As we all know, that Petula Clark was no dummy. Easy and unfettered access to hot guys roaming the streets at lunch hour is not necessarily a requirement for an enjoyable layover, but it never hurts, and is definitely one of the major benefits of staying downtown vs. at some airport Hilton. Fine guys in the street are the only reason that anybody goes to Sydney (deny it, flight attendants, if you dare), but domestically, where the flight time (if not always the duty day) is much shorter, a Downtown Layover is a rare and coveted thing and one of the few things for which every flight attendant is willing to fight.
See, when our airline was in bankruptcy, they slashed and burned many of our favorite sections of our contract in the name of Cost Savings (figuring that calling it Executive Bonus Enhancement would be harder for the court to publicly endorse, although that is precisely where the “savings” went). Before that, we went downtown on any layover over 13 hours, where shops, restaurants, museums, and yeah, even the hot locals were just steps from the hotel lobby. Now we have to be in town at least 20 hours before the company is required to put us downtown (or in a “downtown-like location”). For a layover shorter than 20 hours (up to, and often exasperatingly including, those of 19 hours and 59 minutes), the company can put us up in an airport hotel, where nothing is steps from the hotel lobby and you usually have a direct view from your room of the terminal, including a very literal view of The Horse You Rode In On, lest the company’s Screw You inherent in a long airport layover be lost.
To be sure, there are times when everybody wants an airport layover. At the end of a 4-leg, 14-hour duty day where you’ve had a mechanical delay and an in-flight medical emergency and you only have nine hours to try and rest up before you do three legs home via Orange “can I have a sparkling water and a coffee and a tomato juice with a lemon and a red wine and a blanket and a manicure and what do you mean you don’t have a blanket do you know who I am?” County, you want your shower, your bed, and your Nick at Nite as close as possible. For a short night, we love to lay over in Pittsburgh and Hartford and Houston, where the hotel is inside the airport and we can sleep until a half hour before departure and still be on time. But when you roll up in town at 1:00 in the afternoon and you don’t leave until morning, or if you have the entire day to kill before your 7 PM departure, airport hotels feel more like the prisons that many of them are next to. There’s a limit to how many hotel bar quesadillas a guy can eat, not to mention the number of seventeen-dollar Chicken Caesar Salads he’s prepared to shell out for, but most of these hotels are isolated in acres of parking lot, situated along the side of the freeway in such a way that even if there is a Tim Horton’s or a Whattaburger within five miles, you’re taking your life in your hands to walk to it. It would be one thing if these hotels were bursting with style and amenities, but few hotel chains splurge on decorating their airport locations. Most have a few chairs and maybe a stack of USA Todays in the lobby, but it’s not until you get downtown that you get the glittering atriums, the sweeping mahogany staircases, and the trickling fountains; the hotels that are near millions of things to do are also the ones with such nice rooms that you can barely bring yourself to leave them.
But if you do leave your downtown room, this is a whole new job. Closer to the job we all interviewed for and the one of which we try so hard to hang on to our fuzzy, pre-2001 memories. It’s on your downtown layovers that you can get half price tickets to a show or go see Chris Isaak in concert in Central Park; that you can eat crab cakes at Lexington Market or have coffee brought to your room with your wake-up call. On the old downtown Baltimore layover I could meet my sister for lunch or walk to her house for a dinner party. I’ve brought Jared with me for the downtown San Diego layover, where you can wander the waterfront until it’s time to go to the train station and pick up your friend who came down from L.A. to shop for tea and soap and drink margaritas. The Smithsonian in Washington, Powell’s Books in Portland, roulette in Reno; BBQ in Kansas City, seafood in Seattle, a big ol’ cheesesteak in Philly; not to mention DuPont Circle, Boystown, and Hillcrest⎯all at your feet on a downtown layover and all quite out of the question if you’re at the airport unless you’re gonna get up early and figure out how to ride the train or pay a twenty dollar cab fare to run into the CVS pharmacy or grab a cup of coffee. And on a sunny summer afternoon, if there’s nothing else going on, you can always wander along Chicago’s lakefront and watch the shirtless boys go by. Not to make it about this, but of the (very) few hook-ups I’ve had at this job, I haven’t had one of ‘em at an airport hotel.
What you get at an airport hotel is crummy in-room coffee, scratchy towels and cheap soap and all the Yes, Dear you can watch. You get a hotel in Rosemount, IL that used to be an insane asylum where you only have from 7 AM (after the all-nighter) to 3 (before the 5 PM back to SFO) to try and get some sleep in your poolside room. A pool, I should mention, that is hosting the Largest Polka Convention in the Midwest, and where they fire up the tubas at about 9:00. Or, if you’re really lucky, you get a hotel in Newark, NJ that’s hosting a New Year’s Eve party on December 31st of 1998 and a 6 AM departure back to San Francisco on the First. That the DJ should blast Prince’s 1999 at midnight comes as no surprise. That he should blast it a second time seems slightly unimaginative but not unreasonable. When the bedazzled Jersey crowd that has paid fifty bucks a pop to ring in the New Year at a hotel across the freeway from an airport that backs up against a state prison is still partying like it’s 1999 at four o’clock in the morning (it was 1999, for the love, and had been for hours!), it’s gone from tedious, well past infuriating, to simply absurd. When Sartre said Hell is Other People, he could have been more specific: Hell is a DJ who plays 1999 on a loop for four hours and ends almost exactly when your comically unnecessary alarm begins to blare.
Come to that, it is entirely possible that Flight Attendant Hell is nothing more fiery or torturous than a never-ending stay at an airport hotel, Paradise in view across the freeway but way too far to walk to.