Welcome everyone to another episode of Airways Profile! Our Airways series completely dedicated to people in aviation.
In our previous profile, we had the pleasure to interview Captain Chris Pohl, a seasoned pilot for Virgin Atlantic (VS). In today’s profile, we change both the name and the role!
David, thank you for your time, thank you for being here. Let’s begin with the simplest question: what’s your name and your role in Aviation?
My name is David Brooks. I’m a ramp agent for one of the largest airlines in the world. My function or role isn’t easily defined. At times I’ve worked the gates on the ramp doing all the different job functions around an inbound and outbound aircraft.
Other times, I’ve been on the move/tow team. Currently this winter I’ve been able to have the opportunity to be a part of the very important deice team. My short time in this industry has allowed me to experience many facets of working on the ramp.
As a ramp agent, what is the origin of your passion for this job?
I sort of fell into this industry almost by accident. I was on a photo shoot (previous life: freelance photographer) out in Colorado where I met a guy who was from my hometown in Virginia. Months go by back in VA and I look him up and come to find out we’re living only minutes from each other. Interestingly, he has a catering business where he caters many of the aircraft at DCA.
Fast forward a few more months one of his managers quits and needs to find a replacement. He calls me and asks if I can step in temporarily or if I would consider taking over that role. He also connects me with the hiring manager at the airline he caters for… and that’s all it took. Boom! -Hired full-time with the airline and haven’t looked back.
I hope you know that I cannot put an emoji instead of the word “Boom”. I like how things turn out in the world, the so-called “coincidence”. What is the career of a Ramp Agent? Do you have a path like a pilot?
After about 2.5 years of working for the regional carrier, I then applied and upgraded to the mainline carrier. Best decision I made for my future. A pension and substantial pay increase made the decision rather easy. Now I’ve been at the mainline carrier for 5 years.
I’ve been able to take advantage of the training that the Company provides us to work in various roles around the ramp. By being qualified and trained in many roles, it keeps my options open to be able to take advantage of different opportunities that become available.
Where is the main difference between working for a regional carrier or the mainline carrier?
Primarily the difference is the size of the aircraft you service. Where I started, we only took care of CRJ-200s with the occasional CRJ-700 or Embarer 175. At mainline we service Airbus 319, 320, 321 and Boeing 737s.
Up until recently we even took care of the largest narrow-body that can fly in and out of here at DCA, a Boeing 757. The other main difference is starting pay and top out pay is far greater at the Mainline company.
What is the difference between a narrow-body and a wide-body?
Since DCA has been my only airport I’ve worked at, the differences I know are only from talking with other agents who’ve worked at other stations that serve wide bodies. Size is the main difference. There’s far more cargo and bags to load along with upstairs gate agents having to load a considerable amount more passengers.
All this takes more time too. We typically begin an outbound aircraft about 60-80 minutes prior to departure depending on its planned load. Widebodies typically start 120-150 minutes prior to departure.
You said that you only work with narrow-body aircraft. These days, the market is going toward small planes with more seats. For example, the A321LR can have up to 244 people. What’s your opinion? Is it going to be a nightmare loading an entire 321LR?
I did a quick study because of your question. It appears this aircraft won’t be coming online until 2023. I’m not sure if that aircraft will qualify at DCA due to its maximum take-off weight and the distance it requires to get off the ground.
In my opinion from a ramp point of view, a few more passengers and a few more bags will just require a little more time allotted to turn the aircraft. If it does qualify here at DCA it seems it may be a game-changer due to the fact it can fly internationally. I’m quite certain though there are a ton of hurdles to have international slots here. DCA’s not set up for customs and immigration.
I flew a couple of times to/from DCA, and I recall it being one of the busiest airports in the US compared with the number of runways! What’s the challenge in working in such a busy airport?
Yes, DCA is one of the busiest airports in the country for its size. Typically there are two runways open at a time, one primary and the second can be used by a few of the regional aircraft. The other challenge is only having two taxiways to maneuver inbound and outbound traffic on.
