For people who fly US Airways out of Philadelphia, there may be no scarier moment than this: the instant when their bags slip out of sight on the conveyor belt.
Unless it's the wait for the bags to pop up on the carousel after landing.
In between, the bags go on a perilous journey.
On the way to the plane, they fall off carts onto the airport tarmac. Other US Airways luggage trucks drive by. Nobody stops.
Outbound luggage circles pointlessly on US Airways ' underground conveyor system while planes lift off half-loaded. Why? The system's optical scanner can't read a third of all destination tags.
Shorthanded crews fall behind when unloading suitcases. Sometimes, it's because some US Airways baggage handlers just "rolled" another flight, their term for ducking out on the job.
This is the world of US Airways in Philadelphia, where a demoralized workforce, decrepit and scarce equipment, and revolving-door management have combined to cripple the simple task of getting bags on and off planes.
Now US Airways says it is spending more than $20 million to turn things around. Its chief executive, Doug Parker, says he knows service has been dreadful.
"It is not acceptable. It's not up to our standards. It's an embarrassment," Parker said last week during an interview at The Inquirer. "And we are going to get it fixed. "
Parker did not dispute the deep-seated nature of the problem. Consider:
The Philadelphia baggage operation's performance is by far the worst in the US Airways system, with a lost-luggage rate about four times the airline's as a whole, The Inquirer has learned.
The Philadelphia numbers are so bad that they drag down the entire airline. According to federal figures released last week, US Airways had the worst score in mishandled-bag reports among all major airlines for 2006. The airline's rate was 7.6 lost or damaged bags per 1,000 passengers, versus an industry rate of 6.1.
Lost bags aside, the airline is often painfully slow delivering bags to the carousels. "The fact is the other carriers don't take as many minutes to get bags from the plane," said Charles J. Isdell, the city's airport director.
The local leaders of the union for baggage handlers are off the job and facing criminal trials. Police arrested them in May on charges of beating up organizers from a rival union. Even before the arrests, US Airways fired the 22 union leaders, shop stewards, and other local members charged in the brawl.
Some passengers have become so angry that US Airways has called the police. In one such incident, police in August threw an irate passenger onto a moving carousel, five witnesses said. The 24-year-old man had been yelling after a wait of more than an hour for bags.
Many workers appear to be just as unhappy.
In the dark and dank catacombs beneath the public's luggage carousels, and even in the bright sun on the tarmac, US Airways employees at Philadelphia International Airport toil in a rancorous atmosphere.
Longtime workers are bitter about round after round of wage cuts that have wiped out a decade of raises. New hires chafe at the low starting pay for this backbreaking and humdrum job.
Too often at US Airways ' B and C domestic terminals, it has been Lord of the Flies on the job. Crews steal tug-tractors and belt-loaders from one another, sometimes even in midjob. Some even pocket ignition coils - to disable a tug so they alone can drive it.
Supervisors have been timid - worried that firing a worker for lateness would only leave crews further shorthanded.
Desperate to cut down on absenteeism on weekends, the company has resorted to incentives. Employees who show up as scheduled are eligible for drawings to win plasma TVs, iPods, and $100 Acme gift certificates.
US Airways ' managing director in Philadelphia, Tony Grantham, 48, said his agenda for fixing service went far beyond gimmicks.
He is the fifth US Airways chief in Philadelphia in 2 1/2 years. His mission is a crucial one, not only for passengers, but also for his employer's bottom line. Philadelphia generates a quarter of the airline's more than $11 billion in annual revenue.
"I'm an impatient man," said Grantham, whose workforce includes 1,350 baggage and other ramp workers. "But we're making progress. "
So far, the results have been mixed. Complaints over lost luggage dropped in the early part of this year, but climbed throughout the summer. Grantham said his ramp workforce had been short as many as 200 people during those months.
His woes deepened in August, after authorities in England broke up a terrorist plot, prompting new rules banning certain fluids and gels on flights. This increased checked baggage by 20 percent.
In a city where tourism is a key economic engine, how US Airways performs is a serious matter.
"What people remember about a visit is how they're treated, and here we're talking about people's personal belongings," said Meryl Levitz, president of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.
"Everybody's got miserable airport stories. The miserable airport stories in Philly are about baggage claim. "
As the city appointee in charge of the airport, Isdell hears a lot of those stories. Aggrieved fliers don't realize that an airline's workers, not the airport's, move luggage.
US Airways ' poor performance makes for a nonstop migraine for the airport, where it's by far the dominant airline. With Philadelphia a US Airways hub, its planes carried almost two-thirds of the 32 million passengers who took off or landed at the airport last year.
US Airways ' baggage woes, Isdell said, are lodged in the "collective psyche. "
Said Isdell: "In Philadelphia, there's an unspoken rule. If you don't have to check baggage , you don't."
