Baggage handlers loading bags onto airplane

What Does an Airport Baggage Handler Do? (More Than You Think)

As you check in for your next flight, you hand off your luggage to the airline agent and head through security with your ticket in hand. Sweet freedom! You?re on your way. 

One of the greatest luxuries of airplane travel is checking a bag. The benefit of a checked bag is that you can travel light when in transit at the airport – taking time to visit a lounge or to shop duty free without a heavy suitcase weighing you down. When you arrive at your destination, you expect to retrieve your suitcase at the baggage claim like magic. But, how exactly does it arrive there and who is responsible for making it happen?

Enter: baggage handlers. 

As you travel from Point A to Point B, they are the ones responsible for making sure that your baggage ends up in Point B with you (and in one piece!). 

Main duties of a baggage handler

The principal duty for a baggage handler is to load and unload luggage from the airplane cargo hold. Similar to most airport jobs, time is of the essence, so the ability to work quickly and efficiently is an indicator of success for baggage handlers. When handlers are able to unload luggage efficiently, it allows deplaning, cleaning and collection at the baggage claim to remain on schedule. 

While the responsibility to handle baggage is indicated directly in the job title, there are many more facets of the job description that may come as a surprise even to the most seasoned traveler. In addition to loading and unloading luggage, baggage handlers may also be tasked with transporting luggage between connecting flights, distributing luggage weight to adhere to safety guidelines, de-icing and sometimes even cleaning the interior and/or the exterior of the plane between flights. 

Baggage handlers often transform into ?operations agents? on the job, facilitating many details on the ground to ensure that flights continue to proceed as scheduled.  

How to become a baggage handler

Most baggage handlers either work directly for an airline or for an aviation services company like QuickFlight or Baggage Airline Guest Services. The minimum requirements typically call for candidates that are at least 18 years of age and hold a high school diploma. Sometimes, a higher salary is available to those with prior experience in the transportation industry, however training is provided to all new hires to ensure that safety procedures are consistent and enforced by all. 

The IATA provides a 3-day training course that covers topics including:

  • Airport types and airline requirements
  •  Processes within passenger terminal operations
  •  Operating characteristics of Baggage Handling Systems (BHS)
  •  Lost and mishandled luggage
  •  Slow processing
  •  Infrastructure planning and processes
  •  Measuring efficiency and performance
  •  Managing baggage handling teams
  •  Outstation operations and control
  •  Improving existing systems and processes
  •  Contingency towards uninterrupted services
  •  Future developments in BHS

While the content of the training may vary from airline to airline, they will touch on similar topics across anywhere from 2-4 days. Training is typically paid and conducted on-site at the airline?s central training facility. 

Day to day working conditions

The nature of the job is strenuous, with handlers often lifting baggage that ranges anywhere from 30-70 lbs regularly for hours on end. Baggage handlers are equally essential regardless of whether it is the dead of summer or if it is the dead of winter. A good level of physical fitness and strength are helpful for completing each day on the job.

Ground crew checking baggage before loading into airplane
Ground crew checking baggage before loading into airplane

Most roles are paid hourly and the salary typically hovers right around the minimum wage for the local area. Many airlines offer the flexibility to work five 8-hour shifts or three 12-hour shifts across the span of a week. Depending on the employee, they may select one option or another to align with their needs outside of work. 

In addition to the physically challenging workload, baggage handlers spend the vast majority of their shift on the tarmac and operating heavy machinery like luggage ramps. When weather quality decreases or people do not follow protocols, there are immediate safety challenges that quickly present themselves such as jet blast and suction. Employees are required to wear hearing protection, but many bypass this protocol and end up suffering hearing loss to varying degrees as a result.

Benefits for baggage handlers

While the nature of the role is physically demanding, there are two primary perks quoted by baggage handlers globally: the camaraderie of the team and the employee benefits. 

First and foremost, the camaraderie of the crew that baggage handlers work with on a daily basis is important to the longevity of the employee. As with many jobs, the quality of coworkers is important and this role is no different. Particularly in a role where teamwork adds to efficiency and productivity, being on friendly terms with your crew adds positively to the job experience. 

Secondly, baggage handlers are frequently entitled to the same benefits as the airline crew. This typically includes benefits such as medical insurance, retirement plans and paid sick time. While the hourly rate tends to be low compared to the airline crew, the benefits run standard for all employees and are enjoyed by baggage handlers, flight attendants and pilots alike. 

Flying for free – yay or nay? 

Yes! Alongside the benefits that baggage handlers receive, they are also typically provided with the ability to fly for free as well. For travel aficionados, this is a fantastic perk that is well worth it for many baggage handlers.

Fun fact – this perk also extends to the immediate family of the employee, so spouses, children and parents can often be included in your travel plans to cultivate an extremely cost effective vacation. 

Similar to crew or other airline staff, this flying ?free? often means that you?ll fly standby, meaning that you only snag a space on the flight if there are open seats available. This can be challenging for some as it affects the ability to plan ahead for flight connections or to coordinate trips with the whole family. Nonetheless, this perk is at the top of the list of benefits for most airline employees – baggage handlers included! 

Lost or missing baggage – who is to blame?

Traveling is stressful. When you arrive at your destination airport, the ideal scenario is to grab your bag from the baggage claim and head to a taxi and to the hotel. For some, however, this scenario plays out differently when they see their luggage has been damaged or is missing altogether. 

If you?re lucky enough to find yourself with the latter scenario, then you?ll be met with a list of phone numbers to call, paperwork to file and, ultimately, a less than ideal start (or end) to your trip. You?ll also likely spend a fair amount of time in the Baggage Service Office, trying to figure out the details and compensation from the airline for the inconvenience. 

If there is an issue with baggage, then baggage handlers are often the scapegoat as they were in direct contact with your luggage at some point during your trip. While it is possible that mistakes were made by the handlers, there are a number of other ways that luggage can be damaged or lost outside of handlers themselves. 

Perhaps there was a short layover and your luggage missed the connection. Perhaps your bag was incorrectly labeled and routed incorrectly at some point across the journey. Or perhaps your luggage never ended up on the plane in the first place. There are many systems working in conjunction – both human and automated – to ensure that baggage arrives at the correct destination, so not all issues with baggage fall directly onto baggage handlers themselves.

Working hard

For most travelers, baggage handlers are those that you see through windows of the terminal or windows of the plane. They?re working hard to load and unload planes and ensure that all luggage for onboard passengers arrives safely. 

They must work whether it?s rain or shine and their duties often extend beyond the immediacy of the job title. Without baggage handlers, there would be significant challenges for airlines in maintaining on-time schedules and satisfaction for its travelers.

On your next trip, give them a smile or a thumbs up to thank them for their work!

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