Reluctant Flier Jonathan Miles Takes a Pen to (Un)Friendly Skies

NEW YORK — When Jonathan Miles read that the airline industry is predicting another summer of delays, his first thought was: "That's good for the book."

Miles' debut novel, Dear American Airlines (Houghton Mifflin, $22), is written in the form of an exasperated 180-page letter of complaint from a passenger stranded at Chicago's O'Hare Airport.

Miles' second thought had to do with his book tour — 15 cities in 24 days, cross-country, mostly by plane — beginning Monday in Jackson, Miss.

As he put it on a recent visit to JFK International Airport, "What's good for the book may not be so good for me. I'm very torn."

The novel was inspired by the author's own overnight stay on the floor at O'Hare.

Eight years ago, Miles, 37, a freelance magazine writer, was flying on American Airlines from Memphis to New York via Chicago. Or was trying to.

After circling O'Hare, the plane landed in Peoria, Ill., and the passengers were bused to O'Hare, which is exactly what happens in his novel.

Miles says the airline blamed a "weather situation," as it does in the novel, even after eight hours in Chicago, where it was "flat-out delightful."

He recalls trying to sleep on the floor and starting a letter in his head, "Dear American Airlines … "

It was fueled by "that outsized resentment you feel when you sense you're in the pinchers of some large corporation," he says. "It's like being put on hold for 45 minutes when you're trying to order a part to fix your coffee machine."

He never finished the letter. He decided, "I really didn't have that much in my life to complain about."

But he began to imagine a character who did: Benjamin Ford, an alcoholic, washed-up poet who's trying to rehab his life by attending the wedding of a daughter he hasn't seen in years.

In his letter, Ford pours out his troubles. He mentions a "marriage so brief that I think I used the same bath towel for its entire duration." And he complains about O'Hare's seats: "Dear American Airlines, enclosed please find my sciatic nerve."

The novel's title came to Miles "in milliseconds." He was thrilled when the book was accepted but was thrown when he was told the use of "American Airlines" in his title would have to be reviewed by lawyers.

"I panicked," he says. "What would I call it? 'Dear (Blank) Airlines?' American seems euphonious and iconic. 'Dear JetBlue' doesn't work as well."

His publisher's legal department approved his title, citing what Miles calls "the Kinky Friedman precedent." (The singer/songwriter/humorist wrote a 1993 mystery, Elvis, Jesus and Coca-Cola, without legal trouble.)

"It's great to be published," Miles says. "But the Kinky Friedman precedent? That's the frosting on the cake."

As for the real American Airlines, spokesman Tim Smith says, "We understand it is a work of fiction, and we have no comment."

Miles own life could be a novel. At 17, he ran away from home in Phoenix and ended up in Oxford, Miss., working as a blues musician and newspaper reporter.

There he met Larry Brown, the Oxford fireman turned novelist, who served as "surrogate father and mentor. I wish we had a better word than mentor. It sounds so pretentious."

Brown and Miles would "talk about writing the way other guys talk about football. It was an astonishing education. Some people go to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I had Larry."

Dear American Airlines is dedicated to Brown, who was 53 when he died of a heart attack in 2004. "The saddest day of my life," Miles says, "was the day I finished the novel but couldn't call up Larry and tell him."

Brown never understood Miles' interest in journalism and travel.

But Miles says that when he began writing for GQ, Details and other magazines, he'd have done it "for the plane ticket alone. It seemed like such a delicious scam to me, getting someone else to fly me somewhere — anywhere. But the air travel experience has been degraded so much that now I'll do anything to avoid it. Now I want hazard pay just for heading to the airport."

On his tour, he's flying US Airways, United, Northwest, Delta and Alaska Airlines, but not American. "This is probably wise, karmically speaking," he says. "But I was kind of looking forward to sneaking copies of the book into the seat pockets."