We spent a sunny morning on the ramp outside the C2 gate at McCarran International Airport last March in the company of Rico Villalobos, ramp supervisor and 20-year veteran of Southwest Airlines ground handling operations.
Villalobos, stout as a pushback, explained the printout he handed us that listed the day's work. Toward the middle of the page was an icon that looked more like a chili pepper than the clipboard it was meant to be.
"Everyone also calls it a chili pepper because it's 'hot,' " he explains. "It has all the most up-to-date information about flights we are preparing to turn. Click on the icon and you can see how much luggage, for example, you can expect. Or maybe there's some freight to consider."
Don't click on the chili pepper and the supervisor may be unprepared for what he finds in the plane's belly. With the right information, the ramps agents have just what they need to make the turn.
The biggest cause for a delay in ground operations, Rico says, is simply not having the right number of carts ready to go.
"If we have two carts and then realize we need six, well, then we have to figure out where those empty carts are going to come from," he adds. "In case you haven't noticed, an airport is a very big place! From that point, it's just a domino effect. That one mishap delays not only one plane, but backs up onto every other arrival. The difference between two and six is huge."
And all because the boss didn't click on the chili pepper.
When Rico was a rookie, Southwest had three gates and 40 daily flights at LAS. Today, Southwest has 20 gates and flies more than 220 daily flights at the airport. His ramp agents typically do six turns in an 8.5-hour shift.
Obviously, there's much more to the job than baggage handling. We were there for a few turns to document just how much more goes into a day in the life of a Southwest baggage handler. Enjoy.