Years of Employment with Pan Am 1980 - 1991

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So it came to pass that in June of 1980 I succeeded in getting my first job at Pan Am as a temporary Passenger Service Agent at JFK in New York.  Over the summer of 1980 Pan Am was upgrading its airport customer check-in computers.  Regular staff were being taken off the floor for training and Pan Am decided to hire five temporary agents to take the pressure off the remaining floor staff.  Above Pan Am's WorldPort at JFK circa 1982.

After one week of basic training I was assigned a 3 - 11 pm shift with Monday / Tuesday off.  My first assignment was at the General Service Counter.  This was a desk outside of the Customs Hall that offered assistance to domestic customers and friends & family waiting for customers to come out from the arrivals Customs Hall.  During training we had been told to be sure not to be left alone at the General Service Counter during our first few weeks on the job as the public could be rather aggressive.

Things went very well for the first few hours at the General Service Counter as I was surrounded by two or three senior colleagues able to assist me with questions beyond my knowledge.  Then break & lunch rotations began.  The counter supervisor didnít realize this was my first day and though he and my other colleagues informed me before they departed I was so involved with the customers that I didnít realize the dwindling numbers.  A few minutes later a customer asked me a questions for which I did not know the answer.  I turned to my left to ask a colleague for help and there was nobody.  I turned to the right for help and there was nobody.  I was alone. 

I smiled at the customers across the counter, apologized and told them that this was my first day of work on the floor and that I would have to call another desk to get them an answer.  I did call back to the support desk and got the information that the customers needed.  You can imagine that there were several more calls to the support desk over the next few minutes until my colleagues began to drift back from their breaks. 

Winding up alone at the General Service Counter was an important few minutes for me.  I had to improvise a solution for my situation.  While terrifying in the moment it gave me confidence and self-reliance going forward.  I would learn over time that self-reliance was a Pan Am corporate virtue and only those who took initiative would thrive in the organization.

Though unnerving to be alone at the General Service Counter once I took the initiative to work things out I found my colleagues at the support desk to be very helpful and supportive.  While I may have been alone for a few minutes I still felt part of a team.  I really loved that feeling.

Two final thoughts on winding up alone at the General Service Counter, first, the public was really kind and patient with me when I admitted that it was my first day.  Second, I have never forgotten people's kindness and have always gone out of my way to be gentle with earnest workers who are clearly new.
To the left is this young Passenger Service agent on the roof of Pan Am's WorldPort at JFK circa 1980.

Though I thought Iíd had enough excitement for my first day at the General Service Counter things got even more ďinterestingĒ after my mid-shift meal break.  At about 6 pm the General Service Counter started to get quiet as most international and all domestic flights had arrived for the night.  As there were still two more international flights due I was reassigned to the Customer Service Counter in the US Customs Hall.

The first flight was Avianca from Columbia.  Pan Am had a long standing relationship with Avianca going back to the airlines founding and was still the ground handler for the company in New York.  On this particular evening a young woman with baby in arms arrived on the flight.  She didnít speak a word of English and was without proper documentation to enter the US.  The US Immigration Officers determined that she would have to be deported and a Pan Am Supervisor was called over to sort things out.  The supervisor enlisted my help to round up the womanís luggage and escort her back to the aircraft which would be returning to Columbia in about 90 mintues.

This particular Supervisor, was German.  Though bright, young and attractive she was on an involuntary transfer from Cargo Sales and was going to make both customers and colleagues pay for her personal unhappiness.  Being relatively new in her position as well she made a technical error of tying to send the customerís suitcase back to the ramp to be reloaded on the Columbia bound aircraft before US Customs had cleared the suitcase into the country.

The Supervisorís rationale was that if the woman and child werenít going to enter the country why would Customs need to inspect their luggage.  Though her thinking made ďcommon senseĒ US Customs saw it differently. 
The law required the luggage to be cleared into the country before it could be taken out again.  Rather than apologizing to the Customís Officer for the error the young Supervisor decided to argue the point.  The loud voices caused other Customs agents to come over to the counter.  

