Page 28 of Airport

Keith’s dejection deepened until even Natalie’s resilient nature rebelled against his moods. Though aware that he slept badly, Natalie had no knowledge of his dreams. One day she inquired in anger and impatience, “Are we supposed to wear hair shirts for the rest of our lives? Are we never to have fun again, to laugh the way we used to? If you intend to go on this way, you’d better understand one thing–I don’t, and I won’t let Brian and Theo grow up around this kind of misery either.”

When Keith hadn’t answered, Natalie went on, “I’ve told you before: our lives, our marriage, the children, are more important than your work. If you can’t take that kind of work any more–and why should you if it’s that demanding?–then give it up now, get something else. I know what you always tell me: the money’ll be less; you’d throw away your pension. But that isn’t everything; we’d manage somehow. I’ll take all the hardship you can give me, Keith Bakersfeld, and maybe I’d complain a little, but not much, because anything would be better than the way we are right now.” She had been close to tears, but managed to finish. “I’m warning you I can’t take much more. If you’re going on like this, it may have to be alone.”

It was the only time Natalie had hinted at the possibility of their marriage breaking up. It was also the first time Keith considered suicide.

Later, his idea hardened to resolve.

THE DOOR of the darkened locker room opened. A switch snapped on. Keith was back again in the control tower at Lincoln International, blinking in the overhead light’s glare.

Another tower controller, taking his own work break, was coming in. Keith put away his untouched sandwiches, closed his locker, and walked back toward the radar room. The other man glanced at him curiously. Neither spoke.

Keith wondered if the crisis involving the Air Force KC-135, which had had radio failure, had ended yet. Chances were, it had; that the aircraft and its crew had landed safely. He hoped so. He hoped that something good, for someone, would survive this night.

As he went in, he touched the O’Hagan Inn key in his pocket to be sure, once again, that it was there. He would need it soon.


IT WAS ALMOST an hour since Tanya Livingston had left Mel Bakersfeld in the central lobby of the main terminal. Even now, though other incidents had intervened, she remembered the way their hands touched at the elevator, the tone he used when he had said, “It’ll give me a reason to see you again tonight.”

Tanya hoped very much that Mel remembered too, and–though she was aware he had to go downtown–that he would find time to stop by first.

The “reason” Mel referred to–-as if he needed one–was his curiosity about the message received by Tanya while in the coffee shop. “There’s a stowaway on Flight 80,” a Trans America agent had told her. “They’re calling for you,” and “the way I hear it, this one’s a dilly.”

The agent had already been proved right.

Tanya was once more in the small, private lounge behind the Trans America check-in counters where earlier this evening she had comforted the distraught young ticket agent, Patsy Smith. But now, instead of Patsy, Tanya faced the little old lady from San Diego.

“You’ve done this before,” Tanya said. “Haven’t you?”

“Oh yes, my dear. Quite a few times.”

The little old lady sat comfortably relaxed, hands folded daintily in her lap, a wisp of lace handkerchief showing between them. She was dressed primly in black, with an old-fashioned high-necked blouse, and might have been somebody’s great-grandmother on her way to church. Instead she had been caught riding illegally, without a ticket, between Los Angeles and New York.

There had been stowaways, Tanya recalled reading somewhere, as long ago as 700 B.C., on ships of the Phoenicians which plied the eastern Mediterranean. At that time, the penalty for those who were caught was excruciating death–disembowelment of adult stowaways, while children were burned alive on sacrificial stones.

Since then, penalties had abated, but stowaways had not.

Tanya wondered if anyone, outside a limited circle of airline employees, realized how much of a stowaway epidemic there had been since jet airplanes increased the tempo and pressures of passenger aviation. Probably not. Airlines worked hard to keep the whole subject under wraps, fearing that if the facts became known, their contingent of non-paying riders would be greater still. But there were people who realized how simple it all could be, including the little old lady from San Diego.

Her name was Mrs. Ada Quonsett. Tanya had checked this fact from a Social Security card, and Mrs. Quonsett would undoubtedly have reached New York undetected if she had not made one mistake. This was confiding her status to her seat companion, who told a stewardess. The stewardess reported to the captain, who radioed ahead, and a ticket agent and security guard were waiting to remove the little old lady at Lincoln International. She had been brought to Tanya, part of whose job as passenger relations agent was to deal with such stowaways as the airline was lucky enough to catch.

Tanya smoothed her tight, trim uniform skirt in the gesture which had become a habit. “All right,” she said, “I think you’d better tell me about it.”

The older woman’s hands unfolded and the lace handkerchief changed position slightly. “Well, you see, I’m a widow and I have a married daughter in New York. Sometimes I get lonely and want to visit her. So what I do is go to Los Angeles and get on an airplane that’s going to New York.”

