JFK Airport 1969

Tri-faith chapels at JFK which no longer exist due to expansion

25th June, 1969. My so-called “DOJ”, date of joining. It came to be very important and all meaning in my days of standby travel, as we were issued seats according to seniority…and certain other things.

I doubt I shall ever forget the date. It’s sort of like your birthday, etched in your brain. As we were unionized, your DOJ also determined the order in which we would be granted a promotion. Foolishly, when BOAC offered me a job, I did what I thought was the “right thing” and gave Pan Am three weeks notice. I’m sure they wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t turned up for my next shift and then I would have gained those weeks in seniority over so many of the new intakes. This affected me later on. Doing the right thing, indeed!

BOAC had been operating out of the International Arrivals Building which had an east and west wing, on either side of the control tower which was across the road from the arrivals hall.

We were at the very end of the East Wing.

Our location was a blessing as we were constantly running back and forth to the arrivals hall and then out down the fingers to where our aircraft were located. The distances we walked were incredible.

When the airport was very busy, sometimes our aircraft had to be parked on a remote “hardstand” and then we had to bus the passengers in and out. We tried to catch a ride out with the ramp vehicle, but often we had to walk across the ramp, no matter the weather. The buses were dispatched from a remote location.

It certainly wasn’t always sunny as in this picture of the West Wing and you had to keep an eye out for the many sorts of ramp vehicles that were rushing about.

There were not a few accidents out there, including one of our staff once, though I think he may have instigated it!

Even worse than a hardstand arrival, was the occasional West Wing arrival, all the way on the other side of the field. Then you really had to get your skates on, and hope you could find the right gate as it all looked different to our wing.

Even if you worked at the ticket counter you had to stand all day and we had no porters to help move baggage on to the belt.

In those days although we charged for excess baggage, there was no actual limit to the weight that could be loaded into a suitcase.

If you happened to work on Saturday night at the ticket counter, you got a real work out because that was when the RAF had their VC10 departure to Brize Norton.

All the international carriers we handled over the years couldn’t match what those RAF passengers dragged to the airport. The only good thing was that there were usually no more than 60 to 80 of them!

My feet had blisters like the craters of the moon.

Speaking of which, 1969 was the year of the moon landing and there was a big television screen rigged up in the arrivals hall so we could view it.

That there was a 1969 sized crowd!

I was still on probation when, arriving a bit early for work, one afternoon, the shift supervisor grabbed me and told me, even though I wasn’t in duty yet, to run immediately to an East Wing arrivals gate to wait for the Qantas flight that had just landed.

He looked serious, and when on probation, you did as you were told. So off I went and met up with a supervisor who told me there had been a bomb scare and we were to hold all passengers in the corridor until we got the all-clear.

Next thing you know, I was standing in the crowded finger next to Rudolf Nuryev who looked rather nervous. I was told he always hated flying for fear his flight might end up back in Russia, although his Qantas flight was headed about as far from the USSR as you could get.

I rather like this picture, taken by Lord Snowden.

I am a ballet fan, so I was impressed to be near such an accomplished performer. Over the years I met a number of celebrities. The nicest were very modest and usually they were people who had achieved the most. But I was never star struck.

By the 1960’s Idelwild/JFK had become seriously overcrowded due to the advent of jets, please note:

One of our supervisors always answered the phone by saying :”BOAC, first with the jets across the Atlantic!”

We had also been the first carrier to arrive in the newly opened East Wing, back in 1957.

However, in 1969, the JFK International Arrivals area was under heavy reconstruction and since flights continued to arrive and depart, the demolition and building just went on around us. It was madness.

What I have no images for, I can only attempt to describe in words.

We had no such thing as a jetway. Passengers had to use a mobile stairway that got attached to the aircraft door. When a flight arrived, a team of staff would go out to escort the passengers into the building. You always hoped you weren’t the one leading the queue because on any given day, the route you had been using could suddenly be blocked and you might very well end up in an enclosed area with 100 passengers piling in behind you.

