If you watched ABC’s 20/20 on Friday, you may have caught me talking about the dangers of checking your luggage at the airport.
I went on national TV to confess that during my previous job as a baggage handler I loaded bags on the wrong plane.
The rest of the segment showed baggage handlers knocking luggage to the tarmac, rifling through and stealing valuables or apparently putting a stranger’s panties in someone else’s luggage.
I’d like to confess that though these stories may be accurate, they probably don’t represent the truth.
What I mean by that is 20/20 twisted these facts to fit their preconceived narrative. I helped them do it.
Now here’s the rest of the story.
Yes, I used to be a baggage handler as a part-time job out of college. Yes, I once helped load a cart of bags onto the wrong airplane.
I wrote about all of this for Budget Travel in a 2007 article called “Confessions Of… A Baggage Handler.”
At the time I was desperately trying to make my name as a freelance writer, in particular a travel writer. In fact, I took the job as an airline baggage handler because free flights were a key perk (health insurance was the other perk).
I dreamed I would fly all over the world, write about it and my career would take off.
Soon I discovered that free travel was the least interesting part of the job. It was much more colorful to write about the characters I worked with and my behind-the-scenes duties as a “rampie.”
Transporting luggage is only a portion of the job for the profession known to insiders as “working the ramp.” They also prep the plane, communicate vital information about flight “weight and balance” load with the pilot, and drive the vehicle that “pushes back” the plane from the gate before take-off.
They do this all while working odd hours (my shift started at 4 am) in freezing to blistering conditions, starting at barely above minimum wage. Day in and day out they risk their backs, limbs and lives in cramped and close quarters with industrial fumes and deadly machinery.
Given the conditions it’s surprising there aren’t more disasters surrounding the thousands of flights per day.
I never saw anything too alarming in terms of passenger bags. The most eggregious mistake I witnessed was someone forgot a partially filled cart of bags until after the flight left. The employee at fault was soon fired.
Did I ever open someone’s bag? Yes. I once had to because TSA forgot to put someone’s jeans back after a routine luggage check. They then ran the pants out to me to find the bag to put it back in. Of course it was the very bottom of the stack.
(This experience leads me to believe that the case of the stranger’s panties was TSA’s fault, not the baggage handler’s fault.)
The worst thing I personally did was use bags as pillows. I was waking up at 3 am every day and working three jobs, so I took micro-naps between baggage deliveries whenever possible. I regret nothing.
Probably the biggest worry for a passenger is riding in a plane on the ground as a ramp worker pushes them back, casually dodging other planes on the taxiway. The actual danger is minuscule, but I spent several white-knuckle moments praying I didn’t crash into another aircraft. Thankfully I never did.
Overall, the work provided me some eye-opening insight into a “dirty job” that most people never think twice about. I chronicled the daily trials on my blog. After I quit, I pitched the story of my experience to Budget Travel.
To my surprise, my submission was accepted. They wanted to feature it in a semi-regular column with secrets and tips from travel industry insiders.
Understandably, Budget Travel wanted my piece to be less about my struggles and include more inside dirt and tips for travelers. I worked with an editor to include more tidbits like “I loaded an entire cart of bags onto the wrong plane.”
The untold part of that story was that those bags didn’t get jettisoned off to a far flung area of the world. They arrived at the right destination at the right time. It basically amounted to an easily fixable paperwork error.
Of course, “I loaded a cart of bags onto the wrong plane” became the attention-grabbing sub-headline. Soon after that the New York Times wrote about my article and opined that “Tim Cigelske… confirms your worst fears about what happens to your luggage once you check it.” The article was also featured on the front page of Yahoo.com.
It was my 15 seconds of fame in 2007. Then my short-lived career writing baggage handler confessions came to an end.
Flash forward seven years.
I get a call from ABC’s 20/20, who tracked down my old article and wanted to talk with me about my former profession.
A very nice producer told me they were doing a story about holiday travel and wanted my expertise. They told me I would walk through the airport and share tips about what to do or not do while flying. I agreed.
They flew me to LaGuardia where I met with a reporter. She asked if I was still a baggage handler, and I told her I hadn’t been for years.
“Good,” she said. “Then you can spill the dirt.”
That set the tone for the interview. “What’s the worst thing you saw as a baggage handler?” was the first question. Then when I didn’t give a satisfactory answer, she asked the exact same leading question a few more times for good measure.
Afterward, 20/20 probably regretted flying me to New York for the most boring interview ever. I was honest but not inflammatory. That’s probably why most of the segment featured another baggage handler who was much more willing to throw his former colleagues under the bus.
They did, however, use a few seconds of me admitting that I loaded a cart of bags on the wrong plane. They edited out the explanation.
The episode was not about holiday travel tips, as I was originally told. It was called “true confessions” and featured exposés on nail salons, dry cleaners, movie theaters and baggage handlers.
I’m not (completely) naive. I know why 20/20 framed their stories in this fashion.
I’m a former journalist and I know that negativity, controversy and outrage sells. A stranger’s panties showing up in your bag is a story. Luggage partaking in the miracle of flight and arriving safely with you hundreds of miles later is not a story.
This experience reminded me of when I wrote another “confessions” article for Budget Travel — this one about my life as a bell boy. That was accepted for publication, then ultimately rejected when a new editor took the helm.
“There’s no shocking behavior,” the editor explained. Here’s more of his note to me:
“We’re skeptical that by the time we put our costs into this that it will generate enough pageviews and the indirectly associated revenue. Here’s our benchmark: Our Confessions of a Las Vegas Massage Therapist was picked up by content partners like MSNBC and Yahoo, and that means — ultimately — we recouped our costs on it.”
Unfortunately, that’s a confession I don’t find very shocking.