I adore airport bars. I'm one of those people that hates to fly but flies all the damn time and nothing, I mean nothing, takes the edge off like a little pre-flight booze. I routinely get to the airport three hours early just so I can kick back, send a few emails, sip on something strong, and enjoy a few eps of muted SportsCenter before takeoff. A good airport bar -- and, more importantly, a good airport bartender -- has saved my anxiety-ridden ass on the regular.
But despite the number of hours I've spent sucking down $11 beers and microwaved quesadillas, I can't even imagine what it must be like to be the guy pouring the pints. Airport bars are their own breed entirely, a far cry from your average pubby environment, and airlines have very strict rules when it comes to dealing with intoxicated passengers (i.e., if you fly too close to the sun at an airport bar, you might find yourself not flying at all). But no matter how much the folks behind the scenes try to control the madness, drowning a group of pre-flight jitter-ers, stressed-out parents, and horny business travelers in a whole lot of high-priced liquor is anything but predictable.
So how in LaGuardia's name does an airport barkeep keep it together, day in and day out? Ted Tomlinson, a former bar manager stationed at Vermont's Burlington International Airport, gave us the scoop.
Some people don't know their limits
"When we first opened up, we didn't really know the extent to which these heavy Vermont craft beers could affect people. There was this one older guy -- shorter, on the lighter side -- and he had four or five craft beers. Then, when he stood up out of his chair, he just fell right over.
"One time we had this petite blonde soccer mom, probably 120lbs soaking wet, come in and order a Mich Ultra. I told her we didn't carry it, so she ordered a Heady Topper instead. She got one and half beers into it and started screaming that she was going to kick everybody's ass and that we better be glad her husband wasn't there to beat the shit out of us. When we called security, she started threatening them. Then we called the cops, so she started threatening them. She ended up getting escorted out."
And then others are just straight-up cuckoo-bananas
"The story that sticks in my mind the most was when a woman came through who was obviously intoxicated. We refused to serve her, so she kept going up to different people on the service staff and asking for a beer but everyone refused. Then she started making these loud, crazy comments to another customer at the bar like, 'Well, we'll see what happens when I get on this plane. We'll see if everybody makes it off…' The guy she was talking to, he got up, went over to the gate agent, and told her everything. In all my years of working there, this was the only time I saw someone push the panic button. They brought the whole staff out and meanwhile, this lady keeps trying to get on the plane. The staff had to physically link arms and walk her out of the terminal.
"We also had a couple guys racing wheelchairs all around the terminal, in and out of the bar, and screaming and yelling. Obviously we called the airport police and when they showed up, these kids took off. The cops found $3,000 or $4,000 worth of heroin laying there on the chairs -- I'm guessing they tossed it there because they were all doped up."
"I watched her take two or three Xanax right in front of me, down a couple more drinks, and before I knew it, she was drooling all over the bar."
Last call depends on the last flight out
"The life? For one, it's hectic. You never know what time you're getting off work because there are so many delays in the air industry, so you could end up putting in a 10-, 12-, 15-, 20-hour day. A lot of people don't realize that. And as a bartender, I found that that's when all the trouble began. All my horror stories come from delays."
Nerves, booze, and lengthy delays make a terrible combo
"Frequent flyers all have their regimen. They always show up, have a Bloody Mary, bang out a couple work emails, pop an Ambien, and they head to the gate. Then a delay hits and all of a sudden you've got a bar full of people that all have sleeping pills and booze in their systems and that's when the craziness starts.
"You see people pass out all the time. We had to call the EMTs on one guy because he just slipped into what looked like a coma. Turns out he'd been flying all day, popping pills, and drinking straight whiskey. And back when we first opened up, this little old lady came in, ordered a mimosa, and I didn't think anything of it. Then I watched her take two or three Xanax right in front of me, down a couple more drinks, and before I knew it, she was drooling all over the bar."
Airport bar... or meat market?
"Most of the business travelers we'd see were contractors, consultants, transplants -- very put together, very attractive, both the men and the women. Plunk them down in the middle of small-town Vermont and there's no shortage of people hitting on each other. It happens all the time. A lot of business guys, more than half of them married, just cannot resist hitting on every girl at the bar.
"I remember this time two professional models came through on a shoot and there was this huge delay affecting most of the people in the bar. Take that amount of liquid courage and add two professional models to the mix -- it was like watching a never-ending stream of lemmings jumping on top of each other to buy these women drinks. It was round after round for hours on end."
"You have to cut a lot of people off. Constantly."
Flying while lit is a major no-no
"If someone seemed well on their way, the trick was to find out when their flight was and then try to pass the blame onto somebody else. Our best line was, 'Hey, we want to make sure you make it onto your flight -- the flight attendants are really strict with this kind of stuff.' Nine times out of 10 they were pretty receptive to that."
Cutting people off is serious business
"Working at an airport bar, you have to cut a lot of people off. Constantly. Sometimes, you'd have to stop them way before you even started serving them. That gets a lot of people angry -- they're used to drinking six, eight, 10 drinks at a bar, but then they're surrounded by other people who are on the same level. But at an airport, you've got someone who's six beers deep next to a mom with three kids and she doesn't drink at all. It's just not traditional bar rules.
"One guy came in already pretty far gone and sat down, had one beer, and started eating off other people's plates. He tried to order another and, of course, I cut him off. Then he started getting mad at me, saying he was going to kick my ass, and when I tried to throw him out he threatened to call the cops. I was like, 'Oh, don't you worry, they're on the way.'
"We've even had people switch terminals just to keep drinking. We had one guy that was hammered at 5 or 6 in the morning and was throwing such a fit that they wouldn't let him on his flight. After security escorted him outside, the guy walked over to a gas station nearby, loaded up on tallboys, came back, and sat there drinking them right there outside the terminal, yelling at the guards to let him back in."
Regular customers are actually a (kind of sweet, kind of sad) thing
"I'd say 50-60% of people were regulars, which was something I didn't anticipate. Vermont has more business travelers than you'd think and there's quite a small network, so you'd see people who live at opposite ends of the country that have worked together before on projects or whatever, and they'll run into each other at this small airport in Vermont. That always cracked me up.
"Way more people tried to make conversation with me there than would have in a traditional bar. The commuters especially latched on to bartenders, more so than anyone else, because they're always in and out of hotels and airports and away from their families. And we'd remember their names and their companies, try to make them feel at home because they don't have that home experience."
"The pilot had to turn the plane around to throw the guy off."
There's always, always "that guy"
"The biggest fear we had -- and this we'd see time and time again -- is people smuggling in nips because they don't want to pay airport liquor prices. So these people will come up and order a soda, go out into the terminal, and just get hammered. They just keep going back and forth until someone catches them.
"Once there was a guy who brought in some booze and, after a few drinks, started getting into it with another passenger. And then, of course, the gate staff happened to seat the two next to each other on the plane. So the woman that he'd been fighting with told the flight attendants that he was intoxicated, and the pilot had to turn the plane around to throw the guy off. You can imagine how well that went over."
But, some good stuff happens too "When one of our bartenders was pregnant, a businessmen that travels through a lot found out and left her a $100 tip. I, myself, have gotten two different $100 tips -- one was a regular who had just ended her contract and got a promotion. She was so appreciative that we always remembered her name and her industry that on her last day, she left me a hundred bucks.
"You'd be surprised at people's generosity. I've seen business travelers give their upgrades or their first-class tickets to families or to people traveling for a funeral or some kind of emergency. And I can't tell you how many times I've seen guys in military uniforms get their tabs covered -- it happens every day, at least once or twice a day. It's little stuff like that that makes all the insanity worthwhile."
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