The Day I met George Benson
You might know his music: This Masquerade, Turn Your Love Around, Give Me The Night and On Broadway to name a few.
He was a chart topping ‘Smooth Jazz’ performer in the mid 70’s to 80’s. His album Breezin’ won and was nominated for multiple Grammy awards.
I was working for Eastern Air Lines in Kansas City, Missouri in the mid-80’s. As a gate agent, it was not unusual to see or meet celebrities from all walks of life on any given day.
On this particular day, I was the gate agent Boarding the flight 220 to LaGuardia airport in New York City. As I recall it was a Sunday evening flight and typically those flights were not full. In those days EAL was flying the Boeing 727 which was maybe 125 seats in coach and 6 in first class. On this day, it was booked less than half-full.
MCI or Mid-Continent International airport as it was known was a hub for EAL. We had 20 or so flights coming from the East Coast, meeting 20 or so flights coming from the West Coast, all landing at about the same time and in the space of 30 minutes, moving bags, passengers and food all at once. from one coast to the other.
We did it three times a day, everyday 365. It was quite an operation and it was interesting, exciting and challenging all at once. It was wonderful when the weather was good, in the winter with snow and ice, not so much.
On this particular evening, I had pulled the flight manifest to look at the names of the passengers. Every now and then, there might be a name I would recognize. Today, the name George Benson appeared, my first thought was hmm, I wonder if it’s ‘the’ George Benson.
On busy days and full flights there would be two agents assigned to a gate to board a flight. On slower days and lightly booked flights, only one. Today, I was flying solo. Generally we would start boarding 20 minutes before the scheduled departure of the flight. We would start with a special ‘pre-boarding of family’s with small children, children traveling alone or anyone needing extra time to get down the jet way. Once all those passengers were on-board, then we would board individuals traveling in the ‘forward’ or ‘First Class cabin’ On one occasion there was a gate agent who made their announcement using the term ‘First Class Passengers’. Not long after, a special meeting was called to put the brakes on that because it was brought to our attention that ‘all of our passengers are First Class’. Once all those passengers were boarded we would start with the ‘higher row numbers’ at the rear of the plane moving forward. In other words filling the plane from the rear to the front in that order. This would allow the flight attendants time to help passengers stow their bags in the overhead bins or underneath their seats. At times there were issues with duplicate seats or families who were not able to get their seats assigned together and were waiting until just prior to boarding time to give it another go.
It could get intense if it was a full flight and more so if there were connecting flights running late, there would always be passengers getting to the gate late and rushing to get through security so they would not miss their flight.
That was the case on this evening. There was a flight coming from Los Angeles that was running late. As Gate Agents, we knew who the connecting passengers were because we had the name list. George Benson was on that list.
I had everyone boarded that was waiting in the gate area. The Captain came out to talk with me and to determine how many passengers we were expecting from other flights. Many times, the flight we were boarding was making a connection in New York to go on to another destination so departure times were often critical to make. He was a nice guy said ‘we’ll just do the best we can do’. That was a relief to hear the words of a laid back pilot in a good mood.
I was expecting maybe a dozen or so passengers from the Los Angeles flight arriving to board my flight to LaGuardia. Slowly they began to trickle in. I’m checking them off one by one and about half were there… but still no George Benson.
Suddenly I see a well dressed gentleman through the glass partition hurrying toward the security check point at the gate entry. Already we had made eye contact. He was watching me intensely, as I glanced at the clock and saw it was about 10 minutes before departure, plenty of time, I thought to myself.
He collected his belonging as he cleared the X-Ray and at a quick pace approached me at the gate. In an exasperated and desperate voice he said ‘is this plane late?’ I said ‘no, we are expecting an on-time departure, do you have your ticket’? He said ‘well, I can’t give it to you just yet’ Then he looked at me with a look I will never forget. His words got my attention, he said ‘I’m George Benson, do you know who I am’? My immediate response was ‘ your song On Broadway is one of my favorites’. A smile broke across his face, then he said ‘ I just met a woman. ’ I don’t know if I should get on this plane or get on the one to Boston which is at the next gate over. ’ Then he said ‘do you believe in love at first sight’ and I said ‘Mr Benson, you have ten minutes to make a decision but I can tell you this plane is leaving in ten minutes’. Then he said ‘‘look here are my bags, here is my ticket, I can’t miss this flight but can you please let me walk outside this gate, just next door and talk to this woman for one minute’?
