Southwest offers bonuses to lure baggage handlers

John Cooper Jr. is a cog in a 32,000-person wheel, but every time a Southwest plane lands he feels the satisfaction of knowing that without him the company doesn't fly.

Cooper is a baggage handler, called a ramp agent, for Southwest Airlines at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. And yesterday at the airport, the former Marine was helping recruit dozens more to the carrier with stories of the physical and mental challenges to keeping all the flights on time, a crucial element in the airline's consistent profitability.

And this day, he was able to offer something else unusual in the belt-tightened aviation industry: a $2,500 signing bonus.

The Dallas-based airline plans to pay the bonus to dozens of baggage handlers, who load luggage and cargo, and to provisioning agents, who load supplies such as food, once they pass six months on the job at BWI or Philadelphia International Airport.

"Money talks," Cooper said. "But when the money is gone, they'll realize they're a part of a team. They're on the front lines, getting their hands dirty. You get this sense of satisfaction over and over when you see the planes take off on time. It's just awesome to see what it takes."

The rare bonus may reflect the difficulty in luring so many workers to a demanding physical job at a time when headlines describe an industry reeling from pay cuts, layoffs and billions in losses since 2001. There's also the baggage handler's status as one of the lowest rungs in the business.

But those who attended a job fair yesterday showed that the opportunity for steady work with a growing company is still much in demand, with some other airlines struggling and steady, manual labor jobs fading. The applicants mostly even dismissed the bonus as a reason for coming.

To them, Southwest means health care, traveling free and a future.

Cooper plans to trade in his blue jumpsuit for a business suit before he retires from Southwest, knowing that 11 of its top 30 executives started as a baggage handler or in another entry-level job.

A Southwest baggage handler starts at $8.75 an hour and is required to have a high school diploma or equivalent and a good driving record, though not airline experience. It's the kind of job experts say wouldn't likely inspire people to move from other cities where they were furloughed or threatened with layoffs, as a higher paid, more skilled pilot or flight attendant position might.

But among the roughly 20 applicants yesterday at BWI was Scott Williams, a 35-year-old ramp shift manager for US Airways Express in Pittsburgh.

He and others, sitting in a horseshoe of chairs, sat quietly as Southwest officials explained the job. Then, after a break, they were expected to stand, introduce themselves and explain why they wanted to work there. Later, they were due for one-on-one interviews.

"I'm not so much concerned with pay," said Williams during the break. "I like this company. I don't want to miss an opportunity."

Jessica Mullen only had to travel a few miles from her home in Dundalk, but she voiced a similar reason for showing up. Unemployed and 22 years old, she wanted health care and flying privileges, and also stability and a future. She also wanted a chance to show a woman could handle a labor-intensive job. The bonus, she said, was "nice."

Southwest officials said that between four and 20 people show up for such job fairs, and the bonus was aimed at luring as many people as possible. The airline is holding job fairs over five days this month. The next one is tomorrow at 8 a.m. at the Southwest offices on Air Cargo Drive, at the edge of the BWI complex.

The airline wants to hire 40 to 50 people in Baltimore and 30 to 40 for Philadelphia.

The money might have caught a few people's attention in radio and print ads, said Dan Kasper, managing director of LECG, a Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm that tracks the airline business.

"A signing bonus is not something you hear about much in the airline industry," he said. "For baggage handling type of jobs, it's a sensible way to hire in many cases. What it does is provide inducement for people to sign up with you. And it doesn't go into the wage base. It's a one-time hit."

And in a state such as Maryland, with relatively low unemployment, a bonus might be just what the airline needs to coax a large enough crop of applicants quickly, he said.

Southwest officials say some prospective applicants leave after an introduction that spells out the full-time work and the process of getting hired, which can take six weeks because of federal security clearance required to work at an airport.

In Philadelphia, where the airline launched service a year ago, Southwest is expanding rapidly and needs more workers. In Baltimore, the airline isn't expanding so quickly any more, even as a new terminal opens for exclusive use by the airline, but many workers have moved on to other jobs in the company or moved to other cities, said Melanie Jones, the Southwest spokeswoman.

The airline remains one of the few hiring. That might be a reason for all the applications. Last year, the airline received 225,895 resumes and hired 1,706 for all jobs.

It is also one of the few that has never laid off a worker. That may be a reason it can attract applicants with entry pay below many competitors. Alaska Airlines recently laid off more than 400 baggage handlers, some making $20 an hour, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Wary of the difficult environment, other airlines have taken steps to keep workers. US Airways, for example, bumped entry pay to $9.59 from more than $7 an hour for baggage handlers this year, after a public-relations debacle around Christmas when a large number of possibly disgruntled workers called in sick during peak travel time.

Cooper, the 44-year-old Baltimore native and ramp agent, said he has never missed a day on the job in five years.

"Compared to the other airlines," he said, "this is Ringling Brothers, and everyone here is having a good time."