Airport Baggage Handler

The Job and What's Involved

An airport baggage handler is responsible for safely and quickly loading, unloading or transporting airline passengers' luggage at an airport.

The main tasks include:

  • Keeping an eye open for suspicious-looking baggage items at all times and reporting anything unusual to security or the police immediately.
  • Overseeing the movement of passengers' luggage from the check-in desks.
  • Collecting and sorting items by checking them against a flight list so that they are loaded onto the correct aircraft.
  • Taking luggage to the appropriate aircraft in a baggage truck - protecting it against bad weather if needed.
  • Correctly loading and storing luggage in the hold of the aircraft.
  • Removing luggage from an aircraft as quickly as possible after it has landed.
  • Sorting loads according to their onward destination.
  • Ensuring the luggage is loaded on the correct carousel in the baggage reclaim area.
  • Recording and dealing with damaged or incorrectly received baggage, and load discrepancies.
  • Using specialist equipment such as conveyors, bar code recognition and lifting equipment.
  • Informing appropriate members of staff about damaged or malfunctioning equipment.

As airports worldwide operate strict security procedures and develop measures to reassure passengers, baggage handlers must be aware of any new safety measures introduced. For example, if a passenger fails to board a flight, a baggage handler has to locate their baggage and remove it from the aircraft.

Whilst loading, unloading or transporting baggage, a handler may use lifting equipment and a baggage truck, and they may operate a conveyor belt. They must be able to use this equipment and machinery safely and efficiently. Baggage handlers may be required to lift heavy items.

Some passengers may hand in items at the check-in desk or aircraft door that are an awkward shape or may be fragile, for example skis or prams. Baggage handlers may be asked to collect individual items and load them into the aircraft hold separately.

It is important for a baggage handler to understand storage logistics, so that the overall cargo weight is distributed evenly in the hold of the aeroplane.

A baggage handler works as part of a team and is instructed by a team leader. Some baggage handlers may have to carry out other tasks, such as cleaning aircraft, clearing snow and making sure runways are free of debris. Some work only with freight cargo.

An airport baggage handler usually works around 39 hours a week. They usually work in shifts which include evenings, weekends and bank holidays. Some work in shifts lasting 12 hours. Part-time work may be available.

Airport baggage handlers work in the airport terminal building, but much of the work is outside, travelling between the aircraft and the terminal. This may mean working outdoors in all weathers. Working beside aircraft can be noisy and busy. In a cargo hold it may be noisy and cramped.

The work can be physically demanding and involves bending, lifting and carrying.

Airport baggage handlers are required to wear a uniform. This includes protective footwear, special trousers with knee pads, high-visibility jacket and, when needed, ear protectors or wet weather clothing.

Salaries for airport baggage handlers may start at £10,000 to £11,500 a year. Allowances are paid for shift work and this can increase earnings. Overtime may also be available. Subsidised travelling expenses may be offered by some employers.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are nearly 5,000 airport baggage handlers in the UK, employed mainly by airport authorities and airport ground handling agents. With the growth of air travel, the demand for baggage handlers currently outstrips supply. There may also be opportunities with individual smaller airports and with ground support services agencies that contract workers.

Seasonal work may be available, with large increases in the number of travellers in busy holiday periods.

Jobs may be advertised on the websites of airport authorities and agencies, recruitment agencies and in local newspapers.

Education and Training

Although no academic qualifications are needed to become an airport baggage handler, a good standard of literacy and numeracy is often required. Some employers prefer applicants to be 18 years or over.

All employers carry out a thorough security check and take references from employers the candidate has worked for in the previous five years. They also carry out a medical and vision check. Additionally, a clean driving or large goods vehicle (LGV) licence may be required.

Because of shift patterns and the nature of the hours worked, baggage handlers need to live close to the airport. It is also preferable for them to have their own transport, as public transport may not run on public holidays or early in the morning.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Airport baggage handlers are usually trained by their employers. As the equipment is specific to their job, a new baggage handler will be taught how to operate airport equipment and machinery safely and efficiently.

As well as understanding how to lift heavy items, they learn how to operate fork-lift trucks, conveyor belts, luggage carriers, bar code identification equipment and specialist lifting equipment.

In addition to being trained in the manual aspects of the job, airports are now training staff in health and safety procedures, as well as identifying airline and airport codes. Some training includes written tests.

An awareness of security procedures is vital for all jobs in an airport, and employers provide rigorous training in all aspects of security.

Baggage handlers may work towards an NVQ/SVQ at Level 2 in Providing Aviation Operations on the Ground. NVQ/SVQ Level 3 in Providing Aviation Operations on the Ground is also available. They could also study for BTEC Nationals in Aviation Operations, and City & Guilds qualifications at Levels 2 and 3 in Aviation Operations on the Ground.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

An airport baggage handler needs to:

  • Be physically fit and agile.
  • Enjoy working as part of a team.
  • Communicate well with colleagues and passengers.
  • Follow and act on instructions.
  • Observe and be aware of safety procedures at all times.
  • Work quickly and accurately, even under pressure.
  • Be reliable and honest.
  • Have good vision and normal colour vision.
  • Be able to prioritise workloads.
  • Think quickly when dealing with problems.
  • Have some mechanical skills, to operate equipment and machinery.

Your Long Term Prospects

To progress in this career it is advisable to gain experience of all aspects of the job, including operating machinery, technological equipment, storage logistics and transportation.

After several years' experience and a demonstrable level of maturity, it may be possible for a baggage handler to become a supervisor or team leader.

There may be opportunities to move into other fields related to baggage handling work, such as aircraft dispatching, training, passenger services or cargo operations.

With additional qualifications, such as a degree or Foundation degree in air transport operations and management, it may be possible to progress into transport management or operations.

It should be noted, however, that many of the posts are offered on short-term contracts and the situation in regard to employment prospects in this field can change quickly.

Get Further Information

GoSkills, Concorde House, Trinity Park, Solihull, West Midlands B37 7UQ
Tel: 0121 635 5520

SEMTA (Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies Alliance),
14 Upton Road, Watford WD18 0JT
Tel: 01923 238441

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