« New vehicles for hitting the road | Main | Royal Caribbean names 2 new ships »

Behind the scenes at United/Fort Lauderdale

I was on my knees, trying not to bang my head on the low ceiling of the airplane’s cargo hold, shoving suitcases out the door and onto the conveyor belt as fast as I could.

The part of me that likes things orderly — a very small part, as people who have seen my desk know — wanted to line up the bags neatly, top up, but there was no time for that. It had to be enough that none of the bags fell off the moving belt. Grab, shove. Grab, shove. The bags kept coming and I kept sliding them into a crooked line on the conveyor belt.

The professional baggage handler grinned as he hit the button that moved forward the floor of the luggage compartment, bringing another row of bags within easy reach. He was a muscular guy who clearly worked out, and he had for an assistant a past-middle-age woman whose idea of a workout is walking downstairs to the cafeteria for coffee.

He was doing all the heavy lifting, pulling bags off the top of the stack and bringing them down to the floor. I had to twist my upper torso to move each piece of luggage, but the end of the conveyor belt was level with the floor, and I slid rather than lifted most of the bags. Usually the baggage handler unloads the cargo bay by himself. Having someone arrange the bags on the conveyor belt probably moved things along faster than usual, but it was apparent that baggage handler was not to be my employment Plan B.

I was just playing anyway. United Airlines was giving select members of its top-tier frequent flier group a behind-the-scenes tour of its operation at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport operation, and I had been invited to tag along.

This was not an ordinary tour; this was hands-on, and most of us were like kids who get to climb on a fire engine during a firehouse tour.

There were about 30 of us, and most of us got to do as many of the following as we wanted: Make boarding announcements, scan tickets at the gate, drive the jetway (the passenger bridge), drive the luggage trolleys, scan baggage, track down lost luggage, drive the luggage ramp up to planes and raise and lower it, wing-walk a plane in (those are the guys who walk next to the tip of the wings, orange stick held high), set the chocks in front of a jet’s wheels so it doesn’t roll forward, push back a jet from the gate. 

In addition, we got tutorials on how the baggage system and maintenance crews work. We got to heft a black box, see the three-level tangle of luggage conveyor belts, track down the owner of a piece of luggage left on the carousel, hear about the necessity of balancing the weight of luggage in the cargo bins.

Once, our little sub-group of five got to sit in the cockpit of a jet not quite ready to board and talk to the co-pilot.

The employees were all friendly. That’s no surprise: This group was the airline’s best customers, who have voted with their wallets that this airline’s staff is the best.

What was particularly interesting was that even though in the public’s eyes, the merger of United and Continental was completed on March 3, behind the scenes, much of the operation is still run like two airlines. As a plane is prepared for takeoff, the merged airline has two incompatible systems to track as baggage is loaded and balanced, food and drink are brought on board, a place is refueled. It will be at least a year before all the flights are on one system, employees told us. In the maintenance storeroom where bins of parts are labeled and ready for use, it’s United parts on United planes, Continental parts on Continental planes. At least the same crews work on both. Someday, it truly will be one airline.

And in the meantime, about 30 people understand a little better all the work that goes into making a flight ready for travel.