It started with a visit to Dairy Queen in the Allegheny Mountains in rural southwestern Pennsylvania. Instead of a nostalgic trip down ice cream lane, we had to stay in the car and order at the drive-through since the dining room was closed due to a staff shortage. This pattern held wherever I traveled in the U.S. from New York City to Pennsylvania to Colorado. “Help wanted” signs were plastered everywhere. Grocery stores, restaurants, retail outlets – all were looking to hire.
In light of this experience, I should have been prepared for the staffing shortages awaiting me at Heathrow Airport. My flight from JFK was delayed by 45 minutes, causing many of us to miss our connections. Fixing this problem proved to be extraordinarily tedious. The British Airways counter was understaffed in the aftermath of COVID pandemic layoffs. The line for security was also understaffed, as was the one for passport check.
The ensuing chaos inspired some striking outbursts of human behavior, both good and bad.
Let’s start with a bad – but entertaining – example.
Waiting to rebook my flight, I found myself sandwiched between two Glaswegians. This has happily given me the opportunity to use the word “Glaswegian” for the first time in my life. If you thought Shrek had a Scottish accent, two minutes in this line would have cured you of that illusion. The initial utterances of the elderly gentleman in front of me were completely unintelligible. Only when his friend approached and they began discussing their common destination – Glasgow – was I able to identify the accent.
Note I didn’t say recognize, as that would be like seeing a blip in the Hubble telescope and proclaiming to “recognize” a particular star. The scientific data line up, so that star it must be. Same with the Glaswegians: a) unintelligible save for a sprinkling of discernible words, b) fingers pointing to the word “Glasgow” on the destination board, ergo: Scottish.
But what shocked me about these two Glaswegians (ha! I said it again – that makes three) was their reaction to a man that they thought was cutting into the line. There were two queues, one for business and one for economy, and when the first Glaswegian (that’s five and counting) thought a man from the business line was cutting into ours, he exploded.
“What the f*** do you think you’re doing?!” he said, approaching the presumed line-cutter.
Then he threatened the lady behind the counter with a wagging finger:
“Don’t serve him!”, simultaneously waving his walking stick in the air. Raising cane, so to speak.
His friend immediately joined in. Within seconds, these two previously congenial, white-haired elderly gentlemen had turned into barroom brawlers.
The encounter instantly brought to mind a phenomenon I had read about concerning descendants of the Scots-Irish in Appalachia. Their ancestors had been forcibly moved to the border between Scotland and England. The contentious nature of this geography led them to constantly having to fend off those pesky English. Combined with the prevailing shepherd’s mentality of “hands off my sheep or else!” led to a feisty folk. These are the people who gave rise to the famous Hatfield and McCoy feud. Their cantankerous nature has been shown to persist in their descendants, too, as described in the recent bestseller Hillbilly Elegy.
But the next two incidents revealed a far more positive side of homo cholericus.
In addition to the two angry Scotsmen, there was another tall, elegant, clean-cut man who had been waiting patiently in line. But the news that he would not be able to fly out until the evening poked a hole in his composure. Raising his hands in a gesture of resignation, he announced that he “would never fly on British Airways again” and walked off.
The agents behind the counter were not at fault. As the only available target for angry passengers, they also became frustrated as they were the victims of insufficient staffing. One agent could be heard complaining that the managers “were in the back room” while they, the agents, battled it out on the front lines.
When this agent told the next woman in line that she would also not be able to fly out until 8:30 pm, she probably expected another outburst. Instead, the passenger slid a handful of Reese cup candies across the counter.
“Here,” she said. “You guys need these more than I do.”
The agent’s face broke into a big smile.
“Oh, that’s so sweet of you!” she said. One bright moment in a sea of angry passengers.
In a final incident, I was approached by the young woman ahead of me in the line for security. She and her friend were Africans, elegantly dressed and coiffed – and completely flummoxed by the workings of an airport. She showed me her boarding card and asked me in a very soft voice if they were in the right line. At least that’s what my brain intuited since it turned out that neither of them spoke any English. When I asked in French if they spoke French, she managed to say: “Arabic.”
She then asked the man ahead of her the same question (I think). He looked at her boarding pass and said:
“See that board over there between the two signs? That will tell you if you are in the right terminal.”
Blank stares. They had no idea what he was saying.
He repeated himself. More blank stares.
Then the man reached over and gently took the boarding pass out of the woman’s hand. She didn’t resist. He then vaulted over the security rope, walked to the departure board and checked it against her boarding pass.
Returning to the line, he told her they were in the right place, underscoring it with a thumbs up.
It was heartwarming.
I spent the rest of my day at Heathrow cashing in my British Airways voucher at a Chinese restaurant. There are worse ways to spend the afternoon. And it was a much better lunch than those Reese cups would have been.
After 30 hours on the road, I finally made it home. It was a grueling journey, but I always remind myself: it beats the hell out of a ship.