To Fly To Serve

To Fly, To Serve the moto was added later

BOAC interviewed for a job in passenger service, at their JFK station. I was never any good at interviews but this amounted to little more than a brief discussion and the truth is, I think they would have hired just about anyone. And they didn’t ask me to climb on a scale. They gave me directions to the cargo area where Uniform Section was located. It was in fact next door to where I had worked, briefly for Pan Am.

“Uniforms” was stuffed into a pokey little hole overlooking a large bay in which aircraft received servicing. It was noisy and smelly and you tended to run into a lot of guys that seemed easily distracted by a pair of female legs walking past.

What Mr Campbell had done to deserve working in the uniform section, I can’t imagine. The poor man seemed to be always alone. He had very little stock to work with and was always fending off annoyed women who couldn’t get what they needed.

When I trotted in with my uniform demand, he looked me up and down then disappeared into his warren where he dug out a uniform that had been returned by a departing employee, who he judged may have been my size.

It fit, more or less, so became mine, including a large leather, bottomless bag and a rather bent hat which gave me a lot of trouble, refusing to stay on.

The picture is not me. I didn’t look anywhere near that good! But I had been lucky to find a skirt and jacket my size. Fortunately Mr Campbell did have a supply of new blouses for us. I don’t think our permanent uniforms were even ordered until we passed probation some ten weeks later.

Shoes we had to find ourselves, plain navy pumps with 2 inch heels. For some reason at that time they were not easy to find. Maybe it was just my big feet.

There I was, all set for dealing with the Public. The summer of 1969 was not the best time to start work at JFK as the Air Traffic Controllers were protesting their latest contract offer and they were working to rule.

What this meant was that our flights could take off from London, or Manchester or any of the numerous places they came from, but arriving overhead New York, they would get sent on a merry-go-round, literally.

Airplanes were stacked up all over Long Island and probably New Jersey as well. But round they would go, and round, and round. Sometimes, they had not taken aboard enough fuel for all this rigamarole and they were obliged to divert to another station which hopefully had a smaller stack.

(This is not quite the image I had in mind)

When airplanes diverted you knew you were in for the long haul, so when one of our flights actually touched down a mere 2 hours late, it was cause to celebrate.

One of my first irate encounters was with a man waiting at the arrival desk in the International Arrivals Building, where we were then located. He approached me to inquire about a flight arrival, so I smiled, as we were supposed to, and delivered the information that the flight was stuck overhead in air traffic and was expected to land late, at whatever time it was. Furious. He was furious that I smiled while delivering bad news. Demanded to know where I was from. No. I was not good enough to be British. Maybe I was South African. ????? All right, so no more smiles…

Of course, every aeroplane that arrived had to be turned around to depart for somewhere else, and all these late arrivals meant that all our departures were delayed. It was an ongoing nightmare.

Into this fiasco I walked, feeling like a right twit in my second hand uniform with dented hat. It was just like all those times I had been a new girl at boarding school. Except now I had to deal with my long hair every day. It could not touch my collar, so I had to wind it up into a bun, but my hair never cooperated and everyday was an ordeal with bobby pins and clips and hoping it would say up. I felt everyone looking at me, wondering how this newbie would turn out.

There was no such thing as training. You reported for duty and were assigned to a supervisor and if you were lucky, you had an experienced agent shadowing you. You needed plenty of energy because the job involved a lot of running around. My feet were soon badly blistered.

There was a large intake of newbies that summer, because BOAC was opening up a station in Los Angeles and half of the JFK based staff were transferring. So there were an awful lot of us not knowing what we were doing, and hoping not to do anything that would delay a flight or get us arrested by Customs!

This was all very well for eight hours a day. Most of the people I worked with were nice and it was all a new, very different experience. At least I had a full time job with benefits and in those days I had stamina and at least a little resilience.

I would get off duty at 9pm and drive home to Syosset, looking forward to putting my sore feet up and turning off the sound of passenger complaints.

But no! The minute I got home, I had to deal with Uncle. For starters he thought all airline personnel were degenerate, people with poor morals and therefore I was exposing myself to who knew what frightful debauchment.

The first thing Ray did was check the clock to see whether I had come straight home! If I was late I was expected to say why. I should have told him to, well, you know, but it would have just caused more trouble, and I always had a reason for being late anyway.

Not long after I got the job at the airport, Ray was laid off by his employer and he did a number of things, including, to my dismay, driving the Long Island Airport Limousine. This gave him the perfect excuse to follow me around and when I was at work, unless I was “air-side”, I always felt eyes watching me.

That was bad enough, but when I arrived home, I had to be ready for an earful of criticism over what Ray believed BOAC had done wrong that day.

Why did we charge so much for tickets? What were all those rubbish rules with excursion fares? What about excess baggage? Why were fares more in the summer?

Why weren’t we doing better with all those delayed flights? On and on.

Then I made the awful mistake one day of mentioning that a flight had been oversold. I was so naive, I hadn’t realized that they actually did it on purpose. When Ray heard me say it, he about blew my head off. It was illegal! We could be sued! He was going to report us..de dah..

God help me, it was like bringing home with me the most irate passenger I could find and it was every day. But at least if he was yelling at me about those things, he wasn’t giving me a hard time about that other thing…

One thought on “To Fly To Serve

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