Ramp Rats' Revenge

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

Five or six mornings a week, Marvin wakes up about six o'clock and drags his tall, bony frame out of bed. He's almost 40 years old, and his back, shoulders, and knees have begun to rebel against these early hours and the rough work he's been doing for close to two years now. He steps into a pair of rubber flip-flops and shuffles into the bathroom, sending roaches scurrying. It's still early enough that the usual commotion -- kids playing, old men arguing in harsh Spanish, the staccato thrumming of bachatafrom some CD player -- hasn't started yet in the concrete courtyard outside his one-bedroom apartment in Hialeah.

Marvin's girlfriend, Barbara, gets up about five minutes later. She turns on the radio in their linoleum-floored living room to a Spanish-language FM station that plays romantic ballads. She dresses in shorts and tank top, and brushes her teeth and long cottony black hair. Marvin pulls from its wire hanger one of the half-dozen light blue work shirts in his closet, along with a pair of dark blue polyester trousers. Over the shirt pocket is a pressed-on patch that reads "Marvin." Actually it reads his real name, which he doesn't want published. That is a reasonable request, since Marvin and many of his co-workers, so-called ramp agents at Miami International Airport, regularly commit crimes during the course of their workdays. All the ramp agents in this story have been given false names, and some personal characteristics and situations have been altered or omitted to avoid hinting at their identities. (Editor's note: The author maintains a personal relationship with a former ramp agent at Miami International Airport who is not a character in this article.)

Barbara, who was recently laid off from a job as a short-order cook, drives Marvin to the airport every morning and picks him up when his shift ends at 3:00 p.m. or later. The transportation arrangement isn't just because they have a single rusting station wagon between them; the real reason is they can't afford the $30-per-month airport parking fee on Marvin's $6.75-per-hour wage. Most companies doing business at MIA pay their employees' parking, but those such as Marvin's employer, a large contractor that provides competitively priced services to airlines, cut costs wherever possible, which is often at the bottom of their work force.

Marvin clocks in at the airport office of Aircraft Service International Group (ASIG) after passing through a metal detector and x-ray machine and presenting three ID cards. He's then dispatched in a minivan to a departing Lufthansa jet waiting to be fueled and loaded. Helping him with the baggage are five other ASIG ramp agents; the mostly Spanish-speaking workers call themselves ramperos. In English the slang is "ramp rats," a term made infamous in the 1999 undercover operation at MIA in which 60 American Airlines ramp agents were arrested for drug smuggling. Marvin's team on this flight includes three fellow Cubans with whom he often works -- Lazaro, Filberto, and Raul. They know the routine. While Marvin and Lazaro (both older, more experienced, and less physically resilient than the other two twentysomethings) climb into the front and middle cargo holds, Filberto and Raul stay at the doors of the holds, meeting the luggage as it rides up on a conveyor belt from the ground, then heaving the bags back into the depths of the holds for Marvin and Lazaro to stow. Meanwhile Filberto and Raul at the door look out for people like airline representatives and airport security personnel.

In the rapidly rising morning heat, Marvin and Lazaro position the suitcases, trunks, boxes, animal cages, and all the other cargo in the holds. But before they do, they've already appraised their potential yield. Marvin is an acknowledged master of trinket heist. He can spot a suitcase that looks full of loot (he relies mostly on hunches, as a good Customs agent does when deciding whether to search a traveler for contraband), open the bag (locks pose no deterrent), and in a matter of seconds pocket a gold bracelet and earrings, a few packs of cigarettes, and a bottle of expensive perfume. He'll set aside a video camera and a T-shirt he fancies. Later, if the coast is clear, he can spirit these bulkier items down the ramp, into a transport vehicle, and at the terminal into a secure hiding place like a tote bag, eventually an office locker or a car. Marvin will probably give Filberto a pack of cigarettes. He'll keep the jewelry for Barbara or sell it and the camera to one of his many airport acquaintances. He will be sure to slip the perfume (or perhaps a later find) to his supervisor -- "For your wife, compadre" -- in a subtle kickback gesture the ramperos call mojandolo, literally, "getting him wet." The routine is repeated in infinite variations depending on conditions during his shifts. It's not as easy as Marvin makes it sound, considering the hours of heavy lifting under sun or rain, usually without adequate manpower and always with intense pressure to do more, faster, to save those dollars on that underbid contract.

