What’s Up With Those Orange Batons?

Who are those guys on the airport tarmac, the ones waving orange batons around when my plane comes in? What are they doing? Why do we need them?

It turns out that getting a 152-foot-long 707 to a six-foot-wide ramp is somewhat tougher than nosing your Explorer into the garage. “Because of the length of an airplane, we need the additional assistance that we get from those guys,” says Gary Peterson, chief pilot for Northwest Airlines.

To connect to a jet-way bridge, an arriving plane must center itself perfectly on a white “J line” painted on the tarmac. If it misses . . . well, imagine the sounds of twisting steel and snapping plastic. Because the airplane door is behind the cockpit and the J line is underneath, pilots can’t hit their marks perfectly without help.

Hence all of the baton waving. The Federal Aviation Administration actually requires three ground crewmembers to guide in each big plane — a “marshaler” under the nose of the aircraft and two “wing walkers” on either side. Each crew stewards 16 planes a day, in addition to their baggage-handling and refueling duties. “They’re our eyes on the ground,” Peterson says. “They’re alerting us to anything happening down there that we can’t see.”