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Next February’s Olympics is expected to put Vancouver International Airport’s baggage-handling process through the wringer. But after last December’s snowstorm debacle, many are wondering if YVR can handle the load.

Some people might think I needed my head examined. But in January of 2008, I applied to work for Swissport Canada Handling Inc., a company that provides third-party baggage-handling services to WestJet and other airlines flying in and out of Vancouver International Airport.

Chucking bags for close to minimum wage, I thought, would give me an insight into a world that airline passengers rarely see – namely what happens to their luggage after it is weighed and labelled at the airport check-in desk. I figured that working for Swissport – a company I had never heard of at the time – would also give me an early look at the challenges one of Canada’s biggest airports will face during the 2010 Games next February.

Already a stop-off point for 18 million passengers and 25 million bags per year, YVR is Canada’s largest gateway for passengers travelling to other destinations, with about 55 per cent of the bags landing in YVR winding up on connecting flights. On peak days during the Games, 80,000 passengers are expected to come through the airport gates – a number that is close to what the airport would typically see during peak tourist season in August, when about 60,000 bags from inbound and outbound passengers flow through the system.

That will put a lot more pressure on the airport’s 1,600 baggage handlers, who were overwhelmed in December 2008 when heavy snowfall forced Air Canada to cancel domestic flights in and out of Vancouver after the aircraft de-icing fluid ran out. From Dec. 23 to 25, flight delays and cancellations stranded hundreds of Christmas travellers, leaving piles of unclaimed luggage in the airport baggage rooms. Some of it was still there weeks after the chaos was over.

“If this happened during the Olympics, they would be in real trouble,” says Todd Haverstock, general chairperson for the western region of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), the union representing airport baggage and maintenance workers. In hindsight, he says, it probably opened a lot of people’s eyes to what officials need to do to prepare for another snowstorm during the 16 days when the Games are on. 

Tossing bags into aircraft holds turned out to be a screaming wake-up call for a muscular system that had become atrophied by years spent doing little more than tapping the keyboard on a reporter’s computer terminal. It was also an entry into a world of dead-end jobs and some dreary mornings spent on bag room assembly lines.

Getting hired wasn’t difficult. Switzerland-based Swissport International Ltd., which operates in 42 countries and posted revenue of $2 billion in 2008, employs 350 people in Vancouver and has grabbed a slice of the local action by focusing exclusively on narrow-body aircraft. It handles about 20 per cent of YVR’s baggage business under contracts with WestJet Airlines Ltd. (about 80 per cent of its business), Continental Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Northwest Airlines and Sunwing Airlines. Its main rivals are Air Canada Ground Handling Services – which handles over 50 per cent of the airport baggage under contracts with parent Air Canada, Air Canada Jazz, Lufthansa, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Air China – Servisair Inc. and Transat AT Inc. subsidiary Handlex.
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Swissport’s emphasis on narrow-body aircraft brings significant savings, eliminating the need for costly equipment such as the hydraulic FMC container loaders, which, at the flick of a switch, can hoist up to 4,500 kilograms, or the equivalent of 140 containerized bags, into the cargo holds of wide-body planes such as the Boeing 777. It also means Swissport workers, who do virtually all the heavy lifting themselves, can be trained and on the job in just seven days; by comparison, it takes about five weeks for Air Canada to train new recruits. But since the top earners at Swissport make about $12.40 an hour, compared to $24 at Air Canada and $19 at Servisair, employee turnover is a constant challenge, and Swissport is regularly on the lookout for new recruits.

And so it was that, within minutes of showing up at a Richmond hotel in search of employment one January afternoon, I was informed that the job was mine and that I would be joining other rookie baggage handlers for a week of training. The first day of class began with a warning about the dire consequences of walking in front of a running jet engine immediately after it has pulled up to the airport gate. Pictures of the ground-beef-like remains of a maintenance worker who got sucked into a jet engine at Kansai airport in Japan were circulated among the trainees. “We like to make people aware of what the dangers are,’’ explains Dennis Mulholland, Swissport’s Vancouver station manager, who began his career as a baggage handler with Wardair Canada Ltd. in 1982.