"Of course you never know what you'll find," Marvin explains later, his elbows tipping a tiny dining table back and forth in a cramped corner of his kitchen. He and Barbara both receive food stamps, and Barbara is cooking picadillo and tostones. "It's best to get on the airlines the rich people use, like Lufthansa," Marvin advises. "Poor people use Lauda [another German airline]. Some bags come with locks as big as this table, but they're worthless. A lot of guys carry lock cutters, but you have to hide it under your shirt so no one can see it. Anyway, you usually don't need one. It's really easy to stick a pen into the zipper, unzip the bag, and zip it back up, and no one can tell it was opened." A playful expression momentarily animates Marvin's dark, impassive face, and he smiles guardedly. He slips a cigarette from the pack of Broncos lying on the table, lights it, takes a slow drag. "Sometimes you'll be fortunate enough to get an open bag, or one that's been torn during the flight. You have to fill out a form to report the damage to the airline, but you can take things out [of the suitcase] before you hand over the bag."

There are a lot more schemes Marvin and other ramperos have pulled. He'll be glad to explain them over a few Heinekens, and he's not one of those people who claim they're coerced into stealing by sub-poverty wages and barely human working conditions. But he won't deny it helps him get by, just a little.

"Life is hard." He shrugs. "Hay que saber vivir.You have to know how to live."

Marvin and all but a few of his fellow ramperos are immigrants from Caribbean or Latin-American countries who haven't lived here long enough to have a good grasp of the English language or the U.S. economic system. They labor in Miami's background, in a world defined by their principal worksite: the enclosed, dark, stifling airplane cargo holds where they come and go in a hurry, goaded and threatened by superiors, loading and unloading the baggage of travelers seated above them. These ramp agents operate in an opportunistic culture where crime is part of everyday working conditions. Stealing and smuggling are just ways to earn extra cash, sometimes big money, as seen during the past few years in some well-publicized cases of drug- and weapons-smuggling by mostly low-paid MIA drones. In the most recent federal sting operation at the Miami airport, a dozen ASIG ramp workers were arrested for helping smuggle several kilos of cocaine out of Avianca jets arriving from Colombia; authorities have promised more arrests in that case.

Not publicized are the crimes carried out by Marvin and dozens of other normally law-abiding airport workers. They simply steal from passenger luggage or make off with the suitcase itself. It's all loosely organized enough and deceptively simple enough to be very hard to detect and prevent. And because these relatively smalltime rip-offs aren't drug-related and rarely involve extravagant amounts of money, they receive less attention from law-enforcement authorities.

Customs agents inspect most foreign flights arriving at MIA, but they are not as concerned about departing and domestic flights, says Customs spokesman Zachary Mann. "We are constantly on the lookout, not so much for theft but for luggage loaded with drugs and other contraband. We don't have that big a problem with theft, that I'm aware of. We meet the planes so there's less of an opportunity for someone domestically to break into a bag. But if the bag is broken into outbound, going onto the plane, we wouldn't know."

Likewise the Federal Aviation Administration keeps track of complaints regarding "mishandled baggage," but only complaints received by the ten largest domestic airlines about what actually happened to the bags, and at which airport.

ASIG spokesman Dan Sellas in Orlando declines to characterize theft by employees as a major problem at MIA or at any other airport served by the company. "But we take very seriously any incident or accusation of theft," Sellas asserts. "We obviously investigate and run it through proper management channels, since we have to respect our employees. We'll coordinate with the authorities and do what's necessary to redress it. We've taken steps to ensure security at certain areas at the airport and work with our airline partners."

In the past two years, according to the Metro-Dade Police Department, 24 airport workers have been arrested for baggage theft, and 14 travelers have filed reports of property missing from their luggage. The police reports are mainly for insurance purposes, says Metro-Dade Lt. Juan Santana, chief of the general investigations unit at the MDPD airport district, since the passengers rarely know where the thefts occurred.

The Miami-Dade Aviation Department maintains what it calls safety and security teams "all over" the airport, according to spokeswoman Inson Kim, "and there have been lots of cases of the aviation department cooperating with law enforcement, but the department is certainly not going to talk about what things are in place to catch people [engaged in theft from luggage]."

