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CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

They were staring at me. People gaping from the window of a passing city bus couldn't have looked more vacant. Except for feet shuffling and throat clearing, a random cough here and there, I could get no reaction out of the twenty-five or thirty rampers gathered in front of me. They were slumped on benches and in chairs, clustered in the doorways, and arrayed around the walls of the ready room among raincoats hung from hooks. The rain gear showed more animation.

I'd already done my short presentation, giving them the facts on the bag room bombing, passing around pictures of the twisted cart and ruptured skis. We- rather, I had already discussed the costs of reconstruction, interim use of USAir's bag claim, and passengers' belongings blown to smithereens.

"Does anyone have any questions?"

Silence.

The apathy was so impenetrable, it felt like an act of aggression, and one that had been coordinated in advance. I didn't need to be liked by these people, but I could not walk out of there without some acknowledgment, no matter how tiny, that bombing the bag room-or anything else-was not okay.

Big Pete, coming off the end of his shift, was leaning against a wall in the opposite corner. Still in uniform, he was, as always, outwardly nondescript with several layers of shirttails out and uncombed hair.

"Pete, as the union representative, do you have anything to say?"

For the longest time he didn't move or respond. Finally, he shifted slightly so that he was more angled toward the room, gave me one of those languid, crocodile-in-the-sun blinks, and began to hold forth. "First off, I want to say that the union don't condone this sort of activity."

At the sound of his raspy voice, some of the congregation turned their eyes in his direction. The ones that didn't looked out the window.

"Second, I want you to know I don't think none of you was any part of this. To me, it was someone from off the field who breached security, come onto our ramp, and did this thing. Maybe some kind of a terrorist like we're always hearing about."

Even some of the rampers were having a hard time keeping straight faces.

"I want everyone to be alert. The fact is, we ain't as safe here as we'd like to think. Anyone not wearing his badge, don't be afraid to challenge him. And if you got something on who might have done this thing, the union wants you to come forward and give it to management." He nodded graciously, and when he turned the floor back over to me, it was with a smug expression that seemed to ask, "Great performance, eh?"

I went back to my flip chart and found a great big red marker, the perfect symbol for how I was feeling. "I want to say one more thing just to add to Pete's point. No matter who perpetrated this act, this number"-I underlined the total cost of the bombing, twice-"translates into seven or eight full-time union jobs a year that could go away because someone was trying to send a message"-I looked at Pete-"no matter who that was." I capped the felt-tipped pen and checked my hands for leaking ink. "We can't even calculate the revenue we'll lose because passengers generally try to avoid airlines that have been bombed. You junior employees should pay particular attention. You're at the bottom of the seniority list, and you're the ones who will be out on the street. Given the sliding salary scale, it's going to take about ten to twelve of you to get to this number. Pete's right. It's in all of our best interests to make sure this never happens again."

I was encouraged by a stirring in the hallway, a murmuring that seemed to move into the room and run through the group like a lit fuse. I was getting through to them.

"That may be," Pete said with a polite sneer, "but we're all in the same union, and it ain't gonna work to try and set us against each other. Besides, management is responsible for the security of the operation. If you can't keep the ramp safe for us to work, you might want to start worrying about your own job."

The room fell quiet. Blood rushed to my head. I could feel my face heating up. An appropriately clever response would deflect attention from me and put him in his place, but with thirty pairs of eyes trained on me, I couldn't quite grasp it.

"Friend"-the voice exploded through the doorway and into the room-"her job is none of your concern."

My head snapped around so I could see if my ears were deceiving me. The crowd at the door parted as if they were being unzipped, and in walked Bill Scanlon-chairman, CEO, airline legend.

I was stunned-suddenly and completely struck dumb in front of a room full of my employees. I should have stepped forward, extended my hand in the usual professional greeting, and welcomed him into the room. Not that he ever needed any welcome, but it would have given me something to do besides stand rooted to the painted cement floor. But I couldn't. I couldn't even summon the will to take my eyes off him.

The dull murmur grew to an excited buzz as he strode on long legs into the center of the room, right where he was most comfortable.

"Sorry to drop in on you like this." His smile was crisp and, I felt, coldly impersonal.

I was swamped by a flood of emotions, none of which I could show, and for what seemed like the longest time, my mouth was open but I was afraid to speak, afraid of what might come out and when something finally did-'That's all right' is what I think I said-it sounded once removed, as if I were speaking in the voice of a passing stranger who had found my empty vessel of a body and moved in. But I knew it wasn't a stranger in there because the one emotion that kept crashing forward like the biggest wave in a pounding storm was fear. I was afraid that he was angry, that he had come all the way to Boston to fix what I couldn't fix. I was profoundly worried that I had let him down and that he was here to tell me.

But when he turned to slip out of his long cashmere coat-midnight blue-his eyes locked on mine for just a second longer than necessary, and for that one second it was as if he'd taken all the excitement he'd brought into the room, pulled it into a bouquet, and offered it to me as a secret gift. His eyes said what he couldn't say out loud: I am so excited to see you.