From there, we learned the ABCs of the baggage-handling business. When passenger bags are dropped off at the check-in counter, they get tagged and put on a conveyor belt that transfers them to an electronic sorting system. Then they are transported to baggage rooms where handlers are waiting in assembly lines to manually load the bags onto carts or containers and drive them out to the airport gates. On any given day, a crew of baggage handlers might encounter everything from anxious pets to “humers,’’ the trade name for caskets containing human remains.

Once the baggage carts arrive at the waiting aircraft, ramp crews are waiting to lift the bags off the carts and put them on a conveyor system known as a belt loader, which transfers the bags up to the airplane cargo hold. Using a load plan to guide them, handlers must then stack the bags in a manner that will not destabilize the plane and put passengers in danger. When all the bags are loaded and the doors of the cargo holds are closed, ground crews begin the process of pushing the aircraft back from the passenger gate.

It’s a process that doesn’t get much attention unless the system fails – as it did last Christmas when freezing temperatures and a large dump of snow exhausted the supply of glycol needed to make de-icing fluid. Air Canada reacted by cancelling all short- and medium-haul flights in and out of Vancouver, which caused thousands of unclaimed bags to pile up inside the domestic terminal. “It was crazy,’’ says the union’s Haverstock. “The snow was falling so fast, dump trucks couldn’t keep up.” He says the fact that so many airport and ground-handling staff were on vacation when the storm hit only made things worse.

With key runways unavailable, Air Canada had to cancel its Boxing Day flight to Sydney, Australia, just as the giant Boeing 777 was being pushed away from the passenger gate. Another Air Canada flight to London, England, left with passengers on board but no luggage. “Some people were without their bags for three or four weeks,’’ says Bruce Cran, national president of the Consumers’ Association of Canada. Cran says the airport will need to make substantial changes to its workforce and machinery to deal with the 2010 Olympics traffic.

Ground-handling firms at YVR say they will indeed hire more workers in time for the Winter Olympics. “I could see recruits going up by 10 to 20 per cent,’’ says Swiss­port’s Mulholland. But other airport sources (who asked to remain anonymous) say efforts to hire more staff – either on a temporary or permanent basis – will almost certainly be affected by Air Canada’s current financial difficulties. (At the time of writing, mounting debts and pension obligations were pressuring Air Canada to seek court protection from creditors for the second time in five years.)

Right from day one, it was clear to me that handling baggage is a job best suited to early birds. The first WestJet flights leave at around 6:00 a.m., so I had to be dressed in the company’s navy blue uniform, wearing regulation steel-toed safety shoes, and on the road by 5:20 a.m. After checking in, using a palm-reading device (which stops employees from claiming more time on the job than they are entitled to), I would be assigned to work with a four-person ramp crew, comprised of a lead and three helpers. We would grab the necessary belt loaders and baggage carts, then head out on the ramp to the aircraft gates where an aircraft was either waiting to be loaded or a plane was scheduled to arrive.

Under client agreements, firms such as Swissport and Air Canada are required to have the first bags rolling onto the carousels within 15 minutes of the airline pulling up to the arrival gate. After the plane lands, Air Canada has 90 minutes to get it ready for takeoff, work that involves unloading and reloading both passengers and baggage, refuelling, recatering and cleaning the aircraft. “These are goals that we have to shoot hard for,’’ says Michael Docherty, Air Canada’s general manager of airport operations in Vancouver. In a five-hour shift, a Swissport crew of four baggage handlers might be asked to unload or reload as many as five aircraft.
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By far the most challenging part of the job is stacking bags after they are transferred via the conveyor belt into the airplane cargo hold. One person is required to kneel just inside the door and catch the bags as they come off the conveyor, and he (or she) must then toss the bags to a second handler who is waiting further inside the cargo hold to stack the bags on top of each other. With bags arriving in batches of up to 50 at a time, I often found myself swamped by the volume coming at me on the conveyor. At shift’s end, the muscles in my arms were burning from the stress of stacking dozens of bags ­sufficiently quickly to keep Swissport managers happy.

