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Authors: Arthur Hailey

Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Crime, #Adult, #Adventure, #Contemporary

Airport (2 page)

BOOK: Airport
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With one hand, Danny was using a red telephone; with the other, leafing through emergency orders–Mel’s orders, carefully drawn up for occasions such as this.

The red phone was to the airport’s duty fire chief. Danny summarized the situation so far.

“And when we locate the truck, let’s get an ambulance out there, and you may need an inhalator or heat, could be both. But better not roll until we know where exactly. We don’t want to dig you guys out, too.”

The sweat, in increasing quantity, was gleaming on Danny’s balding head. Mel was aware that Danny disliked running the Snow Control Desk and was happier in his own department of airport planning, sifting logistics and hypotheses of aviation’s future. Such things were comfortably projected well ahead, with time to think, not disconcertingly here-and-now like the problems of tonight. Just as there were people who lived in the past, Met thought, for the Danny Farrows, the future was a refuge. But, unhappy or not, and despite the sweat, Danny was coping.

Reaching over Danny’s shoulder, Mel picked up a direct line phone to Air Traffic Control. The tower watch chief answered.

“What’s the story on that Aéreo-Mexican 707?”

“Still there, Mr. Bakersfeld. They’ve been working a couple of hours trying to move it. No luck yet.”

That particular trouble had begun shortly after dark when an Aéreo-Mexican captain, taxiing out for takeoff, mistakenly passed to the right instead of left of a blue taxi light. Unfortunately, the ground to the right, which was normally grass covered, had a drainage problem, due to be worked on when winter ended. Meanwhile, despite the heavy snow, there was still a morass of mud beneath the surface. Within seconds of its wrong-way turn, the hundred and twenty ton aircraft was deeply mired.

When it became obvious that the aircraft could not get out, loaded, under its own power, the disgruntled passengers were disembarked and helped through mud and snow to hastily hired buses. Now, more than two hours later, the big jet was still stuck, its fuselage and tail blocking runway three zero.

Mel inquired, “The runway and taxi strip are still out of use?”

“Affirmative,” the tower chief reported. “We’re holding all outbound traffic at the gates, then sending them the long route to the other runways.”

“Pretty slow?”

“Slowing us fifty percent. Right now we’re holding ten flights for taxi clearance, another dozen waiting to start engines.”

It was a demonstration, Mel reflected, of how urgently the airport needed additional runways and taxiways. For three years he had been urging construction of a new runway to parallel three zero, as well as other operational improvements. But the Board of Airport Commissioners, under political pressure from downtown, refused to approve. The pressure was because city councilmen, for reasons of their own, wanted to avoid a new bond issue which would be needed for financing.

“The other thing,” the tower watch chief said, “is that with three zero out of use, we’re having to route takeoffs over Meadowood. The complaints have started coming in already.”

Mel groaned. The community of Meadowood, which adjoined the southwest limits of the airfield, was a constant thorn to himself and an impediment to flight operations. Though the airport had been established long before the community, Meadowood’s residents complained incessantly and bitterly about noise from aircraft overhead. Press publicity followed. It attracted even more complaints, with increasingly bitter denunciations of the airport and its management. Eventually, after long negotiations involving politics, more publicity and–in Mel Bakerfeld’s opinion–gross misrepresentation, the airport and the Federal Aviation Administration had conceded that jet takeoffs and landings directly over Meadowood would be made only when essential in special circumstances. Since the airport was already limited in its available runways, the loss in efficiency was considerable.

Moreover, it was also agreed that aircraft taking off toward Meadowood would–almost at once after becoming airborne–follow noise abatement procedures. This, in turn, produced protests from pilots, who considered the procedures dangerous. The airlines, however–conscious of the public furor and their corporate images–had ordered the pilots to conform.

Yet even this failed to satisfy the Meadowood residents. Their militant leaders were still protesting, organizing, and–according to latest rumors–planning legal harassment of the airport.

Mel asked the tower watch chief, “How many calls bave there been?” Even before the answer, he decided glumly that still more hours of his working days were going to be consumed by delegations, argument, and the same insoluble discussions as before.

