Out in the aviation world, there are a few different people who always take the blame for anything airline-related. If you are inside the terminal, the customer service staff always take the brunt of any little problem. If it’s onboard the aircraft, the blame is given to the flight attendants. But if something happens to your checked baggage, then all the blame is placed squarely on the ramp agent (more commonly known as a “ramper”).
I was a ramp agent, and I can tell you right now that sometimes that blame should not come to me. Sure, there are times that they should take the blame, but not always. Working the ramp is not an easy job, and I am going to debunk a couple of myths that surround life under the wing.
Working on the ramp isn’t easy, and can be quite dramatic. Passengers either look out from the terminal or airplane window and think that all that the rampers do is throw a few bags around. Well, that is far from the truth. Sure, there is plenty of down time, even in big hub stations, but the work that is done can be quite demanding.
One of the myths is that rampers make okay money. Well, that depends. Many ramp agents are non-union and work long hours for what can often be minimum wage. Think that there is extra pay for working nights or weekends… hah!
The only time you get extra is when it is overtime, and luckily, due to lack of people, there is ALWAYS plenty of overtime to go around.
Another myth is that it must be fun to be working around planes all day long. Sure, as an AvGeek, I did enjoy looking at planes, however it’s not always fun and games. Most of those planes on the ground, to a ramper, are either things that they need to be working on or something that is out to kill them.
One of my favorite jobs on the ramp was to be the chocks agent. My job was to be the first person to touch the plane, once it arrived. However, the scariest part of that job is standing right under the jet bridge, looking down the barrel of an engine spinning at high speed. The first thought through your head is, “I sure hope I don’t get sucked into that spinning engine.” Although it has been rare for a person to end up in an engine (and it should be less), other objects would end up in them more often.
There is another myth that every ramper is as strong as an ox — you know, from throwing those bags around all day. Well that sure as hell ain’t true. Not all ramp agents are throwing bags around, so there is a mixture of people.
For a narrowbody aircraft, like the 737, we worked as a crew of four, with two inside the aircraft and two outside. Generally only one of those two was actually having to throw bags. The other person was stacking inside the cargo compartment (commonly referred to as “the pit”) while the other two were loading the conveyor belt.
I had my time throwing those bags, but I would do that over stacking any day of the week. That doesn’t mean to say I liked throwing bags (or boxes for that matter), just that I would do it because my stacking skills were atrocious.
Throwing bags around though is the where we come to the biggest myth of them all. We have all seen videos or watched it out the window ourselves; rampers carelessly throwing bags. Many feel this is the main reason why bags get broken. Yes, some do, but there are many other people and machines that touch your bag before the ramper even sees it.
Inside the airport, where the bags are collected, scanned, and sent on their way to the carts is a giant set of conveyor belts that move continuously. When your bag passes through a point and it reads the bag tag barcode and the computer says, “this is your flight, time to get off,” a giant arm punches the bag off the belt onto the piers where the bags are collected.
This giant arm (funnily enough, called the puncher) is what will break your bag. It has to push the bag off the belt onto the pier and do it fast enough that it doesn’t get stuck or make it past the required point. It is pretty violent, and one of the things you do not want to get your body near. So, don’t go blaming the ramper for your precious luggage being broken; it probably happened well before it made it to the plane.
Now. That being said, I should probably admit that the first bag I touched on the ramp — I ripped the whole bottom off. Sorry!
When it is wet on the ramp, life is miserable. You are soaked, everything is metal around you, so it is slippery and once you get wet, generally you stay wet. Try pushing panels open or closed on an aircraft with wet gloves or wet hands. So not fun!
But, when the sun is out, life is just as bad. Now you have the sun trying to turn you into a lobster, the airport is nothing but tarmac, so it is hot and baking on the ground and it reflects easily.
The last myth is, “you only have to move my suitcase a short distance, it can’t be that hard.” Sure, there are light suitcases, like the ones that are carried onboard and they can be easy to move.
However, in general, what you are checking is never small, nor light. The average weight of a checked bag is around 50 lbs. That is NOT simple to move at all, and those are the easy bags.
You get to see some interesting bags as they come off a plane. Golf bags, bike boxes, gun cases, and then there is the cargo. So much cargo. Cargo is a major part of how airlines make their money, and with that much cargo, things can get complicated.
These essential items (often called AOG, for Aircraft on Ground) are generally being shipped because a plane needs to be fixed. They have priority over everything else (even your precious suitcase). Many a time I have seen a cargo manifest that read “AOG” and I shuddered thinking what it could be — the worst are aircraft wheels.
Even small aircraft wheels are not easy to move around. A main landing gear for a 737 takes two-to-three workers to move. Imagine a main gear for a 777 or an A380 — pass!
So now that you have read some of the truths about life on the ramp, what can you do about it to make sure your items get from A-B without a hassle? Don’t even think that a fragile sticker or label on your bag will get you special treatment. It won’t.
Also get rid of all those dangling labels, strings, or tags on your bag. These are the items that will surely get jammed in a conveyor belt and cause them to be broken off. If it does get jammed and the conveyor doesn’t rip it off, sure as hell a ramper will “unjam” your bag.
One thing you can also do is have patience. The rampers are doing their best to get your bag to you as quickly as possible. They want to make sure that they are making their targets (since generally, airlines put a target on how long bags have to take to get on or off a plane) and they want to make sure they are doing it as safely as possible.
Life on the ramp isn’t easy; there are a lot of things that want to kill or hurt you (and that includes the passengers, sometimes). So if you are looking out your window and see a ramper — give them a smile and a wave. You never know, it might make their day.