For one Houston employee, working at the airport is about much, much more than just servicing airplanes.
Author A. Averyl Re
The first day Customer Service Representative Alex Cedeno showed up to work loading baggage at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport nine years ago, the name on his uniform read “Pretty Boy.” Supervisor Kathy Colvin told him, “‘We’re going to be professional here.’ So he got new uniforms and has been a model employee ever since.”
Colvin’s anecdote succinctly sums up a career with the airline that began as a part-time job when Cedeno was 22, and studied business management at the University of Houston. That job has since carried him beyond the ramp into the training department where he teaches new co-workers the art of turning planes.
He sees that art—handling all the ground-service responsibilities from the moment a plane taxis in to the gate until it taxis out again—as critical not only to customer experience, but to developing customer service in his trainees. “The ramp is a great place to start because you really learn to understand the customer-service aspect. When you work a flight on the ramp, you know you have played an integral part of a customer’s trip. Then when you move to other areas of the company, you see how that service plays out.”
Cedeno spends about half his time teaching and half his time on the ramp, demonstrating what he taught. “There’s a lot of different positions, and everyone out here has to know how to do every one of those jobs,” he explains. “We emphasize proper safety—take your time, don’t rush. When a flight comes in, we have a marshaller and two wing walkers, who walk along the wing as an extra set of eyes. As soon as the plane blocks in, we park it, download it, then we upload it right away,” he says, referring to the extensive work ramp service personnel perform in transitioning an aircraft from its arriving to its next departing flight. “And out it goes.”
He says attention to detail forms an integral part of the job. “We have a saying, ‘touch the bag, read the tag.’ And that is one of the key phrases we have for someone in training. If we have a bag going to a destination, we make sure it’s the right destination, right gate, right plane.”
Every plane type is different and so is the way it must be handled. For the bulk of planes United flies, Boeing 737s, turning them requires four agents who load up to 6,000 pounds of baggage, mail and freight. Boeing 777s require five agents who may load ten times more—up to 60,000 pounds of baggage and freight that goes into containers that are then loaded onto the aircraft. As many as 250 to 350 ramp agents work daily in the various areas of the airport on United and United Express flights.
“Some days, I don’t even want to go home because I’m having so much fun at work,” Cedeno says. “Every day is a different day. We don’t know if we will have heavy flights or light flights. Some days, we have challenges with Air Traffic Control or the weather. With the heat from the concrete and the jet blast, sometimes it feels like 110 degrees. But after a while, you get used to it. Plus you get a really nice tan.”
Cedeno’s father, who’s also named Alex, has worked on the ramp in Houston for 19 years and was the one who convinced him to apply for the position. “My father had said it was a wonderful place to work. He loves every part of his job. I jumped onboard and have loved it from day one.”
And, according to Colvin, the job and Cedeno’s co-workers love him right back, “New hires take the time to send me letters about how much they appreciate him. He does it by the book all the time every time. We want our agents to leave with the same ten fingers and toes they came with and to go home safely to their families. He models that every day.