How do you say no to a plea like that? I could not but I said listen ‘ I’m going to give you 5 minutes, but believe me when I say, I cannot risk losing my job if this flight is delayed’ He smiled and dashed out of the gate area and down the hall. By this time there were a few more passengers who were trickling in. My count was now at 11, there was one additional passenger I was waiting for and this individual had booked a First Class seat alongside Mr Benson. It was now five minutes until my final boarding call. I was expecting Mr Benson to appear at security any moment. There was still no sign of the other passenger.
I called the agent who was at the gate where the in-bound Los Angeles flight had parked. I asked was everyone off the flight. Loren said, ‘yes everyone is off but there is one man who immediately got on the pay phone in the gate area and was still on the call’. Loren and I were good friends so I asked him would he mind approaching the gentleman and asking him was he on the LaGuardia flight. He said he would. He quickly came back on the line and said ‘Yes, that’s your LaGuardia guy, he’s headed your way now’ Still no sign of Mr Benson and now I’m making my final boarding call at five minutes before departure. We had a policy. If there was a passenger booked in First Class and on a delayed inbound connection, we could call to request an appeal for a flight delay.
I made the call, I gave dispatch all the details, he said ‘hold for clearance’. I could hear the squawk of the walkie-talkie and the response from the Captain, ‘five minutes’ he said. Dispatch came back and said ‘did you hear that’ I acknowledged and just then a gentleman appeared at security to enter the gate. Still no Mr Benson. The gentleman gathered his gear from X-ray and briskly approached the gate with his ticket in hand, then he muttered something about the danged ole flight from LA being late.
I stood and watched him meander down the jet way and enter the First Class cabin. I saw the flight attendant appear in front of the cabin door pointing at her watch. Just then I heard a familiar voice ‘wait, wait’ don’t let that plane leave’ It was Mr Benson, he had a huge smile on his face as I responded, ‘Mr Benson, your plane is ready to roll’. He was delighted as he gathered his bags and glanced back at me as he made his way thorough the exit door ‘ you sir, are a true gentleman’ he said. I just smiled as he disappeared into the airplane door which was promptly closed behind him.
I stood by the glass wall as the 727 engine roared to life and with reverse thrusters slowly backed onto the flight line. As a gate agent, you were always anxious to be sure your flight reported an on-time departure. A delayed flight with no extenuating circumstances or exception approval was a performance issue. You could be a risk of termination.
I stood there going processing my ticket coupon reconciliation listening to the walkie-talkie squawking out the blasts of garbled static as Dispatch acknowledged the ‘official departure time’ by flight number and destination.
I was anxiously waiting to hear flight number 220 to LaGuardia. One by one, they were announced. I was straining to hear through the squawky static of the walkie-talkie. My heart was racing as I was thinking of what I was going to say to the floor Manager, Mr Gunter. I knew I was not one of his favorites to begin with, I’m thinking, this is not going to end well.
In my mind, I’m already rehearsing, what I’m going to say. I knew I had the five minute time extension because of the in-bound flight delay from LA. I was thinking that I could make a case for Mr Benson being a passenger with a First Class ticket and the last one through the gate.
I had done my mental check-off and all the departing flight had reported except for my flight, number 220. I didn’t want to leave the gate area. I’m waiting, waiting, then I see my buddy Loren coming down the hall peering at me through the glass partition, he’s pointing at his watch and just as he clears security and is walking toward me, I hear it, someone in dispatch had keyed the mic on the walkie-talkie but there was no announcement, no sound, only static. Loren looks at me and intuitively knew what was going on.
He just stood there, I stood there and then…there it came again, er ah, flight 220 to LaGuardia. er ah reporting on-time departure. I could finally breath, I muttered, ‘I’m going to keep my job’! Loren just laughed, he said ‘it’s all good buddy, no worries’ We both just laughed as we made out exit.
We walked back to the ticket counter together, both having finished our shift. I’m humming a song and repeating the words in my head ‘ they say the neon lights are bright on Broadway, they say there’s always magic in the air’.