While he handed his coat and then his suit jacket to Norm, who had sprung from his seat to take them, the storm inside me ceased, the churning stopped, and the sun came out.

Bill smiled graciously at Norm, thanked him without the slightest trace of condescension, and turned to me. He was ready to go to work. "With your permission-"

"The floor is yours."

"You might want to get someone to take notes."

"Of course." As if I wouldn't remember every word that was about to be spoken. I was noticing how warm it was in the room, at least ten degrees hotter since he'd walked in. But maybe that was just me.

The group did not accommodate me as it had the chairman, and I had to elbow my way to a spot near the door where I could be available yet unobtrusive. The room was getting more crowded as ticket agents filtered down from upstairs. Majestic employees never missed a chance to see up close "the man who'd saved the airline," and to see him in a surprise visit was a double bonus.

I asked one of the agents to call Molly and have her track down Lenny, and then settled in to watch the show.

He stood in the center of the room in his pressed cotton shirt, exquisite but understated tie, and suit pants that were perfectly tailored to his lanky build. Some men might have felt out of place in that dingy room, just as I almost always did. But he was a man with the unwavering conviction that where he was was where he belonged and that the surroundings- whether it was a maintenance hangar or a Senate chamber-would conform to him.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said quietly, letting his voice draw them in, "we have picked a tough business in which to make our livings, you and I. Don't you agree?"

No one moved. Everyone agreed.

"I look at some of these other hotshots who run businesses, and I think to myself every day, they've got it made compared to us. Think about the software business. Those guys in Silicon Valley, they've got a high-margin business, markets that are growing exponentially, new markets opening up every day, and they get to come to work in shorts and sandals." His smile let us all in on the gentle teasing. "Who couldn't make money doing that? Or take the money guys on Wall Street, investment bankers and fund managers. In a market as robust as the one we have today, they don't even have to come to work to turn a profit." He was gliding around the small space, making it look bigger than it was, stopping now and then to pick someone out of the crowd and focus his entire being on them. "But you and me, we don't have it that easy. We have this massive, complicated machine"-he opened his arms wide, as if holding the entire contraption in his own two hands-"with more moving parts than any human and most computers can comprehend. We've got weather issues, we've got scheduling issues-airplanes, pilots, and flight attendants who all have to be scheduled according to their specific labor contracts. We've got regulatory requirements, environmental requirements, and constraints of air-traffic control. And we deal with machines, so we have the ever unpredictable maintenance variable."

Heads around the room bobbed in solemn agreement.

"You're on the front lines here," he said. "You know better than anyone how every day we have to mesh it all together in a way that works best for the customers, the employees, and the shareholders. We go home every night, and every morning we have to get up and do it all over again from scratch, because we have no inventory. Am I right?"

Of course he was right. He was tapping into the mother lode of truth for these people-for any people-telling them how difficult their jobs were, how hard they worked, and how no one understood them better than he did. He could communicate with anyone on any level about anything. And he could make you agree with him. He could make you want to agree with him. That was his gift. He had the ability to find a way to lead you wherever he wanted you to go. I tried to remember that there were good reasons why we weren't together anymore. Watching him work, it was hard to think of exactly what they were.

"We don't make money in this business unless we grind it out every day, seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. We do this at Majestic with more success than our competitors. How is that?"

"We're better than they are," someone yelled from the back, one of the rampers who had been unconscious for my segment.

"Are we?" Bill picked him out with his eyes and challenged him for giving the easy answer, but obviously the one he had expected. "Our planes look just like their planes, our cabins are just as crowded, and our leg room equally deficient. We don't fly any faster than they do. Why are we better?"

No one dared risk another response that didn't work. A brief pause stretched to a long one, and still no one spoke up, and still he didn't say anything. He waited until the moment when the silence was unbearable, then answered his own question.

"The way we make money, the only way anyone makes money running an airline, is by running it better," he waited a beat, "and faster," another beat, "and cheaper than the next guy, by demonstrating a deeper commitment to our customers, and by being nothing less than relentless when it comes to keeping our costs down. Relentless, ladies and gentlemen."

He had ended up next to the flip chart and stood there now, scanning the audience, seeing everyone and everything, letting no one off the hook. When he stopped, he was staring at me. "I'm not going to speculate on the identity of the person or persons who set off a bomb in my operation the other night," he said. "That would be a waste of time-yours and mine."

It was as if he had set off his own bomb in the crowded room. No one was moving; they might have all stopped breathing. He swept the room again with eyes that seemed darker. "And I would never accuse anyone of doing something like that deliberately. You have a fine management staff here in Boston and capable union representation, and I'm confident they will work this situation out. When I came in, your manager was talking to you about how incidents like this can affect people's jobs, people who had nothing to do with what happened. That doesn't seem right, does it?"

