Sunday, August 16, 2009


Ever wonder what goes on behind those black rubber curtains?


According to Wiki, a Baggage Handler is a person who loads and unloads baggage, and other cargo for transport via aircraft. The proper job title would be Fleet Service Agent or Clerk, though the position is commonly known as a Ramp Agent, due to the job's location on the airport ramp (tarmac). More derogatory names include "Ramp Rat," "Bag Smasher", "Bag Jockey", and "Luggage Monkey."

Baggage Handlers get such a bad rep. Here are some of their revelations, as told by Terry Ward through interviews with a major American airline handler, wishing to remain anonymous:

Ten years ago, the security wasn’t as in-depth as it is now. Today, unless there’s something wrong with the bags, we don’t go through them. But every once in a while, we’ll get a bag with a certain low grade humming noise coming from it, and we’ll have to open it. If you touch the bag, it feels like a light vibration is coming from within. About 99 percent of the time, it’s just an electric razor or toothbrush with a battery that gets turned on while the bag is being tossed around. So we open the bag and turn it off. No big deal.

But this one time, we came across a bag that we couldn’t get open. So we had to go out to the jetway, where the passengers were boarding, and call the owner up to claim the suitcase. It was a woman, and we told her, “Sorry, ma’am, your bag is vibrating, you’ll have to open it.” She knew what it was right away -- her face turned bright red. She opened it up, and there was her vibrator flopping around. She turned it off, and said to us, all embarrassed, “I’m a single person who travels alone a lot…” And I’m like, “You don’t have to justify it to me, just zip up the suitcase and we’ll pop it in the plane.” And that was that.

People bring other delicacies, too -- things from Thailand and China. We’ve seen crickets and snails and different kinds of unidentifiable meat. Usually it comes to our attention because they’ve just wrapped it in wax paper and tossed it in their bag thinking, “I’m going half-way around the world, that'll do.”

Every bag is treated the same.

What most passengers don’t understand is that most of the time, all the baggage handling is done mechanically by computers and robots. When they weigh your bag and push it down the belt at the check-in counter, it is now on a conveyor belt. It goes behind the wall and rides miles and miles of belts -- it’s being scanned by lasers, passing through different checkpoints and getting routed depending on the airline and the city.

By the time the baggage handler actually sees your bag at the airplane, all he’s trying to do is put a piece of a puzzle together in the cargo hold as quickly as possible. The cargo holds are actually very, very small, with a curved bottom and a flat top, so it’s really like working a puzzle. He’s got garment bags, briefcases, soft sided and hard-sided suitcases, golf bags, strollers, car seats and so on. He really doesn’t care what kind of suitcase yours is or how much it costs -- he just cares how to put it all together to take up the least amount of space. On a medium sized plane with roughly 150 bags, they’re going to be stacked five high and five across, ten rows deep, with the heaviest bags on the bottom.

Sure, go ahead and put a fragile sticker on your suitcase. But I’m not going to lie -- there are bad apples out there, and they might see that fragile sticker and either make a joke or even treat the bag a little rougher. We see these huge bags that weigh a ton, stuffed with all sorts of stuff. Then there’s a fragile sticker on it and it’s like please -- you know there’s no delicate piece of crystal or an on ornament in that heavy, over-packed bag. Do those passengers really think their bag is going to be treated any differently?

Even if someone comes to us and says “My bag has a glass frame in it,” that fragile sticker is only relevant at your original departure point. If you connect, there’s no way for us to let, say, New York know that when this flight comes in there’s a bag with a very special picture frame with a fragile sticker on it. We can’t just say, “Look for the black one” -- at a busy airport, there are 50,000 bags going through per day.

(Advice: So pack like you're going to war. Insulate your bags and boxes with socks, underwear even female accessories (ahem). The key is to ensure that nothing is allowed to shake or move about in your bag. Hell, test it out - try throwing your packed bag around the living room! Kidding.)


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