Southwest's ramp jobs go begging here

The Baltimore Sun

A rare $2,500 signing bonus didn't work.

Nor has a $1.50-an-hour raise for entry-level workers.

Now Southwest Airlines has created special management positions in Baltimore along with Philadelphia and Chicago to tackle the problem: hiring enough baggage handlers - ramp agents in airline parlance - and hanging on to the ones it's already got.

"It's a very different environment than a 9-to-5 job," said Paula Darby, Southwest's new ramp retention specialist at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, where it's the largest carrier. "What I'm doing is keeping up the morale."

The cheery king of the domestic airlines that's known for its loyal, well-compensated employees and gets flooded with hundreds of thousands of resumes a year is struggling to fully staff the tarmac at these large urban airports and in California, Southwest executives said.

It can be grueling work. Handlers must brave the elements for hours, crouched on their knees as they hoist heavy bags into planes' cargo holds. They have to move quickly to meet Southwest's fast turnarounds of its planes.

Mandatory overtime is required for new recruits, who often quit or get fired for poor attendance before their six months of probation is up.

"In between that entry-level wage and that second year, we're losing a lot of people," said Charles Cerf, president of Local 555 of the Transport Workers Union, which represents more than 6,800 Southwest ground workers. "It's a Southwest problem in just those three to four cities."

The shortages come at a time when heightened anti-terrorist measures are adding pressure to baggage handling operations across the airline industry.

The Transportation Security Administration's tight restrictions on carry-on liquids, gels and aerosols mean airlines are processing more checked bags.

Southwest, for example, has seen its volume of checked bags increase more than 20 percent since the restrictions went into effect after a London terror plot surfaced in August 2006.

Since then Southwest's mishandled baggage reports have also risen, increasing nearly 10 percent last year, ranking it behind AirTran Airways, Northwest, JetBlue, Continental and United.

At the same time, more stringent hiring requirements have limited the pool of candidates available for the baggage handler job.

Some applicants who would otherwise qualify are ruled out because of criminal records or immigration violations. Others just bolt during the lengthy background check process.

In the 10 days to two weeks it takes to screen potential employees, airlines see a high attrition rate as applicants grab other jobs with less rigorous background checks, said Jerry Glass, president of F&H; Solutions Group, which does management consulting for airlines.

"They're going to take the first job they can get in which they start getting a paycheck," Glass said.

Southwest faces additional challenges at high-volume airports such as BWI, where the region's low unemployment rate and relatively high cost of living make it difficult to fully staff at the entry-level, said Jeff Lamb, the new chief of Southwest's People (human resources) department.

With 11 daily Southwest flights at Dulles International Airport, only 17 ramp agents are needed there. They are five short but four new agents were just hired, Southwest spokeswoman Whitney Eichinger said.

In comparison, Southwest has been about 20 short of the 260 baggage handlers authorized for Baltimore, the company and the TWU Local 555 said. Three to five Southwest ramp agents leave BWI each week, said Mike Cernosek, the union's East Coast district representative.

The turnover rate for Southwest ramp agents at BWI is close to five times the company's 4 percent to 5 percent overall average, Lamb said.

Southwest flies more than half of all passengers at BWI, which is the airline's fourth-biggest market, with 172 daily flights. Just over 11 million Southwest passengers flew through Baltimore in 2007.

Currently all new baggage handlers start at the same $10.18-an- hour rate, though the Baltimore-Washington region is more expensive than many of the other cities Southwest serves. As a result, a number of agents relocate from BWI to airports in areas with a cheaper living costs, Cerf said.

"That leaves them backfilling those positions constantly in Baltimore, because of the transfers and the quits," Cerf said.

That means that existing workers often pull double shifts. It's common for ramp agents to clock in 70 to 80 hours a week, said Kevin Talbert, a TWU Local 555 representative in Baltimore.

A ramp agent with Southwest for over nine years, Talbert, 30, now makes $18.50 an hour and with all the overtime his pay reaches about $75,000 a year, he said. The pay scale tops out at $24 an hour and benefits include the right to free flights.

The flexibility to transfer to other Southwest airports also attracts new recruits, said Jay Edwards, who trains baggage handlers at BWI. "You're going to those new locations and making the same amount of money."

Edwards, 49, joined Southwest as a ramp agent 17 years ago in California, moving on to Columbus, Ohio and Tucson, Ariz., before coming to Baltimore in 2003.

To gain more recruits, Southwest wants to network more with institutions such as Anne Arundel Community College.

Southwest also touts the potential for advancement. Eleven of Southwest's top 30 executives started as baggage handlers or in another entry-level job.

"If you're trying to be a manager and you've never worked a day on the ramp, you wouldn't be very effective," said Darby, BWI's new ramp retention specialist.

Darby, who is in her 40s, strives to motivate her troops, proving that they too can rise up. She is also one of the rare ones who quit but then came back. Nine months into her start as a Southwest ramp agent at BWI, Darby said she left for personal reasons. She returned less than a year later in May 2002, transferring to Islip MacArthur Airport on Long Island before working as a recruiter in Baltimore and Buffalo.

"I'm living proof that Southwest Airlines has so many opportunities there for the taking," said Darby. "I had a whole new appreciation when I came back."

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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