A New Life – My First Day In The Bins
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.
Anything new in life can be exciting, but it can also come with anxiety. I was beginning a new career with little to no prior experience with a group of people I had just met. The language spoken on the ramp was foreign to me. What is involved with a "turn" (a plane being downloaded and loaded) was foreign to me. And, learning how dangerous the job can be scared the poo out of me. All of the excitement I had about this job on the first day was slowly transitioning to fear and doubt by week three. But, I had to do this.
After two weeks in the classroom, it was time for training on the ramp. We were given schedules and teamed up with experienced rampers who would show us the ropes. On my first day as a trainee, I was partnered with a man named Fernando. He goes by "Papi". He worked at another airline at DIA before coming over to Southwest Airlines. My first job was zone assist.
A zone assist is usually at the back of the plane, bringing the belt loader to the aircraft, unloading the back bins, uploading the back bins, servicing the potable water, and wing walking at push. If you have been in a window seat, you've seen the wing walkers. They're the ones with the wands walking with the plane as its being pushed out of the gate. If you're sitting on the left side of the plane, the wing walker you see on that side is most likely the zone assist.
Before I get to the work we did that day, I must tell you that I remember parking the car at the employee parking lot. Before I shut the car off, I noticed the on-board thermostat said it was 103 outside. I was 48 years-old at the time and had been without extreme physical activity since high school and I was about to hit the ramp for the first time in extremely hot conditions. Not only that, I knew I would be in the bins that day loading and unloading bags. "God help me" were words spoken both out loud and to myself all day long. 103 was the temp off the ramp, but when you're working on acres of concrete and pavement, that jumps up at least 15 degrees.
Another deep fear I had, other than hurting myself or others, was damaging an airplane. Granted, things happen and we're human. But making a mistake and damaging a plane that could lead to a delay or taking it out of service would be catastrophic for a ramp agent. This was drummed into my head several times during orientation. With that in mind, I was so nervous driving the belt loader up the the airplane. I hated it. I am driving a vehicle straight up to a multi-million dollar aircraft in a diesel powered machine. The funny things is, a more experienced ramp agent could drive it up to the plane and have it ready to unload in a matter of seconds. Me? I drove so slow and I kept hitting the brakes. There must have been a foot or two-foot gap between the belt loader and the aircraft. That's waaaay to far. I eventually got it done and got in the plane. A zone assist is the one player on the gate that is not dedicated to just one gate. A "zone" could include up to three gates. A zone assist will bounce from one gate to another servicing each flight. It is a tough job.
Me and "Papi" did eight turns that day. I don't recall how many bags I downloaded on each flight, but I do remember we averaged about 100 uploaded bags....in 120 degree temperatures. I found that the heaviest bags were usually the hard-shell small bags. I hate those bags! Not because they're almost always heavy, but they are hard to stack. The hard-shell slips against other bags and are hard to stay level. I've got to tell you, there's nothing a zone assist loves more than a nice even stack. I got through the day, but man was I tired and sore afterwards.
I looked at the schedule for the next day before I left. It said I would be training as a gate lead. That was the one job that intimidated me more than any other.