Confessions of a onetime ramp rat

Two months as an airport baggage-handler almost cost me my life.

Published October 19, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Unlike the recent fiasco at Miami International Airport -- where 58 American Airlines ramp workers and baggage handlers were arrested and charged with smuggling drugs onto American's fleet of airplanes -- my run-in with a different gang of ramp workers never made front-page headlines. Had I not quit my job when I did, however, my name might have appeared in a less conspicuous section of the newspaper: the obituaries.

Several years ago, I worked as a part-time baggage handler at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Months before I was hired, the airline's nefarious CEO had imposed "across-the-board" pay cuts that turned most employees into malcontents. Strangely enough, the salary hatchet did not fall upon those in upper management. The CEO maintained his multimillion-dollar salary. His cronies continued to receive their high-end incomes as well. Those on the front lines -- pilots, flight attendants, ticket agents, ramp workers and low-level office personnel -- bled profusely, however. According to rumor, my ramp supervisor's salary had been sliced from about $40,000 to just above $30,000. Needless to say, employee morale was lower than the belly of a snake.

After two months on the job, having fallen into the rhythm of driving tugs, loading and unloading passenger luggage, emptying lavatory toilets (you don't want to hear the 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 (not his real name) was a 30-ish ramp rat of formidable strength and personality -- the kind of guy people listen to because they're afraid not to.

The ramp was rife with stories of Vic's ferociousness. He'd beaten the crap out of some guy in the employee parking lot, he'd threatened to do the same to a few others. He was a man not to be messed with. So when he walked up to me on one particularly frigid evening, I felt an extra chill in my extremities.

"Hey!" he said, making a motion with his head. "Come over here a minute."

I stopped what I was doing and followed Vic to a secluded spot on the ramp side of the baggage claim area. Here, we offloaded 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 cold concrete floor. He crouched above it, motioned for me to do the same, and after scanning the area for supervisors, he spoke to me in the no-nonsense voice of a criminal conspirator. "This is how things work around here," he whispered. He unzipped the bag, rifling through the contents with expert speed 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. They give it to kids before they fly away."

Vic grinned and tucked the envelope into his trouser pocket, while waiting for my reaction. I supposed he expected me to be flattered. After all, he was Vic. The man. He had personally welcomed me into the inner circle. It was an act of criminal kindness, I guess. A nod that meant I was "OK." He trusted me with a secret that could put him out of a job and maybe behind bars. The same secret, if not managed properly, could put me in the hospital or the grave.

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 isn't right," I told him while backing away. "It's not cool, man."

Vic stared at me without expression. Had I seen anger or disappointment in his countenance, I would have been able to better gauge his intentions. But his face was a mask of indifference. To look at him, crouched above an open suitcase, looking at me, you couldn't tell if he was watching a particularly uninteresting television program or gutting a fish. This was cause for worry. As I turned and started walking toward the ramp area, I felt Vic's eyes boring into my back.

When I showed up for work the next night, a handful of co-workers -- all of whom had close ties to Vic -- refused to speak to me. I nodded to them, a few nodded back, but their eyes never met mine. Worried and unsure of how to deal with Vic, I reported to my first flight of the night. Vic and a couple of like-minded rampers greeted me with looks that were colder than the 15-below-zero temperature. "Watch your back," he said, his breath drifting from his lips in frosty white plumes. "The ramp is a dangerous place to work."

Vic was right. The first day on the job, my supervisor had told me and the other new guys that the airport ramp area was one of America's most dangerous workplaces. Men had been crushed to death beneath the wheels of jumbo jets. At least one unlucky guy had been sucked into a jet engine. Rampers have had their limbs mangled by hydraulic machinery, others have been injured in tug accidents. The first week on the job, in fact, I was knocked unconscious by a 747 jet blast. The powerful winds flipped the hood of my tug, and it slammed into my head. I woke up a few minutes afterward and was promptly sent home.

The ramp is a dangerous place, indeed. Injuries can happen in a hundred different places. And with a guy like Vic breathing down my neck, the chances of getting hurt increased exponentially.

Moments after Vic threatened me, I crawled up the just-positioned conveyor belt, hopped into the aft cargo compartment of a DC-8 aircraft and began the task of stacking bags as they crept up the conveyor. At first the bags came slowly, allowing me to snatch and toss in a manageable rhythm. But a couple of minutes later, the conveyor belt picked up speed. The bags came rushing toward me at a rate I could not handle.

Vic had sped up the belt. This was his way of letting me know that my life was going to be miserable. I crawled out from under an avalanche of Samsonite, tossed and stacked until beads of sweat formed on my forehead (a difficult feat when the temperature is well below freezing). But after I finished and prepared to walk down the conveyor belt, Vic backed the machinery away from the aircraft. He then drove away with the rest of my team, leaving me stuck in the cargo compartment.

I sat there on the edge of the cargo door, feeling the frigid Chicago wind bite into my face. With the conveyor belt gone, the only way down was to jump. I hung from the edge of the open cargo door, dropped 20 feet down to the concrete, and walked 100 yards, through the cold, back to the operations area, where Vic and the others were waiting with sinister grins.

Later, in a remote ramp area, while I was uncoupling a luggage cart from my tug, another tug came out of nowhere and rammed into mine. The force of the collision threw me into a frozen snow bank. I suffered only a few cuts and bruises, but the incident let me know that I was doomed. I never saw who was driving, but I didn't have to. It was Vic, for sure. And the next time he attacked, I might not walk away with minor injuries.

It was time to blow the whistle on Vic and his theft ring. But I needed at least one co-worker on my side for support. Who could I trust? Most of the rampers were honest and hardworking, but because I was new, I had yet to establish friendships with any of them. If I confided in the wrong person, word would get back to Vic and his buddies and my ass would be permanently grassed. My supervisor was the best bet, or so I thought. I spoke to him later that night in his office.

"We've got a serious problem on the ramp," I told him. "A handful of guys are going through passenger luggage looking for money. I'm sure they've taken other stuff as well."

My supervisor raised an eyebrow and nodded. "You sure about this?" he said.

"Yeah," I said. "Vic and some other guys left me hanging in the cargo hold. Then they rammed me with a tug."

"Let me give you a piece of advice," he said, leaning forward. "You better watch your back." He said this in a bitter voice, as if I had personally insulted him.

It didn't take a rocket scientist to realize that my supervisor probably knew what was going on. Judging by the tone of his voice, I'd say he'd taken a few envelopes himself.

I walked back out on the ramp, feeling a lot like Serpico, the honest cop played by Al Pacino in a movie about police corruption. If I remember correctly, Serpico ended up in a witness protection program.

The next day, I quit. The airport ramp can be a dangerous place, indeed.

By Elliott Neal Hester

Elliott Neal Hester has been a flight attendant for 15 years. He has also written for National Geographic Traveler, Men's Fitness, Glamour, Maxim and Caribbean Travel & Life. Out of the Blue appears every other Friday. E-mail your tale of life in the sky to Hester. For more columns by Hester, visit his column archive.

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