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Secrets of a professional baggage handler

Baggage handlers unload an Air Canada flight at Toronto Pearson International Airport.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.

I used to work as a forest firefighter; it was a job where people I didn't know thanked me for what I did. Now, I'm a baggage handler at an international airport. People I don't know curse me for what I do.

In the grand narrative of Airline Grief, my own lost luggage stories aren't worth telling. But I can give travellers some insight into how your bag gets lost, or damaged, or lost only to be found and show up damaged.

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Let's start with the mechanics. Many airport check-ins are now automated. People part with their bags alone, placing them on the black tongue of a conveyor belt that swallows them up.

Once out of sight, it's run through an expensive X-ray machine before it winds up on a carousel, what we call "the belt."

Surrounding the belt are carts and small containers used to ferry bags out to planes on the tarmac. Planes at my airline fall into two categories: bulk or containerized. Bulk means the bags are loaded into the plane individually and arrive there on carts. Containerized means they are put into sealed containers, "cans," before they go to the plane. Half an hour before departure time the carts and cans are moved out to the planes.

The bags are heavy and occasionally smelly. (Cologne or curry are popular scents.) On a busy 12-hour shift, it's just too hectic to give the kind of care and attention demanded by their owners and by the airline: I've spent entire afternoons so fixated on the belt that when it stops so we can catch up, my eyes still see the belt moving backward even though it's perfectly still.

During these busy times, it feels like I am holding my breath underwater. Your eyes scan as many tags as possible, aiming your hand-held scanner at the ones closest to departure time. Every so often you avert your gaze from the endless monotony to look up at the ceiling and take a breath.

It all sounds simple enough, still, things go wrong.

During my first week, I saw a black bag laying on the tarmac. It fell off an overloaded cart on the way to its flight, so we picked it up and brought it to the proper gate.

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And, while a certain number of carts are set aside for each flight, it's impossible to say exactly how many bags will show up. If there are more bags than expected, carts can get overloaded. Retrieving new carts takes away resources that could be dedicated to loading a number of other flights.

Every so often I'll lift a bag off the belt and the handle will snap, or a wheel will break as it glances off the edge of the container door. I figure this happens once every 300 bags, and I figure those are pretty good odds. If I lifted each piece of luggage as if it were the Queen's tea set, nothing would get done. The easiest way to improve your chances of not having a strap yanked off your bag? Don't make it so heavy! Most of the bags I've broken have weighed well over 50 pounds. If you have to travel with a heavy bag, use one of those special tags on your luggage, it's nice to have a warning.

And just so you know, those "fragile" stickers are a common sight on the belt. If everyone's bag is fragile, nobody's is.

Same goes for those orange priority tags. Many passengers try to weasel their luggage into the first-class cart. Sometimes it works, most of the time it doesn't and it's a great satisfaction in the bag room to tear a false priority tag off of someone who's only paid regular fare.

It's counterintuitive, but I sometimes feel I've made more of a contribution to society in the bag room than I ever did forest firefighting. Forest fires can be too large to give you the satisfaction of feeling that you've done something to stop them. But a long day sending thousands of bags around the world is a pretty tangible pay off: I can watch planes accelerate down the runway with a belly full of bags, hopefully in good shape and heading to the right place.

And yet, when I leave the airport still wearing my uniform, nobody wants me to kiss their baby, they just want to know why their bag is missing a handle.

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Send in your story from the road to travel@globeandmail.com.

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