American Airlines, I didn’t care…

Name TagIt’s obvious that my case of airline geek is to the bone. I did have the chance to actually get paid for my geekiness when I worked for American Airlines at O’Hare. I was an international customer service agent. In most ways it was the best job ever for me. Think of it as when a boy plays with toy fire trucks and studies fire fighting incessantly and then achieves his boyhood dream of being a fireman. It was the same for me except I played with planes.

Not long after I was hired I was driving through the employee parking lot one evening as the road dipped low in a curve around a hanger area. The wing of what was then the brand new state of the art MD-11 thrusted over the access road. I thought that was so cool! I had just driven around – and partially under – that shiny new American Airlines Flagship. I thought even if this job doesn’t last because of the unsettled Middle East and the crappy economy, at least I got the experience of working for and having unfettered access to the aircraft and industry that has held such a strong fascination for me my entire life. For that one split second I was truly content with my work life. That one happy moment had more insight into my tenure with American Airlines than I realized at the time. I didn’t care about anything else. I loved my job.

To put it bluntly, American Airlines between ’91 and ‘94 treated its employees like shit. Yes, the benefits were very generous but the work environment felt really toxic as most low- and mid-level staff felt the DFW senior management was arrogant and combative with us lowly, easily replaceable staff on the ground. I didn’t care. I loved my job. I went to work happy every day. Most of my coworkers felt the same way. Robert Crandall and his minions were evil. I had to argue with the company about so many things, such as my seniority upon being rehired after my first layoff and whether my uniform allowance covered the trench coat for working on the ramp. I didn’t care. I loved my job.

I got yelled at regularly often in foreign languages. Most people I was able to help. Some were simply unrepentant idiots. There is always one in every plane and just as often a celebrity or minor European royal. Speaking of foreign languages, I spoke German and French every day and often more than I spoke English. I loved it every day even when a German passenger busted me for using a very harsh dialect version of a word. Without realizing it, I was speaking like an uneducated German version of a hillbilly. “Gutten Morgen Y’all!” I didn’t care. I loved my job. My vocabulary grew by leaps and bounds. I could sugar coat bad news like a politician or even sweet talk the immigrations agent out of deporting you.

I got to play with real honest to goodness aircraft! I got a strange thrill when I opened that door knowing the last person to touch it was on the other side of the planet. I liked driving the jet bridges. Geeky thrills. It made my day most every day. Airplane geek highlights were when Aeroflot or one of the other rare or exotic airlines and aircraft types were in town. I got to go on board and closely examine with my fellow airplane geek coworkers these unusual birds. Often we got glowing guided tours by the cockpit or cabin staff. Of course most of my time at the airport beyond these occasional highlights could be stressful or tedious. I didn’t care. I loved my job.

I was at first only guaranteed 20 hours a week for $7.50 an hour with up to a 50 cent per hour differential based on just how crappy the hours of your shift were. I didn’t care. I loved my job. Bad hours were better paying ones. There was almost always somebody wanting to give up or trade a shift, and when times got lean a good blizzard or July thunderstorm was just the opportunity for overtime that the bill collector demanded. Your weather-delayed or cancelled flight meant more money in my pocket.

I took it for granted that every part time worker got comprehensive insurance and retirement benefits. We were told that if the on-board flight crew are legally forbidden from flying a 40-hour week and yet they have full benefits, us poor part-time non-union  ground employees should have similar benefits as well. This was incredibly unusual even back then. American Airlines provided those benefits to my work group knowing that they were cheaper in the long term than having the only non-union work group organizing, potentiality going on strike or honoring a picket line. It was coldly calculated. It worked. Repeated attempts to unionize never took hold. I didn’t care. I loved my job. Comprehensive affordable healthcare before I even had the seniority to hold a full-time bid made my love and drive for my job all the stronger.

I had a winged limousine. Lunch in Midtown Manhattan with my sister and back home that evening? Regularly. Going with co-workers to Washington DC to see the Star Trek exhibit at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum was a way to spend a pleasant day off of work. Rearranging shifts with coworkers was a barter system that if worked right you could cram as many hours in before and after a stretch of days off for a weekend or a week in Europe or the Caribbean. Back then the planes had many more open seats than now. Jumping on a flight was easy. I was fully aware of how lucky I was. The running joke was that sure, we could fly there but never afford the cab into the city we were visiting. My immediate family was pretty impressed too when they flew on my passes, often in first class. This is what most non-airline employees think is the best part of working in the industry. It obviously is a huge part of the airline employee lifestyle.

Working holidays and weekends? I didn’t care. I loved my job. I was in my twenties just out of college. I hadn’t learned to be nervous about bills as they were never truly caught up to this point in my young adult life. Skating on the edge of poverty was the normal way of the world. The bills got paid somehow or pushed to the next check. That’s what you do at that age. I didn’t care. I loved my job. Even when I fell into relatively high credit card debt, the American Airlines Employee Credit Union helped and consolidated all my cards to one loan payment that was taken directly from my paycheck. They kept a chunk of change and it hurt but I didn’t care. I loved my job.