Whereupon, you were obliged to about face with muttered apologies and silent profanities, and just hope you could locate the new entrance door. This was often a challenge, particularly if it was dark.

Darkness added another factor, as that was when the resident rats tended to venture out. It was one thing if you saw a one, but you always hoped the passengers wouldn’t.

The walkways were sheets of discarded building material but there was all manner of debris everywhere, so boarding and “de-planning” passengers was rather fraught with anxiety.

God forbid you were assigned to assist a wheelchair passenger!

We had an elderly Chinese supervisor who got in trouble one day when he got tied up helping a wheelchair passenger and ended up on un-authorized overtime.

Part of the problem was that, having successfully offloaded your passenger, you then had to return the wheelchair to a holding area which was inevitably a long walk.

So the next time Charlie was thus encumbered, he stood his passenger against the nearest wall, telling him “Charlie go home now”, and that’s exactly what he did, telling no-one about the abandoned passenger. I think the man was too flabbergasted to complain!

A colleague of mine once managed to tip an excessively large passenger over on his side. I can’t remember how she got him back up. I was the only person she told and she lived in mortification over it for years. It’s a wonder we didn’t all have hernias.

Boarding passengers was another challenge, especially if you happened to be sharing the loading area with another airline. To achieve a head count, we detached a portion of the passenger’s boarding pass and counted the stubs.

You were lucky if you had a window ledge upon which to place your stubs but they often blew off in the wind. You would look down to see stubs that had been left over from another flight, so now getting a head count was nigh impossible.

Once everyone was seated, in a narrow bodied aircraft, a headcount was not hard to do, except that in the middle of your count someone would take you to be a stewardess and ask you for something….start over..

In those days we tended to have numerous aeroplanes on the ground at the same time, so you would get the OK from the crew to board and suddenly realize you had no idea which aircraft to head for.

We then got educated to check aircraft registrations.

It seemed we had so much to learn but most of it was by trial and error and with the help of the few kind “oldies” who took pity on all these young kids that were rushing about in a frenzy that summer.

Winters were much colder back then, and our uniforms did not offer much protection against the elements. Standing around on the windy tarmac in pouring rain or snow was not a lot of fun, but we were a lot better off than the poor unaccompanied children that used to fly in from Jamaica and Barbados, wearing nothing but their best summer dress or suit. We wrapped them in blankets and lined them up trying to sort out who was going where, because they barely spoke. They seemed totally overwhelmed. Poor babes.

At least the island children were easy to handle as they would do whatever they were told. But we carried many unaccompanied British children as well. A lot of them were children of embassy staff along our routes and those kids needed to be chained together as they knew all the tricks of evasion and when we had a large number it was hard to keep track of the little hooligans that made a game out of playing us up.

I will never forget calling my supervisor one day to say that one of the kids was missing. His reply was short and emphatic “Find him!” Looking after those kids was probably the most stressful of all jobs! I hated being responsible for them.

My first year with BOAC, shortly to become British Airways, was certainly challenging but we were due to move to our own terminal in 1970, so every time something went wrong everyone would clamor “it will be fine when we get to the new building!”

Always the pessimist, I would mutter “well at least the ceiling won’t leak!”


5 thoughts on “JFK Airport 1969

    1. When I travelled unaccompanied I don’t even remember anyone being available to help me! But those horrible little British High Commission kids were a handful. I hope they have learned some manners by now!

  1. Very well written . You should be an author ! I did not work at the IAB as I was hired to staff the new Terminal 7 , but I do remember the stories the “ senior staff “ would tell about that experience ( including Charlie’s legendary wheelchair experience !
    Thanks Carolyn🙂

  2. This was such an interesting read. JFK is my go-to airport. I always complain about airports but never really gave thought to how the people working there felt. And those pictures are amazing. Times have changed so much.

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