From the ground crew that checks the airworthiness of your plane to the pilot who flies it, these are the folks who work through the winter holidays and the new year to get you home.
Isaiah Rollolazo makes things happen. A passenger-service agent, he’s also known as a “red coat” in reference to the deep-red jacket he wears. At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the red coat indicates Rollolazo’s role on Delta Air Lines’ customer-service team.
According to airline captain John Porter, “a red coat can make the sun rise in the west.”
And sure enough, when I wonder aloud if I could do our planned photo shoot on an airplane to capture Porter and flight attendant Jollene Phelps in their natural work setting, Rollolazo launches into action.
“I mean, I just gotta make some phone calls,” he says with a smile, then disappears.
When he returns a few minutes later, four bright-orange safety vests — and a plan.
As a red coat, Rollolazo is in charge of the terminals during the day. He assists with operations, ensuring flights are on time and providing extra help at the gates. He is also the first to respond if there are any passenger conflicts.
Rollolazo will be working over the holidays this year, and he says that there’s a lot more pressure due to the increase in passengers (about 500,000 people will travel with Delta through Seattle) — especially those who aren’t regular travelers.
“Delta alone is operating about 10 million passengers during the holidays. So for me, safety of the passengers is my priority,” says Rollolazo. “If there’s any irregular operations, I’m gonna be there to solve what’s going on.”
While the red coats handle issues at the gates, customer-service employees like Jeffrey Molina, who is part of the 13-person Pathfinder team at Sea-Tac, make sure passengers make it to the gates in the first place.
“Our main goal is to help those people get to where they need to go and get through the checkpoints faster,” he says.
With the holidays bringing more once-a-year travelers than usual, Pathfinders have their work cut out for them as they assist lost or confused passengers, keep walkways clear and monitor security-line wait times, helping passengers prepare and requesting additional services to make them move faster.
But Molina, who joined the Pathfinder program a few short years after it was founded in 2000, is well-practiced in handling the holiday bustle.
“I’ve been here 13 years, and I can tell who needs help, who has questions, who looks lost,” he says.
Customer-service workers like the red coats and the Pathfinders may be among the most visible at the airport, but many people behind the scenes share in the job of keeping passengers safe, planes operating smoothly and toilet-paper rolls full.
Behind the scenes
When you walk into the Airport Communications Center (ACC) at Sea-Tac, it’s like walking onto the set of a spy movie. Dozens of screens cover most of the walls and the three senior operations controllers at their desks don’t look up from their computers when we enter.
In the ACC, the operations controllers have eyes on everything. They monitor secure-access doors throughout the airport, they schedule aircraft access to non-airline-owned gates, and they even receive and alert the appropriate response teams for calls about maintenance, janitorial, medical or security issues.
“We get the plugged-toilet calls. We get the overflowing-toilet calls. We get anything in the airport that needs emergent response,” says ACC manager David Richardson.
For general maintenance needs, C&W Services, the janitorial-services company that won a contract at Sea-Tac in 2017, keeps the airport clean. The company has introduced robotic scrubbers to clean the floors and an app that notifies the maintenance team by text whenever bathroom tissue or toilet-seat covers run out.
“It’s cleaning effectively,” says Frank Papp, an account manager at C&W. “We don’t want to be in passengers’ way. We want them to have the services readily available and be clean, fresh for the passenger, so they can get off the plane, use the restroom, grab a coffee, have something to eat, go get their bag, take their Uber, be with their loved ones.”
From the moment a passenger steps into the airport, their comfort and safety is in the hands of many of these behind-the-scenes staffers, working everywhere from janitorial services to customer service to security dispatch.
In the meantime, aircraft technicians are making sure the plane is safe and the bags passengers check at the ticketing counter are making a journey through baggage services.
On the ground
You’ve probably noticed when traveling that the plane you board often arrives at the gate carrying passengers from a previous trip.
What you may not have noticed is the team of aircraft technicians hustling to perform maintenance checks on the plane, speak with the previous crew and address any maintenance issues that may have come up with equipment during the flight.
That equipment includes everything from navigation systems and engines to the onboard coffee makers.
“They’re constantly calling about the coffee makers,” says Bill Serantoni, who’s worked as an aircraft technician for 37 years.
If there are issues that require more time-consuming fixes, the plane may be taken out of service, moved to a hangar for maintenance and a new plane swapped in. But for most flights, technicians are in and out in under an hour.
