On Being Missed

2785931831_12276de731_zI am leaving on a red-eye tonight and my husband and son have mentioned numerous times that they’re going to miss me. As I get out of the car and hoist my bag onto the curb, I look back to see my son’s sad eyes through the back window, and then he forms a heart with his hands. And mine cracks a little. Being missed can be painful when you’re a business traveler.

I’m only to be away for three days. But I feel guilty. Guilty that I’m leaving, but mostly guilty because I won’t miss them. It’s not because I don’t share their feelings. It’s because for the next three days I will be barraged with meetings and social events, problems to solve and victories to celebrate, and the stress of being in a noisy, bustling, unfamiliar city. I won’t have the time or energy to miss them like they miss me.

When I first began to travel for work, my children were very young. Each time I’d go on a trip and my husband would tell me he missed me, I’d translate this to, “Your travel makes more work for me.” That was a mother’s guilt talking. And after all, we’d always split everything 50/50, so I was my 50. With each trip, I would add one more layer of simplicity so his additional child care responsibilities while I was gone would be less onerous. But each time when I returned, he would tell me he missed me. Finally, I said, “I’ve put every detail in place so you basically have no difference in lifestyle whether I’m home or away.” He looked at me almost in disbelief and answered, “I really appreciate that. I do. But child care has nothing to do with it. I missed you because there’s a big void when you’re not here.”

My heart broke with shame that I had somehow interpreted this as a tactical issue, but then again at how sweet it was that my absence was felt.

I’m trying to get OK with being missed. I know it means I have people in my life that care a lot if I’m around or not. But some gifts are harder to receive than others. Now, my flight is boarding and there will be no looking back for three days. I text my son a simple heart emoji. That will have to do for now.

The Lie-Flat Seat That Doesn’t Work

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It was a fantasy, for sure: A fully horizontal night of sleep during the long flight from San Francisco to Auckland—at not much more than an economy fare. Last month, my husband and I flew that route on Air New Zealand, and I was admittedly smug about what I thought was the best-kept secret in the airline industry: the Skycouch.

The Skycouch works like this: You buy two lowest-fare economy tickets, then pay a single upcharge (for us, $600). You now are guaranteed the middle seat will be empty, and the three seats in your row will fold out to create a bed. Note that the seatbacks do not move, but instead, a segment folds up by your feet like a recliner’s footrest to create the flat bed. You sleep together (recommended for couples only!) perpendicular to the aisle.

The Skycouch was going to get our trip off to a remarkable start, I thought giddily.

My elation about the prospects of the Skycouch—not to mention the fact that Joe and I were embarking on a much-anticipated 10 days without the cares of children, work or life—floated us through a pre-flight celebratory glass of wine and a relaxed boarding process. Then we arrived at our row. Hmm. I quickly sized up the seat pitch and could clearly see this was going to be neither as spacious nor romantic as the photos on Air New Zealand’s website made me think.

When the cabin lights dimmed and we prepped the “couch,” we raised eyebrows at each other. Joe is 6′ and slim. I’m 5’4″ and relatively small. Yet this would be tricky. As we put up the footrests to create the bed, it didn’t take a scientist to calculate what a tight squeeze this would be. I’ll spare you the details of the acrobatics required to get in position, but 10 minutes and several tries later, we were wedged in a “spoon” position in the space, our four feet in the aisle, with my backside tight up against the seat backs and Joe’s nose about one inch from the tray table.

IMG_2219Now we had to attach the seat belt. Air New Zealand has very cleverly packaged special seatbelts for the Skycouch. We picked what they called the “cuddle belt” and Joe contorted himself to hook it to the special clip on our middle seat, then locked it into the hook below the middle seat in front of us.

An optimist by nature, at this point I thought, “OK, the hard part is done. Time to sleep.” I failed to take into account one very important factor: heat.

About 10 minutes later, warmed quickly by being wedged tight up against the furnace of Joe, I was dying. I whispered, “I’m boiling up. I have to take off my sweater.” Since we had no wiggle room—literally–this would require new acrobatics. Joe contorted himself to unhook the cuddle belt. I inched myself into a sitting position—which couldn’t be accomplished without Joe doing the same. I peeled the sweater off. Acrobatics resumed and the cuddle belt was clicked back in.

It shouldn’t surprise you that about 15 minutes later, Joe was the one sweating, and we repeated the same maneuvers so he could remove his sweater. Humpf.

About two hours later, unable to even toss and turn, the only things asleep were our arms that were wedged beneath us. We decided to put two seats back into upright position to sleep sitting up. Which was actually much better.

The Skycouch is an example of a brilliant idea on paper. Or perhaps it was conceived (by the otherwise-admirable design firm, IDEO) when seat pitch was bigger. For us, though, it was so uncomfortable that it made sleeping sitting up seem like a pleasure. We had new appreciation for being in position to control the temperature, feel all our body parts and twist and turn at will.

