In a Heathrow hotel conference room the tables were scattered with a host of battery operated furry creatures; this apparently was to ‘break the ice’. British Airways was paying for our catering company to attend a course of several events on passenger service, quite amusing as British Airways needed to learn about passenger service, not us – in my opinion. It was we who had to soothe the troubled brows of passengers by the time they had made it to the business class or first class lounges.
We didn’t need the ice broken as we were already relaxed and chatting to friends and fellow staff we hadn’t met before; a good chance for a natter without being interrupted by passengers. Being paid to have a day off with coffee and lunch instead of being at work, what was there not to like?
My first job as a lounge hostess had ended when the Qantas Lounge ceased to exist and Qantas moved over to Terminal Four. The lounge was now British Airways, used for flights to the USA and unless you noticed the kangaroos on the glass screens you would never know. The first class lounge became the quiet area and first class passengers had their own little lounge downstairs – at least they didn’t have to cope with the awful lift. We now worked for a much larger catering company who were subcontracted to work for a variety of airlines. Our new uniform consisted of a comfortable blouse and elasticated skirt which adapted itself to any figure, the fabric design was a multi coloured jigsaw pattern which also hid a multitude of sins. The navy jacket made it look quite smart, but my younger son was horrified and said ‘You’re not going wear that on the bus are you!’ On the bus and anywhere on the airport, we could easily spot who else worked for the same company, though the chaps wore white shirt and grey trousers with just a tie in the zingy pattern.
A cleaning company was also contracted to work alongside us, ‘Airspeed,’ a contradiction in terms for some of their staff, such as the lugubrious Raymond who became a permanent fixture. On the front desk a variety of British Airways staff rotated, some very efficient and passenger orientated, others not quite so; they provided us with great amusement, but probably not the passengers. One was an alcoholic who had easy access to the two bars and liked ‘orange juice’. His announcements when he called the flight were most entertaining; his exhortations not to leave anything behind and have passport and ticket ready came with colourful warnings of what might happen if you did not. Another staff member was always on the phone and her easily heard telephone conversations were interesting, with the added frisson of worrying if the passengers were listening. One morning I heard her say within easy earshot of passengers ‘We’ve got a right load of trailer trash in here today.’
The passengers were lovely friendly, polite Americans who said ‘Thankyou Maam’ plus an assortment of Brits and others.
The first manager we met said he was ‘running eighty per cent Pilipino’ and without the hardworking Pilipinos I imagine the lounges wouldn’t have run at all. We didn’t see this manager often and he hardly spoke to me until he discovered it was my husband who was the licensing officer for Heathrow and he needed to be interviewed by him to get the licence for the lounge to serve alcohol.
Our immediate manager was an Indian bundle of energy who had his own unorthodox way of running things, which worked with our wonderfully mixed staff. He was never without his large diary and mobile phone; if anyone was off sick, or needed to change shifts he was on the phone and in seconds had a replacement. There were always people happy to do overtime or do him a favour because he would help them out in turn. Some of the Philipinos worked every day without a break and saved all their holidays and days off to go ‘back home’ for three months each year, often investing their savings in property in the Philippines. Some staff were supporting all sorts of family members and needed the extra money, while others obviously preferred being at work to being at home. Heathrow airside and no doubt any big airport, is a world of its own, cut off from the rest of the world.
I started off with no intention of doing overtime or being whisked off to other lounges and terminals, but gradually I found myself doing just that and discovering that each lounge and airline could be very different… but that’s for another blog.
And what of our passenger service course? We also enjoyed a dinner out at another hotel where we had to rate the service and one to one coffee, cake and chats. They were asking us for our opinions, taking down all our suggestions for improving life for us and the passengers. None of our suggestions were ever acted on , but at least we had had fun.