Page 31 of Airport


Mel inspected the cause of complaint. At the Avis counter a bold display card read:

A SHINE WHILE YOU SIGN

With Our Compliments

* * *

We’re Trying Harder Still!

Beneath, at floor level, was a rotating electric shoe polisher, positioned so that anyone standing at the counter could do what the notice said.

Mel was half amused; the other half of his mind accepted Egan Jeffers’ complaint. Half-kidding or not, Jeffers was within his rights. His contract spelled out that no one else at the airport could shine shoes, just as Jeffers himself could not rent cars or sell newspapers. Each concessionaire received the same kind of protection in return for the substantial portion of his profits which the airport appropriated for itself.

With Egan Jeffers watching, Mel crossed to the car-rental booth. He consulted his pocket panic list–a slim booklet containing private telephone numbers of senior airport personnel. The Avis manager was listed. The girl behind the counter switched on an automatic smile as he approached. Mel instructed her, “Let me use your phone.”

She protested, “Sir, it’s not a public…”

“I’m the airport manager.” Mel reached across, picked up the telephone and dialed. Not being recognized in his own airport was a frequent experience. Most of Mel’s work kept him behind scenes, away from public areas, so that those who worked there seldom saw him.

Listening to the ringing tone, he wished that other problems could be settled as swiftly and simply as this one was going to be.

It took a dozen rings, then several minutes more of waiting, before the Avis manager’s voice came on the line. “Ken Kingsley here.”

“I might have needed a car,” Mel said. “Where were you?”

“Playing with my kid’s trains. Take my mind off automobiles–and people who call me about them.”

“Must be great to have a boy,” Mel said. “I just have girls. Is your boy mechanically minded?”

“An eight-year-old genius. Any time you need him to run that toy airport of yours, let me know.”

“Sure will, Ken.” Mel winked at Egan Jeffers. “There is one thing he might do now. He could set up a shoeshine machine at home. I happen to know where there’s one surplus. So do you.”

There was a silence, then the Avis manager sighed. “Why is it you guys always want to stifle a little honest sales promotion?”

“Mostly because we’re mean and ornery. But we can make it stick. Remember that contract clause?–any change in display space must have prior approval of airport management. Then there’s the one about not infringing on other lessees’ business.”

“I get it,” Kingsley said. “Egan Jeffers has been beefing.”

“Let’s say he isn’t cheering.”

“Okay, you win. I’ll tell my people to yank the damn thing. Is there any fat rush?”

“Not really,” Mel said. “Any time in the next half hour will do.”

“You bastard.”

But he could hear the Avis man chuckling as he hung up.

Egan Jeffers nodded approvingly, his wide grin still in place. Mel brooded: I’m the friendly airport fun man; I make everybody happy. He wished he could do the same thing for himself.

“You handled that A-OK, Bakersfeld,” Jeffers said. “Just stay on the ball so it don’t happen again.” At a businesslike pace, still beaming, he headed for the “up” escalator.

Mel followed more slowly. On the main concourse level, at the Trans America counters, a milling crowd was in front of two positions marked:

Special Check-in

Flight Two - The Golden Argosy

Rome Nonstop

Nearby, Tanya Livingston was talking animatedly with a group of passengers. She signaled Mel and, after a moment or two, came over to join him.

“I mustn’t stop; it’s like a madhouse here. I thought you were going downtown.”

“My plans changed,” Mel said. “For that matter, I thought you were going off duty.”

“The D.T.M. asked if I’d stay. We’re trying to get The Golden Argosy away on time. It’s supposed to be for prestige, though I suspect the real reason is, Captain Demerest doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

“You’re letting prejudice carry you away.” Mel grinned. “Though sometimes I do, too.”

Tanya gestured down the concourse to a raised platform with a circular counter surrounding it, a few yards from where they were standing. “That’s what your big fight with your brother-in-law was all about; why Captain Demerest is so mad at you. Isn’t it?”

Tanya was pointing to the airport’s insurance-vending booth. A dozen or more people were ranged around the circular counter, most of them completing application forms for air trip insurance. Behind the counter, two attractive girls, one a striking blonde with big breasts, were busy writing policies.

“Yes,” Mel acknowledged, “that was most of our trouble–at least, recently. Vernon and the Air Line Pilots Association think we should abolish insurance booths at airports, and insurance policy vending machines. I don’t. The two of us had a battle about it in front of the Board of Airport Commissioners. What Vernon didn’t like, and still doesn’t, is that I won.”

“I heard,” Tanya looked at Mel searchingly. “Some of us don’t agree with you. This time we think Captain Demerest is right.”

Mel shook his head. “Then we’ll have to disagree. I’ve been over it all so many times; Vernon’s arguments just don’t make sense.”

They hadn’t made any more sense–in Mel’s opinion–that day a month ago, at Lincoln International, when Vernon Demerest had appeared before an Airport Commissioners meeting. Vernon requested the hearing, and had represented the Air Line Pilots Association, which was waging a campaign to outlaw insurance vending at airports everywhere.