Airlines themselves, not surprisingly, decline to release any numbers of thefts from passenger luggage or amounts of monetary losses incurred by victims and insurance carriers. Air traveler advocacy organizations concede luggage theft is a problem, but these days more passengers worry about security. (The ease with which suitcases can be tampered with and stolen by airport personnel with security clearances, however, has obvious potential for terrorists.)

"Airlines won't tell you anything," advises Michael Boyd, a Denver-area aviation consultant and former airline executive. "Trying to track down who's doing it or how -- it's very tough. There can be a lot of money involved. I remember a number of years back a major airline had a new station manager at San Juan; he went out of his way to stop luggage theft, and he got a shotgun in the face. It's a tough business. Ms. Gittens [aviation department director Angela] doesn't have a chance against these guys. You can't do away with petty theft as long as humans are handling baggage."

Several ramp workers estimate as many as 90 percent of their peers habitually lift valuables from baggage or are accomplices; in their interactions with each other, though, the practice is an unspoken assumption and practically never mentioned. There are long-time airport observers who insist that ramp rats as a species are unjustly maligned and that only a small fraction steal. But they're really referring to the unionized ramp agents employed by the larger airlines (such as American and United in Miami), who enjoy much better wages and job security than the ramp workers who are contracted out to other airlines by their employers, the airport service companies. No one argues that higher pay is a guarantee against theft, and even American rampers have been known to steal, but they don't work in a climate of lack and low morale that cultivates disrespect for the law.

At MIA four major firms -- "airport permittees" in legal jargon -- bid on contracts to provide a multitude of services to airlines, including ramp services, which range from cargo handling to towing, runway directing, and fueling of aircraft. Of the four contractors, Swissport pays its ramp agents the most, $7 to $8.25 per hour (benefits and parking included). ASIG, Evergreen, and American Sales and Management Organization (ASMO) all stick with $6 to $7 per hour and no benefits or parking. By contrast, American and Southwest ramp agents earn anywhere from $9 to almost $26 per hour, with enviable benefits.

And the differences between the two groups with the same jobs go deeper than wages. Not only are the unacculturated immigrants paid less, they're accorded less respect on the job. Not surprisingly, turnover is high. "They treat 'em like they're working in Nicaragua," charges Steve Roberts, international organizer for the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU). The TWU represents American's and a few other domestic airlines' ramp agents as well as those employed by Swissport (ASMO rampers voted a few years ago to be represented by the TWU, but the company has refused to negotiate a contract). "They work under constant harassment," Roberts goes on. "They're like slaves to some of these bosses."

Even with union representation, ramp workers in Miami are at a disadvantage, principally because the area's high rate of poverty and majority immigrant population combine to chronically depress wages. (This year the U.S. Department of the Census named Miami the poorest city in the nation; a 1998 study by the Florida International University Center for Labor Studies found 59 percent of Miami-Dade County residents and 65 percent of the workforce were foreign-born.) Like airport permittees everywhere, those at MIA face acute competition, intensified since the 9/11 downturn, and risk losing contracts with airlines to lower bidders. Thus if one permittee raises wages it could effectively put hundreds or thousands out of work. The approximately 300 Miami ramp agents for ASIG, a 50-year-old corporation that employs 5500 people at 68 airports worldwide, are nominally represented by Service Employees International Union Local 74, based in New York. But not a single ASIG ramper interviewed for this story knew the name of their union or had any contact with union representatives. And the local clearly has been unable to negotiate decent pay and working conditions.

That is one reason the Miami-Dade County Commission passed a so-called living wage ordinance more than three years ago. The law requires all companies doing business with the county to pay their employees a minimum of $8.76 per hour or $9.81 per hour if medical insurance isn't provided. So far many airport contractors have avoided complying with the ordinance, arguing it doesn't apply to them. In response a living wage oversight committee, established when the law was passed, has submitted amendments that the County Commission will vote on in the next few months; the new, more specific, language should leave no room for any of the intended targets to escape the law. Michael Ozegovich, a Miami labor union official and chairman of the oversight committee, predicts airport workers covered by the ordinance will receive raises beginning this October, when most airport contracts are up for renewal. "Hopefully this will finally move those people to the poverty level," Ozegovich remarks. "They'll be going from below poverty to poverty."