“I’d say fifty at least, we’ve answered; and there’ve been others we haven’t. The phones start ringing right after every takeoff–our unlisted lines, too. I’d give a lot to know how they get the numbers.”

“I suppose you’ve told the people who’ve called that we’ve a special situation–the storm, a runway out of use.”

“We explain. But nobody’s interested. They just want the airplanes to stop coming over. Some of ‘em say that problems or not, pilots are still supposed to use noise abatement procedures, but tonight they aren’t doing it.”

“Good God!–if I were a pilot neither would I.” How could anyone of reasonable intelligence, Mel wondered, expect a pilot, in tonight’s violent weather, to chop back his power immediately after takeoff, and then go into a steeply banked turn on instruments–which was what noise abatement procedures called for.

“I wouldn’t either,” the tower chief said. “Though I guess it depends on your point of view. If I lived in Meadowood, maybe I’d feel the way they do.”

“You wouldn’t live in Meadowood. You’d have listened to the warnings we gave people, years ago, not to build houses there.”

“I guess so. By the way, one of my people told me there’s another community meeting over there tonight.”

“In this weather?”

“Seems they still plan to hold it, and the way we heard, they’re cooking up something new.”

“Whatever it is,” Mel predicted, “we’ll hear about it soon.”

Just the same, he reflected, if there
was
a public meeting at Meadowood, it was a pity to provide fresh ammunition so conveniently. Almost certainly the press and local politicians would be present, and the direct flights overhead, however necessary at this moment, would give them plenty to write and talk about. So the sooner the blocked runway–three zero–was back in use, the better it would be for all concerned. v “In a little while,” he told the tower chief, “I’ll go out on the field myself and see what’s happening. I’ll let you know what the situation is.”

“Right.”

Changing the subject, Mel inquired, “Is my brother on duty tonight?”

“Affirmative. Keith’s on radar watch–west arrival.”

West arrival, Mel knew, was one of the tough, tense positions in the tower. It involved supervising all incoming flights in the west quadrant. Mel hesitated, then remembered he had known the tower watch chief a long time. “Is Keith all right? Is he showing any strain?”

There was a slight pause before the answer. “Yes, he is. I’d say more than usual.”

Between the two men was the knowledge that Mel’s younger brother had lately been a source of anxiety to them both.

“Frankly,” the tower chief said, “I wish I could let him take things easier. But I can’t. We’re short-staffed and everybody is under the gun.” He added, “Including me.”

“I know you are, and I appreciate your watching out for Keith the way you have.”

“Well, in this job most of us have combat fatigue at one time or another.” Mel could sense the other choosing his words carefully. “Sometimes it shows up in the mind, sometimes in the gut. Either way, when it happens we try to help each other.”

“Thanks.” The conversation had not eased Mel’s anxiety. “I may drop in later.”

“Right, sir.” Thetower chief hung up.

The “sir” was strictly a courtesy. Mel had no authority over ATC, which answered only to the Federal Aviation Administration with headquarters in Washington. But relationships between controllers and airport management were good, and Mel saw to it they stayed that way.

An airport, any airport, was an odd complexity of overlapping authority. No single individual had supreme command, yet no one segment was entirely independent. As airport general manager, Mel’s was closest to an over-all assignment, but there were areas where be knew better than to intrude. Air Traffic Control was one, airline internal management another. He could, and did, intervene in matters affecting the airport as a whole or the welfare of people using it. He could peremptorily order an airline to remove a door sign which was misleading or faded to conform to terminal standards. But what went on behind the doors was, within reason, the airline’s exclusive business.

This was why an airport manager needed to be a tactician as well as versatile administrator.

Mel replaced the Snow Desk telephone. On another line, Danny Farrow was arguing with the parking lot supervisor, a harassed individual who for several hours had been fielding irate complaints from marooned car owners. People were asking: didn’t whoever ran the airport know it was snowing? And if they did, why didn’t someone get on the ball and move the stuff so a man could drive his car anywhere at any time, as was his democratic right?

