Helping Billings Take Flight
The women of Horizon Air
On this windless blue-skied afternoon the “Team Billings” ground crew at Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air is once again striving for excellence. Their call to attention: Flight 2400 from Seattle is touching down at Billings Logan International Airport.
Outfitted in fluorescent green vests and sunglasses, the ground crew stands ready for the plane’s arrival. Poised in the docking bay, the belt loader sits, its engine churning, driver in place. Alongside, a second worker readies the portable staircase. A third crew member stands with orange wands in each hand prepared to marshal the plane to the place where its passengers will unload.
Sally McCrea, the company's customer service manager says, “People want to get off the plane when the plane lands” which puts pressure on her ground crew to do their job as efficiently as possible. “Our fastest turn around was 22 minutes with 76 people (a full flight), and 60 to 70 bags.”
In the seven minutes from when the Bombardier Q400's front wheels touch down to the moment that the last bit of carry-on luggage is claimed, most passengers fail to notice that on this day the complex dance is completed by an all-women team.
Like clockwork, Gena Hicks signals the plane in, places chocks around the plane’s wheels, repositions the pushback vehicle to prep for the next departure, and then surveys passenger areas, putting up temporary barriers. With the propellers just winding down, Olivia Renney drives the cargo belt loader to the tail area as Angela Haviland slides the back stairs into place at the rear exit door. When the front hatch swings open, Hicks tucks in the step platform.
Luggage continues to pour from the plane while the lavatories are pumped, tanks refueled, and the interior is cleaned and restocked. The arrival flight crew with two pilots and two flight attendants is quickly replaced with the fresh departure team. Twenty minutes later, the plane stands ready for its outbound passengers.
Flight attendant Bryan Grosvald acknowledges “the good partnership we have with the ground crew. We have a great working relationship.” Fun banter goes back and forth between the flight and ground crews while manager McCrea insures that the flight crew boarding the plane has everything they need.
Doing this job isn't easy. And to do it at lightning speed is even more difficult. To be a member of the ground crew, you have to be able to manage and load luggage, operate service equipment to landing and docking areas, and to de-ice and groom the aircraft. You have to be able to lift 75 pounds (with mechanical assistance) and work at a quick and constant pace for up to two hours at a stretch. This might dissuade some women, but not the Horizon Air crew. They view it as a challenge.
McCrea joined the team Horizon Air two years ago. For 18 years, she worked with Alaska Airlines in Spokane, Las Vegas and Seattle. Her last job was at the Customer Service desk in Seattle. Now, she says, “Small is my idea of a good place to work. I do every single aspect of the job here."
Emblazoned on the wall of the joint offices shouts the motto: “Team Billings. Committed to Excellence.” McCrea’s team of 15 strives to meet that goal each and every day. With 10 women and five men, diversity and experience make up this group with varied talents. Gena Hicks, on board for four years, worked in the Air Force gaining international experience in places like Iraq, and has a degree in criminal justice. Her background surely has trained her to deal with inclement weather, equipment failures and customer challenges. Now Hicks’ key responsibility is Ground Service Equipment, making sure all the machines are functional, a skill she learned “growing up on a ranch in California.” On the other hand, Olivia Renney, who joined the team two months ago after completing a degree in Hispanic Studies from MSU Bozeman, brings a different skill set, and has quickly become a valued member of the group.
Today, eleven-year veteran Judy Drinkwalter plays the role of ticket agent, though she steps out onto the tarmac, as needed, to help load and unload luggage after submitting a passenger list to the flight team. At 64 years young she proudly says, “I can't imagine a better job. I love the customers.” With her tan complexion and athletic physique, she continues, “I love the activity. I could never have a desk job.” Every day, each team member rotates between different duties that range from checking customers in at the ticket counter, to handling bags, and uploading and unloading the plane. One person “floats", and jumps in where needed.
After McCrea runs back and forth to move three passengers in wheelchairs up the ramp, Haviland and Renney load luggage and cargo, while Hicks drags hoses and drives service vehicles to resupply the plane. In a flash, the flight is loaded and ready for departure. The final step is for Hicks and Renney to pilot the pushback tug to direct the plane from its docking spot to the runway, turning the nose 90 degrees, positioning it for takeoff. After Renney holds the buckets removed from under the wheels up in the air for all to see, the pilot and co-pilot respond with two thumbs up and the flight is ready to go.
On this day, “Team Billings” pushed Flight 2407 bound for Portland 13 minutes ahead of schedule to prove again that they were certainly “Committed to Excellence”.