Delays and reroutings which the storm had caused were taxing both scheduling and human patience. Immediately below Mel, at Braniff ticketing, a youngish man with long, blond hair and a yellow scarf was proclaiming loudly, “You’ve the effrontery to tell me I must go to Kansas City to get to New Orleans. You people are rewriting geography! You’re mad with power!”
The ticket agent facing him, an attractive brunette in her twenties, brushed a hand over her eyes before answering with professional patience, “We can route you directly, sir, but we don’t know when. Because of the weather, the longer way will be faster and the fare is the same.”
Behind the yellow-scarfed man, more passengers with other problems pressed forward urgently.
At the United counter, a small pantomime was being played. A would-be passenger–a well-dressed businessman–leaned forward, speaking quietly. By the man’s expression and actions, Mel Bakersfeld could guess what was being said. “I would very much like to get on that next flight.”
“I’m sorry, sir, the flight is fully booked. There’s also a long standby…” Before the ticket agent could complete his sentence, he glanced up. The passenger had laid his briefcase on the counter in front of him. Gently, but pointedly, he was tapping a plastic baggage tag against a corner of the case. It was a 100,000-Mile Club tag, one of those United issued to its favored friends–an inner elite which all airlines had helped create. The agent’s expression changed. His voice became equally low. “I think we’ll manage something, sir.” The agent’s pencil hovered, crossed out the name of another passenger–an earlier arrival whom he had been about to put on the flight–and inserted the newcomer’s name instead. The action was unobserved by those in line behind.
The same kind of thing, Mel knew, went on at all airline counters everywhere. Only the naÏve or uninformed believed wait lists and reservations were operated with unwavering impartiality.
Mel observed that a group of new arrivals–presumably from downtown–was entering the terminal. They were beating off snow from their clothing as they came in, and judging from their appearance, it seemed that the weather outside must be worsening. The newcomers were quickly absorbed in the general crowds.
Few among the eighty thousand or so air travelers who thronged the terminal daily ever glanced up at the executive mezzanine, and fewer still were aware of Mel tonight, high above them, looking down. Most people who thought about airports did so in terms of airlines and airplanes. It was doubtful if many were even aware that executive offices existed or that an administrative machine–unseen, but complex and employing hundreds–was constantly at work, keeping the airport functioning.
Perhaps it was as well, Mel thought, as he rode the elevator down again. If people became better informed, in time they would also learn the airport’s weaknesses and dangers, and afterward fly in and out with less assurance than before.
On the main concourse, he headed toward the Trans America wing. Near the check-in counters, a uniformed supervisor stepped forward. “Evening, Mr. Bakersfeld. Were you looking for Mrs. Livingston?”
No matter how busy the airport became, Mel thought, there would always be time for gossip. He wondered how widely his own name and Tanya’s had been linked already.
“Yes,” he said. “I was.”
The supervisor nodded toward a door marked, AIRLINE PERSONNEL ONLY.
“You’ll find her through there, Mr. Bakersfeld. We just had a bit of a crisis here. She’s taking care of it.”
IN A SMALL private lounge which was sometimes used for VIPs, the young girl in the uniform of a Trans America ticket agent was sobbing hysterically.
Tanya Livingston steered her to a chair. “Make yourself comfortable,” Tanya said practically, “and take your time. You’ll feel better afterward, and when you’re ready we can talk.”
Tanya sat down herself, smoothing her trim, tight uniform skirt. There was no one else in the room, and the only sound–apart from the crying–was the faint hum of air-conditioning.
There was fifteen years or so difference in age between the two women. The girl was not much more than twenty, Tanya in her late thirties. Watching, Tanya felt the gap to be greater than it was. It came, she supposed, from having been exposed to marriage, even though briefly and a long time ago–or so it seemed.
She thought: it was the second time she had been conscious of her age today. The first was while combing her hair this morning; she had seen telltale strands of gray among the short-cropped, flamboyant red. There was more of the gray than last time she had checked a month or so ago, and both occasions were reminders that her forties–by which time a woman ought to know where she was going and why–were closer than she liked to think about. She had another thought: in fifteen years from now, her own daughter would be the same age as the girl who was crying.
The girl, whose name was Patsy Smith, wiped reddened eyes with a large linen handkerchief which Tanya had given her. She spoke with difficulty, choking back more tears. “They wouldn’t talk that way… so mean, rudely… at home… not to their wives.”
“You mean passengers wouldn’t?”
The girl nodded.
“Some would,” Tanya said. “When you’re married, Patsy, you may find out, though I hope not. But if you’re telling me that men behave like adolescent boors when their travel plans get crossed up, I’ll agree with you.”