“Tell ‘em we declared a dictatorship.” The non-covered lots, Danny insisted, would have to wait until priorities eased. He would send men and equipment when he could. He was interrupted by a call from the tower watch chief. A new weather forecast predicted a wind shift in an hour. It would mean a change of runways, and could they hurry the plowing of runway one seven, left? He would do his best, Danny said. He’d check with the Conga Line supervisor and call the tower back.

It was the kind of pressure, unremitting, which had gone on for three days and nights since the present snowfall started. The fact that the pressure had been met made all the more irritating a note, delivered to Mel by messenger, fifteen minutes ago. The note read:

M -

thought shd warn u–airlines snow
committee (on vern demerest’s urging
…why does your bro-in-law dislike
you?) filing critical report becos run-
ways & taxiways snow clearance (v. d.
says) lousy, inefficient…

report blames airport (meaning u)
for main hunk of flight delays… also
claims stuck 707 wouldn’t have if taxiway
plowed sooner, better …so now
all airlines being penalized, etc, etc,
you get the drift… and where are you–
in one? (drift, i mean) …climb out &
buy me coffee soon.

luv

t

The “t” was for Tanya–Tanya Livingston, passenger relations agent for Trans America, and a special friend of Mel’s. Mel read the note again, as he usually did messages from Tanya, which became clearer the second time around. Tanya, whose job straddled trouble-shooting and public relations, objected to capitals. (“Mel, doesn’t it make sense? If we abolished capitals there’d be scads less trouble. Just look at the newspapers.”) She had actually coerced a Trans America mechanic into chiseling all capitals from the typebars of her office typewriter. Someone higher up raised hob about that, Mel had heard, quoting the airline’s rigid rule about willful damage to company property. Tanya had got away with it, though. She usually did.

The Vern Demerest in the note was Captain Vernon Demerest, also of Trans America. As well as being one of the airline’s more senior captains, Demerest was a militant campaigner for the Air Line Pilots Association, and, this season, a member of the Airlines Snow Committee at Lincoln International. The committee inspected runways and taxiways during snow periods and pronounced them fit, or otherwise, for aircraft use. It always included an active flying captain.

Vernon Demerest also happened to be Mel’s brother-in-law, married to Mel’s older sister, Sarah. The Bakersfeld clan, through precedent and marriage, had roots and branches in aviation, just as older families were once allied with seafaring. However, there was little cordiality between Mel and his brother-in-law, whom Mel considered conceited and pompous. Others, he knew, held the same opinion. Recently, Mel and Captain Demerest had had an angry exchange at a meeting of the Board of Airport Commissioners, where Demerest appeared on behalf of the pilots’ association. Mel suspected that the critical snow report–apparently initiated by his brother-in-law–was in retaliation.

Mel was not greatly worried about the report. Whatever shortcomings the airport might have in other ways, he knew they were coping with the storm as well as any organization could. Just the same, the report was a nuisance. Copies would go to all airlines, and tomorrow there would be inquiring phone calls and memos, and a need for explanations.

Mel supposed he had better stay briefed, in readiness. He decided he would make an inspection of the present snow clearance situation at the same time that he was out on the airfield checking on the blocked runway and the mired Aéreo-Mexican jet.

At the Snow Desk, Danny Farrow was talking with Airport Maintenance again. When there was a moment’s break, Mel interjected, “I’ll be in the terminal, then on the field.”

He had remembered what Tanya said in her note about having coffee together. He would stop at his own office first, then, on his way through the terminal, he would drop by Trans America to see her. The thought excited him.

 

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02

M
EL USED
the private elevator, which operated by passkey only, to descend from the tower to the administrative mezzanine. Though his own office suite was silent, with stenographers’ desks cleared and typewriters covered, the lights had been left on. He entered his own interior office. From a closet, near the wide mahogany desk he used in daytime, he took out a heavy topcoat and fur-lined boots.

Tonight Mel himself was without specific duties at the airport. This was as it should be. The reason he had stayed, through most of the three-day storm, was to be available for emergencies. Otherwise, he mused, as he pulled on the boots and laced them, by now he would have been home with Cindy and the children.

BOOK: Airport
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