As I greeted my first JetBlue Airways customer at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport customer check-in desk, I had three pressing concerns: Did this blond, Boston-bound traveler pack explosives in his luggage or sneak more than a few ounces of shampoo or conditioner into his carry-on toiletry bag?
Of course, federallawand airport policy require airline agents to question travelers on these matters before issuing their boarding passes.
But my biggest worry of all: Could I really lug his 48-pound suitcase onto the knee-high conveyor belt that leads, eventually, to the plane, without dropping it on my foot — and then do it again and again all day long?
I had a chance to find out last week when I worked briefly with JetBlue Airways at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, or FLL as they say in the airline business. Many of us will spend too much time at a local airport waiting for a flight, but few of us have had a peek behind the curtain.
I took on the basic duties of both customer service representatives and baggage handlers. In short, they're the men and women in blue uniforms responsible for packing planes full of people and cargo, and to do it safely, on time and with a quick smile. For that, they get paid between $12 and $21 per hour.
"So, do you have explosives in your luggage?" I asked the man headed to Boston on the 10:52 a.m. flight.
"No," he responded.
"Do you have more than 3.4-ounces of liquids or gels?" I pressed politely.
I asked for his ID; he handed over a Florida driver's license. Then I cross-checked his name with the boarding pass: check.
Next, I made sure he had only one bag to check in, a bulky black suitcase nearly big enough to pack a pony. I looked him in the eye and said, "Please pick it up and place it on the conveyor belt behind me" – in my head.
Alas, that was myjob. So I bent my knees, steeled my back and lifted – and grunted.
That was not so bad, I thought to myself, as I dropped that luggage like a sack of unloved potatoes onto the conveyor belt. I secretly hoped its owner had not packed holiday ornaments or other breakables near the front pocket — the one that absorbed the brunt of the fall as it landed before disappearing out of sight. Fortunately, he did not pay attention.
Neither did the woman with a whopping 51.3-pound bag. She was prepared with her ID and a smile. Maybe that's why my supervisor did not blink at the 1.3-pound overage that could have added another $50 fee to the woman's travel costs.
Lift. Thud. And her baggage was gone, too.
It took about 5 minutes each to process my first two customers. But my supervisor jumped in and finished each transaction, so I knew I wasn't fast enough.
Each agent is expected to process up to 200 customers per hour. As a crew, the quota is as many as 3,000 customers by 10 a.m. Airport-wide, more than 23 million passengers flew in and out of FLL last year.
Handling heavy luggage and long customer lines is worth the trouble, said Ingrid Brooks. She has 10 years on thejobat JetBlue and loves the perk of free travel.
"Each day is different," she said. "There are beautiful days and no flight delays, and there are days of chaos."
Brooks likes fighting Mother Nature and finding ways to reroute travelers when storms ground planes, even if it means using another airline. Her reward: "I get to travel the whole world for free," she explained. "My last trip was to Thailand."
I had visions of long vacations in exotic places when I was told to put on steel-toed boots, a bright-yellow vest and knee pads and was led to the outdoor loading area where luggage waits to be loaded onto the plane.
A lot of the guys who do this job look like college football players. Yet they somehow climb and squeeze into four-foot-tall cargo bins in the belly of the plane. They work on their knees, hence the pads, and learn to lift with their arms, shoulders and backs.
My partner and I shoveled 41 pieces of luggage and 20 boxes (eight of which held live fish) in 15 minutes flat. It wasn't fast enough, I was told.
Part of the job is holding orange sticks and marshaling the planes to the fueling and loading area, which is very cool. And you get to watch planes take off and land all day. But the lifting kills.
Collectively, FLL baggage handlers lug, slide and drag about 25,000 pieces of luggage per day. Carl Sasso has done it for eight years. He loads four to five planes per shift and hates humid, 96-degree days and anyone who doesn't carry his weight on the job.
There's "nothing better than working with a good team," he said. "This is not a good job if you don't have the heart or strength."
And a hard head helps, too. Sasso once sliced his head on the sharp metal fin of a plane's wing.
My day at FLL taught me this: If you plan to fly in or out of a South Florida airport this holiday, or on any holiday for that matter, be prepared for delayed flights, lost or damaged luggage and long lines at the security gate.
If none of that happens, you'll be on time and pleasantly surprised.
Should the worst occur, think twice before releasing your steam on the nearest airport employees. They're working hard to get it right.
Have an idea for an "In Your Shoes" column? Contact Daniel Vasquez at dvasquez@ tribune.com, 954-356-4219 or 561-243-6686.