Trade Secrets: Airplane Wrangler

Di Mylon

The Trade
Next time you’re waiting at the carousel, be patient: Only one person is unloading the luggage from your flight. John Wayne Airport’s 75 gate agents, who also direct planes to and from the gates, are employed by the airlines. In addition to other tasks, they also handle about 2.6 million bags a year.

As a young passenger in her parents’ car at LAX, Mylon was smitten: “One of these days,” she thought, “I’m going to be out there working.” But the self-professed tomboy wasn’t fascinated by the glam job of a flight attendant—she’d fallen in love with the smell of jet fuel. The 50-year-old Aliso Viejo resident has spent nearly two decades working for Southwest Airlines, even appearing in one of its bags-fly-free commercials (click here to watch her cameo!), toppling the first of thousands of suitcases that domino through L.A. Mylon plans to direct planes and handle bags until she can’t. “Then I’ll be the person who takes your boarding pass.”

Your job title is “ramp agent.” What does that entail?
One day you may be the person who loads the bags, or the person who stacks them in the aircraft, or the one who drops them to the people waiting at the carousel. Or you might be servicing the lavatory. We also do provisioning: changing trash cans, filling the ice, and other things. And there are days you marshal in five or six aircraft. Everybody is trained for each position, so you can jump right in.

Parallel parking a car is tough enough. How difficult is parking a plane?
It’s daunting when you first start, but the plane has steering capacity so the pilot can always adjust if you’re a couple feet off. It’s always kind of fun to get it right on the mark. We challenge ourselves.

Tell me about those hand signals.
Everybody has his or her own technique. You’ll see some people with [military] motions or very reserved motions. It’s really your own preference on how you want to marshal in the aircraft. But there are certain things you have to do. When you come up to a stop, you tell the captain by making an X with the wands. You put one wand up and that means set the brakes, and then you click the wands together and that means the chocks are in. So you’re communicating to the captain without saying anything because he or she can’t hear you.

Strangest signal?
One that signals the engine is on fire. This sounds crazy, but you point to the engine and you wave your other hand back and forth behind your butt. I’m serious.

Ever practice in front of a mirror?
I didn’t. You watch your trainer do it first. Like anything in life, you look at somebody else and you think, “I like the way they’re doing that.” I just watched people and came up with my own style.

Which is?
Relaxed. Wasn’t at the beginning, though. You have this big plane coming to you and it’s loud and you have to tell it where to stop. It’s nerve-racking. But it’s fun now. It’s fun to know you’re in charge of that guy or gal coming in.

So, you have this connection …
I like to smile at them. I’m sure some people distract the pilots a little more than others. I would say that’s a different department, probably the flight attendants.

Three good qualities of an aircraft marshaler?
Work ethic, respect for your coworkers, and being aware of your surroundings. It’s a dangerous job; you have to be looking around all the time. We wear earmuffs to protect our hearing, but you could walk right by an engine that’s running. People get killed if they’re not paying attention.

Ever witness an incident?
About eight years ago, an employee walked behind an engine that was  running. As a marshaler, you let everyone on the jetway know that it’s OK to go to the safety zone area at the back of the plane. Well, he didn’t look for the marshaler. His hat went flying and he tumbled into the street. He got up like nothing happened, thank goodness, but it could have been really bad. After that, his nickname was “Tumbleweed.”

Ever collect anything interesting from the tarmac?
Just little nuts and bolts from the airplane. Just kidding! Usually it’s the ends of zippers that fall off bags, or things that fall out like shampoo and toothpaste. You find a lot of coins, especially with Vegas flights. The most was probably, like, three-something. When we fill a bottle with the stuff we find, our supervisor brings in doughnuts for the day.

First day on the job?
I was told that I’d be the “assist” for the day. I was like, “What’s that?” I was told that I’d be in the aircraft on my knees stacking bags. Man, I was sore. God put feet on your legs for a reason.

Did you work on 9/11?
I wasn’t here that day; I watched it on TV. When I got back to work, my co-workers remarked how quiet it was. All the planes were parked and shut off. It was like the world had just stopped.

Best time of the year?
Right after school starts, and until Thanksgiving. The loads are really light.

Worst time?
The holidays. You’re still doing the same thing, but there’s just more bags.

Best weather to work in?
Hazy sunshine. The days go by faster when you can’t judge where the sun is.

Worst weather?
Fog. The planes can’t land. It’s an eerie thing because it’s so quiet.


Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue.

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