The dance of an industry


While sitting at O’Hare late one gray afternoon, I had time — lots of time — to observe the dance of airplane travel from twilight on into the night. O’Hare is one of America’s busiest airports, and the choreography of its dance is especially intricate and beautiful.

The steady airport rhythm beat. Aircraft pulled in and out of the gates; Jetways extended and retreated; cleaning crews boarded and carted off trash. Aircrews clambered onto aircraft; gate agents checked their passenger lists. Luggage rode up and down conveyor belts. Baggage carts circled the planes. Refueling trucks plugged hoses under aircraft wings. Catering trucks offloaded empty meal carts then loaded up new ones. Pilots walked through and around their planes, kicking the tires and giving a human once-over to machines already pampered by an army of mechanics.

Though invisible from the passenger area of the terminals, the dance continued behind the scenes. Pilots reviewed flight plans, checked the weather, picked up kit bags, looked at radar screens, and consulted with their crews. Meals and snacks were prepared, blankets washed, rugs vacuumed, dirty seat cushions changed, lavatories disinfected, seatbelts neatly crisscrossed on the seats. Security crews checked out each aircraft to certify it was ready to take to the air once again.

As I watched this airport dance through the plate-glass window that separated my climate- controlled world from the cold Chicago night, the airport lights began to glow brightly, and I realized that I love this world of airplane travel. It is a discernable yearning, and I am not the only one to feel it. The airline crews love airplane travel just as much as I do — perhaps even more. It’s in their blood. Almost every airline employee I know feels that swell of wonder each time the airplane takes off: “Gee whiz, we’re flying!” Whether it’s the first flight of a rookie flight attendant or the last flight of a veteran pilot, that magic seems never to die.

Even as the airlines go through tough financial times, the people who make the airlines go — the pilots, the flight attendants, the gate agents, the mechanics and the customer service representatives — all love the dance. They are the minds, bodies, love and determination that hold our airline system together.

I have many misgivings about the current management of U.S. airlines, but I raise my glass to the airline workers who get the airplanes off the ground and back home safely. I salute their commitment, I salute their teamwork, and I salute their loyalty — both to their airlines and to each other.

Like dancers — and like soldiers — people in the airline industry develop extraordinarily close bonds. They work under relentless pressure from the public and from management, and they work under strict time constraints. Unfortunately, they also work under the threat of terrorism. All this makes the dance difficult. As their love of flying becomes a test of courage, airline workers everywhere deserve our respect and support.