In the airline industry, a baggage handler is a person who loads and unloads baggage (suitcases or luggage), and other cargo (airfreight, mail, counter-to-counter packages) for transport via aircraft. With most airlines, the formal job title is "fleet service agent/clerk", though the position is commonly known amongst airline employees as a "ramp agent", due to the job's location on the airport ramp (tarmac).
Within the airline industry, a baggage handler is often referred to as a "rampie" or "ramper": one who handles cargo on the "ramp" (the Aircraft Operations Area or AOA; outside the airline industry, the ramp is frequently referred to as the "tarmac", a term popularized by the media). Offensive terms for rampie/ramper include "ramp rat," "bag smasher", "bag jockey", "luggage monkey", and "thrower."
A baggage handler also works jobs which are out of view of the flying public, including the bag room, operations (or load control), and the air freight warehouse. Some of these jobs have union representation and due to this, baggage handlers can be very well compensated with an above average pay scale and good medical, retirement and benefits packages.
When baggage is checked in at the ticket counter or with a sky cap (where it receives a bag tag indicating the passenger's itinerary), it is often placed onto a moving bag belt which carries the baggage to the bag room. This is where numerous checked bags are sorted so that they will be loaded onto the proper flight. The bag tag which was previously affixed to the baggage during check-in is then read by a baggage handler and placed into the proper bag cart (usually a 4-wheeled trailer) or Unit Load Device (ULD; a machine-loadable container). The bag cart or ULD is then eventually pulled from the bag room by a bag tug and out to the aircraft for loading by baggage handlers.
In addition to "pushing" an aircraft from the terminal gate (with a "push back" or "tow motor") to position it for engine start and eventual taxi, baggage handlers also may tow aircraft to and from another gate or to a "remote" or RON ("remain over night") parking area. There will be a mechanic in the flight deck 'riding the brakes', who communicates with ATC ground control (for movement clearance), and operates the APU ("auxiliary power unit"), brakes, lights; the agent will operate the tow-tractor. This applies only to the "Non-Movement Area" of the airport, the part of the airport ramp where ramp agents can operate. Ramp agents cannot operate within the Movement Area, reserved for aircraft and emergency equipment, which is controlled by the Air Traffic Control Tower. In some union-negotiated airlines or stations this job could also be done by the baggage handler.
Various jobs of handlers
Operations (load control) agent: An aircraft has weight and balance limitations in order to ensure safe operation. There is a limit to how much a loaded aircraft can weigh; in addition, the cargo, passenger and fuel load must be distributed so that the aircraft is "in balance"—in other words, not too nose-heavy or tail-heavy. One of the jobs of the operations agent is to ensure that the aircraft—as finally loaded—is "legal" (within safe limits) before the aircraft departs the gate. Upon satisfaction of this mandated requirement, that data is used to generate information which the pilot requires in order to ensure the safe operation of the aircraft.
Warehouse agent: The air freight warehouse is where inbound and outbound air freight is processed. It is usually located on or adjacent to airport property and is usually separate from the passenger terminal. This is a secure (sterile) area where only authorized persons are allowed access. If inbound international shipments are involved and have not been cleared by customs, those shipments (and the warehouse) may be "in bond" which requires additional security clearance/authorization of employees.
Crew chief: Responsible for many different job functions, usually consisting of a team of rampers who report directly to him or her. Crew chiefs are responsible for safely seeing that an aircraft has been loaded to the specifications of the load agent and reporting any discrepancies to management. Usually this job has a premium rate of pay for the extra responsibilities.
Ramp agent: The people working on the ramp that are typically seen loading bags are referred to as "ramp agents". They are responsible for various tasks such as ensuring inbound flights are unloaded in a timely fashion. On outbound flights, the ramp agents will load the flight and in some instances be responsible for accounting for what baggage may have been loaded in which compartments to ensure proper weight and balance, although this job is often the responsibility of flight operations employees.
Transfer Agent: This term is loosely used to refer to any agent who operates a vehicle that is used to transfer bags either from one flight to another or to refer to the agent carrying bags from the "bag room" to the proper flight. Another common term for this position is "runner". At locations where an airline operates a hub the agent responsible for meeting flights and transferring baggage directly from an inbound flight to the proper outbound flight(s) is termed a "connections runner", often shortened to "connects" and abbreviated as "conx".
Inbound runner: The agent in charge of delivering bags from an inbound aircraft to the baggage claim carousel.
Lavatory agent: Each aircraft equipped with a lavatory needs to expend its waste somehow. This is where the lavatory or "lav" agent comes in. After an inbound aircraft arrives, it is the lav agent's job to flush the lavatory system. Despite what one may expect, the lesser physical demands of this position put it in equal or higher demand with other positions. In stations with higher volumes of passenger traffic, lavatory agents will usually utilize trucks adapted with large tanks on board that do not need to be emptied as often. These are also configured to facilitate access to the waste ports of the aircraft, which can be out of reach by other means. In places where fewer or smaller aircraft are being serviced a "lav cart" (essentially a small lav truck pulled behind a tug) is used to service the lavatories.
Mail/freight Agent: As mail and freight arrives at a destination to either terminate at that location or continue on to another destination, certified agents handle and deliver it. They are responsible for scanning each package and delivering it to its proper aircraft.
Bag room agent: As baggage is delivered into the bag room via conveyor belt it is the Bag Room agent's job to sort bags into carts according to routing.
Station agent: Station agents are cross-trained to work both as a baggage handler, and also work in positions involving customer service. Typically, station agents are used at smaller airports that do not handle as many flights as major airports. For example, an airline that has a smaller operation at Raleigh–Durham International Airport might have its employees check in passengers, then have the same employees load, and push the aircraft.
Ramp agents work in a hazardous environment, and receive annual training on safety and proper ways to work in an airport environment. Training is often provided by the particular company or airline, and usually involves mandatory training by the Federal Aviation Administration and the specific airport management. Hearing tests are usually required upon employment, since working near aircraft engines can strain the ear drums, and have long-term effects. Some ramp agents eventually have back problems from working in enclosed spaces inside an aircraft's cargo compartment, or loading cargo incorrectly.