A New Life – Learning the Gate Lead
In January 2016, I left a 30 year career in radio to find a new path. Fear, doubt, and anxiety filled the vacuum at that time. I had no idea where life was going to take me. These writings are about my experiences and how I landed back in radio, but I truly hope they are inspirational to those who are going through something similar. The fear, doubt, and anxiety can all lead to a tailspin. I knew that. I also knew that I had to keep moving toward something…..and hang on.
My next role on the ramp was “Gate Lead”. The Gate Lead is in charge of the entire flight. Marshaling the plane in, connecting the tow bar to the front landing gear, connecting air, and then getting to work downloading bags only to then load the next flight. On paper, it sounds easy. But, there is a lot of pressure to get all of this done in about 30 minutes while keeping track of all the bags. Bags that are already on the gate and others that are coming in from other flights. Southwest is serious about these bags. Trouble can come hard and heavy if the Lead is not keeping track of the count and checking off all of the transfer bags. This is only a little of what goes on for the Lead during a turn. It didn’t take much for me to be totally intimidated with this position.
My first Gate Lead training assignment was with Sarah. She’s been with Southwest for a while and has a great reputation on the ramp. I knew I would learn a bunch from her.
The first flight arrived and she let me marshal it in. I wish I could tell you what it’s like to watch a 737 coming right at you. I was very nervous, not so much about that, but making sure I was using the wands properly and guiding this big, loud beast to the proper mark on the ground. While Southwest does have only 737’s in its fleet, there are different body types. When I started there, they had the 737-300, 500, 700 and 800. The 300 and 500 were about the same length, the 700 a bit bigger, but the 800 is longer than them all. Because of its length, there is a different stopping point on the “J-line”. You stop that aircraft on the wrong line, there is a problem.
Sarah did most of the work on that flight. My job that night was more “shadowing” than doing the actual job. I got to follow Sarah around and see how she runs the flight. She was amazing. She wasn’t the tallest agent out there, but she sure could move around and load a plane better than most. She was a flurry of activity and at times impossible to keep up with.
After that flight, the clouds moved in. Typical Colorado summer weather. It was the late afternoon thunderstorm we all can count on in June, July, and August. There wasn’t anything unusual about this storm. It brought the usual heavy rain and lightning. In fact, the ramp was shut down briefly due to lightning in the area. But on this night, the weather wasn’t the only challenge.
The computer system we use to get all the flight information and bag count is called “OTIS”. Remember, the town drunk on the “Andy Griffith Show” was called Otis. That was the joke on the ramp whenever there were a bunch of gate changes…”Oh, Otis must be drunk again”. This night, with the rain and thunderstorms, OTIS shut down completely. We had no idea what was going on at our gate. With the ramp shutdown due to weather, there were numerous gate changes and flight changes. We had no idea when a plane arrived where that flight came from or where it was going next. Sarah remained cool and in control the whole time, but she did turn to me at one point and told me the training was over. There was too much going on for her to focus on my training. I totally agreed.