Once considered a secure path to middle class life, airport jobs are quickly becoming some of the worst paid, least stable positions in the low-wage economy. A new report from UC Berkeley’s Labor Center found that airlines and airports are increasingly outsourcing jobs to low-paying contractors, driving wages down to near-poverty levels. Salaries have fallen as much as 45 percent for some workers.
As is the case with most low-wage jobs, taxpayers are picking up the slack for airlines’ labor practices. More than a third of all cleaning staff and baggage handlers at American airports must supplement their wages with public benefits like food stamps and Medicaid. Wages for airport jobs have failed to keep up with inflation, falling by 14 percent over 20 years, while they grew more slowly even than those in food services and retail. Meanwhile, some airline CEOs make 300 times what their baggage porters, transportation attendants, and vehicle cleaners make, according to the SEIU.
The decline began with airport deregulation in the 1970s, which led to two-tiered contracts that lowered wages for new workers hired by airlines. As more airlines merged, a lack of competition allowed companies to further reduce wages and cut jobs. Industry buildup through the 90s shed more than 100,000 jobs between 2000 and 2008. Eventually, airlines realized that using contractors for services like maintenance, cleaning, and baggage handling was even cheaper, accelerating the replacement of direct employees with outsourced workers who make significantly less.
Even security screeners were at first outsourced to companies that paid less than even fast food employees working in the same airport. The U.S. Government Accountability Office warned in June 2000 that these low wages bred a dangerous environment, where turnover was high, training was spotty, and few staff were experienced at flagging potential risks. After September 11, the government took over security screening through the newly-created Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Though widely maligned, the TSA now pays higher wages with full benefits in recognition that it needed to attract and hold on to skilled security staff.
Yet virtually all other airport workers — baggage porters, janitors, cabin cleaners, plane fuelers, mechanics, gate agents, and even some pilots — have seen their wages sink or their jobs contracted out. While these workers are not directly involved in security, their poor working conditions can still wreak havoc on passenger safety. In one example, a flight contracted out by Continental Airlines to a regional company crashed and killed 50 people in 2009. An investigation found that the co-pilot made $16,200 a year and worked a second job at a coffee shop to make ends meet. Experts also concluded that she was possibly fatigued after pulling an all-nighter to get a free cross-country commute to work.
Some airports have passed living wage laws and tightened standards for contractors to combat this growing problem. However, conservatives have advocated for yet more privatization of currently stable government airport jobs, like air traffic controllers and security screeners. The argument for privatization has especially gained traction since harsh sequestration budget cuts have crippled agencies’ abilities to modernize and upgrade to new technologies.