Ticket counter stories

Imagine, if you will, small concrete open-topped bunkers, twelve in all, four feet high, all in a row. They are octagonal in shape, with an entrance at what will be the rear. They are large enough for four people to occupy, standing.

About 10 feet away, in front of the bunkers, are 6 pairs of tomb-like concrete blocks, 3 feet wide and twenty feet long. From the front, a solid top extends back toward the bunkers for ten feet, and then tapers to the base, creating a steep slope.

In the front of the tomb-like structures is an entry door covered by a rubber strip curtain, through which runs a baggage belt that travels straight, and then descends to the baggage room beneath the floor. (Curtains were soon replaced by lockable doors.)

Leading to the baggage belt, at ground level, are two short belts, held within a small concrete frame. The front one contains a baggage scale.

I thought it defied description, but I’ve done it, although I would be interested to know what image you now have in your mind! Measurements are guesses from memory. Very approximate!

To me it was like rows of tombs, that you would see in an old cathedral. Very hard concrete, it was, very unforgiving. The slopes, created by the baggage-belt covers, were a lethal draw for children who inevitably wanted to slide down them. I was forever chasing kids away.

Mothers: hold onto your children in airports, please.

The bunkers, or “boats” as we called them, were where passengers got to queue up a second time, oh joy, for a seat assignment. Nobody wants to queue up at all, but the designers of the Unit Terminal Building (British Airways) at JFK didn’t seem to have considered this.

Maybe it was a carry-over from old time Britain where people queued all the time. It was a “war thing”, when nothing much was ever available, so if you saw a queue, you got on it and then asked what it was you were queuing for. But all of that went out of style very fast, and it was never fashionable in America, that I know of.

So, having to queue twice in order to get checked in for your flight was not popular.

But that was our fabulous new ticket counter when we moved in, at the end of June, 1970.

In the picture a roll-out cart system has already been put in place, to make life less dreadful for the baggage-check agent, that the designers had not even considered, giving them no place to write or place a stapler. In those days we didn’t have sticky labels. you see.

The whole thing was diabolical. Once you got the bags on the scale and weighed them you could bend over to tag them. Short skirts were in back then. Very short. Bending over if you were a girl was slightly embarrassing, to say the least. We wore navy tights, but still.

Then, when the bags were tagged, you pushed a button that activated the belt and the bags moved forward, through the curtain and down to the baggage room. Anything else that was on the belt went too and frequently this was another staff member.

Of course we knew not to stand on the belt, and we knew not to press that button till we were sure no-one was standing on it. But when you are busy, you take short-cuts and you forget to make checks.

The only person who ever actually got to the baggage room, however, was a Nigeria Airways passenger who had been told his bag was too heavy and could not be accepted. Having no way to re-pack the thing, he took the initiative of pushing it down an empty baggage belt himself.

When a maintenance man was called to find out why the belt had stopped functioning, he climbed up it from the bag room end and met the passenger coming down.

I am not sure what penalties were levied against the traveller. Perhaps he was given a waiver for his resourcefulness.

Nigeria Airways was a strain on everyone’s capabilities. When we first handled them, the 70-pound per bag limit had not yet been instituted. Not enough baggage handlers had been injured yet, I suppose. Nigerian bags were killers.

Some of them contained extraordinary things, too. At that time it seems light bulbs were scarce in Nigeria. Yes, light bulbs. How many of them made it to the other end intact, I couldn’t say!

Coming the other way, Nigerian baggage often contained things that had once been alive and now were not. And had not been for some considerable time. You didn’t want to be there when Customs opened them up.

Nigeria Airways held a couple of records for me. One was for the longest ever boarding. Their flight was due to leave at 1615, so we opened the lounge for passengers an hour before at 1515. I had just come on duty and one of my agents was on the 1300-2100 shift.

I don’t remember what time the flight eventually left, but I know the agent had gone off duty and had to be replaced. And the delay? General messing about. In fact, the flight was oversold and too many people turned up.

The Nigeria Airways representative (who was from Trinidad) seemed to have great difficulty deciding who should get the last few seats and the single last seat was what took so very long. Maybe they were holding an auction at the ticket counter. We didn’t want to know.

The other record was for most creative problem solving: One day we surprised everybody by wrapping the flight up in a “timely” fashion, and it pushed back onto the terminal’s apron, awaiting taxy clearance. (The airlines love that word, “timely”, not that adhere to it very often.)

Whereupon, an important Nigeria Airways passenger turned up. Expecting the flight to be still at the gate because, well, it never went on time. Oh dear. But not to worry.

The manager passed instructions to our Operations department:

“Hold everything, chaps!” said the operations agent to the cockpit crew.

“We’ve got a runner!”

Normally, you don’t accept a runner once the aircraft is off the gate and we waited to see how the manager would make it happen.

Not a problem. He took the passenger (a VIP mind) rampside to the aircraft, and, getting on the air-to-ground radio, told the crew he was going to board the passenger up through the stairwell, could they please open the hatch in the floor? (It was a DC10)

I would not have believed it, but I saw it play out. The VIP passenger climbed up via the nose wheel into the forward hold and through the hatch.

You could always rely on Nigeria Airways to make your Saturday interesting. I often did their weight and balance document, which was a whole other challenge I prefer to forget, but the aeroplanes came and went safely many times.

Nigeria Airways had two DC10’s that I got to know well. One of them, 5N-ANR crashed 10th January, 1987, on a training flight and was destroyed, killing the 9 people aboard. The other, 5N-ANN was still in service when the airline went out of business in 2003. It sat at Murtala Mohammed Airport in Lagos being gradually dismantled until nothing recognizable was left.

Better than ending up in a crash, you might say, but this is a sad way for an aeroplane to end, picked to pieces.

Ships and aeroplanes carry little bits of our history around, all over the world. Is that why we feel so nostalgic about them?

That little dark blue VC10 tail is another I knew. Registration G-ASGN. Surely the saddest fate of all.

These hi-jackings took place in September, 1970 and the aircraft were blown up on September 12th.

The other two aircraft were a TWA 707 and a Swissair DC8.

It is hard to believe that before this time, there was no such thing as security checks before boarding, no search of hand baggage. When it started, immediately thereafter, it was we who had to search the bags, by hand. That was not a favourite occupation!

3 thoughts on “Ticket counter stories

  1. I have only been through JFK once and it was in 2005 so we had a flight bridge from the plane. I remember those planes being hi-jacked and blown up in 1970. I was still at school, but I can remember the film on the news and being totally shocked by what I saw.

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