Jorge, a big, ruddy-faced ASIG ramp supervisor, looks forward to that time with some emotion. Jorge came to Miami from the southwest of Cuba with his mother and teenage son about five years ago, and he lives with them and a new wife in a cramped but immaculate two-bedroom Little Havana walkup. Starting as a ramper in 2000, Jorge quickly worked his way up to his present position, where he now earns $8.25 per hour. Thus the living wage ordinance won't make a huge difference to him, but he's convinced a general improvement in the pay scale will be a small step toward dignity for his co-workers. For a long time, Jorge has been angry about the working conditions on the ramp. "I keep my mouth shut because I need this job, but my heart hurts," he admits, tapping his barrel chest with his right fist. "The things I have to witness shouldn't be happening here, in the greatest democracy in the world."

It's not so much the stealing. "Now that I'm a supervisor, it's too risky for me to allow it," Jorge says. "But back when I was a lead [higher-ranking ramp agent], I'd see someone stealing and I'd just walk away. Or I'd tell him, 'Come on, I don't want to call the police, you know you're not supposed to be doing that.' I refuse to call the police. I feel bad because I know it's wrong, but an extra $20 every few days can make a lot of difference to these men. The problem of stealing is completely out of hand. They feel they're entitled to take as much as they can, and I can't blame them.

"But that's not what truly bothers me," Jorge hastens to add, both fists now in the air. "What's worse is the abuse -- physical, verbal, and economic. Because the ramperos don't know English and they don't know anything about U.S. labor laws, and they don't know their rights, [supervisors and managers] treat them like dogs.

"Because of that they treat them like dogs! Chico! They call them names, they threaten them. I heard a supervisor yelling at a rampero, 'Apúrate! Te voy a patear.' [Hurry up or I'll kick you.] They have to take this humiliation and keep working in the sun and heat, and in the rain, hour after hour. They don't get breaks, they don't even give them water to drink during their shifts. For $6 or $6.25 per hour. And that's why I really don't care if they steal. I truly believe when that [living wage] law starts, and when they start treating them like human beings, they'll have some self-respect, they'll do their jobs better, and they'll stop stealing."

Leo doubts the stealing will ever stop completely. "It's always going to happen," says the ramp worker in his mid-fifties, also a Cuban immigrant. "They do it because they don't make any money but they also do it because they get used to it. It's like they get bored if they don't find stuff to steal. They rob and then show everyone else. I've been sitting in the [ASIG] office, and I'll see guys come in and unload stolen stuff into their lockers. Some of them have two or three lockers. And I was thinking: The same guy who takes a $5 bottle of perfume or a pack of cigarettes -- it would be easy for a terrorist to pay this person $500 to put anything in a suitcase."

Leo and his wife live in a one-bedroom apartment in a Fifties-era converted motel in Allapattah, where visitors sit on worn furniture set on wood blocks. He takes the bus to work. Leo was injured on the job about a year ago. All the ASIG rampers interviewed for this story say they're regularly required to lift suitcases weighing far over the 60-pound limit they are cautioned during training not to exceed. And Leo lifted hundred-pound bags for months before two discs in his lower back ruptured. But getting effective treatment for the injury was harder than lifting overweight suitcases. He was sent to a clinic, examined by a doctor, and sent home with pain medicine and instructions to rest. But after a month, desperate for money and not having received any checks from the state workers' compensation department (he would eventually get some workers' comp payments that didn't cover all his lost time), Leo went back to work. He asked to be assigned to lighter duty, but he says his supervisors still ordered him to perform dangerous tasks. After six months the company's insurance wouldn't pay for more medical care. So he decided to enlist the help of an attorney specializing in workers' compensation. "After I got a lawyer they sent me to the worst jobs," Leo alleges. "I'm still in pain and I don't do as much as I used to. But I've got to keep working."

And he has to see guys like Juan who usually get sent to the bigger jets (which are reputed to carry correspondingly better cargo) and occasionally even leave work for hours at a time while still clocked in, all thanks to a symbiotic relationship with a supervisor or two. "The ramperos give [stolen] stuff to the bosses so they're on their side," concedes Juan, a young, grinning Honduran. "They let them punch in and then leave and come back several hours later. A lot of guys figure why waste their time [working] for six dollars."

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.'")

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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