The other day I posted on Facebook an article of mine answering the question, ‘do you need a Pacsafe to protect valuables while traveling?’ – and reader Armanda added they can help prevent your bag straps from getting caught on belt loaders. Armanda is a part-time ramp agent at a regional international airport in the northeast United States as well as a full-time student studying Hospitality and Tourism Management. She was kind enough to answer a few more questions about her job plus some insights into how are bags really are handled once out of passenger sight.
What exactly is a ramp agent?
The responsibilities of a ramp agent can vary greatly from airport to airport and airline to airline. I work in a smaller regional airport, so we do quite a lot. We are responsible for sorting as well as loading and unloading the baggage and cargo on the planes. We also make sure the flight crew gets the necessary paperwork they need and call the city for fuel and/or lavatory services, and deicing (these are all handled by the city ramp workers at my airport and not the individual airlines ramp agents). We make sure flight attendants get ice and any other supplies they may need (not including catering services at my station). We also marshal the planes in and out plus wing walk. We are also responsible for cleaning, searching, and securing the planes that stay overnight at the airport to make up the outbound flights in the morning.
I always tell people, that we’re a lot like a NASCAR pit crew. When we have a plane on the ground we have a lot of things to get done in a short amount of time (barring delays), and safety is always our top concern.
In larger airports, a ramp agent is usually assigned to any one of the tasks I mentioned, and will do that same task for their entire shift. The job can be very stressful and very physically taxing, and at my particular airline, we make just above minimum wage. Most of us keep the job as a second part-time job for the flying benefits. With my airline, we fly stand-by for free! As well as our immediate family members. However, every airline is different, and every airport is different. Some airlines contract out their groundwork.
What is an average day like?
Once again, every airport is different. At my airport, in the summer months when our flight schedule practically doubles, the days are usually crazy. There are always many, many things going on at once, and communication and attention to safety are critical. One of the things that I love about this job is that every day is different, and you just never know how it’s going to play out. Some days your planes come in early, and everything runs smoothly and you get out early. Other days all of your planes are delayed, and nothing runs smoothly and you end up getting stuck two, three, four, or more hours longer than your scheduled shift. It can be grueling at times, working in the elements under high stress, and you’re not always able to take a break for a snack or a drink.
In the winter months, we have fewer flights and shorter shifts and a lot more down time, but we also have snow, ice, and brutally cold temperatures to work in and around making things a bit tricky! We also have pretty continuous computer training that we need to keep up to date on. The amount of training varies based on how many different types of aircraft your station services.
How bad (or well) are bags actually treated?
I cannot speak for every airport, but it has been my experience that bags aren’t treated as badly as people think. However, things happen. You have to keep in mind, that we are almost always under time constrictions, and we can’t place every bag carefully on the baggage cart, or on the belt, or in the bin, there’s just no time. I can only imagine that in bigger airports, this is even more so. Most of the time we have to work very quickly.
What is the most fragile thing you would consider packing? Anything we definitely shouldn’t put in a check-in bag?
As far as checked-in luggage goes, I wouldn’t put anything in your bag that you wouldn’t want to lose. There are just too many variables and too many unknowns. Having worked in an airport, it is clear to me how easily a bag can get lost or damaged, I am actually surprised it doesn’t happen more often! Especially in the larger airports that deal with hundreds or more flights a day.
I know that is not what people want to hear, but if you want to be safe, don’t check anything you wouldn’t want to lose. Definitely don’t check medications, it amazes me how many people make that mistake and then get mad at us.
I also would avoid checking liquids/lotions/etc. or anything breakable. I would absolutely recommend a suitcase with a hard case exterior. These hold up much better, are easier to stack, and have no straps that get hung up on belt loaders, or other bags leading to damage or getting lost. They also protect your clothing and whatnot from the elements. Your bag will definitely be spending time outside and we don’t always have enough covered carts to go around.
How much time or contact do ramp agents have with a single bag?
Again, it varies from airport to airport. But at my airport, I and/or other ramp agents will handle your bag at least two times, possibly more if there are delays and passengers change flights, or if flights are cancelled. At larger airports baggage goes through a much more complicated system, however, I am not familiar with this.
Anything travelers probably don’t know, but should, about checking in luggage?
I strongly suggest using baggage with as few straps, pockets, and zippers as possible. These are constantly getting hung up on equipment and other bags causing damage, and adding a safety hazard to our work environment. Just last week I was lifting a gate checked bag over my head to pass to another co-worker and the arm strap fell down and smacked me in the eye, luckily my eye was not scratched!
If you have to travel with a bag that has a lot of straps and pockets such as a hiking pack on a backpacking trip, find a way to at least keep the straps contained so they wont get caught up in equipment. The other thing I see all the time is car seats being checked as they are. You definitely want to put car seats in some sort of container, a garbage bag at the very least. The straps always always get caught on something, and a car seat is definitely not something you want to be compromised.
Strollers as well, make sure the straps are secured and tucked away before checking them. Ask the counter agents if you need to, they should have packing tape, zip ties, or garbage bags. However, it is best to be prepared upon arrival. Another thing is, pay attention to the weight restrictions of your bag. I see handles get ripped off pretty regularly simply because they are not designed to carry the amount of weight that has been stuffed in the bag. The same goes for zippers, if they are busting at the seams because you have stuffed as much as you possibly can in them, they will more than likely bust at the seams, and your clothing, shoes, etc. will end up all over the ramp, or the bin of the plane, or the carousel.
Pack light, pack secure, and pack smart! Don’t let luggage ruin your adventures!
Thank you again Armanda for sharing your advise, experience and expertise with us!
Great news for backpackers: “I would absolutely recommend a suitcase with a hard case exterior.” Yeah, they are so easy to carry along a bumpy dirt road, up a flight of stairs, through the narrow aisle of a chicken bus… 😀
Perhaps a combination of the two will work 😛
… What happened there!?
Here in Berlin Tegel Airport, whenever one checks in a backpack, they give you a large plastic bag and a plastic band to wrap it. Then, they poke a small hole to retrieve a strap, so that they can attach the luggage tag. Hence the straps aren’t all over the place. It would be great if this were the standard practice on other airports as well.
Obviously hard case suitcases aren’t suitable for all types of travel, the important thing is to keep straps from getting caught up. Perhaps place a hiking pack in a waterproof laundry bag while it is being transported, or something of that nature.
I think some airlines (or airports, maybe…) hire some pretty bad ramp agents but for the most part they’re pretty good. My backpack’s survived enough flying now that I’m happy with them.
Perhaps this is more about the bag and how its packed than the ramp agent… dun dun dun, personal responsibility.
Durability is definitely a critical feature of any bag that’s going to travel more than a few times.
This was an interesting interview! I would have thought that bags get treated worse than that:)
Really insightful post. I’d never thought about medication! I’ll remember that next time. Thankfully enough I have yet to loss a bag- but its one of my biggest fears!