Since the dawn of this new century my basic day job has been to serve as a tower area coordinator for a major airline based in Atlanta. Stationed in one of the concourse towers at the world's busiest airport, I attempt to coordinate ground servicing for flights arriving into, and departing from, the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Every last detail for each flight in the zone to which I'm assigned is my responsibility. My customers include the traveling public, albeit indirectly, as I deal behind the scenes with gate agents, ramp agents, crew members and all other agents associated with fuel, catering, security, maintenance, baggage, cargo, the transport of human organs for transplant and anything else affecting - or affected by - the flights in my area.
I've always thought that what I do for the airline approximates, as closely as anything else can, what I did for 26 years as a teacher and coach in the public schools. Any issue affecting the traveling public or the team members I'm coordinating becomes my responsibility. So I communicate the information to the team, using a little positive reinforcement to teach those who need a little help along the way, and thus vicariously live the dream of the coach, up in the press box orchestrating the overall game plan.
Sounds good, doesn't it?
Yeah, well, the reality is a little different. There was a time when working for the airlines was glamorous, indeed. Back when the federal government regulated air travel, airlines were stable, prosperous, mostly well-run companies that provided good wages, incredible benefits including free travel worldwide, and pensions for comfortable retirement.
But deregulation changed the rules in the aviation business, just as it did in the trucking and communications industries. The good times came to a screeching halt amid mergers, buyouts and bankruptcies. Young folks aspiring to work for an airline can still do so, but will start at wages so low they'll have to work a second job to make ends meet. They'll have travel benefits, but as their airline decreases seating capacity to more closely match revenue passenger loads, they'll find it difficult to find a free, empty seat on any flight. And with their low salaries, they won't be able to afford to go many places, anyway.
In a cost-cutting move, my airline recently made available to the rank-and-file two packages for early exits, which will help the company downsize its work force. I qualify for one of the programs, so in the very near future will be able to tell folks that I am "a former airline employee."
What will I do? Well, I don't really know. But I do know I won't be driving like a madman in heavy traffic every day trying to get to and from the Atlanta airport. So for now, at least until the severance pay runs out, I'm planning to sit on the back porch in my favorite chair, sip coffee as the sun comes up, and watch the birds, squirrels, chipmunks and my wife's dog frolic in the back yard.
This amazing turn of events has brought about a nearly staggering array of revelations and epiphanies. Still treasuring memories from each school I taught in dating back to 1973, from personal experience I concentrate on every detail of my daily routine now. There are things I won't care to remember, but there are other things I don't want to forget, either.
As the days dwindle down to a precious few remaining in my airline career, I try not to miss the sunrise when I'm working in the operations tower at Hartsfield-Jackson. When I see a 747 landing, or starting his takeoff roll, I stop what I'm doing long enough to watch him. And unless Alzheimer's is in my future, I'll always remember the view looking north from E Tower of the downtown Atlanta skyline, with Stone Mountain on my 2 o'clock.
But this week it hit me that in a very short while I will be in possession of what I've decided to label UBOK - my acronym for "Useless Body Of Knowledge." Let me try to explain.
Over the course of all the years I've spent learning how to do my job with whatever degree of expertise I think I have, I've accumulated an amazing amalgamation of vital information.
For example, I know by heart about two dozen phone numbers which connect me to places like crew scheduling, baggage recheck, lost-and-found, the staging area for unaccompanied minors, airport security, maintenance control, flight control and even long-distance numbers for those entities with other airlines with which I deal on a daily basis.
I know how to access my company's general computer index, which links me instantly to every station, every computer terminal, and every employee world-wide. I can find out anything about any location to which my airline flies, including real-time local weather, or how much the dollar is worth there.
Included in my UBOK is how to pull up flight releases, fuel loads and crew member's names. To stay informed, I always, always have at least two radio channels up, and normally have four running through my headset. Throw in the phone lines, the computer messages, the constant monitoring and updating of a minimum of 10 real-time data bases on a normal shift, and you start to understand my approach to multi-tasking. Oh, yeah, I may be old, but I'm not dead yet. If ever you needed a dedicated tower area coordinator, well buddy, I'd be your man.
But the day I come down those tower steps for the last time, what happens to all that vital knowledge? Where does that encyclopedic conglomeration of expertise go? That's right, it becomes useless. It becomes my UBOK - my very own Useless Body Of Knowledge. All the vital stuff I've learned over the years, stuff you cannot buy in any store at any price, will be of absolutely no use any longer.
So, in the greater sense of serving humanity to the fullest extent possible, I thought that today I'd share a little bit of what will soon be my UBOK. Should you find it necessary to visit the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, I trust that some of this will help you.
Let's start with security in the main terminal.If you're in a serious hurry and the lines are backed up through the atrium, consider walking through the north terminal and heading east. At the end of the ticket counter is a smaller, lesser known security gate serving primarily the T-gates. Normally you can get through that portal in no time flat, take the escalator down to the train lobby, and be on the people-mover heading to your departure gate while the other folks are still in the atrium lines.
Now let's talk about the people-mover train. Your choice of train cars in which to ride should always be predicated upon the concourse to which you're headed. For example, if you're going all the way out to Concourse E, you need to ride in the first car and preferably by the first door. That's because the escalators will be immediately on your right, and you'll beat the other four cars of passengers up the escalator if you're in that first car.
However, if Concourse D is your destination, you want to be in the last car by the last door, as the escalators are on your left.
Concourse C? Ride the next-to-last car, last door, for the one and only escalator is directly across the lobby to your left, and if you don't step lively you'll still be number 200 in line for it.
After your trip, when baggage claim is your destination, you'll want to be in the first car, first door, on the westbound side of any train lobby.
Now let's consider food at Hartsfield-Jackson. First, be sure to take out a loan before eating at any airport. Having secured the funding, however, you'll find a fairly wide selection of choices in the food court on Concourse E. Usually there's a baby grand player piano cranking out tunes there, and it's a nice place to do some people-watching while you eat. And just east of the food court you'll find an art gallery featuring the works of school children from throughout Georgia.
If watching planes take off against the backdrop of the Atlanta skyline sounds attractive, you'll want to head to the north end of Concourse D.
There you have a wall of windows looking directly out at the north runways, with Atlanta in the background. It's my hope that these little tips will help you in some small way should your travel plans include the Atlanta airport. Be that as it may, however, let me clue you in on something I've discovered which, to me at least, is a little more significant.
I've discovered that the reason my airline experiences will transform into a UBOK is because the airline job is, in the end, nothing more than just a job. The truth is - anybody can do it.
Cutting costs is more important to the company than retaining dedicated, experienced, expert professionals. The overall operation will suffer when the experienced walk out the door and a tenderfoot is plugged in, but so what? It's just a job. Conversely, I've re-discovered that I still remember everything I ever learned about teaching social studies and coaching. And that'd be because teaching and coaching is what life's all about. Teachers nurture lives and touches the future.
Teachers, too, have their own version of UBOK. But the acronym stands for a different phrase. A teacher's UBOK represents a "Useful Body Of Knowledge," and instead of vaporizing, it always remains viable.
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.