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Will Work for Airfare

Posted on: August 31st, 2012 by wendy No Comments

With Labor Day coming up, I’d like to share a Memoiry someone sent me about one of her first jobs:

Long before airline travel included security screenings and baggage fees, my mother got me a summer job answering phones for the British airline, Laker Airways. This was in 1978, and I had just finished my freshman year of college.

Some of you may remember Laker Airways, and its founder, Sir Freddie Laker.
I worked in the office in Queens, New York, answering questions about the company’s low budget service between New York and London called Skytrain. The concept was simple, but unique enough that it required some explanation. That’s where I came in. I worked with several other people at a phone bank, which was basically a table, some folding chairs, and three or four phones in the administrative office next to the ticket office. We worked in overlapping shifts, 10-6 or 2-10, alternating each week. The phones rang pretty much non-stop.

We were given a basic schpiel: Two flights a day, 8 pm and 11 pm non-stop from JFK to London’s Gatwick Airport. One-way tickets cost $150 and could only be purchased on the day of travel. No reservations and no round-trip or advanced purchase. Travelers simply showed up at the ticket office on the day they wanted to fly, bought their tickets and were taken by bus to the airport.

Usually, callers just asked how it worked and I would recite my information. Then they would ask me questions. This was my first real exposure to The General Public, and it was more than a little discouraging. Day after day of people asking me, “Is that 8 pm in the morning?” or confusing pounds, as in the price of the ticket in British currency, with the weight allowance for luggage, I began to worry about the future of the human race. Many times, after I explained everything in great detail, the person who called would ask me to repeat it all for his or her son, daughter, wife, husband, or Aunt Susie, who was actually the person traveling. Other times, the whole family would be on their various extensions, all asking me questions at once.

After a few hours of this every day, we would start to get a little goofy. Sometimes we would pick up the phone and just burst out laughing, which was highly unprofessional. Sometimes, we would get as far as saying “Laker Airways, may I help you?” before the uncontrollable fits of laughter began – that was much, much worse. Occasionally, someone would not like the answers we gave them (they didn’t want to wait in line all day; they wanted a reservation) and they would ask to speak to a manager. At that point we would just hand the phone to whichever of us at the table was available. When that person told them the exact same thing, they were generally satisfied.

Someone clearly underestimated the popularity of cheap airfare to Europe in the summer. Crowds of people would show up, forming lines that extended out the building and down the block. Those expecting to backpack around Europe found themselves camping on Queens Boulevard, sometimes for more than a day. At the height of the travel season, it became quite a party.

The next step up from answering the phone was ticket agent – a highly coveted position for some of my co-workers because it came with the promise of free airfare. I, however, was going back to school in the fall. I did save all the money I earned there for my own four-week backpacking adventure around Europe the following summer. I did not take Laker Airways (which went bankrupt a few years later).

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