Originally created 06/18/04

Tom Hanks would find home at Augusta airport



An airport is its own microcosm of society, so much so that in Steven Spielberg's new movie, The Terminal, John F. Kennedy International Airport becomes one man's entire world.

Viktor Navorski, played by Tom Hanks, is not allowed to leave the confines of the airport because he does not have a U.S. passport and - to make matters worse - cannot return to his war-torn country. Where that leaves him is in a state of limbo, suffering through the longest layover ever.

For a day, I decided to embrace Navorski's unconventional lifestyle 1,000 miles from JFK, with Augusta Regional Airport as my makeshift home.

While the sun was still hours from rising, I set out for Augusta's terminal with a tote bag in hand, not knowing whether I'd pass out from boredom or learn something new during my journey. Here's what happened:

Slow to rise

Augusta Regional probably will never be known as a hotbed of activity like Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson and Chicago's O'Hare airports, so I certainly wasn't expecting chaotic crowds or fistfights on my early arrival.

Airport doors open at 4 a.m., but at that hour, the only activity I saw were a security guard, who asked me how I was doing each time he passed me, a handful of airline employees preparing for the morning's flights and a comedic pair of maintenance men. One man towered over the other, and together they continually swept through the rooms of the terminal discussing whether the lights were sufficient.

It wasn't until about 5 a.m. that sparks of life flickered through the terminal when a cluster of passengers lined up in front of the US Airways' ticket booth to check in for the first flight of the morning, scheduled for 6.

From there the fliers made their ways to the lobby, by this point established as my home base, to watch Fox Business News on one of two televisions. For those who weren't interested in the day's financial headlines, the outside patio functioned as a smoking lounge, and even at 5 a.m. a few hard-core smokers were getting their fix.

Near the ticket counters, it was not uncommon to see Transportation Security Administration screeners - none of whom wanted to chat with a reporter - seated on benches reading newspapers when the action lagged.

All typical, according to Chris Hubbard, who works for US Airways.

"People arrive last minute for their flights, so there's a little bit of a rush and then it dies down," he told me.

Mr. Hubbard has been working at Augusta Regional and with US Airways for two years, coming from a background as a factory worker. He said there's a big difference between the two occupations because at the airport, all airline employees are cross-trained to do everything, from unloading bags to looking up computerized information.

"You're not stuck doing one job," he said, explaining that he had had to take a gate class, ticket class, etc., and constantly has to take refresher courses.

"It's just a relaxed, nice atmosphere," said Jay Jahn, the owner of the Java Hut, during his morning shift. "There's a lot of down time, so there's plenty of time for us to talk."

Mr. Jahn usually opens the 3-year-old coffee stand at about 5 a.m., and an assistant takes over serving duties in the afternoon. He knows his regular customers and pours a 16-ounce cup of coffee minutes before a Transportation Security Administration worker heads over to the hut. It's the man's regular order, and they lapse into casual chitchat.

The lulls are filled by this camaraderie among employees. The only things that changes from day to day is the customers, who are often at their best - hugging returning loved ones - or worst - yelling at airline workers when they miss their flight - at the terminal.

Flying through

Throughout my day I kept running into Brian Patterson, a U.S. marshal, who serves as a terminal security guard.

"People sometimes think I'm staring at them, but I'm just watching," he said.

Last month, the airport's security questioned when it was found that the privately contracted Sizemore security guards were not properly certified.

Deputy Patterson was one of the marshals brought in just after Memorial Day to fix the situation. He said a dozen security guards now work at Augusta Regional, with three on each 12-hour shift.

In his brief time at Augusta Regional, he said, he has made no arrests, so his job is more of an observational one.

"You can tell a lot about how people live their lives based on how they act here," Deputy Patterson said. "If they're late getting to the airport, they're late everywhere."

Outside of the terminal in front of the gates I spied an family that captured the excitement often equated with airline travel.

Lisa Shull and her four children were an hour early for their flight to Atlanta, which would be followed by a flight to New York City and then on to Moscow to visit her husband.

In all, the family would be in the air for 18 hours, including layover time.

With the exception of a brief flight in a small aircraft, Ms. Shull's youngest two children had never flown before, and she was snapping picture after picture to calm their nerves.

At the same time, she told me to cross my fingers for them that their flight would take off on time. If it didn't, they would miss their Atlanta flight and subsequently their New York flight, delaying the trip by at least a day.

"They cancel flights too much," she said, adding that it's happened to her twice before.

End of a cycle

Under the cover of darkness, the airport reverted back to its early-morning emptiness. At 8:30 p.m., the airlines' ticket counters close shop, and the final flight of the night took to the air by 9 p.m.

At 10:30 p.m. I began to understand the meaning of the term "sounds of silence." Only a few Augustans were seated in the lobby area, waiting for the last flights of the evening to land.

The long hallway between the terminal and the car rental booths held just a few rental agents, a guard and one baggage handler. Later, I found out that this minimal support caused problems.

The final Atlantic Southeast Airlines flight from Atlanta to Augusta had to be canceled because of bad weather.

The passengers eventually were bused to Augusta and arrived about four hours later than their scheduled 11:07 p.m. arrival.

For Leo Vazquez, whose wife, Patricia, was on the plane and then the bus, finding out about the flight's cancellation was a major struggle.

When he heard nothing about the flight, he tracked down the only employee he could find, a baggage handler, who made a phone call and informed him that the flight was canceled and that Mrs. Vazquez might be on a bus headed home.

Using a cell phone, Mr. Vazquez called his wife and was able to meet her for pickup at Augusta Regional when the bus pulled up after 3 a.m.

"It was just a comedy of errors," he said.

It turns out that being a part-time, less-busy airport can have its downfalls, too.

Reach Dena Levitz at (706) 823-3339 or dena.levitz@augustachronicle.com.