‘It’s carnage’: the life of a Gatwick baggage handler during a summer of flight chaos

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The Guardian

‘In normal times you’d know what flights you were handling at the start of the day. Now you can’t, because it’s carnage. Doing the day shift’s not too bad, but on a late or night shift, people are getting hammered … nothing’s going to plan, the planes are all coming in late – you don’t really have time to take on food, or take a break.

I’ve worked at Gatwick for 20 years. But with so many new people we’re having to train them over again on how to lift things without breaking their backs. Everything takes twice the time – and everything is time-focused at an airport.

Since some airlines cut their schedules, we at least have the numbers on my firm. Others still don’t have enough people with skills to do all parts of the job.

Because one air traffic controller was sick they were only allowing 15 flights an hour to take off on Wednesday. The handling agents will have worked out shifts for flights to take off on time – but the nightshift then had to pick up inbound flights and load aircraft that are late. Kit that I needed on stands in the morning wasn’t there and I had to go and find it.

Nearly everything is manual, lifting by hand. Normally it’s only four and half foot high (1.4m) in the hold, so the average loader has to lift 150 bags in 40 minutes on his knees, layering them like bricks. In an eight-hour shift you have to do about six planes, you’re lifting about 20 tonnes a day.

The whole of the airport has got CCTV – the airlines can log in from anywhere in the world, so Big Brother is watching all the time. If your plane goes late, you’re up for a disciplinary. People are rushing around to get the job done, but it puts you at risk of having an accident. You have to tow equipment the length of an articulated lorry. If you hit or bump something you could lose your job.

It’s quite nice working outside when its 30C, sunny and you’re in a T-shirt. When you’re being hosed down by the rain and the wind, not so much. Ski season is when it gets nasty, when you’ve got 150 skis and boot bags and you’re loading the plane to the same timetable.

I live locally compared with most, a half-hour drive and a mile walk from the staff car park. It’s only this year we’ve been allowed to bring fluids through security. Normally you’re paying passenger prices – a small Coke is £2.50. Working at the airport is an expensive business.

Other people are getting up at 2am to start at 5am doing 12 hours, coming from Dorset and Dagenham. Why wouldn’t they go to Sainsbury’s for the same money? People are getting burnt out.

It’s worse in the customer-facing part of the business. People have gone sick because of the abuse they are facing, having to explain to people why their plane is cancelled or bags are missing. We loaders tend to be hairy-arsed apes so people don’t mess with us.

Customer-facing colleagues tend to be more polite, in a shirt and tie, and I’ve seen them spat at or slapped this summer. You’ve got some 20-year-olds on their first job, left alone in some weird and wonderful part of the airport, with angry customers. I’ve seen people leave after a day, even after getting through all the applications and security checks, handing their pass back, saying this isn’t for me.

Why don’t I leave? I enjoy the camaraderie, the banter, what you get away with. If the company has got a decent shift pattern and you can do overtime, you can gross £5,000 a month – but that’s working some serious hours, 14-hour days, six days a week.

Every handling company is overstretched and understaffed. One we saw next to us on Tuesday had a team to load the aircraft but not unload it. They took the passengers off, boarded new ones, but didn’t have the right skills to get the drivable conveyor belt for the hold. They were waiting on the stand for two hours. It’s a sick old world, but we’re there laughing and thinking, thank God it’s not us.”

September 3, 2022 at 02:55PM As told to Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

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