One of the biggest fears of wheelchair travelers is having their mobility equipment damaged or lost by an airline. In fact, this fear is so great that many wheelchair users refuse to fly at all to ensure their equipment doesn’t get damaged. Not helping matters any is the new requirement for US airlines to report the number of wheelchairs they lose or damage or mishandle. On average, US airlines are doing one of those things to 25 wheelchairs every day. So who is to blame for all this damage and resulting fear? The answer is…it’s complicated. But let’s take a look at the closest entity to our chairs when we travel — airline baggage handlers.
There aren’t many requirements to become an airline baggage handler. According to AirlineJobFinder.com, Prospective airline baggage handlers only need a high school diploma or equivalent. Previous shipping experience is often not necessary, but may be preferred. Working as a baggage handler is very physically demanding, and it does require heavy lifting of up to 70 pounds or more. This must be done quickly and efficiently for extended periods of time. Applicants also need a valid drivers license and a clean driving record. The minimum age to become a baggage handler is usually 18 years old.
Training is usually provided by the airlines. Much of an airline baggage handler’s training also comes on the job. Most training that handlers receive lasts a week or less. I wasn’t able to find any American training course descriptions, but I did find one in Ireland and one in Australia. The 4-day Irish course included the following:
- Aviation – General Introduction
- Ramp Health & Safety
- Airport & Aircraft Familiarisation and Procedures
- Aircraft Loading/Unloading Procedures
- Safe Manual Handling
- Aviation Security
- Customer Service & Communication Skills
- Airside Driving Techniques
- Uniform Standards
- Interview Techniques & Skills
The US Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) provides a manual that helps baggage handlers avoid injury. However, I haven’t been able to determine if baggage handlers are trained on how to handle different types of wheelchairs in the classroom or on the job. The OSHA manual doesn’t mention how to prevent injuries specifically from lifting heavy wheelchairs.
Baggage handlers have more jobs than just loading luggage. It might surprise a lot of airline passengers to know the wide variety of jobs that baggage handlers are responsible for. Operations agents are responsible for ensuring that the load on an aircraft is distributed so that the aircraft is in balance within safe limits before the aircraft departs the gate. Warehouse agents are responsible for the airfreight warehouse, where inbound and outbound airfreight is processed and cleared by customs. Ramp agents are the ones who are usually loading and unloading bags. Transfer agents, or “runners,” operate vehicles used to transfer bags from one aircraft to another, or to carry bags from the “bag room” to the correct aircraft. Station agents usually are used at smaller airports, and are cross-trained to work both as baggage handlers and in positions involving customer service. Baggage and cargo handlers also de-ice aircraft at some airlines, and clean the aircraft’s interior and exterior.
Baggage handlers work either directly for an airline or an aviation services company that is contracted to the airline, not the airport. This is often a source of much confusion, especially for wheelchair users who have experienced damage to their chairs and are looking for whom to properly assign blame. A quick look at job listings for ramp agents and baggage handlers on Indeed.com will show that Delta and United are hiring directly, as well as companies like Swissport international, Quickflight, and Baggage Airline Guest Services. Many aviation service companies usually provide additional services to airports, like ticket and gate agents, wheelchair attendants, and technology services.
The pay and hours aren’t great, but the benefits often are. Baggage handlers generally don’t get paid well, at least not at the entry level. Starting salaries range from $10-$15 an hour. Handlers must be able to work any shift in a 24-hour period, in any kind of weather and often under stressful conditions. However, baggage handlers get the same benefits as airline crew, so they can fly for free. Depending on airline size, new hire baggage handlers also receive paid sick time, retirement plan, and access to dental, life, and accident insurance.
Employee reviews of the job experience are mixed. You can easily find job reviews from baggage handlers for several different airlines on Indeed.com, and I glanced through some for Delta, United, and American. The average rating from 1 star to 5 star is about 3.7, depending on the job aspect. Most handlers agreed that the benefits and the free travel were probably the best part of the job. A majority of handlers also really enjoyed spending time with their coworkers. Many complained about the long hours, having to work in bad weather, and management problems.
Working conditions can be bad, and downright dangerous. If a baggage handler is working on the ramp, it can get extremely loud. Hearing protection is required, but not everybody wears it. There is also always the risk of jet blast and suction. Most of baggage handler training centers around safety. It’s a labor-intensive job that involves working with heavy machinery and in all weather conditions, which can make situations even more risky. In June 2019, some baggage handlers and wheelchair attendants at Denver international Airport went on strike, citing unsafe working conditions. The employees work for Prospect Airport Services, which airlines at DIA (and many other airports) contract to handle baggage and wheelchair services. Their complaints included being understaffed and a lack of training for tasks they are required to perform outside their normal job duties. Two employees also filed a complaint alleging they were forced to help multiple passengers in wheelchairs at one time, to haul oversized baggage without safety belts, and that their break room was unventilated and roach infested. One employee said that baggage handlers and wheelchair attendants perform some of the most risky work at the airport, and they at least need adequate training.