St. Louis blues
for flight's passengers
Casey Dietrich didn't know about that rule before her Sept. 1 US Airways Express flight to St. Louis.
Dietrich, 25, of Somerdale, and her boyfriend each checked a suitcase for the flight, on a rainy Friday night. They were headed to a friend's wedding.
Their plane arrived in St. Louis on schedule about 11 p.m.
Their luggage didn't. In fact, about 15 passengers discovered that their baggage had not arrived, US Airways confirmed.
Dietrich and her friend waited 40 minutes at the carousel before they were told there were no bags to be had. Then they waited 90 more minutes to fill out a missing-bag report.
"I was livid," Dietrich said.
In the baggage -claims office, a clerk offered an explanation of sorts.
"He basically told us they had a problem with Philadelphia getting bags on the plane," Dietrich recalled. "He said this isn't the first time. "
The next morning, Dietrich hurriedly bought a dress for the afternoon wedding. She flew home Sunday and began a round of calls to learn the whereabouts of her bag. No one knew.
Finally, on Thursday, a FedEx driver delivered the suitcase to her home. She was relieved - until she opened it.
"Everything inside was soaking wet," she said.
Apparently, the bag had been left exposed to rain.
Afflicted by a litany
In recent weeks, The Inquirer has talked with current and former baggage handlers and an array of airline managers and executives, past and present. Some asked not to be identified, worried about antagonizing managers or colleagues on the job.
There was remarkable agreement among them about the problems bedeviling US Airways in Philadelphia.
A bitter and weary workforce
Working "on the ramp," hefting bags for US Airways , was once a solid, middle-class job, one that someone with a high school education could count on to buy a house, put kids through college, and allow a comfortable retirement. Workers with decades on the job were commonplace.
Now that's a remote dream for newly hired US Airways ramp workers - a casualty of the industry's deregulation, which brought consumers lower fares, but ended fat labor contracts whose costs airlines once could pass on to customers.
For US Airways , this decade has been a time of reckoning, one that brought pay scales down into line with the rest of the industry - leaving its workforce in turmoil. Since 2002, the airline has filed for bankruptcy protection twice, each time squeezing more concessions from the unions.
The payroll shrunk. A third of what had been a 40,000-plus workforce were laid off when air travel plummeted after 9/11. Thousands of other employees retired early or quit because of the wage cuts.
In all, employees gave up almost $2 billion in annual wages and benefits during the bankruptcies.
The cuts cleared the way for America West, based in Tempe, Ariz., to buy US Airways last year.
What galls many workers is that US Airways (America West kept the name in use) is now making large profits when they have given up so much. It made $305 million in the second quarter, a profit margin of 10 percent.
Some workers were upset, too, when Parker this summer pocketed $9 million from the exercise of stock options - in addition to his $5.7 million pay package last year.
Top pay for baggage handlers is $17 an hour - exactly what it was in 1994, without adjustment for inflation. Starting pay is a little more than half that, a rate that has made it harder to attract and keep people.
As a result, the airline has a workforce split between the remaining veterans and much younger, less-experienced employees - many of whom hire on mainly for the job's big perk: free air travel.
While much of the work is grunt labor, some of it is demanding and precise. It is ramp workers who marshal the 40-ton planes into the gates and drive the push-tugs that nudge jets out for takeoff.
Many employees work hard, but others are cynical and unmotivated - and the negative attitude can be catching.
"You have kids that come in for two weeks and are working perfectly well," one employee said. "Then they look around and say: 'Nobody else is working. Why should I? ' "
A man who trained for the ramp at US Airways said he had given up any thought of taking the job after one US Airways veteran told him: "If you do 500 bags and I do two, the airline won't care. "
Workers at rival Southwest Airlines say they see this sour attitude when they spot US Airways luggage that has tumbled out of carts. When the Southwest employees try to hand over the luggage to their competitor, they say, some US Airways workers simply won't take it.
"We get that a lot: 'I don't want it,' " said one Southwest worker, supervisor Michael Amstberg.
There is a racial aspect to it all, too.
While most US Airways veterans are white, many recent hires are African American. Often, the two groups hang out in different break rooms. Some white workers won't help pay for DirecTV in one break room, complaining that the set is always tuned to BET.
"The issues are generational, but they manifest themselves racially," a veteran said. "It's pretty ugly. "
To lure a better workforce, US Airways bumped up its wages in Philadelphia, hiking starting pay from $7.17 to $9.59 an hour.
It did so after the airline's infamous baggage meltdown in Philadelphia during the 2004 holiday season. This generated the highest rate of monthly baggage complaints for any major airline in the last five years, an Inquirer analysis of federal data shows.
In the interview last week, chief executive Parker said that the airline was paying "market rate" for labor - and that he didn't think the pay level was a reason for the baggage problems.
