A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

January 2008

The Airport Underground Society

An airport is an intriguing place to spend time.  Any airport, big or small.   The big ones, like Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and so on, offer some of the most fascinating ‘people scenery’ you’ll find. Unlike a shopping mall, the clientele at an airport offers more diversity, mystery, wonder.  People from all over the world arrive, and locals depart.   Most appear to be in a hurry, stressed.  So stressed in fact, that statistically, you’re more likely to have a heart attack while you’re at an airport than any other place outside of a hospital.  And incidentally,  the third most likely place is on a golf course.

Flying into and out of a major airport affords pilots a look at some of the inside workings and secrets other members of the public rarely see. I always enjoy a good stroll through the terminals, just watching the people. But I was even more fortunate to be stationed as a first-response paramedic at Vancouver (YVR) for a period of six years. The people-watching became somewhat routine within the first twelve months.However, there is always lots more to see. U.S. Customs and Border Protection was always a good spot. Their officers have a reputation for being hard-nosed, particularly since 9-11.  Their security is at high levels, and they don’t fool around. Sometimes their own citizens are refused entry and find themselves unable to get back home.  I wondered where these people went after being bounced out the door back into the Canadian side.  But I had little sympathy ... they knew the rules.

Canadian Customs and Immigration on the other hand, is quite the opposite.  They seem to welcome new arrivals to this country with open arms, including refugee claimants and illegals.  We’re known as an easy mark for almost anyone wanting to get in. The joke around the airport was “US agents carried guns on their belts.  Canadians carried rubber stamps”.  There are holding cells for the questionable ones, where they were fed meals catered by a 5-star hotel, while the guards ate their tuna sandwiches from brown paper bags.

There is no shortage of surprises at Canada Customs secondary line, when the suitcases are opened and inspected.  Once I saw them pull out a car radiator from a passengers bag!

Our level of security clearance allowed us access everywhere except outside on the ramp.  A special drivers license is required to be there.  It was a funny regulation given that with my pilots license, I could taxi an airliner around, but wasn’t allowed to drive on in a golf cart.

Deep in the bowels of the terminal, down in the baggage handlers area, a secret corner at one time housed a lounge area, complete with a pool table brought in by some enterprising ramp workers.  It lasted until it was discovered by management, then dismantled.

In one of the staff parking lots, several campers and vans were set up along an out-of-the-way fence.  Due to the nature of shift work, some employees, from ticket agents to pilots, used their own facilities for sleep and rest periods.  That came to an end with a memo one day, which stated that motorhomes, campers and similar vehicles would not be allowed to park long-term out there.  The reason was that a cook stove in one had started a fire, and burned up the camper along with vehicles parked on both sides of it.

The R.C.M.P. always keep a visible presence at international airports.  At YVR, there were plain-clothes members too, on the lookout for shoplifters, pickpockets, and smugglers.  From the police I learned the scams these undesirables utilized.  The thefts went down mostly in the international arrivals area where Asians were targeted, mainly because they always carried large amounts of cash.  One or two bad guys would distract the ‘mark’ while their accomplices made off with hand luggage.  They were slick, and rarely caught.

In the  movie “Terminal”, actor Tom Hanks plays a man from a fictional country, Krakozhia, who arrives in New York to discover that during his flight, his government has been overthrown by rebels, invalidating his passport.  He finds himself trapped in a lost dimension of absurd bureaucratic entanglement.  Unable to enter the United States, or return to his home country, he is forced to live in the JFK airport terminal.  Essentially a man without a country, who spoke no English, he befriends employees at the airport, including the ever-present construction workers, who are suitably impressed with his work.

The movie is based on a true story, although one which involved an Iranian man trapped in the airport in Paris.  Having seen first hand the workings and intricacies of a large international airport, I have no trouble believing that a story like this could actually happen.  Although the movies embellish the actual facts, there remains a certain element of truth.  Several times during my stay at YVR, I ran across homeless individuals who came in out of the cold, and made themselves quite comfortable.  Their stays were generally of short duration however, due to the diligent duty managers and police presence running interference on their activities.  Usually a bus token back to the downtown east side got rid of them.

There’s a story behind every passenger, some good, some bad, some happy and others very sad.  Just when you think you’ve seen and heard them all, another new one comes along.  After six years, there are still surprises, and after a lifetime, there will be more.  A major airport supports not only the infrastructure, but it’s own culture, society, and community.  

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