For three days last week, Brian Barron sat awkwardly behind a small table in a hotel ballroom near Los Angeles International Airport, half-heartedly trying to sell a 3-foot high, 50-pound logo that once hung on the wall at the airline call center he manages. A sticker advertised the price in tiny print: “$200, or best offer.”
Barron, 44, appeared a bit disheveled in a purple t-shirt featuring the name and logo of his employer, which he asked not be named, lest anyone ask about the logo’s provenance. But he was pretty sure his bosses wouldn’t mind. “I mean, they were throwing it away,” he said. “It’s not like I stole it.”
It was Friday, the second day of the 38th Airliners International expo, which organizers bill as the world’s largest airline collectibles show and convention. The event at the Sheraton Gateway hotel near LAX had the intense, insidery vibe of a superhero convention, making it something of a Comic-Con for airline aficionados. Hundreds of aviation geeks — or as they prefer to be called, avgeeks — came from as far as Germany and Australia to show off their collections, make a few bucks and hang out.
“It's bro hugs all day,” said Phil Derner Jr., a flight dispatcher for a major airline. Not surprisingly, many of the attendees were men, and a good majority work for airlines. ]
If it had an airline logo on it, it was for sale. Little stuff, most of it priced at a few bucks, included soaps, playing cards, chopsticks from defunct airlines that once flew to Asia, flight attendant wings, postcards, cocktail napkins and swizzle sticks.
Chris Slimmer, a friendly memorabilia seller, bragged that he had flown 340 airlines. Nothing is off limits, he said. “There are some guys who just collect barf bags, OK?” Slimmer's unusual offerings included a 14 gram United Airlines foil peanut bag, with nuts still inside, circa 1994.
There were printed timetables, too – some from nearly a century ago worth $50, and others from the 1990s worth much less. A trio of Southwest Airlines seats were for sale for $200. And there was lots of china – tea saucers, plates and bowls – along with glassware and silverware from first and economy class. It would have been possible to outfit an entire kitchen with items purchased here. Or one could buy a Hawaiian Airlines in-flight beverage cart for $100 and place items inside.
But the most brisk sellers? They were likely airline safety cards, the laminated papers that teach passengers what to do if an aircraft loses pressurization or crashes. Barron said he has 15,000 of them, while another man nearby said he has 10,000. As with just about everything here, the priciest cards belonged to airlines that no longer exist.
How did collectors obtain their bounty? Often they simply take stuff from the aircraft. “There is no stealing,” a German collector named Matthias said. “We ask.” Among the most expensive cards — it was on sale for $50 — was one for a Continental Airlines Lockheed L-1011 TriStar. According to Barron, Continental printed them under the assumption it would fly the plane, but the deal never happened.
Many of the participants were a bit overweight. Some were slightly socially awkward, and many were not wearing the most fashionable clothes. But there were exceptions, like Adam Wright, a 29-year-old regional airline pilot from Virginia, more Top Gun than airplane nerd. Wright fell in with his crowd as a kid, when he learned he was not the only person who liked to take pictures of planes. That night, with his wife's permission, Wright was planning to join his friends at the In-N-Out Burger in Westchester, where they would photograph landing aircraft.
“These guys have embraced airlines since they were a little boy,” Wright said. “What we see here is people who have never let that boyhood passion go.”
Barron was hoping that nostalgic pull might be enough to help him sell his mammoth airline logo. As of Friday afternoon, about halfway through the show, he had received one serious offer, for $125. ” I just might take it,” he said.
Brian Sumers on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: