Sure, the pilot may steer your plane safely to Cleveland while the flight attendant quenches your thirst with a Diet Coke, but the most important people to handle your flight are probably ones you’ll never meet: the ramp agents. AKA, those guys with the illuminated orange sticks that you pretend to be every time you help your buddy parallel park.
No joke. Working under intense pressure in teams of five to seven, ramp agents do everything from loading luggage to refueling planes to making sure the pilot doesn't drive the aircraft into the jetway. And they do it all with the efficiency and speed of a NASCAR pit crew so that flights aren't delayed, and you make it home to your step-cousin's quinceañera with time to spare.
Long and short, ramp agents are pretty badass. And here are 13 reasons why they’ve got one of the toughest jobs in aviation.
Blame them for your delays, but thank them for your life
Every time you hear the words, “they’ve found a problem with the de-icing defibrillator” -- which may or may not be an actual part of the plane -- it’s because these guys found it. Along with the airline's mechanics, they inspect the entire plane to ensure it’s safe to fly.
They keep your ticket costs down
Ramp agents are under trading-floor-level pressure to get your flight pushed back from the terminal on time, since even a five-minute delay idling on the tarmac can cost an airline up to $5,000 in fuel. The faster these guys work, the less money the airline loses, the less they need to make up said loses by charging you for water. Though they still might.
If you think you’re hot, they’re about a hundred times hotter
So, you got a little chilly walking from your car to the terminal on your way into O’Hare? Sorry ‘bout that. Ramp agents spend their entire shifts on what is essentially a giant open field with no shade from the sun or shelter from the cold. Heavy rain? Well, that just means it's a little tougher to see.
They direct traffic in the middle of a freeway
Imagine your local clogged interstate: The 405. The Palmetto. Whatever. Now imagine it’s packed with 150ft-long cars each full of 200 people who will light up the Twitterverse if they sit in traffic for more than two minutes. That’s pretty much what ramp agents have to manage, while in that aforementioned awful weather.
They keep the pilots from crashing into the terminal
Ramp agents are the folks steering your plane into its parking spot near the gate, and without them you might find yourself in a real-life version of Airplane. And not because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is flying your plane.
They help find bombs
Anyone who’s ever known the sheer terror of hearing the words “please come with me” from a TSA agent might think that they have absolute power over pretty much everyone at the airport. Not so. Turns out, TSA -- and their bomb-and-drug sniffing dogs -- can’t step out to the plane without an okay from the lead ramp agent. Not only that, but the ramp agents often assist them in leading the dogs around the plane.
They also help find stowaways
Another part of those inspections? Looking in the wheel wells and baggage compartments for any enterprising teenagers who have decided to run away from home and risk freezing to death in the undercarriage of the plane.
They make sure the plane doesn’t tip over
Although there is a Load Master (heh heh, heh heh) who makes sure the plane’s weight is evenly distributed, he’s a busy dude with a lot of loads to master. So until he or she arrives, it's up to the lead ramp agent to ensure the cargo is distributed properly.
Pushing a 75-ton airplane is a lot harder than you think
There’s a 115ft, 150,000lb airplane in front of you, and you’ve got what looks like a golf cart from Pimp my Ride to push it backward in a perfectly straight line, since airplanes don’t go in reverse. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in physics to know that’s not always going to work out. Mess it up, and there’s another $5,000.
They fill up the water and empty the toilet
Finish last in a Fantasy Football league full of ramp agents and guess what your job is? Yep, it's connecting the lavatory bilge with a septic truck and emptying the tanks. Also, making sure there's enough potable water onboard. Either task should teach them to stop trying to draft MJD in the third round.
They’ve got 45 minutes to get it all done
In roughly the time it takes that lady to wedge her oversized roller bag into the overhead bin, these guys have to do ALL the things listed, absolutely perfectly. There is literally a ticking clock at the gate telling them how long they have to make sure a 75-ton piece of metal will safely float through the air. And major league pitchers complain about a pitch clock.
If they mess up, they go to prison
Not even kidding. Screw up in most jobs and at worst, you get fired. If a ramp agent messes up, an airplane could literally fall out of the sky and hundreds of people will be killed. And that ramp agent may find him or herself behind bars. So yeah, maybe that email you accidentally sent isn't quite the crisis you thought it was.
And for all that, they don’t make much money
What do you get for braving the elements, working under intense pressure (and under the threat of criminal charges), and protecting the lives of thousands every day? Depending on the airport, airline, and your level of experience, a whopping $14-$17 an hour. So, yes, clearly they do it for the love of illuminated orange sticks.
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