Where else can you find an organizational culture like the one that existed at Air Jamaica, later Caribbean Airlines? The level of teamwork that existed there is something that cannot fully be put into words. Everyone was so invested in working towards the goals of the airline. If you were scheduled to work check-in, quite likely after all the passengers were checked in you would voluntarily head to the gate to assist the agents assigned to boarding the flight. Where else do you find anyone doing more work than what is required of them? Everyone was just very willing and even though the personalities were quite different, and some rather extreme, for the most part, we all got along. It’s not often you find that. Even overtime wasn’t hard to get out of us. I don’t even think it was about the money. I think it was more that we just genuinely wanted to get the job done. As stressful as it sometimes could be I would have to say that thus far it is the job I most enjoyed. This was due largely to the individuals I worked with and also the fact that I love a job that instead of sticking me behind a desk, allows me to interact with people.
Like most others who worked there, I started off as a holiday worker; going every summer and Christmas. This is one organization that really acknowledged your efforts. If you were a good worker you could rest assured that your spot would be there every holiday, and later on you could easily ‘graduate’ to a permanent position. At the typical holiday job you don’t do very much but this is one that forced you to get involved and be hands on. I should probably take that back; a few persons were downright lazy and while the rest of us worked hard, they just showed up at work and collected a pay cheque for doing absolutely nothing. As expected, these persons were not invited to return. When I left university and began my job hunt I received a call from the Administrative department inquiring as to whether or not I had found a job yet. I was then invited to an interview and was successful.
To an outsider, we didn’t do much and we had it easy. They looked at the uniforms, the impeccable grooming, the perfectly done makeup and thought we just played dress up. Little did they know just how stressful our jobs could be. It’s maybe why persons like Michelle couldn’t start the day without a dose of coffee. There was never a dull moment working at Air Jamaica. How could there be when we interacted with such different personalities each day? When I say that I don’t only mean the passengers, but the staff as well. Let’s talk about the passengers. I worked in baggage very frequently. I guess that had to do with my personality. In baggage you have to deal with very irate persons and I’m always able to keep my cool and handle the situation effectively without being drawn into behaving like the angry passenger. Keep in mind that when we interacted with passengers at the baggage desk it is most likely NOT that they wanted to come over and tell us about the wonderful flight they had. No, they’re coming over because they’re hopping mad; their bag is short-shipped, it’s damaged, there’s something missing from it, etc. You then have a fuming person on your hands. Matters would get worse when we had to explain that they’re not seeing their bag at the carousel because it’s been left at their station of origin (it was even worse when we couldn’t guarantee it would be on the next flight). Oh, and throw in that the passenger is here for a funeral and the bag that has been left behind has the urn or the clothing to bury the body. Imagine it being Christmas Eve/Day and the passenger standing before you is far from amused because their short-shipped bag contains presents for their family.
We got so many different emotions from passengers. Sometimes they would start off quite calm and then suddenly fly into a rage or even start bawling. Speaking of that, there was a time when I was a temp that my co-worker Delora had to ‘save me’. I saw a quiet looking lady sitting on the carousel and wondered why no one was doing her report for her missing bag. I took it upon myself to go over there and fix that. Out of nowhere this seemingly quiet lady morphed into I don’t even know what to call it. Delora had to rush over and whisk me away. In true Delora fashion she asked, “You see that no one was assisting her. Mus’ be a reason. Weh yuh gone over there for? Suppose she knocked you over with your clipboard?” Lol. The police actually ended up escorting her from the Customs Hall.
