5 Horrifying Realities Behind The Scenes Of An Airport
Airports exist in their own magical world where it's normal to let a stranger fondle your privates for a chance to hurtle through the sky in a shuddering metal tube. You'd probably thus assume that working at an airport would be a delightful parade of whimsy. Shockingly, you'd be wrong.
To get a look at the dark underbelly of air travel, we talked to Ben, a ticket agent at San Diego International, James, a baggage handler at Seattle-Tacoma, and Bob, who cleans airplanes. They said ...
Airport Employees Have Lots Of Freedom, Not Much Scrutiny
When it comes to travelers, airports have been operating at crotch-groping levels of security for, oh, about 15 years now. So you might think that they don't let prospective employees even look at pictures of a plane without first thoroughly vetting them, and that they watch them like hawks every time they get near sensitive equipment. That is not the case.
"We never were checked by TSA," Bob told/worried us. "We were given clear backpacks as a security measure, theoretically so the TSA could spot-check us to make sure we weren't bringing in weapons. But sneaking stuff in and out was super easy. Just bring a sweatshirt / hat / bag of chips / etc. with you in the clear backpack, and hide forbidden shit inside the sweatshirt / hat / bag of chips. Or just hide it in your pocket."
Easy solution: Nothing goes on the plane, and everybody's naked all the time.
Why does that matter? Well, cleaning staff like Bob were usually the last ones on the plane before it was sealed and passengers were admitted. So if they wanted to plant something on it -- like, say, a bomb -- there aren't that many obstacles between them and the plane. Thankfully, up until now, the worst way airport employees abused their freedom was by ... smuggling a shitload of guns and ammo (including AK-47s) across the U.S. But really, what's the worst that could have happened?
"Often, especially with the smaller planes," Bob explains, "we would have complete access to the cockpit ... once I pressed a button on it, and suddenly the whole dashboard came alive, and the plane started making sounds as it was about to take off! I freaked out and turned it off, [but] if I knew how to fly a plane, I could probably hijack one. It wasn't like there are turnkeys or something for it."
Professional curiosity -- good.
"What's that doooo?" -- less good.
Okay, but he'd never even have gotten that far if he hadn't passed a rigorous screening process, right?
"The background check only takes into account actual criminal charges," says Bob. "Some juvenile or civil charges could be ignored. For example, a co-worker of mine has been arrested for bringing a knife and some pills to school, but since he was 17 at the time, that charge was not accounted for during the background check, and he got the job. Therefore, people get security clearance and admittance to the back of the airport while having some drug possession, domestic disorder, and other charges."
"Under 'criminal record,' you wrote, 'Let's not go there.' Good enough for us. Welcome aboard!"
"There was one guy," Bob recalls. "I kinda helped him get the job, and he told me about how he'd smoked meth on the plane right after cleanup, before filing out. Another co-worker went postal over a very trivial reason and verbally assaulted me while acting physically intimidating, while another guy got busted for watching child porn on the work computer."
"... Self-check kiosk it is."
There's A Good Chance A Stoned Airport Employee Caused Your Last Flight Delay
There are many reasons planes get delayed: inclement weather, mechanical problems, or, from what Bob told us, a seemingly infinite supply of human stupidity.
"Once, a guy got super stoned before he was set to drive the tug around the airstrips ..."
One of these.
" ... normally, he drove one without a roof, but today his tug had a roof, for some reason. He wasn't used to the top being on there, and that, plus the drugs, made him ... less than the driver he should've been. So he was driving recklessly and careened under the wing, and thanks to the surprise roof, he collided directly with the plane." The result: damage to the wing and fuselage, and a whole bunch of very pissed-off passengers in the terminal who immediately saw their departure time skip back a few hours.
So much for screaming babies being the most annoying flight experience.
But hey, mistakes happen -- where there's heavy equipment, you're going to get mishaps. It's not like, say, staff are constantly falling asleep onboard the planes and waking up to find themselves hundreds of miles away from where they drifted off. James only knows two guys who did that.
"... While I was working there, someone had fallen asleep on an airplane and woken up mid-flight. Knocked on the plane to get attention, and the flight had to turn around for his sake. Knew the guy. Liked the guy. Didn't feel sorry for him at all when they fired him." Honest question: How many of you would have been so embarrassed by this that you'd have just stayed on the flight and started a new life in Ontario (or wherever it was headed)?
Because we're telling you, ground crew members apparently fall asleep onboard planes all the time, the sleepy bastards often waking up in different cities. What could possibly be worse than that? This:
"During training at my first job, they said that someone had not only fallen asleep in the cargo bin of the plane, but had woken up, opened the door, and jumped out of a moving plane on the jetway."
"Look, it was either that or fly to Jersey. I made the right call."
