Thursday, September 10, 2009

Confessions Of A Baggage Handler And A Flight Attendant

A baggage handler working for a major American airline agreed to dish on the scene behind the scenes. Here's what he had to say --

On Embarrassing Baggage Situations: 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.

On Bizarre Baggage:  Particularly on flights to lesser-developed countries, people bring all sorts of weird stuff that you don’t normally see in suitcases -- it's usually stuff their families can’t get, or things that are considered a luxury. We see a lot of mechanical and hardware items that you take for granted that you could go to Wal-Mart and pick up. Boxes break open, and we’ve seen small engines for lawn mowers, a lot of car parts -- air filters, oil filters, starters and alternators. You name it. Then there are the food items. When I worked at one mid-western airport, just about every flight coming in from Europe had either Italian sausage or Polish sausage, but it wouldn’t be refrigerated and it would just start turning bad after a nine-hour flight. 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.”
On Luxury Luggage and the (Non) Functionality of Fragile Stickers:  Whether it’s a cheap duffel bag or a Prada or Louis Vuitton suitcase, it all gets treated the same. I’m sure there are a handful of baggage handlers who know the difference, but there are a lot of knockoff designer bags coming from China anyway. And the fact is, 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.
(Budget Travel) -- Tim Cigelske was a baggage handler for a major airline in Milwaukee from 2005 to 2007.
$7.50 an hour: Baggage handling is boring and strenuous. The pay is terrible ($7.50 an hour) and the hours are worse (shifts begin at 4 A.M.). But off the clock, we can fly for free if there's an open seat on our airline or its partner carriers. I flew free--a few times in first class--to Cabo San Lucas, Orlando, Costa Rica, San Francisco, Denver, and Seattle. The downside is that airline employees are the first to get left behind if a flight is full, so travel plans can get screwed up: I had to spend a night under the Phoenix airport's fluorescent lights.
Still, we all took advantage of the perk; otherwise it was tough to justify flinging luggage when the windchill was 15 below zero. I tried to fly at least once a month. I heard of handlers who flew to Philly just for a cheesesteak.

Rookie fliers: A baggage handler can tell when it's spring break or a holiday without looking at a calendar. That's when the bags bulk up because inexperienced travelers overpack (and get slapped with fees for bags over 50 pounds). I'd rather work a flight filled with hard-core bowlers checking their balls en route to Reno than a trip headed to the Caribbean. How much stuff do you need for the beach?

Luggage left behind: Check in at least 30 minutes before the flight. Any later than that and your bag will probably miss the plane. Sympathetic ticket agents sometimes call and ask us to swing back and pick up late bags, so you might want to beg them for help. Most times, bags are delayed or lost for other reasons. Depending on the airport, luggage is sorted by the three-letter destination code, flight number, or both. (The ticket agent usually tears off bag tags from old trips, but it can't hurt to rip them off yourself to avoid confusion.) There was one day when a delayed flight meant that we had two departures at the same time to the same city, and I loaded an entire cart of bags onto the wrong plane. Another day, we loaded so many bags of golf clubs bound for Myrtle Beach that the plane ran out of storage and we had to hold 10 bags. And sometimes there's no explanation. Miscommunication is easy when everyone's wearing hearing protection and shouting over jet engines.

No special treatment: Pristine new bags don't stay that way for long inside a cargo bin, so buy luggage that's durable, not fancy. But don't go the cheapskate route: An overstuffed duffel bag held together with duct tape is a mess waiting to happen. Baggage handlers can cram a Boeing 737 with 150 bags in under 30 minutes. Factor in even higher loads for bigger planes, and multiply that by several incoming and outgoing flights a day. Do you really think anyone's bag is going to receive special treatment?
Back pain: In nearly two years I probably hauled 250,000 bags. If it weren't for that job, I wouldn't have traveled to half the places I did, but I'm glad I quit. My chiropractor says my back problems are likely related to the job--and I'm only 25 years old. While I miss the free flights, I'm pretty sick of airports. For my next vacation I might just go as far as I can pedal on my bike. But if I do fly, you can be sure I'll try to bring only a carry-on.
Confession of a flight attendant

Provided by: An anonymous confessor who has been a flight attendant for the past three years.
Smiling is job one: Airlines put would-be flight attendants through four or five interviews before hiring them. The interviewers specifically look to hire people who are sweet and smile as much as possible--and what better testing ground for that than a few rounds of job interviews? After getting hired, I attended five weeks of flight training. It was during the course that I found out a certain amount of makeup is required of female flight attendants, as are high heels when you're in uniform outside the plane. (Flats are recommended on flights.) But no rule is as important as nodding your head, addressing passengers as "sir" and "ma'am," and smiling.
Block time: Passengers always take out their frustrations about delays on the crew, claiming we must be thrilled to receive overtime pay. But 99 percent of flight attendants are paid only for "block time"--from when a plane pushes back from the gate until it opens its doors at the arrival city. When there are delays, flight attendants can work a 13-hour day yet receive only seven hours' pay.

Want a stiff drink?: Tipping is not encouraged by the airlines, but greatly appreciated by the staff. The key is insisting that we take the money; we're not allowed to accept it on the first attempt. I make doubly sure to attend to the needs of anyone who has tipped me, sometimes throwing in a free round--and the drinks are always strong. Another way to the crew's heart is to give them snacks. Day in, day out, we stare at the same dull airline food. So we're overjoyed when a passenger treats us with fancy chocolates or even packaged trail mix. Simply wait until boarding is complete, hand the gift to a flight attendant, and say, "This is a little something for your crew."
Pet peeves: If it's a short flight, please use the airport's restrooms before boarding. On many short flights, we're required to do the full beverage and snack service, which is incredibly difficult when there are people in the aisle. Other ways to get under a flight attendant's skin: asking for beverages and food before we even take off; requesting seconds before the rest of the cabin has been served; ringing the call button so you can give us your trash after we've passed through with a garbage bag half a dozen times; ringing the call button to find out when we'll land. Basically, you never want to push the call button at all.

First-class perks: Our business-class passengers receive unlimited free cocktails and snacks. But management actually discourages flight attendants from offering these passengers our "expensive" snacks. When taking an order in business class, we're supposed to mention only the items that sell in coach for $2. We give the stuff that goes for $4 or $5 strictly on request. So if you're in business class, open up the airline magazine and take a look at what's offered onboard. If you ask for something you see, your flight attendant has to hand it over

Happy hour, any hour: If you want to meet flight attendants outside the work environment, it's as simple as going to the bar of the hotel nearest the airport, where you'll find airline crews unwinding at any time of day. Sometimes we party with staff from another airline in someone's room, the hotel lounge, or poolside. Snacks and cocktails are always provided by the airline (wink, wink).
"To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” ~ Bill Bryson

1 comment:

  1. That was cool!! The real inside scoop......