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Inevitable Yule Crunch at Airport : Travelers, Workers Try to Keep Smiling

December 24, 1987|NANCY RAY | Times Staff Writer

Bud McDonald is waiting for the other shoe to drop. After 21 years at his post as Lindbergh Field manager, he knows that it will. But he doesn't know when.

There was a temporary lull in the lemming-like flow of travelers through the two terminals at Lindbergh at midday Wednesday, but McDonald predicted that "it will be a zoo by tonight" and probably into New Year's Eve as the major airlines shoehorn in capacity passenger loads to send everyone home for the holidays.

Three teen-age Marines, only an hour out of boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, were trying hard to keep the lid on their high spirits as they inched forward in a long United Airlines queue. All were headed for Indiana and home.

The Joy of Freedom

Pfc. Roger Jones, headed for Fort Wayne, spoke for his buddies, John Snepp of Albion and Mike Garland of Anderson, in describing the joy of freedom after 11 weeks of regimentation.

"We were motivated to pass," Jones said. Otherwise, the trio would be sitting with the less-successful recruits, facing a Christmas confined to barracks.

Standing in line to process their tickets and duffel bags was a breeze to the shaved-head privates. "That's one thing we are used to," Jones said.

The ebb and flow of customers allowed several ticket agents for TWA to comment on the weather and the crowds before steeling for the onslaught of processing and loading 160 passengers on the next flight.

"I've been in this job for 16 years and I've never had a Christmas week off," said Pat Skala. But she wasn't complaining. "Actually, I don't mind working the holidays because everyone is so happy to be going home."

Mort Hazel could top Skala's record. He has been on the job for 32 years, with only a few Christmases at home. But airlines officials have promised him next Christmas off, he said with a wink, confiding, "I'm retiring next year."

Mom Knows Best

A harried mother of two paused a moment to get her bearings in the East Terminal and watched her offspring dash down the corridors in opposite directions. She sat down on her largest suitcase and covered her face with gloved hands. The ruse worked. Both children returned to find out what was wrong with Mom. She grabbed them, signaled a skycap for the luggage and waded into the crowd toward the exit doors.

Veteran skycap William Wilborn, who was manning an outdoor baggage check stand, estimated that this year's airport crowds were bigger than ever before, "but nice." Wilborn confessed that he uses a little basic psychology on his customers, joking his way through delays and mishaps.

Wilborn knows up-to-the-minute data on the multiple flights of the five airlines he services and he delivers the facts in a rapid-fire manner as he separates passengers from their baggage and sends both in the right direction. "I'm an expediter," he said, "and I'm good at it."

The longest lines Wednesday were for the shorter flights on PSA. There, no one asked expressed concern about flying the airline that recently lost a planeload of passengers and crew. The crash was linked to a former employee of the airline who harbored a grudge and was linked to shooting aboard the jet shortly before it crashed. He died with the rest of the plane's occupants.

"It's something that you just don't think about, that a crazy man with a gun might shoot the flight crew," frequent flier H.K. Miller of Sacramento said. "There's more of a chance I'll get run over in traffic between here and the parking lot." Winnie Metzger, just in from Denver, where "the whole place was just one sheet of ice," was awed by the warmer temperatures and bright sunshine that greeted her on her first visit to San Diego. "But the traffic here is just horrible!"

She forgave Lindbergh its manic traffic, however, because "everyone is so nice to me. They nod and smile and wish me a Merry Christmas." The matronly woman might have gotten more than her share of Christmas cheer because she was wearing a red Santa Claus cap that a Denver friend had given her at departure from cold Colorado.

Zoo Arrives

By nightfall, McDonald's "zoo" had arrived and the airport was teeming with people, taxis, autos, buses and late-arriving airplanes.

"We've had a few flare-ups. Some guy objecting to a smoker, stuff like that," McDonald reported late Wednesday, "but nothing bad, nothing we can't handle."

The Wednesday night buildup to the final mad travel rush on Christmas Eve filled close-in parking lots. Delayed flights added to the congestion, stacking up groups of impatient outbound passengers and greeters.

"You know it's going to happen," McDonald said with the wisdom of experience, "but you never know when. This calendar year 400 million people will fly on airlines and 5 million of them will go through here."

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