Airport Life

After valiantly trying to keep up with some sort of interesting blog about the things I think about when I should be doing something productive, I now hope to showcase some of my non-fiction writing.  Comments are welcome and appreciated.  Following is a snapshot of a morning at work back in the good old days before baggage fees and when I still smoked.

5:46 A.M.


“Hi, how are you doing today?” he says for the fortieth time this morning.  He’s at the airline check-in counter behind a computer that stands a few inches higher than the rest, but then he stands at least a few inches higher than most.  His dark blond hair is short and uncombed, still sticking up in the back from where he spent five hours pressed against a pillow the night before.  Hell, the night before?  It is still dark outside, the rain is threatening to become snow as the air grows colder while waiting for the sun to rise, still a few hours away.

He smiles, trying for the genuine smile, not just the repeatable painted-on customer service smile, but it’s hard this early in the morning.  With only time for a cup of coffee and two cigarettes on the drive through quiet streets out to the terminal, his eyes struggle to stay focused.  The bags under his eyes push his eyelids closed if he doesn’t pay attention.  Pay attention!  There’s a man still in fatigues with a ridiculous amount of luggage and, of course, a rifle case.  Another out-of-stater come to Montana because there is no such thing as wildlife anymore where he comes from, unless you count birds and squirrels and rats.  Go home and shoot some rats.  “And how many bags will you be checking today sir?”

A pen is whipped out from the pocket of his striped work shirt, and it is his pen.  He fills out the date, and initials the “Firearms Declaration Tag” then purposefully slides the pen back into his pocket, digs through a tray of old junk pens, then hands one to the passenger along with the tag.  “Please sign here stating that the firearm is unloaded and secured in a hard-sided locked case.”  The computer spits out some tags, and boarding passes emerge from a monster of a printer—the size of an old full-tower PC—and it promptly spits them on the floor.  He sighs as he descends and scoops them up, checking the piece of cardboard he had taped to the mouth of the printer to keep it from spitting on the floor.  Needs more tape probably.

The hunter is set on his way with boarding pass and luggage in tow to go talk with the friendly TSA officers about his firearm and whether he has any film in his other bags, and could you please unlock them so they can be searched, and you have a good chance of seeing your bags again once they pass through the machine, back into the sorting room, onto a luggage cart, off the cart onto a plane, flown six hundred miles, then onto another cart, another plane, eight hundred miles more, then onto the last cart, and finally through a system of conveyor belts and scanners to land in a silver carousel to turn with the three hundred other black roller bags, until you grab it and take it home, but please check the tag first.

He steps back from his computer for a moment and rolls his neck around stretching out a kink and moving his shoulders back and forth to get some blood moving around.  He straightens up and, back at his computer, punches in the magic code to show how many people are left to check in.  Fourteen.  And how many minutes left before check-in closes.  Ten.  Not bad, people are actually moving a bit today, but better step it up, less than a minute per person left, then a minute or two to grab paperwork, a radio, go check with the flight crew, get signed into the computer upstairs at the gate, then about fifteen minutes to get fifty people on the airplane and seated.  Seven minutes for the pilots to do their paperwork, ten minutes for closing the flight and filing paperwork while the pilots fire up the engines and head for the runway, then a cup of coffee and a cigarette.  How do planes fly?  It isn’t Bernoulli’s principle or Newton’s second law, it’s paperwork.

“I can help the next person here,” he calls to a sleepy family, his voice louder than it should be this early, but you’ve got to get people’s attention.  When they walk through those sliding glass doors at the front of the terminal, something happens.  The ability to think, plan, and read signs disappears for most people when they enter an airport.

This family doesn’t seem as bad as most.  The dad is calm, the kids are sleepy but excited rather than cranky, and the mom has everything ready, “We have three bags and a car seat to check please, to San Diego.”  He pokes his fingers into the right spots on the keyboard to get the bag tags and boarding passes.  He lines the tags in a row along the edge of the bag scale, arranges the boarding passes in the ticket jacket, staples the bag claim stickers to the back, and hands it to the organized mom as he checks her and her husband’s ID.  Attaching the tags while giving the usual line of instructions and questions, he’s finished in forty-five seconds.  The family shuffles off, and He checks the computer.  Eight people left and five minutes.  There’s no one in line, so he signs out of his computer and gives some quick reminders to his co-worker, “We’re waiting on eight, but they only have five minutes to check in with bags, call me at the gate if anyone shows up after that, I’m heading up there now.”

He checks his pocket to make sure his pen is where it should be.  He heads back into the operations room, lets his supervisor know he’s heading upstairs.  “Need any help?” his supervisor asks.

“No, so long as there isn’t anything strange.  We don’t have any unaccompanied minors or wheelchairs, so it should go smoothly.  I’ll call if I need it.”  He remembers to grab his coat before ducking out back to the ramp—no snow outside yet, but it’s close.  He jokes with the bag loaders for a minute and lets them know there might be some more bags heading back.  He stuffs some paperwork into his pocket, and heads across the ramp for the jet whose lights are slowly coming on as it powers up.  He checks his watch, thirty-three minutes to departure, forty-three to a coffee and a cigarette.


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