Mel remembered the details of the session clearly.

It was a regular Board of Airport Commissioners meeting, on a Wednesday morning in the airport board room. Ali five commissioners were present: Mrs. Mildred Ackerman, an attractive brunette housewife who was rumored to be a mistress of the mayor, hence her appointment; and her four male colleagues–a university professor, who was Board chairman, two local businessmen, and a retired union official.

The Board room was a mahogany paneled chamber, in the terminal, on the executive mezzanine. At one end, on a raised platform, the commissioners sat in reclining leather chairs behind a handsome elliptical-shaped table. At a lower level was a second table, less elaborate. Here Mel Bakersfeld presided, flanked by his department heads. Alongside was a press table and, at the rear, a section for the public, since Board meetings were nominally open. The public section was rarely occupied.

Today the only outsider, apart from commissioners and staff, was Captain Vernon Demerest, smartly attired in Trans America uniform, his four gold stripes of rank bright under the overhead lights. He sat waiting in the public section, with books and papers spread over two other chairs beside him. Courteously, the Board elected to hear Captain Demerest first, ahead of its regular business.

Demerest rose. He addressed the Board with his usual self-assurance, and referred only occasionally to his notes. He was appearing, he explained, on behalf of the Air Line Pilots Association, of which he was a local council chairman. However, the views he would expound were equally his own, and were shared by most pilots of all airlines.

The commissioners settled back in their reclining chairs to listen.

Airport insurance vending, Demerest began, was a ridiculous, archaic hangover from flying’s early days. The very presence of insurance booths and machines, their prominence in airport concourses, were insults to commercial aviation, which bad a finer safety record, in relation to miles traveled, than any other form of transportation.

In a railway station or bus depot, or on boarding an ocean liner, or driving his own car from a parking garage, did a departing traveler have special insurance policies, against death and mutilation, thrust beneath his nose with subtle sales pressure? Of course not!

Then why aviation?

Demerest answered his own question. The reason, he declared, was that insurance companies knew a rich bonanza when they saw it, “and never mind the consequences.”

Commercial aviation was still sufficiently new so that many people thought of traveling by air as hazardous, despite the provable fact that an individual was safer in a commercial airliner than in his own home. This inherent mistrust of flying was magnified on the exceedingly rare occasions when an airline accident occurred. The impact was dramatic, and obscured the fact that far more deaths and injuries occurred in other, more accepted ways.

The truth about the safety of flying, Demerest pointed out, was attested by insurance companies themselves. Airline pilots, whose exposure to air travel was far greater than that of passengers, could buy standard life insurance at regular rates and, through their own group plans, at even lower rates than the general populace.

Yet other insurance companies, abetted by greedy airport managements, and with the docile acquiescence of airlines, continued to batten on the fears and gullibility of air travelers.

Listening, at the staff table, Mel conceded mentally that his brother-in-law was making a lucid presentation, though the reference to “greedy airport managements” had been unwise. The remark had produced frowns from several of the five commissioners, including Mrs. Ackerman.

Vernon Demerest seemed not to notice. “Now, madam and gentlemen, we come to the most significant, the vital point.”

This, he declared, was the very real danger, to every air passenger and to all flying crews, created by irresponsible, casual sales of insurance policies at airport counters, and by vending machines… “policies promising vast sums, fortunes, in return for a mere few dollars’ premium.”

Demerest continued heatedly: “The system–if you choose to dignify a public disservice by calling it a system… and most pilots don’t–offers a gilt-edged, open invitation to maniacs and criminals to engage in sabotage and mass murder. Their objectives need be only the simplest: personal reward for themselves or their expected beneficiaries.”

“Captain!” The woman commissioner, Mrs. Ackerman, was leaning forward in her chair. From her voice and expression, Mel guessed she was doing a slow burn about the “greedy airport managements” remark. “Captain, we’re hearing a whole lot of your opinions. Do you have any facts to back up all this?”

“Indeed I do, madam. There are many facts.”

Vernon Demerest had prepared his case thoroughly. Using charts and graphs, he demonstrated that known in-flight disasters caused by bombings or other acts of violence averaged one and one half per year. Motives varied, but a consistent, prevalent cause was financial gain from flight insurance. As well, there had been additional bombing attempts which either failed or were prevented, and other disasters where sabotage was suspected but not proved.

He named classic incidents: Canadian Pacific Airlines, 1949 and 1965; Western Airlines, 1957; National Airlines, 1960 and a suspected sabotage in 1959; two Mexican airlines, 1952 and 1953; Venezuelan Airlines, 1960; Continental Airlines, 1962; Pacific Air Lines, 1964; United Air Lines, 1950, 1955, and a suspected sabotage in 1965. In nine of the thirteen incidents, all passengers and crew members perished.

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