OF THE BLUE
Woes of a one-time ramp rat
By Elliott Hester
in the mid-1980's, before taking a job as a flight attendant, before
being yelled at by business travelers, puked on by kids and glared
at by passengers as they gnawed the chicken or beef, I worked part-time
as a baggage handler at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.
It was a different world down there. A world of grunting men and screaming
aircraft engines. A world of spine-cracking physical labor. I remember
kneeling inside the belly of a 727, snatching suitcase after suitcase
as it reached the apex of the belt loader. I'd toss each bag maybe
15 feet and watch it slide across the metal floor and slam into the
cargo compartment wall. After the wall had been lined with a single
row of bags, I'd chuck the next bags on top, and more on top of that,
creating a mountain of teetering Samsonite that inevitably collapsed
in a heap.
Occasionally, my baggage-loading brethren fell asleep in the cargo
compartment during an extended flight delay. That's right. Waiting
for mechanics to fix a problem or for weather to clear, we've been
known to curl up on a comfy piece of luggage and catch a few z's.
Normally, colleagues wake the ramper when the flight is ready for
departure. But a forgotten few have faced the unthinkable.
Once, as one of our airplanes taxied toward the runway, a flight attendant
heard a strange sound. At first she ignored it. But when the noise
repeated itself she took notice. It was a rhythmic, clanging noise,
according to the flight attendant's report. A noise too weird to emanate
from the belly of a commercial aircraft. The flight attendant gathered
her colleagues who listened intently. Worried, they notified the captain
who decided to return the aircraft to the gate.
As it turned out, a ramper had fallen asleep in an un-pressurized
cargo compartment. When the plane began moving he woke and began banging
frantically against the fuselage. If not for the flight attendant's
ears and the captain's actions, the plane would have taken off routinely
and the ramper may have died.
After two months working the ramp, having fallen into the rhythm of
driving tugs, loading and unloading passenger luggage, emptying lavatory
toilets (you don't want to hear the gory details) and working outdoors
from 10 p.m. until 2 a.m. in sub-zero weather, I was approached by
a senior baggage handler. Vic was a ramp rat of formidable strength
and personality the kind of guy people listen to because they're
afraid not to.
Vic took me to a secluded spot on the ramp side of the baggage claim
area. This is where we off-loaded arriving bags onto a conveyor belt
that carried the bags to waiting passengers on the other side of the
wall. Vic was toting a piece of soft-sided passenger luggage. But
instead of placing it on the belt, he laid the bag on the floor. He
crouched above it, and after scanning the area for supervisors he
spoke to me in a whisper. "This is how things work around here."
He unzipped the bag, rifling through the contents with an expert hand
that produced immediate results. "What you're looking for is
this," he said, waving an envelope in front of my face. "A
lot of people, especially old folks, put money in envelopes."
At first, I just stared at him. Then I shook my head as if I'd just
swallowed a gulp of skunky beer. "This... this ain't right,"
I told him while backing away.
When I showed up for work the next night, a handful of rampers (all
of whom had close ties to Vic) greeted me with silence. Unsure of
how to deal with the situation, I reported to my first flight of the
night. It was cold outside. Fifteen degrees below zero to be exact.
Vic's eyes seemed even colder. "Watch your back," he said,
his breath drifting from his lips in frosty white plumes. "The
ramp is a dangerous place."
He was right. The ramp is a dangerous place. Injuries can occur a
hundred different ways. Once, after being hit by a jet blast, the
hood of my tug flipped up, slammed into my head and knocked me unconscious.
With a guy like Vic as an enemy, my chances of serious injury had
Moments after his threat, I crawled up the just-positioned conveyor
belt, hopped into the cargo compartment of the aircraft, and began
the task of tossing bags. When I finished, Vic backed the machinery
away from the aircraft. He then drove away, leaving me stuck in the
With the conveyor belt gone, the only way down was to jump. I can't
remember the type of aircraft, but the cargo compartment was high
enough so that I had to hang from the lip of the door and drop several
feet to concrete.
Later, in a remote ramp area, another tug came out of nowhere and
rammed into mine. The force of the collision threw me to the ground.
I suffered only cuts and bruises, but the incident let me know that
my days on the ramp were numbered.
I walked to my supervisors office, feeling a bit like Serpico, the
honest cop played by Al Pacino in a movie about police corruption.
I told my story, but my supervisor simply shrugged his shoulders.
If I remember correctly, Serpico ended up in a witness protection
program. I ended up as a flight attendant..