We will never have wide bodies at DCA. The runways are too short and none of the terminal gates are able to be configured for the larger aircraft. All this being said, we have 22 gates and the highest average in the company of flights per day at each gate.
When we’re at our peak flight numbers, space around the gates on the ramp becomes premium. It can be challenging just to keep the equipment needed at our gate and the space orderly so we can maneuver our belt loaders, pushback tractors, bag tugs, and carts around to service each aircraft.
Describe a typical day on the job. What is the routine? How is your day typically scheduled?
Probably one of my favorite teams to be on is the tow/move team. The tow team typically is made up of a minimum of four team members. Two wing walkers, a person in the tractor who’s towing/pulling the aircraft. The fourth team member is on the flight deck. They’re responsible for prepping the aircraft to be moved and then communicating with the FAA Tower to coordinate our movement on the taxiway to the gate.
Before the pandemic, DCA was an extremely busy smaller size station compared to our other hub stations around the country. As I told you before, we have 22 gates with the highest average of flights per gate per day. That’s the highest gate compression in the company. Often planes will come in later in the afternoon and terminate for the day.
Because of this, the afternoon tow team will move them off their gate and tow them to the south end of the airport until they’re needed the next day. That’s where my team comes in. We start very early in the morning with a tow assignment sheet. It can be as easy as 2-3 moves or as many as 5-6 during our shift. It can be quite the balancing act.
Sometimes a gate or two are open right away and we get moving on those first. Then the tricky part begins when we’re waiting for a gate to open before we can begin moving the aircraft. Time can be tight when the aircraft we’re towing gets close to its departure time while we have to juggle and account for traffic on our two very busy taxiways.
Inbound and outbound banks of flights coming and going towing down one of our only two taxiways can get quite hectic at times! The two-mile journey can take up to an hour to move the aircraft from parking to the gate. Time management is crucial. But we’re in a pandemic and travel has diminished by 70+%. All of our duties and responsibilities have decreased.
What is the main difference between now that we are in the middle of a pandemic and then?
Pre-COVID we were servicing somewhere in the mid 200 flights daily from our 22 gates which kept us all very busy throughout the entire day. When Covid arrived, it was practically like shutting the faucet from running full-blast down to a drip. We had weeks where our flight numbers were as low as in the 20s and fluctuating all the way back to around 100.
Now that a vaccine has become available, we’re obviously hoping and expecting our numbers to begin to steadily increase over 2021. Because of the reduction in flights, we have had far less workload and we’re able to stay on top of all our online training and enjoy a walk or two through the terminals. I’m so thankful to have kept working throughout 2020. So grateful to have a job to go to every day!
What is the biggest challenge for you?
The things I find most challenging are probably no different than anyone else working for a large corporation. When you see policies that need changing or even just everyday practices it can easily feel like you’re such a small cog in the huge machine to be able to make any difference or make changes.
What’s the biggest mistake you can made in your position? And your biggest fear?
I really don’t like to operate in “fear”. Fear leads to second guessing and indecisiveness and that’s where mistakes happen. I think when i’vee ever been fearful of aircraft damage it would be when I’m learning a new task that involves a high level of focus around an aircraft such as most recently when training to be on the deicing team.
Like anything else, a little practice and time make that feeling quickly go away, but there’s always a need to respect the proper procedures in the simplest tasks. Complacency can be a killer.
What can possibly go wrong?
Oh gosh, there are so so many things that could go terribly wrong down on the ramp. Since i move around in different roles on the ramp, it seems like there are quite a bit more possibilities of something that can go really wrong. Developing trust with your coworkers is paramount.
Addressing the fact again that at DCA, space is at a premium. For example, we have a narrow alley that contains 10 gates with only 3 spots we can push aircraft to in order for them to leave, taxi-out, and take-off. Quite often we’ll have 3 aircraft pushing at the same time to the 3 spots. When done correctly it can look like a beautiful synchronized ballet.
