June 22nd, 2009

Air Cargo Blues

I've been procrastinating (again) about posting because it's hard to figure out exactly how much of my job I can talk about without getting into sensitive information. They just made us all take an online course on safeguarding secret information, so the topic is fresh in my mind. I'll try to stick to things that could be considered either common knowledge or common sense.

To start off, on the week of the 8th through 13th, megory and I hung out together, watching shows and doing a little shopping. I saw her off at the airport on the 14th. After that, it's been back to the same routine.

I'm in the middle of my air cargo training at work. The airlines have big warehouses all around the airport where they store the cargo that they bring in. My particular branch of customs has to check any items from overseas that could potentially be a threat to our agriculture. This includes commodities such as cut flowers, hunting trophies, medical supplies, and fresh herbs. (Every day I can't help but be amazed that people can cut a flower in, say, Thailand and ship it to the opposite side of the world while it's still fresh.) This also includes shipments of personal effects. The things people ship over as "personal effects" could be completely harmless toys and clothes and books, but there might also be things like camping equipment with soil still attached, dried flowers or spices with weed seeds mixed in, or even fresh fruits. We don't know until we check.

When I arrive at the office in the morning, the first thing I have to do is grab a set of keys and bring one of the official government cars over from the parking garage. If I'm lucky, I get a regular car. If I'm not so lucky, the only vehicles left are the SUVs. ~_~ Have I mentioned that I hate driving? The reason that I have to get a car is that, while some of the air cargo warehouses are within a block or two of the office, some are several miles away. Once I have a car, I wait for the person in charge of the desk to hand out the morning assignments. Everyone gets about three shipments to inspect. Some shipments can be released if they have the correct paperwork, so those are fast. Others require a lot more work. Hunting trophies, for example, usually come packed in wooden crates. The lids have to be completely unfastened, either using a drill to take out the screws, or with a crowbar and hammer if they're nailed shut. If we're checking perishable items like cut flowers, sometimes the brokers will watch us do the inspection so that they can collect the shipment as soon as possible after we finish.

If we're inspecting fresh items like flowers or herbs, sometimes we find pests. (That's what the inspection is for, after all.) If we collect an insect or snail or stray seed, we have to continue to hold the shipment while we drive the suspected pest to the nearest Plant Inspection Station to have it identified. If it turns out to be harmless, everything's okay. If it's not, however, usually that means the shipment has to be destroyed. (Generally the options are "reexportation or destruction," but perishable items wouldn't survive reexportation anyway.)

When a shipment is released, we call the broker to let them know, so it can be delivered to the proper recipient. Have I mentioned that I hate talking on the phone to strangers? Yeah.

Then we get a break for lunch, and repeat the inspection process in the afternoon. Return the car to the parking garage, and that's it for the day.

Some people really enjoy the cargo environment, because once the assignments are given out, they just go off and do the inspections on their own, at their own pace, getting out and about in the (sort of) fresh air. They don't have to deal with passengers, they don't have to work together with a bunch of other people, they don't have to stay cooped up in the airport all day. I have to say that it's not my favorite job, though. The driving and constantly having to call people on the phone is extremely stressful for me. I'm going to be glad when this training ends.