With all the loud voices and men in uniform surrounding her as she did not speak a word of English the poor woman passenger became frightened and began to cry.  However, the Supervisor and the Customs agents were too busy arguing to notice.  When I tried to point this out to the Supervisor she very tersely told me to ďcool it.Ē  This would not be the last time I spoke out at Pan Am or the last time I would get slapped down.  Luckily, Iíve got a pretty thick skin.

Eventually the loud voices died down and I again appealed to the supervisor to locate a Spanish speaking agent who could explain to the woman what was happening.  This request was approved and luckily there was a very nice agent named Dave Ibarra on duty in the back office who came out and translated the bad news for the woman but at least was able to reassure the passenger that she would not be going to jail and there was no need to cry.  Dave then agreed to bring her up to the gate for the return flight to Columbia.

Is my shift over yet?  To the right Pan Am's JFK international arrivals facility circa 1980.

Our next and final arrival of the day was Pan Am flight 103.  Though flight 103 would later be associated with the Lockerbie terrorist bombing back in the summer of 1980 it was Pan Amís third flight of the day from London to New York.  Though scheduled to arrive JFK at 7:05pm on this particular night the flight was delayed over 3 hours.  A flight attendant led the customers into the Customís Hall.  I asked her if there were any particular issues I should be aware of with the delay.  Without stopping she calmly said, ďyou have nothing to worry about these people are beyond pain.Ē

For many years Pan Am had required a second language for flight attendants and preferred to hire ground staff with the same skills.  My second language was French.  You would think there wouldnít be much use for a French speaker on a flight from London.  However, on this night there was a large group of French tourists on the flight who had connected to Pan Am in London.
In the summer of 1980 there was a small entry request form completed in duplicate that non US citizens had to fill out and present along with a valid passport to the Immigration Officer in order to be permitted into the United States.  The form was handed out in-flight prior to arrival at JFK so customers could have it completed before entering the Customís Hall.  The top sheet of the form was chemically treated on the underside so that any writing on the top sheet would automatically copy onto the bottom sheet.

It was Pan Amís responsibility to pass off to the Immigration Officers customers whoís US entry request form was both complete and legible.  Any empty boxes or scratchy writing would elicit a loud ďPan AmĒ from the Officer reviewing the offending customerís form.  The Pan Am agents on duty in the Customís Hall would run from Immigration station to station helping customers fill in various blank boxes on the form.  A forgotten flight number, a final destination address,  a clarification of name order sequence on the form were the majority of questions that the Pan Am agents answered.  Occasionally, a form would have to be torn up and started over but not often.

As luck would have my first night in the Customís Hall a batch of old arrival forms had been loaded on flight 103 out of London and very little of the top page had imprinted onto the bottom page.  In the case of English speaking customers the Immigration Officers would just ask them to fill in the bottom sheet.  However, the French customers didnít understand the request.  Apparently, none of the Immigration Officers on duty spoke French and suddenly like popcorn in the microwaive there was a chorus of ďPan Am, Pan Am, Pan AmĒ echoing around the Customís Hall.  Though there were several Pan Am agents on duty with me I was the only French speaker.  So, I ran from station to station as fast as I could trying to explain to the customers what they needed to do to get in the country.

Most customers rallied and began to complete the bottom sheet of the entry form but one gentleman decided to share his thoughts with me.  Obviously on his first trip to America, which wasnít going too well between his delayed flight and faulty form he told me, ďall my life I heard about how great America is.  Well, at least in France our carbon paper works!Ē

Once we got all the customers through immigration and Customs we then had to arrange overnight accommodations for most of the French customers who had missed an onward connection.  This gave me lots of practice in filling out hotel and meal vouchers but we got through it.  Eventually, everybody was on their way to a hotel and my first shift was finally over.

About two weeks later I was meeting a flight inbound from Los Angeles.  As I directed customers to baggage claim and connecting flights a little woman came up to me and asked me in French if I remembered her.  I didnít, but thought it kinder to lie so I said I did.  She smiled and told me that she had arrived on the late flight from London on my first day of work.  She said I had been kind and helped her contact her family in Los Angeles when she didnít know how to use an American pay phone.  Itís funny, Iíd felt like I hadnít done enough for my customers and one of them felt I had gone above and beyond the call of duty.  I really appreciated her taking the time to say hello and thank me again.
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