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Sky Cap-tives

6/11/2008, 5 p.m.

It is customary for airline travelers to tip skycaps for what some might blindly say a small job, but if you ask most passengers they would tell you that amid the chaotic atmosphere of a typical American Airport, the aid of a skycap is anything but irrelevant. Handling a nations' worth of bags, weaving wheelchairs of the handicapped through almost ever-present heavy traffic full of seemingly disoriented people scurrying to their terminals, and directing vehicles to almost hidden destinations, are just some of the services skycaps provide to frequent flyers .
Lately, the old tradition of, "you help me I tip you," in an airport has been broken due to U.S. airline corporate officials looking to further nickel and dime the traveling public for even the most basic accomodations. The new airline regulation for what used to be complimentary skycap services now require passengers to pay a $2 to $3 bag fee. Many customers, assuming the fee is a tip, have stopped volunteering gratuities to the skycaps depriving these helpers of up to 60 percent of their regular income .
"Airlines keep passing the buck off on the passengers. Now, they are charging (for) more than one bag...but we haven't seen any of that money. We have only seen our salaries cut drastically. My wife has breast cancer and I pay close too $400 a month for her healthcare costs. It has never been easy making ends meet in the Bay Area, but now the airlines have made it nearly impossible," says Patrick Jack a Skycap at San Francisco International Airport.
Henry Watts, skycap for Northwest Airlines had this to say, "When the signs about the $2 bag fee first appeared, passengers were coming up to me and saying, 'I'm so glad you're getting what you deserve.' They thought it was all coming to us and they did'nt realize that in fact, we'd had our income cut in half. Everything is just getting more and more expensive. But when you're a contracted employee working for the airlines, you have to struggle for every dime. The airlines can always invent new fees to stay profitable, but when I go to the gas station or the grocery store, how am I supposed to keep my budget? It's time for somebody to balance the scales."
In response to the new fees, California Assemblymember Lloyd Levine has intoduced Assembly Bill 408, which would ensure that any money skycaps receive from airline passengers for transporting their luggage be considered a gratuity and kept as part of their wages. In a recent telepress conference Levine, along with political and civil rights leaders, lent a voice on behalf of the skycap airline employees. "As a member of the legislature, I'm a frequent traveler. I spend time predominantly at Burbank and Sacramento Airports and I know how hard skycaps work. I've seen skycaps help people in and out of wheel chairs and cars. They go above and beyond the call of duty but still earn meager wages. Gas in America is over $4 a gallon, and the price of food continues to rise for even the most basic necessities. Airlines should not, cannot, take money out of the pocket of those who are least able to afford it," said Levine. African American civil rights activits have critized the new luggage fee for imposing a dissproportionate burden on African American workers. Skycap jobs have for several decades been one of the few service jobs held primarily by African American men.
"If airlines continue to mistreat customers as well as employees, they will give the impression that airline travel is becoming exclusive and elitist. Skycaps come from a rich tradition of the Pullman porters of the 1920s and '30s during the railroad era. Today, skycaps are predominantly older African American men, with some that still retain the history and legacy of the railroad era. Tips have been a crucial part of making ends meet for these workers," said Bishop Charles E. Blake, pastor of West Angeles Church of God In Christ and member of the Reaching Higher Coalition, while participating in the telepress conference with Levine.