Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Smarter Than The Aaaaaverage Baggage Handler (Yogi Bear's voice)

In my time with Delta Airlines (1986-1992) I worked with literally hundreds of different people.

In Atlanta (Hartsfield) for example, we would work a rotating days off shift for six months at a time. We would then bid on the shift we would work for the next six months, based on seniority. Since I didn't have much time with the company, I got a better selection of days off by bidding on the evening shift, 3:30pm to 12am.

The point here is that, at the time in the early 90s, there were on the order of 1300 "lines" or shifts available to personnel as baggage handlers on the ramp. For someone with low seniority like me, bidding on the next six month's shift was a chore. But again, the point I'm making here is that there were around 1300 baggage handlers covering a whole host of positions working the ground operations of the aircraft to load and unload and transfer all of the baggage, U.S. Mail, and freight. That's not counting the guys who fueled the planes, the guys that worked in the Mail handling facility or the freight facility, etc.

So I'm not exaggerating, I literally worked with hundreds and hundreds of different people.

For a people watcher like myself, it was easy and fun to be a fly on the wall. We worked very hard, but also got generous break time, depending on the weather.

During the break time is when you watched TV or whatever and over time I got to know, at least marginally lots of folks of every color and creed.

Some of these folks were brilliant. One guy was a practicing lawyer who was a lawyer by day, and worked the ramp unloading planes and such with the rest of us, and during the break times, he would open his huge brown accordion folder and work on his lawyerly paperwork.

An astounding number of the ramp workers were college graduates, most of whom had started with Delta during summer breaks, and even when they graduated from college stayed with the company. (Such was the strength of the pay and perks of working for an air line once upon a time.) Many couldn't find better work with their degrees, so they stayed and "chucked luggage" with the rest of us.

The job had the potential to be very dangerous. Next time you're in a big airport like Hartsfield or DFW and are waiting to fly out somewhere, go stand at the windows and watch the beehive of activity around just one gate when a plane pulls in. Caterers in their trucks, cabin service (to clean inside the plane) and their truck, the baggage and freight being pulled around and so forth. You get the idea. It's really easy to get hurt out there with all that going on all the time.

Enough background.

So one time I had gotten hurt, and was on "light duty" for a few days. This meant that until I could be thrown back into the fray described above, they had to let me do paperwork or whatever scut work they could find for someone not allowed to lift anything.

I mostly did paperwork for guys who didn't have time to finish theirs because of another plane coming into "his" gate. No problem.

But my favorite thing to do, which I was able to do a few times over the years, was to be Delta's "representative" to watch over the training of new bomb and drug sniffing dogs.

This one particular day stands out to me, because Delta had just taken delivery of two brand-new 767s that were the first ones they had received that were approved for overseas flights. [Side note: Delta had been flying 767s for several years domestically, but since they were two engine aircraft, they were not allowed to be used on overseas flights. This rule had recently changed because of the incredible advances in dependability of aircraft engines, and these two planes I'm talking about here were our first two international flight capable planes. They carried much more fuel and had other changes over the ones already in domestic service.]

Delta was required to allow the airport security and their dogs to train on the planes that were just sitting there for whatever reason, and especially on ones that were new and configured differently like these two new ones were. But Delta wanted a Delta person on there, just because, and since I was on light duty for a few days, I was volunteered for the job.

I had to talk with the main police guy, whose job it was to hide drugs and real explosives all over the plane. We would go around the new planes, he would hide the items where I could watch him do it, and then we both checked off and signed the checklist of what and where everything was hidden.

After everything was hidden, the other officers would bring the dogs onto the plane and would guide the dogs, indicating possible hiding places with the dogs then sniffing the places for the items they were trained to detect.

The thing that impressed me most, was that I could see the intelligence of these dogs when they looked at me. Some dogs are just flat-out smart, and every one of these guys and gals were obviously at the tip top of the intelligence scale for dogs.

Some were German Shepherds, some Labradors, and surprisingly, a few big dogs that looked like mutts. Not purebreds. But I guess someone early in their lives determined that even these mutts had the something special it takes to be a drug or bomb sniffing dog.

After they went through the planes, and of course found everything, I had to go back throughout the planes with the main policeman and reverse the original process of making sure every place on the original checklists were confirmed to have no more drugs or explosives hidden there.

I guess it wouldn't do for some poor flight attendant to open a compartment to get out a blanket or a soda and find dynamite taped together with a clock because it was inadvertently left on there due to mine and the main cop's negligence. Especially in mid air.

But I have always remembered the looks on all those dog's faces; obvious intelligence.

It was a fun and interesting thing to do to kill half of a work shift when I would have otherwise been doing other people's paperwork. Plus I was one of the first Delta employees to be able to see and walk around the innards of our new, international flight approved 767s, and check them out.

Thought I worked the baggage handling biz with a lot of college graduates, it wasn't work that required a whole lot of brains, only a strong back.

And after meeting the very intelligent drug and bomb sniffing dogs, I could think of a lot of people I worked with that probably weren't as smart as those dogs.

What reminded me of this experience was THIS STORY, that I found while reading the blog Blonde Sagacity, about a drug sniffing dog in Columbia that is so good at what she does, the drug runners HAVE A PRICE ON THE DOG'S HEAD! (Go read the article, it's short.)

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