SOS: Someone special in the air

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Getting to an airport is always an event. The drive-in, the check-in, the hurry-in are a whirl of moving parts in the tedious flying experience.

American Airline’s concourse at Logan airport in Boston is like most others. Floor pavers echo a clattery rumble from wheely luggage, glass walls frame the city’s international runways, and florescent lights reflect from vaulted ceilings. Much of the stream lined space is predictable. In a sense, if you’ve seen one airport terminal you’ve seen them all.

Predictably, little children get fussy, business people try to bang out a few extra texts, and young lovers cling to each other oblivious of it all. Gate attendants, flight attendants, and pilots know everyone wants a better seat, a smooth ride, and an on time arrival.

Unless you work for an airline it may not be apparent: take-offs have a rhythm, a pulse and a personality. BOS to JFK is less than a newspaper read. BOS to LAX is a stack of magazines, and a movie. BOS to CDG, is ahhh a glass of wine before dinner and a wake up call in Paris. Morning flights smell like freshly brewed coffee, afternoon flights like liquid courage. All the flights smell like jet fuel. If you fly a lot, jet fuel is like perfume, it wafts through the air, and you love it.

In the 1990s, American Airlines enhanced their corporate slogan of “Something Special in the Air” with more than a catchy jingle, they designed a department to make flying a less tedious experience. Travelers who purchased transcontinental or international tickets in either first or business class were treated as celebrities always have been. Encrypted on the face of each ticket, American flagged the status of their most valuable customers. From the moment these VIP’s arrived at Logan, until they reached their final destination,they were to be treated as someone special.

Behind an unmarked door, in the middle of Terminal B, Boston based Special Service Associates routinely began each shift reading computer print-out sheets from a loose leaf binder. The daily sheets chronicled which dignitary, celebrity, or generally well heeled VIP passengers would be traveling to or from Boston that day. The print-outs included travel itinerary, an occasional wish list and little side notes to help personalize the travel day of “Some One Special” at American Airlines.

Until 9/11 these passengers were personally welcomed by a Special Service Associate, escorted to the Admiral’s Club or an even more private living room hidden away from the concourse. Once settled in, passengers were free to enjoy the quiet plush of hotel like amenities, special foods, and a complimentary beverage at the bar. The experience that included softly lit lounge areas, business support, valet service and a personal introduction to the captain and crew was intended to offer a flagship alternative to the check-in, hurry-in, whirling noise,and florescent lights of the coach departure lounge.

Special Service associates were available to make Some One Special feel like someone very special indeed by honoring travel related requests.

On each flight, the captain and crew were advised in advance of S.O.S. passengers by a Special Service Associate. American Airlines personnel believed, however, that whenever anyone flew on AA there was “Someone Special in the Air.” It was more than a slogan, the sentiment wafted through the air.

At 0600 on Sept. 11, 2001, the morning shift of American Airlines Special Services in Boston began like any other. Two associates read the print-out sheets of the day. They knew which travelers on the transcontinental and international flights were important to meet and attend to before the shift was to end at 0900.

Mohamed Atta arrived in the concourse of Terminal B at Logan on a connecting flight from Portland, Maine. The vectors of that early morning flight, less than a newspapers read in length, changed the rhythm of global history. Atta was welcomed to Boston by a Special Service Associate then settled into the SOS routine of American Airlines business class with his own SOS in mind.

The Boston-based captain and crew, bound for a routine over night trip to LAX, was advised that day, to welcome Atta as Some One Special. He had been a frequent business class flyer. His evil conspirators were travelling in the first class cabin, on AA 11. The special service on that remarkable day had been unremarkably routine.

Fussy children, texting business people, oblivious lovers, celebrity passengers, Captain John Ogonowski, and crew, along with thousands of people working in New York, were all lost to us 14 years ago that day. The people they loved, and who loved them in return, suffer the consequences of the malicious, simple terrorist event everyday.

The losses of that attack include our cultural shift away from innocence. Across the globe, all airlines have been streamlined, making fewer attempts to include amenities and rather more attempts toward security. The drive-in, check-in, hurry-in tedium of flying still includes the rumble of wheely luggage, glass walls framing cities, international runways, and florescent lights reflecting off vaulted ceilings. Sadly, however, our societal personality also echos a sense of profound loss and fear.

We have to accept heightened security lines, hidden surveillance, and a routine awareness of unpredictable madness. We are forced to reflect on the scars of hatred when we have to park blocks away from a venue, remove our shoes for security evaluation, and dump out a baby’s formula because it is suspicious.

As the calendar tolls 9/11/2015, our national pulse quickens then, we pause again. We remember all of those who lived with love, who were simply decent souls, and were then, as they must surely be now, “SOMEONE SPECIAL IN THE AIR.”

Diane Kilgore worked for American Airlines based in Boston’s Special Service Department for five years. Immediately after the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, she and the entire international department were furloughed from AA and the co-workers they loved so dearly.