“I was doing my best… We all were… All day today; and yesterday… the day before… But the way people talk to you…”
“You mean they act as if you started the storm yourself. Especially to inconvenience them.”
“Yes… And then that last man… Until him, I was all right…”
“What happened exactly? They called me when it was all over.”
The girt was beginning to regain control of herself.
“Well… he had a ticket on Flight 72, and that was canceled because of weather. We got him a seat on 114, and he missed it. He said he was in the dining room and didn’t hear the flight called.”
“Flight announcements aren’t made in the dining room,” Tanya said. “There’s a big notice saying so, and it’s on all the menus.”
“I explained that, Mrs. Livingston, when he came back from the departure gate. But he was still nasty. He was going on as if it were my fault he’d missed the flight, not his. He said we were all inefficient and half asleep.”
“Did you call your supervisor?”
“I tried to, but he was busy. We all were.”
“So what did you do?”
“I got the passenger a seat–on the extra section, 2122.”
“He wanted to know what movie was showing on the flight. I found that out, and he said he’d seen it. He got nasty again. The movie he’d wanted to see was on the first flight which was canceled. He said, could I get him another flight which was showing the same movie as the first one? All the time, there were other passengers; they were pressing up against the counter. Some were making remarks out loud about how slow I was. Well, when he said that about the movie, that was when I…” The girl hesitated. “I guess something snapped.”
Tanya prompted, “That was when you threw the timetable?”
Patsy Smith nodded miserably. She looked as if she were going to cry again. “Yes. I don’t know what got into me, Mrs. Livingston… I threw it right over the counter. I told him he could fix his own flight.”
“All I can say,” Tanya said, “is that I hope you hit him.”
The girl looked up. In place of tears, there was the beginning of a smile. “Oh, yes; I did.” She thought, then giggled. “You should have seen his face. He was so surprised.” Her expression became serious. “Then, after that…”
“I know what happened after that. You broke down, which was a perfectly natural thing to do. You were sent in here to finish your cry, and now you have, you’re going home in a taxi.”
The girl looked bemused. “You mean… that’s all?”
“Certainly it’s all. Did you expect us to fire you?”
“I… I wasn’t sure.”
“We might have to,” Tanya said, “much as we’d dislike it, Patsy, if you did the same thing again. But you won’t, will you? Not ever.”
The girl shook her head firmly. “No, I won’t. I can’t explain, but having done it just once is enough.”
“That’s the end of it, then. Except that you might like to hear what happened after you left.”
“A man came forward. He was one of those in the line-up, and he said he heard, and saw, the whole thing. He also said he had a daughter the same age as you, and if the first man had talked to his daughter the same way he talked to you, he would personally have punched him in the nose. Then the second man–the one from the line-up–left his name and address, and said if the man you had been talking to ever made any kind of complaint, to let him know and he would report what really happened.” Tanya smiled. “So, you see–there are nice people, too.”
“I know,” the girl said. “There aren’t many, but when you do get one like that, who’s nice to you, and cheerful, you feel you want to hug him.”
“Unfortunately we can’t do that, any more than we should throw timetables. Our job is to treat everyone alike, and be courteous, even when passengers are not.”
“Yes, Mrs. Livingston.”
Patsy Smith would be all right, Tanya decided. Apparently, she hadn’t thought of quitting, as some airls did who suffered similar experiences. In fact, now that she was over her emotion, Patsy seemed to have the kind of resilience which would be helpful to her in future.
God knows, Tanya thought, you needed resilience–and some toughness–in dealing with the traveling public, whatever job you held.
Downtown in reservation departments, she was aware, personal pressures would be even greater than at the airport. Since the storm began, reservation clerks would have made thousands of calls advising passengers of delays and rearrangements. It was a job the clerks all hated because people whom they called were invariably bad-tempered and frequently abusive. Airline delays seemed to arouse a latent savagery in those affected by them. Men talked insultingly to women telephonists, and even people who at other times were courteous and mild-mannered, turned snarly and disagreeable. New York-bound flights were worst of all. Reservation clerks had been known to refuse the assignment of telephoning news of delay or cancellation to a flight load of passengers destined for New York, preferring to risk their jobs rather than face the torrent of invective they knew awaited them. Tanya had often speculated on what it was about New York which infected those headed there with a kind of medicine-dance fervor to arrive.
But, for whatever reasons, she knew there would be resignations among airline staffs–in Reservations and elsewhere–when the present emergency was over. There always were. A few nervous breakdowns could be counted on, too, usually among the younger girls, more sensitive to passengers’ rudeness and ill humor. Constant politeness, even when you were trained for it, was a strain which took a heavy toll.