There was one occasion where I really was almost physically assaulted at the baggage desk. I should add here that not one person came to my assistance; not the customs officers and not the airlifts who watched everything unfold, oh and not the police either who I know station operations had called upon hearing my request. Well here’s what happened. A gentleman came over to the baggage desk to inform me that he had not seen his bag at the carousel. The station he had departed from was usually on top of things as it related to advising us beforehand that there would be short-shipped bags. I had not gotten any reports of this so I called the chute to see if possibly the bag was still there and had not been sent over to the Customs Hall. They advised that it was not there. I then proceeded to break the news to the passenger. He began to tell me that he had been invited to Jamaica to speak at a conference because he was the only person in the Caribbean that grew coffee and made his own chocolate from it. I don’t know if this was true, but this is what he told me. He was being put up at the Ritz and all. He said the bag had chocolates in there and without them he would look rather foolish at this conference. Please note that he was calm this whole time. Maybe it really hit him that the bag was not there when I started to complete his report and was asking him for his information. He hit the roof! He had an object in his hand similar to what architects put their work in. He suddenly raised it above his head as though he were about to hit me, and started shouting and cursing. I of course backed away fearful that he was indeed going to hit me.
By this time I had the attention of everyone in the Customs Hall. I still remember seeing all the Customs officers at their stations with their mouths wide open. He then started laughing like a maniac and said, “Oh, I’m not going to hit you.” Oh how wonderful, I thought. At this point he started slapping himself repeatedly in the face until he was quite red and I started freaking out inside. Who slaps themselves? Only a crazy person, and this crazy person was standing right before me. If he did that to himself, what wouldn’t he do to me? Next he started saying, “You’re going to need to call the police, better yet call an ambulance.” Here came the maniacal laugh again. I started mapping out how I could run away to get as far away from him as possible him but there was no way I could do that without passing him so that was futile. All the episodes of Law and Order came to me. I presented myself as being very calm and started flattering him about how amazing it is that he grows his own coffee and the fact that he was flown here to speak at a conference speaks volumes about him. All this time I was smiling and moving things such as the stapler from within his reach for fear he would sail something at me. I continued smiling and quietly radioed station operations telling them I need the police in the Customs Hall. I ensured I had the radio turned down because I knew exactly what was going to happen…”You need the police in the Customs Hall? Copy, copy.” The last thing I needed was to upset the man further by alerting him that I had called the police. As I said, the police never came, neither did any of my co-workers who later said they had heard me on the radio but thought I had it covered. Thanks guys, and thanks to the two airlifts who were watching and assured me that if the man had laid a finger on me they would have rushed over. I remember saying to them, “Gee, I would have had to wait until he attacked me to get any assistance from you.”
Luckily I got the man to calm down and sent him on his way to the Customs officers. I was able to complete his report but I was trying to get him from in front of me as quickly as possible for my safety, and did not end up letting him sign a C27 (form given when passenger has unaccompanied luggage). The lovely Customs officers who had watched everything unfold sent him back to me to deal with the form. If I ever wanted to strangle them it was that day. Seriously? Sigh. Now would you believe that after all that it so happened that the bag really was at the chute; the same chute I had called and was told the bag was not there. Nearly mek mi reach di news. Can you see the headline? Crazy Passenger Kills Airline Worker Over ‘Missing’ Bag.
There was another occasion where I realized just how alarming being in the presence of angry passengers could be. It had been a really long day. There was a plane experiencing some mechanical difficulties. As such, maintenance was working on it and the flight therefore had to be delayed. It was delayed for several hours and it was only two of us as workers left there; my supervisor and I. I had not gotten to eat all day and finally in the night got a chance to go to the departure lounge and get myself something. Lo and behold, the passengers from the delayed flight spotted me and decided to close in on me. No exaggeration. There I was with my back against the Island Grill counter, tired and hungry, and they had formed a semi-circle around me. They were shouting their frustrations, asking when the flight would be leaving, shoving a baby in need of a diaper change in my face. Note to mothers, please travel with extra diapers and formula for your children. Things will happen from time to time and you should be equipped to deal with situations as they arise.
I radioed for an update, advised them of what I had been told and then proceeded to leave the departure lounge. If only it was that easy. They would not allow me to leave. I reminded them that outside of an update there was nothing further I could do. I made my way to the elevator and a male passenger shouted, “Follow her!” The crowd did just that. Just as quickly as I got into the elevator I saw passengers streaming into it too. They were determined to go wherever it was that I was going. There was no way I was going to get stuck in an elevator with them. I jumped back out and all but ran to the stairs. I angrily told the security guard who had watched the passengers ‘mob’ me that I was taking the stairs and she was NOT to let them follow me. Ughh all I wanted was some food. I ended up leaving without the food I had gone for. I had a muffin courtesy of my supervisor, Tina. It was her last day and probably one of the most stressful days she had ever had there. I bet she won’t forget her last day.