“Just like that? Without a ticket.”

Mrs. Quonsett seemed shocked. “Oh, my dear, I couldn’t possibly afford a ticket. I just have Social Security and this small pension my late husband left. It’s all I can do to manage the bus fare from San Diego to Los Angeles.”

“You do pay on the bus?”

“Oh, yes. The Greyhound people are very strict. I once tried buying a ticket to the first stop up the line, then staying on. But they make a check at every city, and the driver found my ticket wasn’t good. They were quite unpleasant about it. Not like the airlines at all.”

“I’m curious,” Tanya said, “why you don’t use San Diego airport.”

“Well, I’m afraid, my dear, they know me there.”

“You mean you’ve been caught at San Diego?”

The little old lady inclined her head. “Yes.”

“Have you been a stowaway on other airlines? Besides ours?”

“Oh, yes. But I like Trans America best.”

Tanya was trying hard to remain severe, though it was difficult when the conversation sounded as if they were discussing a stroll to the corner store. But she kept her face impassive as she asked, “Why do you like Trans America, Mrs. Quonsett?”

“Well, they’re always so reasonable in New York. When I’ve stayed with my daughter a week or two, and I’m ready to go home, I go to your airline offices and tell them.”

“You tell them the truth? That you came to New York as a stowaway?”

“That’s right, my dear. They ask me the date and the flight number–I always write it down so I’ll remember. Then they look up some papers.”

“The flight manifest,” Tanya said. She wondered: was this conversation real or just imagination.

“Yes, dear, I think that’s what it’s called.”

“Please go on.”

The little old lady looked surprised. “There isn’t anything else. After that, they just send me home. Usually the same day, on one of your airplanes.”

“And that’s everything? Nothing else is said?”

Mrs. Quonsett gave a gentle smile, as she might have done at a vicarage afternoon tea. “Well, I do sometimes get a little scolding. I’m told I’ve been naughty, and not to do it again. But that really isn’t much, is it?”

“No,” Tanya said. “It certainly isn’t.”

The incredible thing, Tanya realized, was that it was all so obviously true. As airlines were aware, it happened frequently. A would-be stowaway merely boarded an airplane–there were plenty of ways it could be done–and sat quietly, waiting for departure. As long as the stowaway stayed away from the first class compartment, where passengers could be identified easily, and unless the flight was full, detection was unlikely. It was true that stewardesses would count heads, and their tally might disagree with the gate agent’s manifest. At that point a stowaway would be suspected, but the agent in charge would be faced with two choices. Either he could let the airplane go, recording on the manifest that the head and ticket counts did not agree, or a recheck could be made of the tickets of everyone aboard.

A recheck, if decided on, would take most of half an hour; meanwhile, the cost of holding a six-million-dollar jet airplane on the ground would soar. Schedules, both at origin and down the line, would be disrupted. Passengers with connections to make, or appointments, would grow angrily impatient, while the captain, conscious of his punctuality record, would fume at the agent. The agent would reason that he might have made a mistake anyway; moreover, unless he could show good reason for a delay, he would get a roasting later on from his District Transportation Manager. In the end, even if a stowaway was found, the loss in dollars and goodwill would far exceed the cost of providing a free ride for a single individual.

So what happened was that the airline did the only sensible thing–it closed the doors, and sent the airplane on its way.

That was usually the end of it. Once in flight, stewardesses were too busy to do a ticket check, and passengers would certainly not submit to the delay and annoyance of one at journey’s end. Therefore the stowaway walked off, unquestioned and unhindered.

What the little old lady had told Tanya about returning was just as accurate. Airlines took the view that stowaway incidents should not happen and, when they did, it was their own fault for failing to prevent them. On the same basis, airlines accepted responsibility for insuring that stowaways were returned to their point of origin and–since there was no other way to convey them–offenders went back in regular seats, getting normal service, including airline meals.

“You’re nice, too,” Mrs. Quonsett said. “I can always tell nice people when I meet them. But you’re a lot younger than the others in the airline–those I get to meet, I mean.”

“You mean the ones who deal with cheats and stowaways.”

“That’s right.” The little old lady seemed unabashed. Her eyes moved appraisingly. “I should say you’re twenty-eight.”

Tanya said shortly, “Thirty-seven.”

“Well, you have a young mature look. Perhaps it comes from being married.”

“Come off it,” Tanya said. “That isn’t going to help you.”

“But you are married.”

“I was. I’m not now.”

“Such a pity. You could have beautiful children. With red hair like your own.”

Red hair, perhaps, but not with the beginnings of gray, Tanya thought–the gray she had noticed again this morning. As to children, she might have explained that she did have a child, who was at home in their apartment and, she hoped, asleep. Instead, she addressed Mrs. Ada Quonsett sternly.