Perhaps I ought to confess that I am probably the world’s most impatient person. Waiting for a bus, stuck in traffic, queueing, no matter where it is, who I am with or what I am doing, as soon as I have to wait I feel myself getting tense. Airports, with their hours of waiting around and the almost inevitable delays, would seem to be a place for me to avoid at all costs. Indeed, this is normally the case, when I am travelling myself I hate airports. But on Mondays in 1997, I found that airport delays could sometimes be a good thing and, instead of the usual frustration, bring me out in a wry smile.
Monday was our changeover day, when one tour ended and the next began. In simple terms, we dropped our old passengers off at the airport or a nearby hotel then, during the afternoon and evening, went back to the airport to meet passengers arriving for the various tours and take them to our hotel. When it’s written down like that, it seems easy. In practice, of course, it seldom turned out that way. As I dropped off the old passengers I knew that the next load would already be on their way, some of them might even be at the hotel already. It was usual for our transfer schedules not to allow us any time at all to have even a few minutes’ break to freshen up or gather our thoughts. No, it was goodbye to the last passenger from last week, then a mad dash to a different terminal, that welcoming smile back on the face and greet the next guests. Sometimes, a small delay was a godsend, even if it was just enough time to sit down for a coffee and an extra cigarette.
Of course, when it went smoothly, the whole operation must have looked very slick to our guests. Wherever in the world the clients arrived from, there was a representative waiting, clipboard, badge and smile on display, ready to welcome them to their holiday. As I and my colleagues knew only too well, the reality was far from slick. In fact, it was frequently something akin to a miracle that we ever left Munich at all. Instructions to meet two or more flights at different terminals at exactly the same time were a regular thing. I must have run miles along the corridors connecting the various terminals of that airport during those six months – God knows what the staff and travellers must have thought of the sight of my frantic dashes, as I tried gamely to defy the laws of Physics and be in two (or even three) places at once. I’m not a hundred percent sure, but I think I succeeded once or twice. The smile that the guests saw as they emerged through those sliding glass doors from baggage reclaim was very often a genuine one, but one of relief that we had somehow managed to get away with it again.
From time to time I had the luxury of only having to be in one place at a time – I was always grateful for that. But even then, when I was going against my normal behavioural patterns and enjoying a delay, I had to be on my guard at all times. If I was there to meet a certain flight, then I was going to make damned sure that until that flight landed I was inconspicuous. The bright red clipboard and badge remained hidden until the last possible moment. I knew from bitter experience that it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that there could be lost Americans wandering around, from either mine or one of my colleagues’ groups, who had somehow managed to miss their own transfer upon arrival. Perhaps because while their flight from Philadelphia was landing at Terminal A, the representative was enthusiastically greeting both the BA arrival from Gatwick at Terminal C and the Qantas flight from Sydney at Terminal E. Whatever the reason, they were people I was keen to avoid. I know, I was there to do a job and look out for them, and my boss would certainly not have been impressed with my attitude. My only defence is this: For six days, 23 hours and about 40 minutes a week I was on call whenever my passengers needed me, week after week. This little time, such as it was, that was mine. A chance to grab a breath and, if only for a few minutes, not to have a group of tourists to worry about. The last thing I wanted was to hear, for what seemed like the millionth time “Hey, are you Cosmos?”. This, I had discovered, was the standard greeting of an American on the occasion of airport transfers. Although it was just a turn of phrase, it came to annoy me intensely. Yes, I was the company’s representative and someone those Americans were probably mighty glad to encounter as they touched down in Europe, but it always seemed as though I were being made into a personification of the company, and that grated. Would I ask people to be in three places at once? Would I ask people to do any of the things Cosmos had asked me to do? Sometimes, I wanted to shout “NO, I’m Ian”, but of course I never did. As always, diplomacy was the order of the day. Besides, I couldn’t have the passengers thinking I was a nutcase as soon as they arrived. By day 3 perhaps, but not the moment they met me. Anyway, I became quite successful in concealing my identity until it was time to meet the passengers I was waiting for.
As the arrivals board showed Landed and then Baggage in Hall, I would take up my position, clearly visible from the doors where the passengers would emerge, holding up the bright red clipboard and making sure my company name badge was on show. And there I remained as the doors slid open and people began to spill out. During those months, I became adept at picking our clients out of the crowd. Identifying specific passengers on a packed flight from first principles is not something most people would ever think about, but it was an essential skill for airport transfers. The reason for this is simple. Despite knowing in advance that they would be met from their flight, and the presence of a tall, smiling chap in a suit and bright tie, with a red clipboard above his head and a company badge on his lapel, it was staggering how many people actually managed to obliviously walk past and off into the terminal building or, worst of all, outside into Germany itself. Now, come closer and I will whisper in your ear the ancient and hallowed secrets of passenger recognition. Essentially, there were two easy ways to spot them. The first was the most obvious, the one that the uninitiated could probably work out for themselves. As the crowds emerged, my eyes immediately went, not to the faces but to their luggage. Cosmos luggage labels – yes, the esteemed company had managed to do something to make our lives easier. However, it was important not to be lulled into complacency at this stage. Luggage labels sent out with holiday documents three months in advance does not always equal luggage labels on suitcase handles in Munich. Some people liked to conceal them somewhere on the luggage – they were the easy ones. Spotting luggage labels left on the kitchen table or helpfully stowed inside the suitcase is more of a challenge. Luckily, there was another recognition process for these passengers. Any passenger who looked confused or scared and, in particular, any who looked as though they were definitely not expecting to be met from their flight and started to confidently make their way to they alone knew where, looking neither right nor left, they were almost certainly mine, even if on some occasions they denied this strenuously several times when pursued through the terminal and asked. It was a foolproof method. I honed my ability to pick out my passengers to such an extent that they were often amazed that I had been able to do so, leaving me searching for an acceptable reason why they might have caught my eye.