If someone loses focus even for just a moment, terrible aircraft damage could occur as well as possible injury to passengers and crew. We’re all professionals here and are very aware of the hazards that our jobs present on a daily basis. With the skills most of us possess and a pinch of luck added in, we all go home the same way we came in.
What’s the strangest thing that has ever happened to you at work?
I would consider the strangest occurrence to be more of one of the “coolest” things to have happened. It was one of those mornings where I jumped in the pushback tractor ready to push our flight out. I put the headset on to speak to the flight deck and the mic wouldn’t stay in place! (I hate a floppy mic!).
We return to the gate after pushing out, I hop out, grab the headset, and head into the aircraft maintenance office… these guys have the tools to fix practically anything. I ask the first mechanic I see if he had a tool to fix this? While he was working on it, I glanced down at his company badge and saw his name…
“hey, did you grow up on this street in this neighborhood?!” He sure did! He’d been working as a mechanic for 30 years and he was an old neighbor I grew up with since elementary school! I love small-world stories!
Well, I think I have already used the word “coincidence” before!
So, it’s mid-February, and I don’t want this interview to become political, but I have to ask. How have the recent events that happened in DC affected your work?
On the ramp, it hasn’t really affected us at all except for maybe slightly a few more than normal firearms checked and having to be delivered to our BSO (Baggage Service Office.) Now upstairs gate agents have had a completely different experience! Mask compliance and general unruliness showed up far more than the typical passengers that come through our gates. Our agents and flight folks have had outstanding training in dealing with these types of passengers.
It’s unfortunate that a small portion of travelers feel it’s ok to be disruptive. These folks haven’t any idea what the consequences are for their actions. I do know many have been put on “no-fly” lists. I don’t think these passengers will understand the impact of their behavior until they try to make an airline reservation in the future.
The recent events have prompted the FAA to begin public service announcements on the terminal monitors reminding passengers of their responsibilities as passengers.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
I came into this industry only about 7.5 years from a freelance career of 25 years. Lots of adjustments and lots of learning, not only from an industry standpoint, but also learning how to work with coworkers who are from all varied demographics and cultures. The rewarding part for me is getting to continually learn things every day from a variety of individuals.
And what’s the worst side of your job?
Working in the rain… it’s miserable. I’d rather be home on my day off than working in the rain!
If you could choose another airport for your job, which one would it be?
I’m not really sure exactly, to be honest. my family/kids and their spouses all live here. grandkids too! my wife has a great job here, so there’s no real reason to look anywhere else. But if I were “unhitched” I’d wanna go out west somewhere, mmm…maybe SAN?
If someone were to tell you they want to be a ramp agent, what would your advice be?
hmmmm good question. research thoroughly before you jump in. talk with as many airline folks as possible and really weigh out what works best for you. one of the most attractive components to me is the travel benefit.
Basically, to be able to fly anywhere in the world for next to nothing is pretty amazing! I guess another satisfying thing is going to work every day… do a great job and go home and not worry about a thing. You can truly leave work stress-free knowing that planes come and go… with or without you.
You know that now is my favorite moment in this interviews. Let me see how you do in back and forth.
- Favorite Airlines, and no, you are not allowed to say your company!
Well of course my airline! Maybe Delta and Jet Blue
- Favorite plane:
There are too many aircraft I haven’t flown on yet to answer. The Dreamliner, Airbus 380 are high on my list. if i had to tell you what I’ve flown on and like best is Airbus 321… love the first-class seats from JFK to SFO!
- A model of plane you will NEVER want to work on:
the aircraft I’d prefer never to work on again would be the CRJ-900. Those 2 front cargo bins that hold the passenger’s carry-ons … Are you shaking your head? Yes! Terrible.
