The first aim of passengers arriving at an airport, especially a huge one, is to get themselves and their luggage checked in; a weight off their minds and shoulders. Next is to go through the portal between normal life and the rest of the world. It’s years since I have flown and I am sure the presenting of passports, getting X-Rayed, confiscating of water bottles etc has been quadrupled in stress with the pandemic, though hopefully far fewer people are flying.
Covid has taken away that other entertainment or ordeal; ‘seeing people off’. In normal times getting to the airport early was quite likely, having left home very early ‘just in case’ and because passengers were told to be at the airport two hours before their flight. This left limbo time to have coffee with friends or family, sad or happy depending on who was going where and for how long, perhaps for ever. One of my Asian colleagues at Heathrow did a wonderful impression of the difference between an English farewell and his relatives and fellow countrymen; he said he preferred the English style… English small group no more than five… ‘right then, goodbye, have a good trip.’ Relative walks towards the portal, turn of head and slight nod, relatives give small wave and he strides forward, never looking back as he is swallowed up into the portal. My friend’s family; at least twenty, plus young children clinging shyly or sliding across the floor and running around; there is wailing and gnashing of teeth as the departing ones walk reluctantly to the portal, stopping and turning twenty times and walking backwards through the barriers.
What happens on the other side? Unless you are a seasoned traveller you will feel lost among swathes of people nervously looking at the departures board every two seconds, then seeing their flight is delayed by two hours; they could have spent more time landside with the relatives. Others surge forward to pass under the sign saying Gates 65 to 97, blissfully unaware that Gate 97 is miles further on. I once saw a poor lady buttonhole a young man in a uniform that had nothing to do with airlines or customer care; she was saying ‘I just can’t take any more’ while he was looking round for means of escape.
But if you are travelling business or first class you can escape this hell hole by going to your airline’s Club Lounge. They vary, some are an oasis of calm, others very different. I ended up as a lounge assistant after Cyberspouse’s attempts, while patrolling Heathrow, to find me a job that earned more than working in the local playgroup and didn’t involve computers. He came home and announced he had found a job where all I had to do was make coffee.
My interview, if you could call it that, was with a very nice manager and with hours 11am to 2.30pm in the Qantas Lounge catering for one morning flight, it sounded a dream; what I didn’t know was that the woman I had to work with was a right… and a real…
Qantas Lounge Terminal Three at that time (end of the twentieth century ) was down a quiet corridor, up some stairs, down an even quieter corridor. The Qantas staff on the desk were very pleasant and our job easy. Making coffee was simple, filter coffee dripping into a jug. We put out biscuits and served up ready made sandwiches at eleven o’clock. The passengers were friendly and of course spoke the same language. It was a homely place to be, a medium size business lounge with a quiet first class round the corner; lots of passengers bumped into friends.
Passenger/customer service is easy, all you have to do is treat them how you would like to be treated. The pettiness of my ‘colleague/boss’ was soon brought home when I made a tray of tea; teapot, milk jug, sugar. I added a pot of hot water so they could adjust the strength or top the pot up, which irked her greatly. Why? Passengers had paid plenty for their fare and a drop of hot water was no trouble for anyone. Fortunately she spent most of her time draped over the front desk chatting to the ‘the girls’ or on the phone in the kitchen chatting inanely to one or other of her twin daughters. I was happy to get on with all the table clearing etc. by myself.
There was one task I found myself doing which was certainly outside my comfort zone. One of the Qantas staff asked if I would mind ‘popping down to fetch the papers’; I innocently agreed. The incoming morning flight brought ‘The Australian’ newspaper, but to collect it involved going down in the pair of old lifts that I always avoided. Not only do I hate lifts, but I had seen them being mended enough times to not trust them. Even worse, like something out of Doctor Who, I was given the secret key that allowed the lift to go to depths passengers must not go. When the doors opened there was the bundle of newspapers waiting, but this was not the basement. There was a strong smell of kerosene; this was the outside, the real outside airside where planes park. I was terrified of being stranded down here, trying to reach the bundle of papers while keeping one foot in the lift doors so they wouldn’t close. When I finally made it back to the sanctuary of the lounge my colleague was ready with acid remarks that I was not supposed to have gone as it was not one of our jobs.
As usual at Heathrow things were changing and after a couple of years Qantas was moved over to Terminal 4, their passengers to share the British Airway Lounge. I didn’t lose my job, we were about to be absorbed into a different company and I was about to work longer hours and meet a lot more people.
A footnote. Qantas now has a new dedicated lounge in Terminal Three and from the pictures it looks a lot different from the old one.
What are you departure experiences at airports?