I was surprised to wake up last Saturday morning to the headlines. Not completely shocked, but surprised nonetheless. I was a ground service agent at Horizon Air for the better part of 2016, and I worked alongside Richard "Beebo" Russell. As ground service agents, we handled luggage, walked through planes for final inspection, and pushed them out onto the taxiway.
We weren’t close, barely acquaintances, which seems odd considering the tight quarters and the foxhole mentality that is required to work in these particular roles. But with the high turnover (if you follow Horizon Air jobs, you will know they are always hiring that position for SeaTac), it’s not that hard to imagine.
Day-to-day survival on The Ramp (the area between the terminal and the taxiway, where passengers are loaded and unloaded, baggage is handled, planes fueled, etc.) requires a lot of sacrifice to keep the planes moving. It would be difficult enough if the inadequate break room didn’t always resemble a crowded, sweatbox college party—but without any drugs or alcohol, and nobody having fun. Brought your lunch to save spending $10 buying a meal in the terminal? Sure hope it’s still in the fridge when you get your lunch break. Nasty emails directed to anonymous lunch bandits were a common occurrence. There was a locker room, but not enough lockers for everyone. Think about how many layers are required to work in the weather in Seattle, and then think about where you might put your jacket, gloves, etc., when you don’t need them without them getting stolen, if you don’t have a locker. These things aren’t luxuries; they are a basic part of work life.
Going into the job, I knew that there was a sharp disconnect between the shiny happy side of the terminal, and the grit on the ground. What I didn’t realize was how much like a military base it was run. Which makes sense, historically, and which is why Horizon and other airlines recruit heavily from military bases. I went through initial training with a guy who had just spent 10 years in the army.
"How was that?" I asked him.
"Well, I didn’t blow my brains out," was his reply.
So I supposed working at Horizon was an upgrade for him. When a lot of your supervisory staff and co-workers are ex-military you begin to realize what being expendable is. I believe Beebo was acutely aware of that—because we all were. It's the kind of dehumanizing situation that could lead to what happened on August 10.
If the environment itself isn’t enough to persuade you that you are nothing more than a cog to the upper management/shareholders, there are plenty of other, even more exasperating reminders. You are making around $3 less per hour than anybody else at SeaTac (including other airline employees, restaurant employees, car rental employees, bus drivers, etc.), although there are benefits! Health insurance and stock options might be nice, but they don’t pay the rent. However, a vast majority of the ground service agents are men under age 30, so insurance and stock options mean nothing to them. They become empty gestures from a management who knows you’ll never use them, and thus cost the company little.
But that's only one part of the picture. To be clear, the people I worked with were dedicated, hard working, safety-conscious, attempting to be loyal—all of the things that are supposed to get you ahead in America. But the workers on the ground and our immediate supervisors could barely keep our heads above water. As a subsidiary of Alaska Air Group, Horizon Air is the proverbial red-headed stepchild. It is glaringly clear to everyone who works there that cost-cutting by the executive team(s) in order to keep the shareholders happy is the main goal, and Horizon is the first stop on the belt-tightening train.
We the lowest level employees knew that when the record quarterly earnings report came out there wasn’t going to be any trickle down. When I worked for Horizon, we were cursing our low-wage fate in the break room, while Alaska was spending $2.5 billion acquiring Virgin America (gotta keep up with Delta), and then investing another $2.5 billion upgrading their turboprop airplane fleet to jets. Acquisitions and sexy new jets play well at the stockholder meeting; increased labor costs do not.
The first thing I thought when I heard the news about a plane being stolen by a Horizon employee was, "Ah yes, the end of summer. Of course." Summer is nearly constantly as busy as the holiday season.
My summer of 2016 kicked off with a new schedule (we bid on shifts every 3-4 months), which as it turns out was literally generated by a computer program. X number of flights, X number of employees, some advanced mathematics, and poof! Perfection. Except the schedule that summer was so out of touch with what was going on on the ground that a handful of veteran employees went to management and successfully lobbied for a "do-over," because the schedule as presented was unrealistic, and featured far too many new employees at a given time compared to experienced ones.
An important perk are monthly bonuses, which can range from $50-200 a month depending on whether "target numbers" are hit. About halfway through my summer tenure at Horizon Air, we were informed that the bonus structure was being revamped. It now included delays caused by weather and Air Traffic Control, circumstances completely out of our control. This was described as "more realistic to the situation on the ground." It was more like a morale murderer.
This is all to say that I can understand what could drive a normal person to do what Richard Russell did: He saw his chance for relevance—to be simply acknowledged as an individual human being—and grabbed it. I don’t condone it, and wish it would have turned out with a spectacular landing that he could've walked away from as a folk hero to some (myself included). I'll leave the question of exactly how he did it to the investigators.
Richard's situation was not unusual for what has morphed into a wage-slave economy. The fact that he had access to a plane makes it sensational. There are plenty of people out there making not-enough money, and they keep plugging along, not stealing multi-million dollar aircraft and crashing them.
But the next time you’re at SeaTac, take the chance to look out at Horizon’s gates from the main food court, and marvel at the controlled chaos on the ground. Off to your left, you’ll see baggage tugs speeding to and from the catacombs under the terminal. Farther out, Delta planes lurk, large.
And when you step onto the stairway of your next flight, holding that Big Mac you bought in the terminal because otherwise there's no reasonably priced food on the plane (customers are now just numbers, too), remember that the person who flipped your burger is probably making $3/hr more than the person who handles your luggage, walks around the plane doing final inspections, and ultimately pushes the plane full of 76 souls (as we used to say) out to the overcrowded taxiway to send you off safely.
Your life depends on the work they do.
Editor's note: The Stranger has called and emailed Alaska Airlines, parent company of Horizon Air, for comment on the allegations in this op-ed. Except for an automatically generated response that said they received our message, we have not heard back. If they get back to us, we will publish their response.