Confessions of a secret airport operations worker
Celebs, customer service and controlled explosions: our undercover agent reveals the secrets of the airport.
Skyscanner’s secret agent went undercover, spending years working in airport operations (ground staff, check-in, baggage handling and baggage claims). Now he exclusively tells the story of life behind-the-scenes at the airport, from dealing with drunk passengers to, err, Danny Glover.
Why did you want to work in air travel?
For the babes! Seriously though, as someone who wanted to pursue a life as a pilot (but whose parents couldn’t afford to send to flight school), this was the next best thing. While attending university, I got a great gig working below and above the wing in every capacity possible.
What is the most difficult customer you’ve had to deal with?
Drunk passengers are really ridiculous. Some are fun, some obnoxious, and others particularly difficult. People don’t realise that drunk or not, flight attendants are required to assist you if something goes wrong. Why on earth would you want to be inebriated if there was a possibility that sobriety could be life-saving? Not sure. Anyway, one of our flights is boarding when I get a call from the captain. He explains that his crew has already complained about a particular passenger giving a member of the crew the eye. You know, the kind of eye a creepy dude gives a younger lady; one that gives you the chills. He’d also checked out her posterior in a very obvious manner and his two buddies were laughing and egging him on.
The pilot tells me that if I let them on board and they became a disturbance, he'd have no problem stopping and kicking them off. Twenty-two year-old me goes back to chat with these drunk passengers, who are easily twice my age. I tell them that they’re treading on thin ice with the flight crew. If they cause any problems, the captain has absolutely no problem making an unscheduled landing and having them sent off. Any disturbance in the air would likely get them up close and personal with the authorities. I asked if they had any problem with this. Nope. I very politely offered them a pillow and a blanket and wished them well – seriously. I saw the same captain a few days later and he let me know that there wasn’t even a peep after I left the three drunken individuals.
Have you ever seen a fight in the airport?
Nothing physical, but I’ve seen MANY verbal arguments. On one particular occasion a passenger (who was late for their flight and annoyed that I couldn’t let them through to try and catch it) grabbed my lanyard. I’m not particularly aggressive, but that’s the moment I wanted to snap someone’s neck. However, I stayed cool. I jerked my head back and the lanyard broke off (it’s supposed to). I told the guy that unless he wanted to speak to the police, he’d better calm down. So, he backs off, I get my lanyard back, and he starts screaming. One of my colleagues called the airport cops. So, we each explained what happened. The cop didn’t care for the passenger’s hostile behaviour and gave him the option to comply with the option to take a later flight – yeah, I was trying to be NICE – or the passenger could spend the night in a cell. It’s amazing what people do when threatened with a night in jail.
Have you dealt with any celebrities?
Yep. Danny Glover was my favourite. My buddy, who was on the other side of the airport, got excited when he saw Danny Glover and incorrectly tagged his suitcase. Apparently, Mr. Glover’s bag had been tagged to go to the wrong city, but it was fixed after he’d come over to the gate and explained the situation. Apparently, my colleague got a little star-struck and got things mixed up. In the end, he was a really nice guy and completely understanding. We had a little chat and found him to be one of the most humble celebrities I’ve ever encountered. Unfortunately, I never got a selfie with him.
What is the funniest thing you’ve seen in your line of work?
I got a phone call one afternoon from the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) asking me to come down and check out an item in a customer’s bag. At the time, an airline representative had to be present during all bag checks. I get down there and the TSA guy has a big grin on his face. You know, the kind of grin where someone is in on a joke, but you’re not privy to the punch line. I’m expecting someone to jump out and scare the wits out of me, but no. The guy briefed me and said the reason why he needed to get in there was because of a buzzing noise. So, we dig in there. Ouch! It’s someone’s adult toy vibrating like a small lawnmower engine. I couldn’t stop laughing. The chap kindly turned off the ‘device’ and placed it in the bag with the special TSA note.
What is the worst thing you’ve had to do?
The sh*t truck. I mean, you use the bathrooms, but what happens to the waste? Someone has to do the job. One of my colleagues was out emptying the loos. He clicked the hose up to the aircraft and it didn’t lock into place. Sadly, all that waste came flying out like the force of water coming out of a whale’s blow hole. The poor guy was covered in poo and pee. I might add it was 40C on the ramp that day. It did make for the best poo puns you’ve ever heard. Not sure the few weeks of various shots required for various diseases were that funny for him.
What is the best thing about any of your jobs?
It was working in baggage – and not for the reasons you’d think. After 9/11, gate access was restricted, so now you rarely get to see a people connecting. Working in baggage meant you got to see couples embracing, armed forces members connecting with loved ones, and maybe see a person just going through the motions. Not to get all Love Actually on you, but seeing people reconnect with each other is a fascinating experience. I always thought interviewing people who just met one another would be a great show on This American Life. Ira Glass, are you listening?
What happens to unclaimed baggage?
It goes to baggage heaven. Not really. It goes into a central baggage holding facility. Once it sits in storage unclaimed for a period of time, it’s then auctioned off or donated.
Have you ever had to carry out a controlled explosion on an item of left luggage?
No, but I have had a bag full of curry explode in my face. This one lady I worked with was turning a corner in a baggage cart like Lewis Hamilton turns corners in Monaco. Tugs and baggage carts aren’t made to make tight turns. So, she makes the turn and flips over carts. Four carts are spilled all over the baggage drop off area. I pick up a bunch of bags and carry them to the belt that gets them to customers. One bag was particularly heavy and broke open. Apparently, the passenger loved curry powder and it dumped all over my sweaty gear. I had to work for the next four hours, in hot weather, reeking of curry powder, jet fuel, sweat, and general funk.
What tips would you give to travellers who need to deal with an airline’s customer service?
Their job is to help you! In many instances, individuals are hamstringed by their own airline’s non-friendly consumer policies. It’s better to remain calm and explain your situation. If they’re of no assistance, take whatever they give you. Complete your journey and complain to customer service. If you paid £40 for the flight, I wouldn’t ever expect anything above the amount given and it’d be in the form of credit. Don’t like them? Don’t ever fly with them again.
What is your top tip for making the airport experience better?
Either get there early or know how to get through the airport better than George Clooney in Up in the Air. When you add people who are unpredictable to a controlled environment, it’s organised chaos. No matter how well you know the airport or know the policies, airports are the epitome of unpredictability. Whether it’s a delay caused by the airline, Mother Nature, or other reasons, it’s out of your control. Get there early enough to check in and catch up with a long lost friend, Grandma, or just play that extra game of Bejewelled. That’s right, you know who you are. Bring your charging device and keep entertained one way or another.