I have to say that working in baggage really prepares you to handle chaotic situations. I remember one day we were short staffed in baggage and my co-worker Schevon who worked mainly check-in was sent to assist me. What a day it was. The flight was drastically short-shipped and there was a throng of angry passengers at the desk. It was a little worse than usual. They were impatient being that there were only two of us and some of them found their way behind the baggage desk. Poor Schev not being used to such madness was trying to maintain order and get everyone back on the other side of the counter. “Sir, you cannot be around here!” “Mam, I cannot do your report until you get back on the other side of the desk!” Truth be told I was so used to the madness in baggage it was like nothing having them on the same side of the counter with me and everyone in my ear talking all at once. I just tackled the reports one by one. If I was Schev, after that day I wouldn’t have offered to help in baggage ever again lol.
I think the most irritated a passenger would get is when they came over to complain about a wheel or handle that had come off their suitcase, or a strap that had burst only to be met by, “I’m sorry, but we do not accept liability for wheels, handles, straps.” Yup, they looked just about ready to reach over the desk and strangle us. Thankfully most of my encounters with angry passengers would usually end with, “They know exactly why they put you to work here.” Whew, my personality saved the day. I forgot to mention the countless times passengers asked me if since their bag didn’t arrive on the flight, if I would be lending them my underwear. Good thing I never had any who in the midst of cursing would hoist their clothing to show that the underwear they have on is all they have. Some of my co-workers had that unsightly experience haha.
You also had passengers who would accidentally take someone else’s bag in error and leave theirs behind. Sometimes I could understand the mistake as in some cases the bags were identical. Persons really should check the name on the bag tag though. Other times I simply could not understand how it is that the person mistook the bag for their own. Sometimes it wasn’t even the same colour and even worse, sometimes, the person checked in a box and yet somehow ended up leaving the airport with a suitcase. Go figure. This would then lead to the baggage agents being forced to play detective and track down the passenger who had left with the wrong bag. Once I had a teenage passenger whose bag was taken by a gentlemen in error. I put extra effort into tracking down his bag because his mother who had come to pick him up and was outside waiting, was fuming. She was angry with her son although it was not his fault. I tried to calm her down over the phone. There was no number in the system for the gentleman but his reservation showed that he had traveled as part of a group with other men. Based on the names, they were all Chinese.
In true baggage detective form I went outside to see if they were still there and started asking JUTA drivers if a group of Chinese men had boarded a bus. I was told that a group had in fact left and was headed to Pegasus. I went back in and called the hotel. I said to the person who answered, “This is going to sound strange, but did you have a group of Chinese gentlemen check in?” His reply, “They’re checking in as we speak.” Problem solved! I was able to speak to the interpreter and make arrangements for the bag to be returned. Not all cases were this easy. We once had a passenger who had filled out a missing bag report and for a very long time we tried tracing the bag with no success (on the note of tracing bags, that was Michelle-Lee’s favourite thing to do). Would you believe that it turned out the bag had never left the passenger’s house? She informed us that when she returned it was right there in her house. She had forgotten to take it with her. After all that trouble. That was far better than when I had to inform a man that we had tracked down his bag…in the Middle East…he took it so well hearing his bag was loaded on the wrong flight and half way across the world. He actually laughed.
We came across all kinds of passengers. Once in a while we would encounter Spanish speaking ones. Thank goodness for Bridget and Tamara. I could help myself a bit but they were the stars. Their Spanish was amazing so they were our go to persons for assistance in these cases. You never knew who you would meet. I had the opportunity to meet a very nice deaf man who I’m happy I was around to help. My sign language is limited but I was able to get the information I needed from him to complete his report. Even now I receive text messages once in a while from him, checking in to see how I am doing.