- The lowest temperature you have worked in:
probably in the neighborhood of -5°f / -10°f (that’s not accounting for windchill)
- And of course, the highest:
our highest may not be as high as some place like PHX or others out west in the desert. But when you couple our temp° with humidity it just crushes you. it’s like walking out into a wall of heat. then you sweat like crazy.
I think the air temperature hit 105°f once. add in the fact that all of us that work on the ramp work on cement and or asphalt… it’s like being baked in a pizza oven! (obviously, you can tell I’d rather work in the cold!)
- inches of snow at work?
It’s been a while, i think it was around 18”-24” inches. It shut the airport down for over 36 hours!
- Have you ever thought “who made me do it?”
I’m not sure what you mean?
- An item you NEED to have at work (sunglasses included):
I have some favorite gloves and in-ear hearing protection I like to wear. Or do you mean a “luxury” item?
- Boeing or Airbus?
I’m not a fan of the 73s cargo bin, so I guess Airbus would be preferred. They both have their own peculiarities so really my answer would be it’s a toss up.
- Favorite airport:
Now that SFO’s renovation is complete… it’s a pretty sweet building!
- Most chaotic airport (and no, you cannot say DCA):
CLT hands down! It’s always been a zoo there anytime I’m connecting through Charlotte!
- Your favorite memory from your job:
I’ve had the solemn opportunity to be a part of many Fallen Soldier Ceremonies while working on the ramp. It’s quite a sobering and humbling experience knowing this person just gave their life for my freedom.
We work in such a noise-polluting environment that when we have one of these ceremonies the ramp generally comes to a halt for a few moments and everyone pays their respects by giving a moment of silence. I’m thankful for this privilege not many get to experience this.
On a different note, we’re really blessed here at DCA with some spectacular sunrises! We have to get up at this ungodly hour and the sunrises make it worth it every time! The carmel-like light skims over this steely cold industrial workplace… and for a fleeting moment, it actually looks beautiful.
You know, there is a saying that says “Find a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life”. Is that true for you?
Oh this is a really good question. How much more time do you have?
All the time you need.
I came from 25 years of running my business being a freelance photographer and then transitioned into this industry which they have little in common between the two.
I discovered over some time that no matter what industry or career path you’ve chosen, from the seven-figure salaried CEO to the lowest paid minimum wage worker, there are things each person likes about their job and definitely things they don’t like.
You just need to figure out a happy ratio that makes you get up every day and look forward to coming to work. To be honest it’s taken me some time to find that joy and make peace where I am in life. I’m incredibly grateful and blessed for the learning experiences and challenges I have on a daily basis here at DCA.
Is there anything you would change in your career?
Of course, if I were to take a moment and review my work-life, looking back there were points of being on quite a few rewarding paths. Some of those run their course and then you move onto the next opportunity. Learning to be flexible and open to learning from your failures is pretty key to your happiness. Some of us are a little slower to learn these principles than others.
I do really miss being creative! My supervisors here at DCA have given me a pretty wide latitude to make images around the ramp. Being safe is of utmost importance otherwise I’m sure there would be far less privilege. I would very much like to consider a creative position at corporate.
We are at the end! Do you want to say hi to someone?
Sure, I’d love to give a shoutout to Glen Zacek! Currently he’s the new station manager for Piedmont/American Eagle which is the regional carrier here at DCA for American Airlines. When I started in the airline business, Glen was the ramp director at the time. I looked up to him and he became a bit of a mentor to me.
He passed on his knowledge and experience. He walked beside me giving me direction in my newfound career. He totally understood me and how best to motivate me. I really appreciate him taking the time to do that.
David, thank you very much! I’m really happy with our chat today, and above all, I’m happy to have learned a lot about an aviation job that is often not considered as much as it should be.
I would also like to thank all our readers and followers, without whom we wouldn’t be here. See you soon with the next episode of Airways Profile! Take care of yourself, and each other!
Featured image and photos: David Brooks