Management Makes It Impossible To Handle Your Bags With Care
Did you ever get the feeling that airports intentionally treat your luggage the same way you would an old piece of dog turd someone left at your doorstep? Well then, we are happy to report that you were totally right about that.
Yay for you?
"Handling your luggage roughly not only makes the plane run on time, it's basically part of the job description," James says. "I have never once heard an airline say 'Go easy on the bags,' and only occasionally do they give a dishonest spiel about caring for 'fragile' tagged bags. It's just one of those things that the airline factors into their costs and don't bother their workers about."
It's basic math. Take the extra 20 seconds it'd require to carefully set your bag into place vs. chucking it from across the room, and multiply that by 150 or so, and then again by all the various stages of processing, and you can start to see the challenge. Delays cost way more than replacing the bottle of wine you had in your luggage, wrapped up in your favorite T-shirt. "I'll always handle your bags as carefully as possible," says James, "... but that's a personal choice. I have no other incentive to be nice to your bag."
Pictured: someone else's personal choice.
Even then, there are so many chances for your luggage to get the shit kicked out of it. Ben explains, "First, I accept your bags at the ticket counter ... sometimes it gets 'tossed,' as the average weight of the bags is around 45 pounds. The bags then go along a maze of belts where they could get stuck and be smashed, torn, etc. by the machinery itself. Bags are then driven in the baggage cart to the aircraft, and sometimes they will fall off. They are then loaded on a belt that leads to the belly of the plane and stacked three to five high, again causing a potential for damage. Upon arrival, the process is reversed, doubling the chances for damage to your bags."
It's these kinds of stories that make us welcome the robot uprising.
Not that the humans involved have it much easier ...
The Job Can Be Surprisingly Dangerous
Despite everything we've told you, flying is still the safest, most reliable form of travel ... for the passengers. For the crew on the ground, things can get hairy.
"The biggest danger," says Ben, "is being sucked into an engine or being caught in the jet wash from the rear of the engine. I did once have to grab a trainee who was absentmindedly starting to enter the 14-foot injection zone area. He no longer works here, as a result of this lapse in awareness." Yes, this happens -- the results are so gross that we intentionally linked to a version of the story without photos of the aftermath (imagine somebody tried to make salsa and left the lid off the food processor).
Are those blades on? Stay away. Are they off? Stay away.
But if you want to talk about real tarmac killers, you have to mention those airport baggage carts and tugs. According to Ben, "These vehicles are overbuilt with thick steel body panels that can make some models weigh four tons, and about half have open-air cabs. I have heard stories about agents being thrown from vehicles in accidents due to a lack of seat belts being worn, probably one to three a year. Most end in death." From 1985 to 2000, "only" 11 airport employees were killed by vehicles, but from 2001 to 2014, 99 people died in airport ramp accidents. And these deaths are also as gruesome as you'd (prefer not to) imagine.
At James' airport, "A guy parked next to a plane. He left the e-brake off and got off his tug. The tug, on a very slight incline, drifted toward the plane. He frantically reached inside the tug, thinking that aircraft damage was the worst possible outcome. As he got close to the plane, the tug slightly pulled him forward, and he got caught between the tug and aircraft and was crushed to death."
Holy shit. Okay, we've got to end on a lighter note. Let's change the subject to all of the diseases you can get from flying.
The Planes Are Filthy, And Airlines Rarely Do Anything About It
Raise your hand if you've ever returned from a trip and immediately gotten a cold, or some kind of stomach bug. Well, we might know why:
"How clean the plane got depended on who our lead was that day," Bob told us. "Some of them would just say, 'Screw the tray tables, let's move on to the next plane' ... We were also required to check under every seat, but that would only happen if our boss was on the plane, monitoring our work, and that was a rare occurrence. So yeah, most of the time, there could be a bomb under a seat, and we would've totally skipped it."
If you don't like the in-flight snack selection, simply check your feet for alternatives.
And yet, that still doesn't freak us out as much as the idea of sharing the same, unwiped tray with a sick toddler or someone who didn't wash their hands after using the toilet. And speaking of toilets: "The guy who cleaned the lavatories would go in there, play with his phone, and pretend to clean. I'd go in after him, and it'd still be nasty. Sometimes I'd clean after him. Other times, there'd be no time, so it just got a half-assed cleaning."
Under a black light, this bathroom would be whiter than Starbucks during pumpkin spice season.
There is some good news, though -- at least, if you're the petty and/or envious type. "First class was supposed to receive fresh pillowcases. We would often skip the pillowcases, so the first-class people would unknowingly pay to rest their heads on previously used pillowcase." If any of you fancy rich travelers have ever walked off a flight with a case of head lice, there you go.
For more insider perspectives, check out 7 Reasons The TSA Sucks (A Security Expert's Perspective) and 8 Things You Don't (Want To) Know About TSA Checkpoints.
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