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Baggage Handler Confidential

Find out what really happens to your luggage after you've dumped it on the conveyor belt.

The following Q+A was conducted with a former baggage handler who worked for a major airline for three-and-a-half years. For the record, the baggage handler, who along with the airline will remain anonymous, quit his job recently and of his own accord.

Q: Tell us about your training.
A: We received five weeks of training mostly to learn the computer system for tagging and tracking luggage, and how to safely operate the heavy equipment you see on the tarmac. We also had an overview of all job areas including the baggage room, handling inbound and outbound luggage and ramp responsibilities.

Q: What about handling personal property?
A:
Yes, that was part of the training too but it’s pretty obvious stuff. Many people don’t know that there are security cameras everywhere down there, plus customs agents and RCMP officers with drug-sniffing dogs regularly walk through. There was even a rumour of undercover police. I never saw anyone tamper with luggage the entire time I worked there.

Q: Have you seen the YouTube video, United Broke My Guitar? The lead singer of Canadian band Sons of Maxwell recounts a real life incident where baggage handlers play hot potato with his guitar—while he watches from his seat on the plane.
A:
I’ve seen it [chuckling]. Never anything that bad. I have, unintentionally, broken my fair share of handles because the luggage was way too heavy for the handle stitching. Over the time I was there, I saw about 50 broken handles. The odd bag broke open, too. For those, we’d either tape it up or pack the contents in plastic containers similar to what you use when you go through security.

Q: Anything else? Perhaps an incident that wasn’t handled the way travellers would hope?
A:
In every workplace you get a bad apple or two. If a bag came in late after the rest were loaded, but there were still a few minutes before takeoff, the bad apple types wouldn’t make the effort to run it out. The bag would be put on the next flight, which sometimes meant the next day.

Q: What about traveller errors? Did you see packages that should never have been checked in the first place? A soft camera case or a purse?
A:
I saw a six-pack of giant-sized Clamato bottles, like the ones you’d get at Costco for making Bloody Caesars. They weren’t packed up; they were just sitting in a cardboard tray, headed for the Caribbean.

Q: Best part of the job?
A:
The majority of the baggage handlers are good, hard-working people who want to do the right thing, and I liked them. The other benefit was the travel. Thanks to the price breaks for airline employees, I’ve seen and experienced a good part of the world. London for $100, Frankfurt for $55, Vegas for $15—all round trips. Of course there were restrictions, the biggest being that we could only fly standby. So you’d take your chances and sometimes get stuck like I did on a few occasions.

Q: Worst part of the job?
A:
At the time I was there, part-timers earned just under $11/hour and full-timers got about $24/hour. Turnover was pretty bad for part-timers. The airline hired a lot of kids and new Canadians who had a tough time paying for college or supporting their families with those wages. Working outside year round was tough, too. Some management didn’t treat the employees very well and that did absolutely nothing in terms of fostering team spirit. Despite all of that, the workers in the bag room and on the floor were great.

Q: What would you do to make it better?
A:
It starts at the top. I’d begin by treating people fairly and with respect, and implement policies that encourage working as a team.

By Sherryll Sobie

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