Shortage of ground workers is a problem for airlines: Travel Weekly
One evening at the end of last month, I did a simple Google search for jobs at Charlotte Airport to see what I could learn.
The second list that came up, for a wheelchair attendant position with a company called Prospect Airport Services, was only paying $ 9 an hour, plus tips.
Prospect, which contracts with airlines to provide ground service personnel at airports across the country, is partnering in Charlotte with the airport’s dominant carrier, American.
This summer, American was among several American airlines that made headlines for poor on-time performance and difficulty with cancellations. Spirit became the child star of the saga in early August, when he canceled 2,800 flights in 11 days, culminating in consecutive days in which he canceled more than 60% of his flights. Southwest also faced negative headlines and operational difficulties, as below-par on-time performance spread to Allegiant, Frontier and JetBlue.
American, Spirit, Southwest and Allegiant are also among the carriers who cited the shortage of ground workers at airports as one of the reasons for their summer hardships. Spirit, in particular, says the continuing shortage of staff at airports has forced schedule reductions through September.
The sudden resurgence of demand for domestic travel, fueled by the ultra-competitive labor market for low wages, are the immediate causes of this shortage. But seen in a broader perspective, the airlines themselves cannot escape the blame. For decades, carriers have systematically abolished old in-house ground worker positions at airports, preferring to outsource them to companies like Prospect as a cost saving measure. For some carriers, these strategies have come home to roost this summer.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data analyzed by the Service Employers International Union (SEIU), airlines directly employed 75% of their baggage handlers and skycaps in 2002. In 2020, 96% of these workers were employed by contractors. The trend line for wheelchair attendants was similar.
More generally, a study commissioned by the Communications Workers of America union found that the share of jobs contracted out by American airlines rose from 19% in 2001 to 30% in 2018. During this period, salaries of Workers employed directly by airlines rose 21% when adjusted for inflation, while they stagnated for contract workers.
Fortunately, the salaries of wheelchair attendants are not always as low as in Charlotte. There are currently 23 major US airports with living wage orders, according to the SEIU.
Yet airlines continue to fight against these laws. This summer, for example, American fought against a measure passed by the city of Philadelphia to increase wages and health benefits at the city’s airport, of which it is the hub carrier. Meanwhile, the Airlines for America (A4A) trade group is fighting in federal court against a new San Francisco law that strengthens the demands of airport employers for employee health insurance plans.
Last month, as I reported a story about the shortage of workers at airports, one message I heard over and over is that low-paying airport jobs are naturally hard to fill, in large part because airports are often inconvenient for downtown areas and because workers do background checks.
Given the operational challenges that many U.S. airlines have faced over the summer due to staff shortages among their airport outsourcing companies, it may be time for carriers to consider whether relying heavily on low-paid contract ground workers is not a penny, but folly.