to be put in his or her place — the backseat.

Sometimes it is a client, or the desire to please a client, that motivates us as pilots into doing something we probably shouldn't do. We hear a lot of published stories about newer pilots who were influenced into going beyond any reasonable approximation of their abilities. Everyone's got an ego, and a lot of us are susceptible to the pressure to succeed. After all, who hasn't been the impossible client at some point?

Marc K. Henegar, AOPA 1073441, of Bend, Oregon, is a pilot for Alaska Airlines.