"It's a different world now," he said. "We're not going to have a workforce with 20 years of experience on the ramp. Indeed, we shouldn't."
Despite many requests for comment, none of the local leaders with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the bag handlers' union, would talk about luggage issues.
Joe Tiberi, a national spokesman for the union, said pay remained too low to draw a reliable workforce.
"They don't know who they will be working with tomorrow," Tiberi said. "People come in, they train, they work for a while, and they just stop showing up. "
Worn-out tugs, too few carts
After taking over in January, station chief Grantham said, he quickly discovered that baggage workers just didn't have the tools to do a good job.
"We were woefully underequipped with tugs and carts, and just the basic things you needed to run a ramp operation," he said.
Since then, he has ordered more than 120 new pieces of equipment, 90 of which are in use.
Baggage handlers and managers say it has been routine for one crew to arrive at a gate to handle an arriving flight, find carts and tugs missing, and scavenge by stealing tugs and carts from another gate.
Another tactic: Between flights, employees who worked on a crew together would take turns sitting behind the wheel of a tug to make sure a rival group didn't swipe it.
"These are hardworking people," Grantham said. "They'll do everything they can to protect their equipment. "
Timid managers, weak discipline
Rank-and-file employees weren't the only ones leaving US Airways in droves in recent years. So were the top managers.
With the top command in flux, supervisors have often been afraid to reprimand workers for fear they'll quit, too, leaving crews even more short-staffed.
"Some managers just won't discipline," ramp worker Andre Robinson said. "It's just like, 'Whatever. ' They blow it off. "
In the past, another worker said, some bosses seemed to shrink from their job.
"They're looking to be invisible and survive," the worker said. "They go in their offices and lock the door and won't answer the phone. "
He added that Grantham had shaken up midtier management, which has become much more involved.
Most of Grantham's management team is new. His head of customer service, Nelson Comacho, on the job six months, said he was struck by how workers had no idea who was previously in senior station management.
Former US Airways employees said problems in the Philadelphia baggage service had festered for years. Ambitious executives dreaded being sent to the city.
"Philadelphia was so difficult to work with, there were a number of people in USAir who didn't know how to handle it," said Gerald Hankinson, who served three decades with the airline until leaving in 1996.
"The best people didn't want to be there. You went there if you really screwed up or you were at the bottom of the seniority list. "
Clearly, Grantham, the latest station director, is not in that category. He previously ran America West's Las Vegas hub - a vital post for that airline.
Parker said he was determined to improve service.
"It is our No. 1 initiative," he said. "I don't know of any No. 1 initiatives in my career that I haven't succeeded with. "
'What kind of business operates that way? '
If you want to see Christian Menge gripe, go to YouTube.com.
There you can find his lament under the heading "USAirways lost my STUFF. "
In his video, Menge, 38, tells how his laptop disappeared after he checked it as luggage in April before flying from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.
It never turned up. What happened to it is not known.
A former helicopter mechanic and commercial pilot, Menge said he doubted that the luggage system would permit a bag to be simply mislaid.
"I mean, how do you lose a bag?" he said in an interview. "I spent years wrenching helicopters; I know how machines work. A bag does not fall off a machine and get lost. Of course it was stolen. "
According to Menge, it took him months and repeated phone calls to get US Airways to accept his paperwork attesting to his loss.
In part, he blamed this on the airline's call center in Guatemala. "I don't understand what they are saying, and they don't understand what I am saying," he said.
Months after his loss, the airline sent him a coupon worth $200 in air travel - though Menge said his laptop and tools had been worth $1,800.
Like other airlines, US Airways excludes laptops from its liability exposure.
As shown by his YouTube video, Menge remains very upset.
"What kind of business operates that way? " Menge says on his homemade video. "It's just ludicrous. "
Large and small,
changes offer hope
Late last month, Grantham led his team down concrete steps into the work area under US Airways ' bag-claim carousels in the B-C complex.
"We got a leaking sewage pipe up here," Grantham said, stepping through a rubble-filled doorway, maneuvering past a door off its hinges. "This area is prone to flooding. "
Until recently, the fetid air meant US Airways was reluctant to staff the area permanently with extra people to unload bags to speed their way to customers.
That meant the tug driver was usually the only person to tote the bags from the carts to the belt that feeds the carousels above.
But after working with the airport to improve ventilation, US Airways said, it is now stationing extra workers there.
Through changes large and small, Grantham said, he will improve how the airline handles its daily load of 30,000 bags.
"When I talk to neighbors and customers, the things they have to say have to do with bags," Grantham said. "I'm going to change the reputation of baggage claim with US Airways in this city. "
Contact staff writer Tom Belden at 215-854-2454 or email@example.com.
Inquirer staff writer Alletta Emeno contributed to this article.