“The airplanes come in and they’re on the ground for maybe 45 minutes to an hour,” says Serantoni. “That’s all the time we have, so it’s often beat the clock.”
For Serantoni, who off-the-clock is an avid climber, the challenge of being thorough and on time is part of the reward.
“It’s all problem-solving,” says Serantoni. “Climbing is problem-solving and aircraft maintenance is problem-solving,”
As technicians like Serantoni ensure your plane is in good shape, people like Angie Schmitke are hustling to get your stuff to the right place.
Schmitke has been an airline employee since she was 19. In her 30 years in the airlines, she has worked in baggage and ticketing, and even de-iced planes on the tarmac. Now she’s a “bag B.O.S.S.” (“B.O.S.S.” stands for “Baggage Operations System Specialist.”)
Schmitke knows just how much of an impact baggage services has on a passenger’s experience.
“You can have the greatest experience and at the end of your trip if that bag didn’t show up with you, everything that you just went through that was wonderful goes from ‘Wow’ to ‘Bleh,’” Schmitke says.
Still, sometimes bags get lost — or as Schmitzke maintains, delayed.
“Bags are never lost, they’re just delayed. They’re somewhere, somebody knows where they are, they’re just delayed,” says Schmitke, pointing out that there are over 9 miles of conveyor belt in the Sea-Tac baggage system. “There’s a lot of places that your bags can go. Not all of them are intertwined, but it’s easy to make errors. It’s easy to read a tag wrong,” she says.
For Schmitke, even with the increase in baggage, the holidays are just “a short little blip” in the year. “It seems crazier upstairs,” she says.
Her holiday travel advice? Be patient.
“Enjoy the travel through the airports, enjoy the facilities and what they have to offer because they’re part of your experience,” she says. “And take a moment to grab a Starbucks and watch the planes take off and land and just the awe of what that is.”
In the air
For Delta flight attendant Jollene Phelps, a fascination with airplanes is what drew her to the industry.
“I was obsessed with airplanes when I was a little girl,” she says. “I didn’t have boys on my wall; I had planes on my wall. It’s always fascinating to me how something so heavy can get so high and can go so far.”
Phelps’ high-school newspaper predicted she would become either a pilot or a flight attendant. She’s now served as a Seattle-based flight attendant for over 20 years. That qualifies her to join the ranks of “airline people” — that’s the term pilot Porter, an international captain with Delta, uses to describe those taken with the airline lifestyle. “We’re like bohemians that wander the earth,” he says with a laugh. “People either get this job or they don’t.”
Sometimes, that lifestyle means working over holidays, bringing passengers to their loved ones while missing time with their own families. Phelps, Rollolazo, Molina and Serantoni will all be working over Christmas this year.
At the time of this writing, Porter had plans to spend Christmas Day with his wife, but would fly out again the next day, missing New Year’s and his 39th wedding anniversary.
“It’s 24/7 365” is a phrase I heard from several airport and airline employees, referring to the unconventional hours their jobs require.
But it’s not all work and no gingerbread for everyone working at the airport or in the air during the holidays. Rollolazo, a self-described “foodie,” said he planned to celebrate at a company potluck at the airport. “We’re really diverse here in Delta so we’ll try to bring a dish from all cultures. Like for me, I’m Filipino, I try to do lumpia, which is really popular,” he says.
Porter, who’s worked his fair share of holidays in the 30 years he’s been a pilot, says that hotels where flight crew stay for layovers often provide a dinner spread for airline employees who are working over the holidays. But these can be sparsely attended, so he usually just celebrates early.
“In the airline business, you know, some families have Christmas on the 25th; ours is on the 22nd. You just pretend,” says Porter.
Phelps avoids the holiday restaurant closures and hotel dinners by arranging a potluck and gift exchange with her crew. “Usually I get a hold of my crew that I’m flying with and see if all of us can bring something,” she says. “We’re a company, we’re family. So we make the best of it. We’ll have our own little dinner.”
In the ACC hub, there’s even a brightly lit Christmas tree competing with the light from the security screens.
In the end, Porter says that working the holidays is worth it. “I mean, we’re taking people places they want to go,” he says. “This is the one time a year where it’s normally not to a funeral or to something depressing. We’re taking that first grandchild somewhere or we’re taking the kids to see grandma or the family coming home.”