Industry officials say the job of a baggage handler is no more dangerous than driving a taxicab or truck. “If you follow all the regulations, it is an absolutely safe working environment,’’ says Mulholland. Still, during an average year, North American airports typically see 20 loss-time injuries per 100 employees in the ground-handling area. For Larry O’Brien, a ramp safety co-ordinator with the IAM, that’s an indication of how physically demanding the job can be (“It’s a young man’s job,” he says). While YVR has considered bringing in robots (like the ones being used at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam) to do some of the heavy lifting, any move in that direction is on hold until after the Olympics, according to Bob Cowan, the airport’s senior vice-president of engineering.

As for me, after three weeks on the job I was privately cursing people who go on skiing vacations. Skis, as one might expect, are often heavy and awkward to deal with and as such must be slotted into whatever space is available between the suitcases and the edge of the airline fuselage. But dealing with mountains of cumbersome ski equipment – along with bobsleds, luge equipment and wheelchairs (belonging to the Paralympic athletes) – is something that baggage crews will have to get used to during the Olympics. VANOC estimates that roughly half of the 5,000 Olympic athletes will bring skis – many will bring more than one pair.

Cowan says YVR, having invested about $500 million in new baggage systems in the last five years, can cope – even if the airport runways are buried under snow: “We have seen some very heavy traffic days in August, especially when the cruise ships are running. So we have learned over time how to deal with that.’’

The most challenging time for baggage handling is expected to be March 1, the day after the Olympic closing ceremonies when athletes stampede through YVR’s gates to get back home. “If we can get some of the oversized bags out the night before, then we can screen them through the night, get them carded and tagged, then we are ready,’’ says Cowan. To ease the pressure on airport staff, a portion of the equipment owned by U.S. teams is expected to be shipped to B.C. by truck. There has also been talk of using other local airports to move Olympic baggage out of the province. But Air Canada’s Docherty says plans for dealing with Olympic luggage are still subject to discussions with navigation service provider NAV Canada as well as VANOC.

After the chaos last December, YVR officials sat down with the airline companies and drew up a plan to mitigate the impact of another snowstorm. It involves spending $14 million to build another concrete de-icing pad, permitting two 737 aircraft to be serviced at the same time. That’s in addition to the three that exist already. The airport has also ordered eight new de-icing trucks, which Cowan describes as state-of-the-art models identical to ones in service at the Toronto and Montreal airports. In the event of a snowstorm, YVR will beef up its snow removal capabilities and have an unnamed service provider with another 24 trucks on standby. “Working with the airline companies, that will get us where we need to be,’’ says Cowan.

Five weeks into my job at Swissport, I already knew I didn’t fit into a working culture that favoured brawn over brains. Some of my more robust colleagues could toss packed suitcases into the top corner of a baggage cart as if they were throwing darts at a dartboard. So it was no surprise when a shift boss took me aside one afternoon and said my probation period was being cut short and that I would be let go immediately. He went on to explain that January baggage flows were nothing compared to what I would face when the cruise ship season got under way in May. Nine months later, when the impact of the “storm of the decade” was making headlines, I could only shake my head and feel a sense of relief that I was no longer on the front lines.

Bruce Cran of the Consumers’ Association of Canada, one of the airport’s most vocal critics, says he’s seen nothing in recent months to suggest the airport is any more prepared to handle another heavy dump of snow than it was last Christmas. “We are vulnerable to this happening again at any time in the future,’’ he observes.

Here’s hoping for clear skies come February.