Every muscle in my body stiffened, down to the arches in my feet. I'd seen him too many times not to know that something was coming. I watched him walk the perimeter of his stage, moving slowly enough that everyone could see him as he passed. "I'm going to go one better." When he stopped, he was staring at Big Pete, holding eye contact as if he had his hand on the back of his scruffy neck. "If I ever find out that someone who works for me planted that bomb, that they put themselves, their fellow employees, our passengers, and our equipment at risk, I'll shut this operation down."

People turned to look at each other, to see if they'd heard what they thought they'd heard. As they began to absorb what he was saying, Bill waited, milking the moment for every bit of drama. "I'll take every last job out of this city and move them to Philadelphia or Providence or Wilmington, Delaware. I don't care."

He spotted the spring water dispenser, and we all watched as he went over, plucked off a paper cup, and filled it. "And if you don't think I'll do it, my friends, try it again." He knocked back the water, turned, and searched the crowd.

"Any questions?"


"Nice of you to show up for work, Leonard." Bill eyed Lenny as the three of us stood around the table in a small conference room in the Peak Club, our haven for first-class passengers and very frequent fliers. Lenny looked as if he'd been dragged out of bed early, which is apparently what had happened.

"Bill, we had no idea you were coming"-he shot me a suspicious look-"did we?"

"No one knew," Bill snapped, "which is exactly what I wanted. My meeting in New York canceled this morning, so I decided to come up here and shake these people up. How was that?" he asked me. "Will that help you out?"

"Tremendously," I said evenly, playing my role in the charade. "Thank you. Do you want to meet with anyone else, maybe the next-"

"You won't need any more meetings. The message has been delivered."

I nodded. Here was a man keenly aware of his own impact.

He reached into his briefcase for a single, wrinkled piece of paper and put it on the table in front of us. It was a copy of the awful drawing that had been delivered to me on my first evening in the station, the one of the hangman's noose with Ellen at the end of it. "I want to know about this."

"Bill, you know what that is. It's just the guys downstairs blowing off steam-"

"No, it's not, Lenny. What this is, Lenny, is bad for business. People who have time to draw pictures and send them to me have too much time on their hands. People who are spreading rumors are not working."

Lenny stuck his hands in his pockets and decided not to pursue the point.

Bill turned back to me. "Now, what about this bomb? What have you learned?"

"The fire department is investigating," I said, feeling more confident. This was a subject I knew something about. "They don't expect to find anything. We have Corporate Security and Aircraft Safety on site. We're almost certain a ramper planted the bomb-"

"There's no evidence of that, Bill. We have to be careful about making accusations."

Bill glared at him. I expected burn marks to appear on Lenny's ecru cotton shirt. "What we have to be careful about is that the thieves, thugs, and criminals that you hired in your day do not get it into their heads that they can threaten or intimidate any member of my management staff and get away with it. You just lost one general manager in a most unpleasant manner." He held up the page again. "Do you really think it's a good idea to have this stuff floating around?"

I didn't look at Lenny because if I had, I surely would not have been able to hide the warm satisfaction that was welling up inside me.

"I just want to know one thing from you." Bill had turned to me. "Do you feel safe?"

Lenny looked at me. I looked at Bill. "Excuse me?"

"You're the one who has to live and work here every day. I want to know if you feel comfortable in this station, and I want you to tell me if you don't."

Well now, here was a loaded question if there ever was one. Lenny was still watching me closely. If I admitted I was sometimes afraid, would I be taken out of the job? And never offered another good one again? If I didn't, was I giving up all future rights to being scared? For the first time I noticed the music that was being piped into the room through an undersized overhead speaker-a tin can version of I Honestly Love You. It seemed as if the entire song had played through twice before I came up with my answer. "I'm fine here."

Bill's eyes narrowed slightly, and I had the feeling he was trying to decide if that was my real answer or my for-show answer. The real answer was that I wasn't always comfortable there, and I didn't want to leave Boston. Lenny had no reaction.

"Okay," Bill said, plowing on to the next subject, "here's what you do. You get that bonehead in here who runs the local. What's his name?"

"Victor Venora."

"Get him in your office and tell him exactly what I just said in the meeting. One more incident that even looks suspicious, and I will shut this operation down so fast, it will make his empty head spin."

"Would you really do it?" I asked.

The expression on his face left me feeling stupid for asking.

"You run this station, Alex, not the union. Don't let them push you around, and don't be afraid to be an asshole." Simultaneously, I was nodding, looking serious, and berating myself for being so thrilled at the sound of him saying my name again. "And you, Leonard, I expect you to give her whatever support she needs to get that done."

As he closed his briefcase, he addressed us both. "I want to see this place turn around, and fast. If it doesn't, I will hold both of you responsible. Do you understand?" He waited until we acknowledged what he had said. "Good. I'm going downtown to meet with some portfolio analysts. Lenny, you come with me and let her do her job."

He blew out the door with Lenny in tow and left me standing there. When I checked my watch, I realized how completely disoriented and out of sync I was. The whole encounter had taken a little over an hour. It wasn't even ten o'clock in the morning.


CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN | Hard Landing | CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE