Leader of the packed

Rob Ford of Skywest Airlines unloads heavy baggage onto a cart at the Medford Airport. 2/26/08 Denise Baratta

Just under 650,000 passengers passed through the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport's gates in 2007. Based on the industry average of 1.2 pieces of checked baggage per passenger, that translates into 780,000 suitcases, duffel bags and sundry other luggage on the conveyor belt.

Rob Ford, SkyWest Airlines ramp service agent, is one of about 120 airline employees and 45 Transportation Security Administration agents who handle all this baggage.

Rob Ford

Age: 36

Job title: Ramp service agent, SkyWest Airlines at Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport

Job description: Providing security for aircraft operating area, equipment, staff, customers and aircraft; off-loading inbound bags and directing them to baggage carousel; sorting and scanning bags from Transportation Security Administration before loading them onto outbound flights; servicing aircraft, including lavatory, dumps and adding potable water; working in conjunction with gate agents to assist passengers and crew with departing flights

Salary range: $9 to $14.75 an hour based upon length of employment

Education: Basic station training, two months' on-the-job training, annual safety and security courses, training as complaint resolution officer

How long at the job? 18 months

If you could have your dream job today, what would it be? 3-D rendering artist for Pixar.

When he's working the day shift, Ford gets up at 3:30 a.m. to be at work just over an hour later.

"The day starts with checking your work and aircraft assignments," he says. "By 5:15 a.m., bags are coming down the bag belt with regularity."

On an average day, Ford and his crew handle about 400 bags; during the winter holidays and at the height of summer travel season, that number increases to about 600 per day.

"Bags get heavier all the time and by the end of the day, you're exhausted," he admits.

To protect his health and body while lifting everything from a 93-pound orchestra cello to a 40-pound goat in a kennel (officially the two "oddest" things he's ever handled), Ford keeps a close eye on technique.

"I bend at the knees, lift with my legs and add stretching before and after shifts or banks of aircraft to avoid muscle strains," he says.

"It's also good to keep hydrated and change stances when loading, so you're not overworking the same muscles."

But handling bags is far from the only task that keeps Ford busy while on shift.

" 'Baggage handler' would be too specific a title for what the job as ramper entails," he explains.

"Rampers are firstly responsible for security and safety on the ramp. We also direct foot traffic on the ramp, advise passengers of slippery conditions, greet passengers at the aircraft and tag oversized carry-ons."

Unless he's called on to help with a recently arrived or delayed flight, quitting time comes at 2:30 p.m. — and by then, Ford's ready to chill out.

"The best parts of the job are seeing the sun rise over Roxy Ann, the smell of jet fuel, the roar of the jets and the friendships and ties with everyday people like me who are just trying to make ends meet," he says.

"But must everyone pack that bowling ball and kitchen sink in their bag when they travel?"

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