USA - The New World, by Don Ford (1967-1969)

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Having sat in hot, humid and highly violent Lagos for a couple of years, I was given a few days notice to take up the job of BOAC Airport Manager at O’Hare Airport,Chicago, which had just received its first snow of the winter. The few days were to enable us to buy some winter clothing in London, so off we went, none too reluctantly, but with feelings that this was going to be different from the other postings I had been sent to by BOAC. Expatriate staff very rarely found themselves at outstations in the USA, so what would the local staff think of this development?

One of the great things about BOAC on Eastern and Southern routes postings was that you fitted into an accepted pattern with other expatriate colleagues and above all you invariably had a company house to move into and people to advise you. On Western routes you were on your own - “how do I set about finding accommodation?” I asked the area manager when granted an audience. “I suppose you look in the paper” he growled, making it very clear that he had opposed a contract staff appointment, and that was probably the limit of the help I received. When I first tried to claim for some medical treatment the personnel manager could hardly conceal his joy at turning me down.

My airport staff were great, but there were so many of them, all of who, with the exception of my secretary, were solidly unionised. The situation was absurd as there must have been nearly thirty staff in traffic, maintenance and catering and we did not even have a daily service in the winter. What to do with all these people on the blank days as they each had to be employed for five eight hour days? There was certainly no excuse for them not to be well trained. It was a dreadful union contract as covering a delay involved overtime, even though there may be nothing to do for the next day or two. If I was not around the duty officer authorised overtime for himself and his colleagues, which was a pleasant situation for him. One cargo assistant going to a course in London had his aircraft break down in Montreal so he had accumulated a couple of days overtime by the time he got to London. It was all in the union agreement - which became my bible. The shop steward and I got on famously, but I found the full time officials painful, although the experience was to prove useful when I became Manager USA some years later.

Fortunately after a few months we went to a daily frequency which made life a lot easier, but we were still a very minor operator in the world’s busiest airport. BOAC manuals were not written for the sort of walk-on part we played in Chicago in the sixties. According to the manual airport managers were expected to examine the runway on a regular basis but I never quite got round to asking the Airport Director to close things down for United, American, et al, while I carried out my duties! O’Hare Airport was administered by the famous political machine run by Mayor Daley who ruled the city with a rod of iron and the help of some dubious friends, and nobody argued with him. Chicago worked, but it made negotiations with laundry companies, crew transport , etc., if not quite like negotiating with Tony Soprano, unusual to say the least.

Still, it was a very happy two years for the whole family once my wife realised that you did not walk the baby in the Chicago winter as it merely froze. I always had great sympathy for engineers putting a nut and bolt together on an open tarmac with the temperature below zero Fahrenheit. We learnt that it was possible to have a properly heated house whatever the weather and even in the coldest times, when the children went off in the school bus in the thickest of parkas, they wore their tee-shirts in the classroom. Luckily, as there were so many domestic airlines with so many flights, we could always get away to warmer climes. I flew down to Carolina on one occasion to play for the BOAC cricket team, only to find myself on my own as the rest of the team had been offloaded in New York.

I was to experience a classier airline than I had seen in Africa, and here we had a first class lounge with a large stock of liquor in case things got desperate. One great advantage was that BOAC catering in London sent out vast supplies of caviar, smoked salmon and potted shrimps for the return first class passengers, and we didn’t have that many as both Pan Am and TWA flew non-stop to London whereas we had an intermediate stop in Montreal. So it was the only time in my life that I had caviar sandwiches for lunch and we almost got tired of smoked salmon, which was more of a luxury than it is now.

Despite the union my staff were a joy to work with and when we left we were invited to a party. Outside the hotel it read ‘Farewell Mr and Mrs Ford’ in neon lights and inside were all the town office staff as well as the airport staff and a couple who had come over from New York. We were very touched as we were to be again many years later when I retired from the British Tourism Authority in New York, when our farewell party took the whole of the Rainbow Room at the top of the Rockefeller Center. Americans are incredibly nice people if you make the effort to be pleasant, and the thirteen plus years we spent in Chicago and New York were certainly among our happiest.

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