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Some people are military brats – children of those serving our country who move around a lot.  I am an airline brat.  My father worked for United Airlines for just under 34 years.  So I grew up in this “airline employee culture” that is really unlike any other.

Now let’s just get this out of the way for those of you who are wondering just what capacity my father worked in for United.  He was in payroll accounting.  Oh yes.  It’s a really sexy job.  I confess, whenever I told people my dad worked for the airline, I would ALWAYS get asked, “Ooh!  Is he a pilot?”, as if that’s the only job one can have when working for

Cool Uniform. Flies big fancy planes. NOT my dad.

an airline.  “No”, I would always sigh, “he’s a payroll manager.  He makes sure everyone gets their paycheck.”  I could usually detect a faint disappointment from the questioner when I filled them in.  Sorry to disappoint you everyone.

The bonus of being an airline brat is that we got to fly virtually for free.  Yes, we paid an amount for plane tickets but it was so minimal it was ridiculous.  This allowed for great freedom in travel and some pretty amazing vacations.  Not that we were flying all the time, I mean, we still had to pay for lodging and food and activities once we arrived in our vacation destination.  But once a year, at least, we were able to fly as a family somewhere.  Most often we went out east to visit our family in Rhode Island and Massachusetts (hi, family!).  This was a frequent jaunt since we could just stay with our family and because my dad’s sister lived on a farm, it was basically a kid’s dream location.  We’d wander the property, visit the animals, hike the woods.  It was fantastic.  But I digress.

We also made it to Australia and New Zealand (my parents had friends there, so we had free lodging for at least part of our trip), Hawaii, Arizona, Mexico, just to name a few.  But let’s be clear on one thing: we were not “rich”, so each of these places we traveled to were “done” on a budget.  On the cheap. Cheap-o.  My father is the king of cheap.  But we were lucky because getting there was easy.

After I graduated high school, my dad pulled some strings and I landed a job at United’s headquarters (fancy! err..more like totally stuck in the 70’s, but they had RAD model planes in the lobby!) working in accounts payable.  Oh believe me, this was even sexier than my dad’s job in payroll.  I had the task, nay, the privilege, of going through stacks and stacks and stacks and stacks of invoices, then going through rolls (reams?) of microfiche to match them up, make copy after copy and be sure each was paid.  I worked in a back corner.  It was dingy.  It was creepy.  There was no natural light.  It was every teenage girl’s dream job.  But, I made some money so I just dealt with the depressing nature of my job.   I would like to thank my circle of friends during that time who made that summer bearable:  Kaitlin, Carrie, Courtney, Nevin, Ian, Kevin, Kris, Mike, John, and more.  Seriously.  You saved me from possibly attempting to cut myself.

It was the next summer that made up for the previous one.  Again, my dad’s insider info got me an interview and eventually a job working with a flagship program at O’Hare airport.  Wow, that sounds way fancier than it actually was.  It was basically a job program specifically geared toward students to help fill in the gaps during the summer break where travel was always more busy and more hands on deck were needed.  Students were divided into different areas to assist the permanent employees.  Basically, we did most everything they did, but without the responsibility overall, and for less pay.  I had friends who worked in the underbelly, helping with baggage, carting around unaccompanied minors, some in the offices, and I worked with gate agents.  I had a “supervisor mentor” who I was assigned to.  I would follow her schedule and be a help to the agents.  I loved it.  My supervisor worked all of the flights to New York/LaGuardia, which were “Business One” flights, meaning there were a lot of flights every day to that destination.  We saw a lot of the same passengers (business folk who were always flying back and forth) and the same pilots and flight attendants.  I liked being able to recognize some people among strangers and establish connections with them.  I endeared myself to the flight staff and they would always greet me with warm smiles and I got to do some cool things like sit in the pilot’s chair, snag some extra onboard snacks, and they even let me do the onboard announcements before closing the doors (“On behalf of the ground crew here at Chicago O’Hare, we’d like to thank you for choosing United.  We know you have a choice when flying and we appreciate you choosing us.  Have a wonderful flight and we hope to see you again soon!”).  It was really awesome.

On top of all of that, I learned the computer system pretty quickly and my supervisor was so fantastic and she liked my work ethic and trusted me, so I was allowed to do a lot more than other people who had my position.  I took tickets when the flights were boarded, I did gate announcements (“Good afternoon ladies and gentleman and welcome to United flight 679 with service to New York’s LaGuardia airport.  We have reports of clear skies in New York today so it should be a pleasant flight with an on-time arrival.  We’ll be starting the boarding process in a few minutes and we’d like you to take this time to be sure you have your boarding pass and your picture identification out and ready in order to ensure a smooth boarding process”.)  Oh, and that “gate agent voice”?  Oh yes, I had it down, friends. 