Oh well. Another airline hope dashed. Happily, the Skycouch experience was the only disappointment on what was an extraordinary trip. And, in fairness, our Air New Zealand experience was otherwise lovely.

On our flight home, we embraced the current culture of gratitude mania and reveled in our fully-upright seats. Less sleep, more movies: that works, too.

Running an Airline or Building Cars: The Perils of Legacy

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This weekend my family and I toured the factory in Fremont, Calif., where Tesla Motors produces its electric cars. I was enthralled.

Through it all, I couldn’t help but make the airline comparison. Tesla certainly blows away the automotive competition, but they couldn’t have done it without starting from the ground up. Airline upstarts like Virgin America have also blown away their legacy competitors in almost every metric, in large part because they had the luxury of starting from scratch.

Some examples of what sets Tesla apart:

  • We saw a seven-story stamping press Tesla bought in Germany. The manufacturer said it would take one year to dismantle the behemoth machine and move it to California. The Tesla folks said, “Too slow, we’ll figure that out internally.” And it took them just four months.
  • We saw the tour leader balance an entire side-panel of aluminum (the whole length of a car!) on one finger—it’s that lightweight. Yet the Model S is the safest vehicle ever tested by the U.S. government, in several cases breaking testing machines when trying to reach the limits of the car’s chassis.
  • We saw workers hand-polishing metal pieces with care, as the tour guide shared the company narrative about how the cars are works of art that require real craftsmanship. Those polishing seemed to actually believe the narrative.

But more than specifics, there was an air of pride and excellence that something special was going on there—that as a collective, they were achieving the unachievable because they were willing to think outside the box and give it their all.

Here’s where I got a little sad for the traditional auto manufacturers. And the legacy airlines.

We were witnessing all this in a building that had been sold to Tesla in 2010 by NUMMI, a joint venture of Toyota and General Motors that failed.

NUMMI employees hated working in that building, so the first thing Tesla did was paint the place with white, gray and red epoxy, top to bottom. They added beautiful rest areas and showers, because they found many workers rode their bikes to work. They offered free and healthy snacks and drinks. They’re planning a huge vegetable garden where workers can take home what they grow.

Tesla’s focus on employees, technology, and capitalization/investment has allowed them to build a product that is universally agreed upon to be extraordinary. And which means they are able to grow despite no traditional marketing, just word of mouth. As you can tell, it works—I’m already an evangelist.

Yesterday, just as I was contemplating the sad correlation between the auto and airline industries, I read this remarkable story about a former United Global Services flier and how Virgin America stole his heart and loyalty.

Perhaps the ultimate challenge is not to create a groundbreaking product. The ultimate challenge is to create this within the confines of a legacy infrastructure, culture and workforce.

Photo: Flickr/Maurizio Pesce

Wheels Up: A Reverie

15367351831_c317b87644_zA random encounter with a company name today sent me into a brief reverie: Wheels Up. That’s the New York-based private aviation membership company in the news because it’s sponsoring American Pharoah, the 2015 Kentucky Derby winner and the racehorse favored to win the Belmont Stakes.

Wheels up, I repeated in my head.

Those two words are magical, I think, because of what they represent. There’s nothing quite like the feeling when a plane’s wheels finally lift from the runway. It’s a split second of relief, hope and lightness. It’s a miracle. Wheels up. Aviation’s equivalent of om.

Now, back to work.

Photo: Flickr/Peter Gronemann

A Traveler’s Recurring Nightmare – Literally

2393382468_919d6491c0_zIt used to be the dreaded final exam dream that would have me waking in a cold sweat a few times a year. You probably know it, too: That recurring dream where you’re headed to the final exam in a class but you’re not prepared. There are variations on this classic. For some, in the dream they didn’t study for the test. For others, they also forgot to attend the class. For still others, they then arrive for the test naked or in their pajamas. I’ve had the first two of those flavors many times, and in my case it’s always, always, always a math test. (No surprise there. Though I did study for math deciduously, because it wasn’t a strength of mine.)

In the last year I’ve noticed I’m no longer haunted by this final exam dream, probably because school is a distant memory. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve moved on to a new type of frustration dream that reflects my current life.

It’s the travel nightmare.

In this dream, I can’t get to where I need to be on time. Something out of my control is always holding me back. Sometimes it’s the airport gate, and I can’t seem to get out of security. Or sometimes I can’t figure out which is my hotel room because I lost the key sleeve—and, of course, I’m in a huge hurry, trying to make a deadline or to pack for a flight.

Strangely enough, I’m not a stressed traveler. I allow plenty of time. (My husband says, too much. Which reminds me of an observation of a friend. He says there are two types of travelers: those who get to the airport early, and those who get to the airport late. And they’re all married to each other.) I’ve never missed a flight. And I always find my hotel room.

Perhaps I need to acknowledge the underlying stress in travel and try to process this more overtly. No, I think I’ll just let my deepest psyche work that one out in my dreams.

 Do you ever experience travel-related frustration dreams?

Photo: Flickr/belen becker