Friday, September 5, 2008

Zen and the Art of Baggage Handling

Today is my last day of work at the best job I ever had. I was a ramp worker for a major airline in Las Vegas. I am being laid off in the Great Purge of 2008: the massive airline cutbacks triggered by astronomical fuel prices.

Before you cry for me, I assure you that losing the best job I ever had is one of the best things that ever happened to me. One of the perks of working for an airline is that you get to fly free (or nearly free) wherever your airline goes. The only downer is that they also make you “work” on a regular schedule, which severely cuts into ones vacation time. Now, thanks to the negotiations of my union, I get to keep my basic flight benefits during my furlough period — for up to three years or until I am rehired — without the inconvenience of work. My only burden now is not having any money to travel with, but it still feels like I have won the lottery.

Tonight, I will turn in my security badge and leave the secret bowels of the airport, probably for the last time. This seems the right time to reflect on my employment and the things it has given me.

Technically, I was a “Fleet Service Agent.” Those are the little ants you see scurrying around a big plane when it pulls into the gate. It may look confusing from inside the terminal, with a dozen things happening at once, and you may wonder how everyone knows what to do. The secret lies in the fact that each of those ants knows what his simple job is, and he doesn’t worry much about other people’s jobs. Even when every plane is delayed and it seems like pandemonium in the waiting area, the life of a Fleet Service Agent is simple and laid back. When the plane comes in, you do what you suppose to, but there’s no stress and always plenty of empty time between flights.

The pay is low, starting at about $9 an hour, but everything else about it is a dream -- or at least it was for me during that phase of my life. In addition to the pay, we got subsidized health insurance and of course those wonderful flight benefits. Surprisingly, most of my colleagues rarely used them, but I was racking up the miles almost immediately, jetting off Europe for intense one- and two-day visits and jumping across the country without even thinking about it. The equivalent pay for me was much more than the $9/hour. It was a whole new world!

As for the job itself, Fleet Service is probably the best work at the airport. The job involves intense physical labor about 20% of the time, buffered by 80% just sitting around waiting for flights to come in. This served two of my personal needs: exercise to for my body and plenty of thinking time for my brain. Fleet Service also requires very little emotional commitment, which also served my lifestyle. Supervisors were mostly invisible, and no one really cared what your attitude was as long as you clocked in on time, were where you were supposed to be when a flight came in and adequately did the job assigned to you. Otherwise, you could read, watch TV or just wander around and mutter to yourself, as I usually did.

The greatest advantage of Fleet Service over any other airline jobs is simple: You don’t have to deal with customers. Customer Service Agents (the people behind the counter and at the gate) and flight attendants are both paid roughly the same wage as us, but they have to deal with travelling public (Yuccck!). They have to put on a front and say the right soothing words to an incessant stream of difficult strangers, which I regard as the worst form of sweatshop labor. We on the ramp only had to deal with bags that hardly ever talked back and didn’t care what we said to them.

It makes me wonder why anyone would choose Customer Service, but a different type of people seemed to be attracted to each job. Fleet Agents are predominantly male, while Customer Service people and flight attendants tend to be female or, in lesser numbers, gay males. (I’m not saying all males in these areas are gay, but it’s amusing how many are, like they are deliberately seeking stereotypically female roles.) There are physical requirements of Fleet Service, like being able to toss 50-pound bags in rapid succession, and a petite female probably couldn’t make the grade, but mostly it seems to be a self-selection thing. In Customer Service, you aren’t going to break a sweat, get your fingernails dirty or leave an air conditioned environment. The health benefits of physical labor and the psychological benefits of not dealing with customers are lost on these people.

The few women who choose Fleet Service (perhaps 25% of the staff) are a hardy breed, and I admire them. There are a few beefy Amazons but also some average-size woman who seem to me no less feminine for choosing this work. The company shows no discrimination in hiring. A woman just has to decide she wants to do it.

Our job in Fleet Service includes several repetitive tasks, which we are rotated through on different days: (a) working at a gate (“gate team”) which involves servicing an aircraft and loading and unloading bags, (b) running incoming bags to the carousel or to other flights (“T-point runner”), or (c) sorting outgoing bags after they are checked in and taking them out to the flights (“bagroom”). There are other jobs in fleet service, but those are the main ones.