The most interesting part of that summer, however, was learning the “secrets” of an average U.S. airport.  Here are a few:

     *Every gate has a phone that can be called from anywhere within the airport.  I know this because a guy who supervised the baggage to gate operation (or something like that) had a crush on me and I would frequently get calls when I was working a gate. 

     *Forget the pilots – the mechanics get paid the big bucks.  And when a plane needs fixing, they don’t exactly move like lightning to get it done.  They know they’re needed.

I will load the bags on the plane. Then I will check you out.

*The baggage handlers are hard-core.  These guys have strict guidelines on how they are to handle baggage and I realize that not every one of them is going to have the same commitment (i.e. some are lazy jerks), but the ones I  knew were good at what they did.  I’m talking about the ones who transfer the bags onto the plane, not the ones who lose the luggage.  🙂

     *Because the baggage handlers are just hucking bags all day long, when they take a break, they want to spend it doing something that they find entertaining.  Have you ever noticed people dressed in the airline coveralls and work boots walking through the terminals?  Yeah, that’s the underbelly guys, i.e. the baggage handlers.  They’ve come up to people watch.  Or more specifically, to check out chicks.  Some are more subtle than others. 

     *Airports are crawling with celebrities.  The problem is, when the average traveler is in an airport, you’re usually distracted by the fact that you need to get somewhere by a certain time, and you’re only in the terminal for a short amount of time.  But the folks who work there are privy to the comings and goings of those famous people.  One of my very favorite singers is Natalie Cole.  One day, my supervisor heard over the radio that she was arriving and she’d need a courtesy cart to get to her connecting gate.  I nearly wet myself with excitement and my supervisor, awesome woman that she was, told me to hurry up and go so I could get her autograph.  I got there, and there she was, waiting to be picked up in the cart.  There was only one other airport employee there who had obviously known way ahead of time that she was coming since he had a vinyl album for her to sign.  I had a pathetic piece of United letterhead.  I was practically shaking as I asked her to sign it, and she was so lovely and gracious and gorgeous that I scarcely could remember how to speak.  I think I ended up saying something ridiculous like “I think you’re great!”.  I do remember how amazingly beautiful her eyes were though.  In addition to Ms. Cole, I met Walter Payton, who was probably one of the nicest men I’ve ever met.  Even his assistant was nice!  He had the Red Carpet Club (United premiere member club, into which I totally stalked Mr. Payton) print up another copy of his boarding pass so he could sign it for me.  I also met Scottie Pippen, and saw a lot of other Bulls players, and met and took the boarding pass of one Grandpa Munster. 

Look at this sweet face!

 I kept staring at him while he made his way to the front of the line and when he got to me, I said, “Oh!  Oh my word, you’re Grandpa Munster!” and he smiled his sweet smile and said, “Indeed I am young lady”.   There were others too, but right now my brain is stuck on Grandpa.  ha!

     *Angry passengers will yell at anyone who is standing at the counter.  I remember one afternoon during a crazy thunderstorm, some guy was screaming at me to get him on another flight right now because he had to get to New York.  I calmly turned around, looked at the storm raging outside that had grounded all departing flights, turned back to him and said, “Sir, no flights are leaving right now because of the storm.”  Then he called me an ignorant B**** and thankfully my supervisor, who had been assisting someone else, swooped over and saved me.  So here’s your insider tip:  When the weather is bad, flights won’t take off.  FOR SAFETY’S SAKE.  This is not the fault of the poor gate agent.  We are just trying to keep people…um…alive.  I think that’s a pretty good company policy.  Keep customers alive.

     *Never date a baggage handler.  They will still go and check out chicks with their friends and it will make you mad.  (Don’t worry, I learned this one REALLY quickly.)

"Sir, that's too large" "No, I can jam it in there" "Sir, give me the bag or I will forcibly take it from you and whack you in the head with it."

     *Please, you can’t fit giant suitcases into the overhead bins.  It REALLY ticks off the flight staff.  They WILL gate check your bag if you’re going to be a jerk. 

     *When the door to the jetway is closed, it’s CLOSED.  Seriously.  They don’t do that just to mess with you or make you angry.  Believe me, the less angry people during a shift, the better.  It’s for safety.  So get there on time.  I’ve heard more strings of colorful expletives than I care to remember when this happens.  As if it was done as a personal affront to Jim the Businessman.  Get over yourself.  There are a bajillion people who come through here every day and because of that, there need to be rules and regulations.  It keeps it fair. 

My experiences have given me a deeper respect for the humans who work to keep and airport running, and an appreciation for all of the intricacies of the system.  A lot of these airline employees, especially the ones who assist customers face to face on a daily basis, have become jaded by those few really mean people who think the world should run according to their rules, time, and standards.  So the next time you fly, if you come across an employee who isn’t smiling, YOU smile at THEM.  Ask how they’re doing.  Then say, “No, really.  How are you doing?” and let them know that you’re one of the nice people.


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