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.