The Futures Trader Turned Airline Baggage Handler

A former trader was lured by the industry practice of letting airline employees fly standby, anytime to anywhere, if there is an unoccupied seat available. Photograph by Siri Stafford

As an independent trader at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group’s Chicago headquarters, Bruce Bere exchanged futures contracts. He started as a pit runner and then became a desk manager at a small firm before entering into business for himself, e-trading his own portfolio of futures and options from an on-site office. By early 2011, the 25-year-old was making at least $75,000 a year. But in March 2011, Bere abruptly stopped trading and took a job as an airline baggage handler for United Airlines at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport. “I have always been a big aviation geek,” he says. “I got the job because it allows me to be around airplanes, which my friends give me crap for.”

Technically, Bere’s title is “ramp agent.” He’s in charge of parking, loading, and helping airlines push back from the gate. Instead of a sport coat, he now wears a reflective orange vest. He earns the standard $10 an hour. And while he enjoys working around the giant aircraft, Bere isn’t shy about boarding them, either. “I wanted to see the world,” he says.

Non-revenues—“non-revs” for short—refer to the industry practice of letting airline employees fly standby, any time to anywhere, if there is an unoccupied seat available. In the year and a half since he joined United, Bere has personally logged 116 flights covering 158,344 miles; that’s about six and a half times around the earth. Total airtime: 402 hours and 20 minutes, to be exact. And Bere is exact. He keeps meticulous track of his trips on a website that tracks everything from what class seat he’s assigned (often economy) to what seat position (it’s often the window). “People say non-revving is either a good system or a terrible system. It’s all about what you make it,” he says.

United allows employees to trade shifts, so he’ll often work doubles, freeing up several days in a row for travel. According to his own statistics, he then flies most frequently on Tuesdays, a slower day for commuters so the planes are less booked—though sometimes, he admits, the gamble doesn’t pay off and the planes are full. “Things can change rather quickly, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the risk. It makes for a fun, puzzling little game. If you can’t get nonstop, you can try to go through another hub or city. I enjoy that,” he says. Plus, it beats paying full fares.

Thanks to United’s fairly lenient non-rev policy, Bere can also take some designated family members with him. He and his wife, Lauren, who works as a nurse, have had several spontaneous “date nights” in Montreal, Seattle, and Boston. For a recent wedding anniversary, the couple hopped over for a short visit to Madrid.

As for the downside of his new career—having to throw luggage in the harsh Midwestern weather—he’s fine with it. While he’s still in his 20s, the physical work appeals to him. “On certain days when it’s pouring rain or a blizzard, do I miss being inside? Absolutely,” he says. “But there are pros and cons to every job.”