In the process, we get to drive around in various trucks and tugs, some of them quite powerful. For boys who used to play with trucks and planes, it’s great fun! The most challenging thing we do is pushing aircraft back from the gate (one of the jobs of the gate team). You sit on a powerful “push tug” hooked to the front wheels of the aircraft. While talking to the pilot through a headset, you drive the aircraft back until it is clear of the gate and can proceed forward -- since most aircraft can’t back up on their own. Hopefully, you do this without crashing the plane into anything. It’s akin to backing up your car with a boat trailer attached: If you’ve ever tried it, you know how tricky it is. In this case, the trailer is a multi-million-dollar aircraft, and if you put even a dent in it, there go your flight benefits.

The quintessential task of the Fleet Agent on a gate team is to marshal (or direct) the incoming aircraft into the gate. You do this with orange wands, and the aim is to have the aircraft stop on a certain hash mark on the pavement. Since the pilot can’t see below the aircraft, he is relying on you to tell him where to stop.

In the classic scene from the movie “Airplane,” a ramp worker is directing a plane into the gate when a co-worker asks him, “Hey Joe, where’s the fork lift?” at which point the marshaller points in another direction with the wands and the plane goes through a wall. After working this job myself, I can tell you that the movie’s portrayal is totally inaccurate. Why? Because there are no folk lifts on the ramp.

My biggest goof on the ramp was when I marshalled in a Boeing 757 and I stopped the plane about a foot short of the hash mark. I then proceeded to help my colleagues unload the bags from the plane. When we were done, I realized that the passengers were still on the plane, because the jet bridge couldn’t reach the door. Although I was qualified to push the plane back, I wasn’t authorized to pull it forward, so another specially trained employee had to come in and pull the aircraft forward one foot. 150 passengers were delayed for a half-hour by my mistake. I could almost hear them cursing: “I’m never going to fly this %*@! airline again!”

Surprisingly, I didn’t feel too bad about the people I had delayed. I was more upset that I hadn’t done my job right. When you aren’t looking at passengers directly, it is very easy to disconnect yourself from their plight. I know how frustrating it can be when your plane gets to the gate but you can’t get off, but it still doesn’t affect me much when I’m down below. It’s the job of the flight attendants and Customer Service people take deal with customer discontent. The job of the rest of us is to get the whole package to the place where it is going. Sometimes, you are going to make people unhappy on a massive scale, but this is often necessary to make the whole system work efficiently.

The people in scheduling have to do this all the time. They may have to delay hundreds of people for hours because of some storm far away or a maintenance problem with an aircraft in a distant city. Some people who are affected are going to get angry and complain bitterly to Customer Service. They tend to think it’s an affront directly specifically at them, but really it’s just the nature of air travel. It’s the safest mode of transportation there is, but there’s never a certainty that you’ll get to your destination when scheduled. It’s more like a probability: You have a 90% chance of arriving when expected, but you always have to be prepared for that other 10% deviation, which in the worst case could mean spending the night in a distant city without your bags.

No one is as aware of these uncertainties as much as we are: the employee travelers. Yes, we fly for free, but we travel standby only if there is space available. We have access to booking numbers and know which flights have empty seats, but even then our travels are uncertain. We have perhaps a 20-30% chance of not arriving when expected. Even a flight with plenty of empty seats the night before can instantly fill up if another flight is canceled (even on another airline) and its passengers are bumped onto this one. In a perfect storm of cancellations and overbookings, you can be trapped in a distant city for days. Things can get dire if you are supposed to report to your shift back home, because the airline gives you no leniency for missed work even if one of their canceled flights is to blame.

You respond to this uncertainly with creativity, flexibility and extensive contingency planning. Sometimes, when things go bad, you have to take calculated gambles, like buying a ticket or taking a bus between relatively close cities to gain a better chance of crossing the country or an ocean.

Free travel means just that: You use a company website to list yourself for the flight, then you go to the airport and get on. I could decide tomorrow morning that I want to go to Rome and be there the following morning. Domestic travel is truly free (at least on my airline), and international travel involves only a few minor taxes. Flying to Rome, for example, is currently $35 round trip in coach. (I could splurge on first class for $235.)

Airline employees and their guests (traveling at discounted rates) are known officially as “non-revenue” travelers, or “nonrevs”. At the gate, they are referred to euphemistically as “standbys.” You hear their names being called just as the aircraft is boarding. You could be sitting next to one! On nearly full flights, they usually have to sit in the middle seats that no one else wants, or you may find them in the exit-row seats that are only assigned at the airport.

