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The Baggage Handlers Have Their Say

Remember the time you were waiting for your bags at John Wayne Airport and out came the handle with the tag--and nothing else? Remember what you said about baggage handlers then? Want to hear what they say about you?

I spent a morning at the PSA/American Airlines terminal watching and working with the rampers (officially, “ramp agents,” because they do lots besides handle baggage), and when they took their break, I turned on my tape recorder and asked them all about it.

There were eight of them--Ozzie Baglione, Larry Bailey, Joe Dowling, John Jansen, John Kenyon, Gary Kresser, Nick Orlandos and Gil Schuckman--and they were so eager to tell their side I couldn’t keep up with who was saying what.

But this is some of what was said:

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Who checks the most troublesome bags, I asked.

“Japanese tourists. You know, the price of canned meat here is very inexpensive compared to the price of meat in Japan, so they come over here and see Disneyland, they buy a Samsonite--the largest possible bag--and they go down to the store and buy about 80 pounds of canned beef and stick it in there and take it home. If you have a whole tour group of them--100 bags--it can be awful.”

“Bags over 70 pounds are supposed to go air freight, but with the competition in the industry being such that you don’t want to do anything at all to upset passengers, if King Tut came up with his coffin they’d check it in, I’m sure.”

“We don’t care. As long as they put a ‘heavy’ tag on it, 70 pounds doesn’t bother us. That’s a light bag for American (Airlines). If you can’t lift a hundred pounds, you should be in a different line of work.”

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“If people send, for instance, trunks, they should realize that there is the possibility they may incur the displeasure, the wrath, of the handlers.”

“There was an agent in L.A. who hated trunks. He’s no longer there; he got fired for a nonrelated offense. He hated trunks with a passion. He was a big sucker, and whenever a trunk came in, he’d pick it up and bang it on the ledge of the (airplane’s baggage) pit until the trunk busted open. Then he’d chuck it into the pit. He’s no longer there.”

“You know what’s a nuisance on a bag? Those handles that come out (for pulling it along on wheels). They tend to fold out just as you’re throwing them in the pit and catch some guy right in the chest, like a spear.”

“And wheels. Just about everybody’s got wheels nowadays. They’re awful. They encourage everybody to pack as much crap into their suitcases as they can; they don’t have to carry them. Plus the wheels tend to catch on the belts and on the edges of the pits. They break off. They have to be handled differently.”

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“Another one of our favorite things are hanging (garment) bags. They make them with a little latch so you can put the hanger down and latch it, but no one ever closes those. So you’re always getting caught by those stupid hangers. We had this guy in San Francisco . . . the hook went right through his nose.”

“And buckles. You reach for a bag and the buckle jams up under your fingernail. And you pull the bag out and the buckle gets caught on something and pulls off or rips open another bag.”

Which do you prefer, hard bags or soft?

“Light bags. We don’t care whether they’re hard or soft. The lighter your bags are, the better they’re going to be treated. But soft baggage will get destroyed sooner or later.”

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“I don’t care how heavy it is as long as it stays closed. A lot of these people have these flimsy old bags with these funky latches that don’t hold anything. They pack it to the gills, and as soon as it takes a little jarring, the whole thing pops open. It takes forever to put it back, and when they get their luggage, it looks like someone’s gone through it. Then they come into Passenger Service to complain. All they got to do is put a belt around their bags.”

“And bags should be waterproof.”

Waterproof?

“Yeah, because of the rain. Your bags can sit out in the rain. They (the airport authorities) won’t let us build a canopy over the baggage area here. And in Chicago, it can rain and then freeze. And sometimes people check a case of wine or something and it breaks and leaks all over the pit.”

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‘And it’s really neat when people Armor-All their luggage (that is, coat them with a preservative spray). They want to take good care of it, but try to pick one up. You might as well put Vaseline on it.”

“You have to understand that this job is a tough job, because no matter how well we do it today, tomorrow we’re going to have the exact same schedule. It’s not a real rewarding job. So people should realize that, you know, there are some frustrations involved, and the only thing available to take out the frustrations on is the luggage. And the most flagrant abusers will. This isn’t true here, of course, but at other airlines in other airports . . .” (General laughter.)

“Seriously, there’s not much damage here. There’s almost no damage here. Anytime you have it handled by hand, you got people looking out for it.” (At this point, a ticket agent sitting nearby broke into laughter.)

“We’re not a moving company. That’s what a lot of people think--that we’re Bekins. No airline will be responsible for fragile items. You get a cardboard box about this big, and then there’s a big thing sticking out of it that’s taped up like a sword or something. It’s usually the antenna.”

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“You know, we’re getting older. We started all together at a very young age, and now the work force is catching up in age with the other airlines. Watch an older airline; they got four times as many guys doing the same job, because they can’t handle it physically. It’s pretty sad to see a 55-year-old ramper, and there’s plenty of them around. And we’re starting to have problems.

“That pit is only 38 inches high. You’re always in some bizarre position handling the bags in there. It’s pretty hard to lift anything properly when you’re either kneeling or sitting inside the pit and somebody hands you an 80-pound bag.”

OK, the ideal bag is hard-sided, wheel-less, waterproof, has a belt around it and is lightly packed. But who is the ideal baggage handler?

“Someone short. It’s better to be short than tall. And it’s better to be stocky and have good upper body strength. And real long arms so you can pull yourself into the pit.”

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You’re describing a chimpanzee.

“Yeah, he would be perfect. We used to have a few; remember (name deleted)? . . . “


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