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New airline fees costing skycaps

by Jason M. Breslow
May 29, 2008

With new baggage fees causing many fliers to travel lighter, airport skycaps, who rely almost exclusively on tips from curbside check-ins, are finding it increasingly harder to support themselves.

Two fees in particular appear to be affecting skycaps. The first is the $2 per bag charge a flier must pay in order to check a bag at the curb. Airports began to introduce the curbside check-in fee on a widespread basis in 2005. The second fee, which ranges in price from carrier to carrier, is the charge passengers must pay to check a second bag. AMR Corp.’s American Airlines is going one step further, as some passengers will soon have to pay $15 for their first piece of checked luggage.

Skycaps say the $2 fee costs them money because travelers often mistake the charge for a gratuity. Fees for checking additional luggage, meanwhile, have led to many fliers traveling with fewer bags. Consequently, skycaps, who typically earn less than minimum wage and do not receive benefits such as health insurance, now have fewer opportunities for earning tips.

Airlines, however, argue that it has become necessary to charge such fees, given the soaring cost of fuel. In the first quarter, for example, United Airlines parent UAL Corp. spent $1.57 billion in fuel costs, 51 percent higher than the year-earlier period.

Daniel Petree, professor and dean of the college of business at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said he does not think carriers are trying “to be heartless or cold” about the impact of new fees on skycaps, who are not airline employees. Airlines are simply trying “to boost revenues and costs as best they can,” he said.

“I think the reality is the airlines are really struggling to enhance their financial viability and, I think, to be candid and to be practical, the financial welfare of folks who aren’t even their employees is probably fairly far down the list of their priorities,” Petree said.

At O’Hare International Airport on Thursday, skycaps were hesitant to discuss the impact the recent wave of new airline fees have had on their wallets. Citing fear of losing their jobs, skycaps would only agree to discuss the matter on condition of anonymity.

In May several major carriers, including United, put in place a fee for checking a second bag and “already it’s kind of slow,” one skycap said.

It could become slower as travelers, such as Randye Martin of Northbrook, Ill., increasingly monitor how much they are packing.

“I’m going to watch what I take,” said Martin, who was leaving for a wedding in San Francisco on an American Airlines flight.

Another skycap estimated that his tips, which account for roughly 90 percent of his wages, have dropped by half since the $2 per bag fee for curbside check-in was put in place. Tips fell by another 30 percent after the second bag fee went into effect, the skycap said.

He added that his colleagues have been “pretty concerned about it as a whole.” The job of skycap, he said, used to allow for “a decent living … Now, you can hardly support yourself.”

Several skycaps, those supporting families in particular, said the situation has become so worrisome that they are considering taking a second job. 

Skycaps at other airports have been more openly vocal. At Boston’s Logan International Airport, for example, skycaps have launched a campaign designed to draw attention to the impact of baggage fees. As part of the campaign, the skycaps are also protesting a decision by American Airlines preventing skycaps at Logan from collecting tips.

The “no tip” policy at Logan was put in place after a federal jury awarded skycaps there more than $325,000 for tips they lost after American enacted the $2 curbside check-in fee in 2005.