Bags (and ostensibly wheelchairs) get thrown and mishandled primarily to avoid delays. Getting an aircraft turned around in a minimal amount of time is the number one priority for everyone on the ramp. in November 2011, an airport baggage handler gave an anonymous interview to Fox News about his job. He said that “due to the nature of some aircraft, it would be impossible to turn around a 737 or 757 in an hour or less without throwing bags because it’s just faster.” He also noted that larger aircraft, like 747s, 777s, etc., are all loaded by machines. Bags, and wheelchairs as well, are put in a container known as a unit load device (ULD, or “can”), which is loaded on the plane by machine. Theoretically, he says there’s a better chance of your bags coming out unscathed if you fly on one of those larger jets.
Here’s a video overview of Lufthansa ramp operations that shows how ULDs are loaded and unloaded:
Stories abound of baggage handlers behaving badly. In January 2017, another anonymous baggage handler spoke to the UK’s Independent about the horrors of his summer job at a UK airport working as a ramp agent. He said he was told during formal training that speed always trumps consideration for a passenger’s belongings, which seems to be in line with the under-the-clock pressure of American ramp agents. He also told stories of ramp agents throwing bags long distances, which seems to be common practice to save time. He actually addressed strollers and wheelchairs, saying that baggage handlers’ hands often get cut up trying to fold them up if they are collapsible. He said, “they will show no love to your pushchair if you need a PhD to collapse it, and they catch skin trying to do so. It takes them too much time, they will just chuck it in. And who knows if it will survive.”
It’s often hard to tell exactly how wheelchairs get damaged. On occasion, wheelchair users are seated by a window that faces the loading belt into the cargo hold. If so, they can sometimes see their wheelchairs getting loaded – and unfortunately, can sometimes see their wheelchairs falling off the belt when getting unloaded. Most wheelchairs, whether manual or power, are checked at the door of the plane, similar to strollers. From there, baggage handlers have to find a way to get the chairs from the jet bridge to the ramp. Sometimes, if they are light and small enough, handlers can take them down the stairs that lead from the jet bridge to the ramp. Otherwise, they have to place the chair in neutral, roll them up the jet bridge, into the terminal, and down an elevator. Sometimes this elevator is located nowhere near the gate from which the plane is departing, so it can take a good half hour to get the chair to the cargo hold belt, or stored in the ULD container. If you’re flying on a smaller jet that doesn’t use containers, it’s anyone’s guess how chairs get placed in the hold. I honestly have no idea if they are secured in any way. I imagine that sometimes they are not taken out of neutral and just roll around, have bags stacked on top of them, or are placed facedown or on their sides. I’m sure they are sometimes dropped, especially the heavier power chairs.
Here is a video of how power wheelchairs get loaded into a cargo hold using a belt loader:
Bags (and likely wheelchairs) get lost primarily due to human error. Many airlines these days are attaching a scannable tag to wheelchairs that that are gate-checked and loaded in the belly of the plane. This allows them to be tracked by both the airline and often the passenger through a phone app. However, the handler who spoke to Fox News said that sometimes the airport code is read incorrectly, gets put in the wrong cart, and brought to the wrong plane. He said it doesn’t happen that often, but if your wheelchair or bag end up in a different destination, it won’t get rerouted until it reaches wherever it went and is scanned. Scanners now are mostly wireless, and don’t always work due to back connections or getting locked up. If time is of the essence, your bag may not get scanned. Sometimes bags, and likely wheelchairs, aren’t loaded and left behind because of a tight connection or due to weight and balance limits.
There are some things you can do to reduce the risk of losing your chair or having it damaged. First let’s talk about minimizing the risk of losing or misplacing your chair. Make sure you arrive at the airport early, and that your chair — and all parts of your chair if it needs to be taken apart – receive a scannable tag. If you arrive at the airport late, you run the risk of baggage handlers not getting your chair to the right plane in time to be loaded. Also, make sure you schedule your flights with at least a 90 minute layover for domestic itineraries and at least two hours for international flights. This doesn’t only benefit your baggage, but gives more time to the handlers to return your wheelchair to you at the door of the plane during connections. Remove any old tags for stickers from your mobility device. To reduce the potential for damage, first attach clear instructions with pictures to your chair in a clear waterproof sleeve. Before boarding, ask to speak to the ramp agent so that he or she knows exactly how to put your chair in neutral and where and how to lift your chair. Do the research to find out the size of the cargo door opening for the aircraft on which you’ll be flying to determine if your wheelchair will fit. Remove any protruding pieces, like headrests, joysticks, footrests, etc. and take them with you on the plane whenever possible.