Skycaps too feel the effects of airline crunch

Not long ago, being a skycap at busy Los Angeles International Airport was a coveted blue-collar job that brought the trappings of middle-class life.

With ample tips plus a basic hourly wage, the curbside baggage handlers could buy comfortable homes and send their children to college. Handed from generation to generation, the attractive positions remained in families for decades.

Today, the fortunes of skycaps at LAX and elsewhere are fading rapidly because of an unprecedented economic downturn in the airline industry that has cut their earnings almost in half and reduced the hours of some workers.

Skycaps and labor officials blame the baggage charges that many airlines have imposed over the last several years to help deal with rising fuel costs. The fees, they contend, have created a disincentive for travelers to tip.

"This used to be a solid job where guys could make a decent living," said Howard Mcgee, 64, of Los Angeles who has been a skycap at LAX for eight years. "But with rising ticket prices, more baggage fees and increased security, it is getting harder and harder to make the kind of money we used to make."

With a strong service tradition, skycaps are the airline industry's equivalent of the old Pullman porters who tended to the needs of railroad passengers.

Responsible for curbside check-in, skycaps help travelers with their luggage, provide directions and information and assist airline customers standing in line at ticket counters.

The airport division of the Service Employees International Union estimates that there are at least 100 skycaps at LAX and more than 500 statewide. By some estimates, they can make $40,000 or more a year when times are good.

"It's all about customer service, treating people with a smile and respect," said Byron Hansbrough, 37, of Los Angeles, who has been a skycap at LAX for 17 years.

But Hansbrough added that the downturn in the airline industry and recent declines in skycap earnings have eroded morale among his co-workers.

"People aren't as happy at work," he said. "It's like we are just there. It's sad when you get away from helping the customer."

Skycaps and union officials who represent airport service workers estimate that the earnings of the typical skycap have dropped 35% to 50% during the last several years.

Meanwhile, they say, the hours some skycaps work per week have been cut from 40 to less than 25, forcing many to take second jobs. In addition, US Airways plans to phase out the use of skycaps at LAX and other airports.

Of particular concern is a $2 charge per bag for curbside check-in. The money goes to the airlines, but many travelers mistakenly believe the fees go to the skycaps.

"This has put us in a bad situation," said Henry Watts, 58, of Los Angeles, who has been a skycap for 20 years. "The money is not that great per hour, and I have no health benefits. When I am sick, I can no longer afford to stay home from work."

On a recent day, Watts was working at the curbside check-in station for Northwest Airlines at Terminal 2. He chatted briefly and shook hands with singer Patti LaBelle, who was seated in a black Cadillac Escalade before she entered the terminal.

Then he assisted Teresa Adler and William Bieber as they headed home to Ohio from a trip to New Zealand and Fiji. They checked four bags and paid $8 in fees but did not tip Watts.

Adler said she thought the fees went to the skycaps. When it was pointed out that their money went to the airline, Adler said, "No one minds tipping for good service. I feel bad now."

Later in the morning, jazz guitarist Norman Brown of Los Angeles checked in curbside at Northwest for a flight to Detroit. His baggage cart was laden with about half a dozen bags and boxes packed with sound equipment.

"The airlines are charging for everything now," Brown said as he paid his baggage fees and gave the skycap a gratuity. "If your bag is one pound over 50, they charge you for that, and they are raising ticket prices. I like to tip, but it's just getting ridiculous."

In Los Angeles and elsewhere around the state, the plight of airport skycaps has come to the attention of local elected officials and the state Legislature.

The Los Angeles City Council and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors have directed their attorneys to research measures that would protect the incomes of skycaps and other airport service workers, such as wheelchair attendants. No action has been taken yet.

Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who requested one of the studies, said the effort could result in ideas similar to the city's protections for wages and tips earned by hotel workers.

"The airlines are nickel-and-diming passengers, and the people who try to make a person's trip convenient and pleasurable are losing out," Hahn said.

In Sacramento, a pending bill by termed-out Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) would require that any amounts paid by an airline customer directly to a skycap or baggage handler be considered a gratuity.

Levine's bill would have the effect of prohibiting any employer or other person from claiming or diverting any portion of the tips -- or any other funds or fees -- received by skycaps and baggage handlers.

A similar law in Massachusetts gave nine skycaps the grounds to sue American Airlines over its $2 fee for curbside check-in. They recovered $325,000 in damages for lost tips, but a judge ordered a new trial for eight of the skycaps, citing improper jury instructions.

The Air Transport Assn., which represents the airline industry, contends that baggage fees are a fair and legitimate way for airlines to recover their escalating costs.

Opponents say Levine's bill would require that any fee paid to a baggage handler become the property of the baggage handler and prohibit airlines from collecting service fees -- something they have a right to do.

Airline officials also say that measures pending in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento could create a hodgepodge of rules from airport to airport that would increase the complexity of their operations.

"Local regulation of our industry creates confusion and costs and doesn't always achieve what was hoped for by those who proposed it," said Tim Smith, a spokesman for American Airlines.

American ended its $2 curbside check-in fee June 15, when it imposed a $15 fee for checking a first piece of luggage. The new fee, he added, should not be construed as a tip to a skycap if that service is used.

American disputes whether $2 fees for curbside check-in have dramatically lowered the incomes of skycaps. Customer surveys by the airline, Smith said, show that tipping and the use of curbside check-in dropped shortly after the fee was imposed several years ago but started to recover later.