Why am I not still there? I see coworkers from my tenure with American still working the gates twenty years later. At one point I wondered if I would work front line at O’Hare my entire career.  In the airline industry you live and die by seniority. After the third layoff I felt like I had battered-spouse syndrome. American beat me but I didn’t care. I loved my job. I put on the poly-wool-blend uniform yet again and headed for gate K19 relieved I got called back. The regular January layoff was nerve wrecking. I was always certain I’d be called back and actually they always did. I still didn’t care but each layoff had its effect. Even then I loved my job. I also was completely cognizant that in the airline industry all front line employees deal with this brutal seniority system. With time to crawl slowly up the seniority list and a little luck they may be able to get the bids they desire or even transition off of the front lines. I was aware that this system was what I must deal with if I wanted to keep the job I loved.

After that third layoff something seriously changed for me. I started to care. I started to care about a stable regular paycheck and just once having Christmas Eve off again. I started to care about how my employer treated me from the corporate HQ. I started to care about constant abuse from passengers despite my really trying to sincerely help them in situations neither they nor I had any control over. The layoffs, sometimes horrific verbal abuse and being a non-union worker during a massive flight attendant strike took a huge toll on me.

I was working for a travel agency when I got the last recall from American Airlines. I asked for twenty-four hours to respond. The next day I declined the recall and essentially voluntarily gave up the job I loved. I knew I probably was never going to work in that environment again. I knew I wouldn’t submit to the low pay and zero seniority of a front line airline new hire position again. I had to care for myself and the people I was responsible for. I had to care for more important things than simply the job I loved. The decision at that time seamed logically the right decision and it probably was.

I am grateful for the insane existence that American Airlines offered me. You want to learn great emergency customer service? Tell 215 Germans the flight to Munich is going to be delayed by at least an hour. I usually tried to duck behind the counter. I learned to be nimble on my feet and adjust my customer service style based on the nationality or destination of the passenger. American Airlines taught me all those thousands of three-letter airport codes, and much more importantly, the Sabre computer system which helped me get my first travel agent gigs and into my career path.

I took so away so much that was positive from a very mixed bag of a job. The biggest problem with working for American Airlines for those three years? That’s easy. Every other job since then has felt like a bit of a letdown. I try not to care about that. I loved my job.

Even a geek needs to laugh

I’m an occasional fan of stand-up comedy, particularly when it is done in character. Think of early Whoopi Goldberg. So who is my current aviation geeky favorite? Pam Ann of course! Pam Ann is the alter ego of Australian comic Caroline Reid. She’s on stage in flight-attendant drag. Her shows are called layovers. She is very interactive with her “first class passengers,” which are usually flight crews in the first rows. She has them come on stage to perform their “Terminal Struts.” She’ll ask them who they fly for and where they flew in from. Pam’s response might be something like, “Hey Southwest! He just flew in from Paris. You’ve heard of that, haven’t you? It’s in A FOREIGN COUNTRY!” The humor is beyond edgy, hugely sexual, crude and can veer dangerously close to offensive. She creates characters based on the type and nationality of the airline. Examples include the “sluts” that fly for Virgin Atlantic, punctuality and order obsessed Brunhildas of Lufthansa, and most notoriously of them all, Lilly. Lilly is the incredibly stereotyped East Asian attendant from Singapore Airlines. It’s a high wire balancing act that when it works is hysterical. She has been called “cruelly funny” by none other than Madonna. Elton John even hired her as his flight attendant for his private jet. Nice job if you can get it!

Pam Ann presents herself as The First Class Air Hostess to The Stars. She both mocks and worships the stereotype of what Stewardess was supposed to have once been and what flight attendants are today. It’s brilliant.

The clip below is one of her most famous bits and the least offensive one I dare share. Warning! She’s foul-mouthed.


Born this way….


Fischer Price toy airplane circa early 1970’s

Are geeks born that way or are they created by unfortunate childhood trauma? The debate will never end. Here is a case in point. When my mother retired and moved to Arizona she cleaned out the attic and gave me back my favorite childhood toy, as you can see above. Was it my mother’s fault? Did she secretly know my fate but was in denial? Or did Mom purposely pave my road to happiness?  We will never know.

Fischer Price commercial from 1972 featuring the plane.

Flutter Boards

Airports make me happy. In these modern times, that’s not just geeky. Some might say it’s downright laughable considering the hassles associated with them.

Some of my earliest childhood travel memories are of one the world’s great terminals: Frankfurt Airport. Entering the original Terminal One you were confronted with one of the most imposing departure boards in the world, stretching at least fifty by fifteen feet.

The technical name of these displays is Solari Boards. All the numbers and airline names are printed on plastic tiles that “flutter” into place mechanically, so they are commonly referred to as “Flutter Boards.” The Solari Board is loud. It sounds a bit like an enthusiastic table of domino players shuffling the tiles on a table. It’s also a generator of white noise that once defined one of the largest hubs of global travel.

There is something exhilarating about the sound of the board updating. Seeing the never-ending list of exotic locations and airlines traveling around the world – including destinations that a US citizen could never legally visit – was thrilling. Havana or Tripoli anyone?

Regrettably, this piece of history is all but an anachronism. Mechanical displays have lots of moving parts that can break and need intensive maintenance. The new LCD screens look the same, including the font of the letters and numbers, but they don’t have the nostalgia of a Solari Board.

I’m not the only one that finds the sound pleasing. Boston’s commuter train station now has virtual Solari Boards that recreate the mechanical sound of their predecessors. At Frankfurt, the new LCD screens mimic the font of the old Solari Boards. Clearly, Solari Boards make many a heart flutter. They capture the excitement of an earlier era when dressing up in your Sunday Best was part of the experience. The glamorous glory days of air travel!

May the flutter continue for many more years.