The nonrev universe is a peculiar one. I can jump through hyperspace to any airport our airline serves, but when I get there I am limited by my $9/hour wage and often can’t go far from the airport because of it. In Europe, with current exchange rates, I am particularly impoverished. There are no stays in five-star hotels, only youth hostels if I’m lucky (via I must often get extremely creative, like bringing a tent and sleeping bag and sleeping in a wooded area I have identified on Google Earth. I may also bring dried food with me, like backpacking in the wilderness, so I don’t have to spend money locally. Sometimes, whether I can visit a city at all often depends on simply whether I can afford the bus or train between the airport and the city

For example, London is a bitch, both because of high airport fees ($120 round trip) and frightfully high prices for ground transportation and everything else. Spain and Italy, however, are relatively cheap and easy. In Maui, I can walk from the airport to the beach and even camp discretely nearby. Total cost if I bring my own food: $0.

As a nonrev, I can choose my flight on the spur of the moment. This means, in essence, that I can choose my own weather. If it’s raining today in Dublin, I probably won’t go there but might choose Milan instead. I can also choose the kind of flight I want. If a flight is more than 1/3rd empty, I know there is a good chance I can get 2 or 3 seats to myself, in which case I can lie down and sleep soundly all the way to my destination. It is great to be able to board a flight to, say, Venice, get a full night’s sleep on the plane and arrive there fully rested.

Even if I’m stuck in the middle seat of a red-eye flight, I do pretty well. It is amazing what the body can adjust to if it knows what to expect, and there are times when I have slept through a whole flight sitting up. On day flights, I enjoy the thinking time and the time to write on my computer. Some aircraft even have power ports in the armrests (if you have the right adapter).
I have also perfected the art of sleeping in airports. I know which ones are open all night and where the best sleeping seats are. There are certain requirements for comfortable sleep, like warm clothing, a makeshift pillow and a light blanket, and I come prepared. Especially within the secure terminal area, I feel no danger, and I often sleep just as well as I do at home. I think of it as urban backpacking.

All this travel to exotic ports may sound like heaven, but it can get tiring after a while. Travel is certainly educational, at least at first, but doesn’t really give your life meaning. Unless I have a particular mission someplace, I find that I have pretty much exhausted a city in 48 hours. I like to take photos, and I have a wonderful time doing so as I first discover a place, but once the discovery is over, I want to get back to some kind of purpose. After 48 hours in even the most idyllic paradise, I’m usually back on the internet, doing the same things I was doing before I left home.

It is surprising how few of my co-workers take advantage of their flight benefits. Their travels are usually limited to visiting their relatives in other parts of the country. Many don’t even have passports. To fly to Rome for a 1-day visit, you first have to get over some mental barriers. Most people say that they are not going to attempt something that ambitious unless they can do it “right” -- say, by staying for two weeks and using proper hotels. Consequently, they never go at all. I say that the most you learn from a place is gained in the first 24 hours, so why not at least get a taste of it? In Paris, you can at least visit the Eiffel Tower, ride the Metro and get a feeling for the city that you can’t get from books or travel shows. Then you can go home, think about the experience and be better prepared for a later trip. If and when you have more time, you always come back and get into it in more detail.

When you’re working in an office and have only two weeks of vacation a year, your trip to Paris or Maui is going to loom large in your imagination, but when you can go at whim, these places quickly lose their romance. You realize that no matter where you go in the world, you are still faced with the same essential problem: how to find meaning in your life. Meaning probably isn't going to be found in Rome, London or Hawaii. All you’ll find is a different environment that will become routine to you in a couple of days.

After today, I will be free to travel anywhere I want, whenever I want, but I don’t think I will do much that I haven’t done before. Due to a confluence of statistics and union restrictions, it is unlikely I will be rehired in Las Vegas during my three-year furlough period -- which is good, because it means I will have a full three years of freedom. At the end of that period, I could get another airline job to restote my flight benefits. (Such part-time jobs are almost always available somewhere in the country. Check each airline's website!) I suspect, however, that I’ll be ready to give it up by then, having moved on to more important projects.

Meaning is something you have to find within yourself, not out there in some distant place. After you have wandered around for a while and seen how other people do things, meaning usually involves going back and resolving those things that you have left undone.

In some form, it usually requires returning to your roots and going home.

A final barbecue on the Las Vegas ramp (dubbed "The Last Supper") just before half the staff is laid off. Here are some more photos from the ramp.

Update: Oct. 12, 2011: I have just released an "oral history" of my time on the ramp. It is an hour-long video available here...