In the sea of passengers I encountered over my time there, there is one I will never forget. I was meeting a flight and a lady had collapsed in the jet bridge. Sadly, she died. Later on when I met her husband in the customs hall my heart really went out to him. He told me that during the flight she had complained of a pain in her leg and that he was massaging it for her. It broke my heart for him even more when he said they were here for a funeral; her son’s father had died. He asked me, “How do I tell her son that he has lost his mother now?” Imagine that. Just imagine what an ordeal that is for anyone to face. I’ll never forget it.
I remember when we were transitioning to Caribbean Airlines and started using the new system. It started out as hell. This is a fast paced industry. Flights need to go out on time so there was no time to grow familiar with the system (and the quirks it had). The long line of passengers before you didn’t care whether or not this was a new system or that it would give you error messages even when doing the right thing. If there was ever a time I disliked check-in, it was during this period. Thankfully, things smoothed out. Everything that is except for adding an infant. If you worked there during the time the new system was being used, you know exactly what I’m referring to. I have to admit that I’ve been checking in passengers before, looked up and seen a family with an infant was next in line and suddenly had imaginary problems with my boarding pass printer that needed immediate tending to lol. That would save me from being the person stuck with checking them in. Confession is good for the soul, right? 🙂 Give me any problem but that. An impatient passenger is bad enough, but throw in one with a baby who just wants to hurry and be finished with the check-in process, and here you are trying everything you’ve been taught and looking incompetent because nothing is working.
Our passengers were rather entertaining. I’ve shared stories about them before on Facebook. You had the village scenario. This is where the entire community comes to the airport but it is really only one person traveling. Everyone had to play a part. Someone would hold the hand luggage, another would have the checked piece, someone else would be holding the passport and yet another person would be completing the immigration form. With so many persons standing before you, of course you would have to ask, “Who’s traveling?”
I can’t forget about our Informal Commercial Importers, or ICI’s as they were more commonly called. They were seasoned travelers and staunch supporters of the airline but when ready could be most difficult, and you had best know how to handle them. Our ICI’s knew the workings of things like the back of their hands. I really think if you put them behind the computer they would have known exactly how to work the system. They traveled so frequently that some of them felt entitled and would make all manner of demands. I remember one of our regulars saying to me, “Mek sure yuh nuh put anybody inna my row.” I of course reminded her I cannot guarantee that no one else will be placed in her row and told her this could only be done if it was she was traveling on her private jet. Sometimes you had to be a bit harsh with them. Good thing she took it well lol.
There were passengers who would appear at the counter and hand you their passport, all smiles and ready to check in for their flight. You would then search, and search, and search again but alas, they just were not on the flight. Why, you ask? Well, these passengers had not yet mastered army time and therefore their flight had left in the morning but here they were in the evening ready to check-in for a flight that had already gone. They would then be in complete shock when you informed them of their error and sent them on their way to the ticket office to rebook and pay the change fee. Many were upset, saying they would have never made a mistake like that. News flash, you did
You also had the passengers whose suitcases were overweight and when they opened them to see what could be taken out we would get all kinds of surprises. Once a lady opened her suitcase and I kid you not, all it had was bottles of water. She then started to explain that a friend had asked her to carry some water from a spring that was known to have healing properties. Hmm, okay then. There was also the particularly interesting case where standing before you waiting to check-in is an individual looking like a female, however the passport presented to you clearly has the face of a male, and a male name.
Speaking of water, after asking a passenger the security questions which included ascertaining if she had any liquids over three ounces in her hand luggage, she responded in the negative. A little later she returned to my counter saying that she was stopped at the checkpoint for having liquids. Remember I said she had responded in the negative, right? I couldn’t help but ask her why she had told me she didn’t have any liquids. Her simple response, “It’s not liquid. I froze it.” Oh, well that explains it. Others had suitcases that were overweight because they had all of the crops in Jamaica in there. I swear it was like they left nothing for us to consume. How in your packing do you not stop to think that a lot of breadfruit will account for a significant amount of weight? They would then plea with you, asking to just ‘gi dem a bligh.’ Not on my watch. I took weight and balance issues very seriously. Take them out or be prepared to pay for the excess weight. I said that as nicely as possible of course.
