AIRFARES

Confessions Of... A Baggage Handler

"I loaded a cart of bags onto the wrong plane."

Tim Cigelske was a baggage handler for a major airline in Milwaukee from 2005 to 2007.

$7.50 an hour Baggage handling is boring and strenuous. The pay is terrible ($7.50 an hour) and the hours are worse (shifts begin at 4 A.M.). But off the clock, we can fly for free if there's an open seat on our airline or its partner carriers. I flew free--a few times in first class--to Cabo San Lucas, Orlando, Costa Rica, San Francisco, Denver, and Seattle. The downside is that airline employees are the first to get left behind if a flight is full, so travel plans can get screwed up: I had to spend a night under the Phoenix airport's fluorescent lights.

Still, we all took advantage of the perk; otherwise it was tough to justify flinging luggage when the windchill was 15 below zero. I tried to fly at least once a month. I heard of handlers who flew to Philly just for a cheesesteak.

Rookie fliers A baggage handler can tell when it's spring break or a holiday without looking at a calendar. That's when the bags bulk up because inexperienced travelers overpack (and get slapped with fees for bags over 50 pounds). I'd rather work a flight filled with hard-core bowlers checking their balls en route to Reno than a trip headed to the Caribbean. How much stuff do you need for the beach?

Luggage left behind Check in at least 30 minutes before the flight. Any later than that and your bag will probably miss the plane. Sympathetic ticket agents sometimes call and ask us to swing back and pick up late bags, so you might want to beg them for help.

Most times, bags are delayed or lost for other reasons. Depending on the airport, luggage is sorted by the three-letterdestination code, flight number, or both. (The ticket agent usually tears off bag tags from old trips, but it can't hurt to rip them off yourself to avoid confusion.) There was one day when a delayed flight meant that we had two departures at the same time to the same city, and I loaded an entire cart of bags onto the wrong plane. Another day, we loaded so many bags of golf clubs bound for Myrtle Beach that the plane ran out of storage and we had to hold 10 bags. And sometimes there's no explanation: Miscommunication is easy when everyone's wearing hearing protection and shouting over jet engines.

No special treatment Pristine new bags don't stay that way for long inside a cargo bin, so buy luggage that's durable, not fancy. But don't go the cheapskate route: An overstuffed duffel bag held together with duct tape is a mess waiting to happen. Baggage handlers can cram a Boeing 737 with 150 bags in under 30 minutes. Factor in even higher loads for bigger planes, and multiply that by several incoming and outgoing flights a day. Do you really think anyone's bag is going to receive special treatment?

Back pain In nearly two years I probably hauled 250,000 bags. If it weren't for that job, I wouldn't have traveled to half the places I did, but I'm glad I quit. My chiropractor says my back problems are likely related to the job--and I'm only 25 years old. While I miss the free flights, I'm pretty sick of airports. For my next vacation I might just go as far as I can pedal on my bike. But if I do fly, you can be sure I'll try to bring only a carry-on.

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