Ramp Rats' Revenge

Checking luggage? Think long and hard before answering yes to that question at MIA

On the other hand, Leo points out, some supervisors and airline representatives refuse to work with ramperos known to be thieves. "There are supervisors who don't want to be sent to some planes," he asserts. "Some flight chiefs [airline employees in charge of each flight], when the ramperos arrive to load or unload a flight, will tell the [company] supervisor to get someone else. Or if they can't find anybody else, if there's two who don't steal, they don't put them with people who do steal.

"Some supervisors or security people have seen ramperos stealing but they don't say anything so as to not cause problems for the company," Leo goes on. "A few times they ripped the ID off the guy and told him to leave the airport. Most of the time they'll just tell him to stop."

Of course it's practically impossible to prove theft, short of installing surveillance cameras in baggage loading areas or cargo holds. "If someone is about to catch me taking something," theorizes Jorge, the ASIG supervisor, "I can put it back, or throw it away, or give it to [a co-worker] to keep for me. You can't fire me because you can't find anything on me. I know of two who were fired after an airline representative went into the cargo hold and saw them opening and closing suitcases. But they never proved they were stealing." (One of the few successful prosecutions of baggage theft was by the FBI in 1994, in which video cameras caught seven American Airlines baggage handlers looting suitcases at the Washington, D.C., National Airport. In an article published after all seven pleaded guilty to theft charges, the Washington Post quoted the prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert C. Chesnut: "'We weren't dealing with isolated acts here -- this appeared to be a routine practice, especially late at night.... These people had the time and, in many cases, the opportunity to go through everything.... About the only thing you can do is not put any valuables in your luggage. Carry them all with you.'")

illustration by Jordan Isip
illustration by Jordan Isip

Or shrink-wrap them. Even then, your luggage could be "lost." Lately Marvin has been one of the men assigned to the areas where bags are loaded and unloaded from the carts that transport cargo to and from the planes on the ramp. This job presents many opportunities for the alert rampero. Outbound bags come down on a conveyor belt from the ticket counters, whereupon the bags are usually x-rayed and sorted according to destinations, connecting flights, and cabin class. Marvin and other rampers say the security people who run the x-ray machines are often enlisted to single out bags in which they can see valuables. Then Marvin can tear off the claim ticket from the target suitcase and attach a different ticket (swiped by him or an accomplice from the airline). "You load it on a cart with other luggage," Marvin relates, "and when you get to a restricted area you take [the purloined suitcase] off the cart and walk out another door." Usually, with a little planning and luck, there will be a car waiting with the trunk open. If not, he will have a hiding place to stash the bag until the end of his shift.

Diverting a suitcase from an incoming flight is in some ways the most brazen move of all. "When the bag arrives on the cart," Marvin says, "you tear the claim check off and put on another one. So you have the other part of the ticket, right? And you can give it to another [worker] or a friend, and he can wait out in the baggage claim area. Then when the bag comes out, he picks it up and takes it out to a car. If a passenger comes up and says, 'Isn't that my suitcase?' you just show them the ticket and say, 'No, I'm sorry, it's mine.'"

In the past six months, though, Marvin says he's tried to avoid AirTran flights. "AirTran has been en candela [in an uproar]," he notes calmly. "It's an American [domestic] airline and most of their passengers are Americans who put their jewelry and cash in their suitcases. [Colombians and Venezuelans tend to wrap their bags, so they don't have many problems.] I'm told the airline was getting too many complaints of thefts so now they've got security and detectives all over the place." Other ramp workers have said they also noticed increased security around AirTran flights. The airline's corporate communications office didn't return calls seeking confirmation.

By the end of 2002, federal employees will replace the current low-paid private security inspectors at many (but not all) airport checkpoints. All luggage must be screened for explosives, and each checked bag will have to be matched to a passenger, although that's just on originating domestic flights (international flights have required bag-matching for years). Marvin and other ramp workers don't believe the new measures will greatly affect them. So far, little has changed in their realm, other than they've had to shell out more money for more ID cards and fingerprints. Increased screening and more professional security guards could, Marvin concedes, make finding and diverting a good suitcase somewhat harder. Nothing a little creativity couldn't fix.

"Necessity has always been the mother of invention," he murmurs, then starts to smile at the thought: "Working at the airport is the mother of invention."

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