The takeover of Air Jamaica by Caribbean Airlines was a memorable period, but not necessarily for good reasons. I do believe that my co-workers and I took it well. We did not allow it to affect our professionalism and continued to execute our duties in the manner expected. Why should we have behaved in a manner less than? It happened, we got over it. We had a job to do. Our Trinidadian counterparts for the most part however did not seem at all pleased with the new arrangement. I’ve shared this before; that I had been told before that Trinis aren’t fond of Jamaicans and I thought it was wrong to say that and to generalize. Unfortunately, I came to see the truth behind the statement as my co-workers and I were met with rudeness and inappropriate comments repeatedly. It was always unnecessary. It made it an unpleasant experience and I remember never looking forward to meeting flights that had a Trinidadian crew because I never knew what was awaiting me, and this was from both flight attendants and pilots. To be fair, it wasn’t all of them who behaved like this. Some were quite nice, but majority gave the rest a bad name.
I used to like speaking in a Trini accent. It wasn’t to mock them. I like the accent and it just became something some of my co-workers and I would do for fun. On one day in particular, I had just come off a flight and saw my co-worker Gleniece who was working at the gate. I called out to her in a Trini accent and we began to converse in full character. She was my partner in crime when it came to that. As my luck would have it an actual Trini who was on the flight with me heard me and thinking I too was from Trinidad, began to speak to me about something happening there. She felt so comfortable she started to also tell me about her son who was getting married. Oh boy. I couldn’t keep speaking in the Trini accent for fear that she would realize I was a total fraud. I also couldn’t suddenly launch into my Jamaican accent. All I could do was nod and throw in some dramatic facial expressions.
Over the years, Air Jamaica had a rather tumultuous run as it pertains to redundancies. People came, and people went. You just knew that when you heard there would be a meeting at Morgan’s Harbour that you should prepare for bad news. It meant the chopping block was being taken out again. Caribbean Airlines then carried on the tradition and soon we were all sent home. I remember telling myself that had they not done that, most of us would have grown complacent and stayed there for years to come, not attempting to see if there was better out there for us. It was quite easy to grow complacent in that job. We were taken to and from work and we had great travel benefits. We could go away for the day if we felt like it. I could decide I wanted to spend the day shopping at the mall in Fort Lauderdale. It was simple; hop on the first flight out and come back on the last flight in. The pay wasn’t bad either. It wasn’t a million dollars but you could be comfortable enough on it. With all these perks you therefore wouldn’t have been quick to see what else was out there. I don’t know what being sent home has done for everyone else but it forced me out of my comfort zone and caused me to tap into and develop other talents I have, ones I wouldn’t have realized I have had I not left there.
I didn’t just form memories, but also friendships. Some of the people I am closest to are my former co-workers from Air Jamaica. Some of them have had my back during some very difficult times in my life and I appreciate them so much for that. To this day I have maintained a close relationship with some. These are persons I spent so much of my time with. Even on Christmas Day and New Years Eve, these are the people I celebrated with. A holiday for everyone else was just another day at work for us. I remember being on the late shift on New Year’s Eve and Yannique organizing an impromptu ‘party’. We ate KFC and even had music as we could hear the music booming from the Renaissance party at the Palisadoes go-kart track next door to the airport. We raced up to the jet bridge so that we could see and enjoy the fireworks from another party (I believe it was French Connection) at midnight.
Most people can’t wait to get away from their co-workers but we were more than that to each other; we were friends. My sister who left there around ten years ago has remained friends with persons from her days at Air Jamaica. Take a scroll through photos on Facebook and you’ll see just how much a part of each others lives we are. We celebrate together, we cry together. We’ve even had relationships form as a result of working there. Getting involved with persons at work is something you’re always discouraged against doing and for obvious reasons, but the heart wants what the heart wants. Air Jamaica has produced countless relationships, some of which in turn produced children and even marriages.
It may have ended on a sour note, but we shared some good times together that won’t be forgotten. Air Jamaica may no longer be the ‘bird’ that soars in the sky but it remains in our memories.
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