Behind the Scenes: Life on the Ramp

Passengers may only catch glimpse of all that happens between landing, takeoff

By Julie Bercik

Published July 25, 2022

Read Time: 2 mins


“You have to keep your head on a swivel.”

That comment, from James Bivins, ramp supervisor for Trego-Dugan Aviation at Pittsburgh International Airport, captures the workday life of all the people who help airplanes land and take off without actually being onboard.

With about 140 current daily departures, that keeps the multitude of ground crews busy: guiding airplanes to the gate or pushing them back for departure, chocking or putting down or removing blocks that keep planes in place, loading or unloading luggage, and a host of other duties.

“You marshal in the plane, the plane is huge, it’s loud,” Bivins said.

Lydia Fennell, a ramp agent with eight years on the job, does it all, climbing up in the belly of the plane to unload and load bags and driving the tugs that guide aircraft out of their gates.

“I was a little intimidated but fell in love with it,” she said. Her favorite role:

“Pushing out the planes. That can be fun, especially talking to the pilots.”

With that kind of activity, safety is a top priority.

“You have to keep your head on a swivel,” said Bivins.

Team huddles, safety checks and walks happen before every arrival and departure. That includes FOD walks – looking for Foreign Object Debris.

“Whether it be zippers, nails, rocks, pick them up so they don’t get ingested into the engines,” said Chris Price, a ramp supervisor with Worldwide Flight Services.

Other crew members, called “wing walkers,” make sure things are clear on the side, so the wings don’t hit anything.

And because it’s loud on the ramp, the workers use hand signals to communicate with each other. Ramp crews are required to wear personal protective equipment including high visibility clothing and ear protection and more.

Ramp work can be physically challenging. The crews spend a lot of time on their feet. Baggage handlers are lifting bags that can weigh anywhere from 35 to 100 pounds.

Then there’s the ever-changing weather of Pittsburgh, with intense summer heat and bitter cold winter.

“Winter, I think is my favorite because it’s cool. Out here when it’s 90 degrees the cement can be really, really hot,” said Fennell.

“The rain is probably the worst weather to work in,” Bivins said. But, he added, the crews enjoy the work – and have an awesome view.

“I love it, he said. “I really do.”

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