us-airways-sign.jpgA group of skycaps is suing a major U.S. airline and one of its contractors over a practice they say deprives them of a living wage.

U.S. Airways and PrimeFlight Aviation Services, Inc., were named in the suit, filed April 11 in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts on behalf of Ben Mitchell, Donald Chandler and Wilmer Preston.

The men are employed by PrimeFlight Aviation, a contractor at U.S. Airways terminals at Boston’s Logan Airport, Philadelphia International Airport and Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C., respectively. 

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Mikel Jones, filed the class-action complaint, alleging that a $2-per-bag fee for curbside check-in, instituted by the airline last July, has dramatically reduced the skycaps’ wages. According to the suit, passengers paying the fee wrongly believe the money is going to the skycaps, removing the incentive to tip.

Chandler, 47, claims he and other skycaps were initially told by PrimeFlight that their salaries would be raised once the fees were in place, or that bonuses would be added to their pay.

“They never was planning to give us a pay increase,’’ he now says. “When we first approached them, we said, ‘Why don’t you do $3 a bag, and give us one?’ They said they didn’t want to do that, but we’re doing all the work.’’

The suit claims “knowing and willful failure to pay Plaintiffs and class members the federal minimum wage’’ in violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, unlawful interference with the “implied contractual and/or advantageous relationship’’ between skycaps and their customers, and unjust enrichment, since Jones claims the contractor and the airline are splitting the $2 fee, with nothing going to the skycaps. And skycaps must still report any tips they receive.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in order to comply with federal minimum wage laws, tip-based industries can pay employees as little as $2.13 an hour in “direct wages,’’ provided the gratuities received by the employee brings their total compensation in line with the federal minimum wage. If not, the employer must make up the difference. The skycaps’ base pay is $2.83 per hour, well below the federal minimum wage of $5.85 an hour (which will increase to $6.55 per hour effective July 24, 2008).

Skycaps have no union representation, and generally do not receive healthcare or other benefits. Blacks and Hispanics disproportionately hold service jobs, including skycaps and baggage handlers, at the nation’s airports. 

The suit claims the airline and contractor “have made no effort to compensate skycaps for the monetary loss,’’ which Jones says can amount to $80 per day. That amount can reach $250 per day at the height of the cruise season in South Florida, said one skycap who does curbside check-in for AirTran at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, speaking on condition of anonymity.

AirTran will institute its own baggage handling fees this month, said the skycap, who is not part of the lawsuit, adding that the airlines “could have added the fees to the cost of a ticket instead of taking it out of the skycaps’ pocket.’’

“They claim the skycaps are still getting tips,’’ said Jones, “but in some locations there’s a sign that says ‘no gratuity,’ and you’re not allowed to ask for tips.’’

“We can ask for the $2 a bag for their fee,’’ said Chandler, who says he has worked at the Philadelphia airport for 12 years, “but if we ask for a tip, it’s considered soliciting. I’ve got to check them in whether they tip me or not.’’

The suit calls for back pay, restitution for the tips lost since the fee was instituted, and changes in policy that will restore the skycaps’ earnings.

Frederick Strobel, a spokesman for PrimeFlight, said the company has not had the chance to review the suit, and could not comment.

Morgan Durrant, a representative for U.S. Airways, said the company could “not comment on pending litigation other than to point out that the plaintiffs in this lawsuit aren't employed by U.S. Airways.’’

The plaintiffs worked at U.S. Airways terminals, but were PrimeFlight employees. 

Other airlines have followed U.S. Airways’ lead by adding various per-bag charges for curbside check-in as well, ranging from $10 to $25 a bag.

As of May 5, U.S. Airways increased its fees to $25 for a passenger’s second checked bag, citing increased fuel costs. None of the fees go to the skycaps.

Skycaps have won similar lawsuits against airlines. On May 2, a federal jury awarded $325,000 for lost tips to a group of nine skycaps at Boston’s Logan International Airport. American Airlines and its vendor, G2 Services, which were named in the suit, responded this month by raising the skycaps’ base salary to $12 to $15 an hour, and banning tips altogether.

Jones, who says his plaintiff class has grown to 3,000 skycaps across the U.S., expects to combine his lawsuits with actions already filed or soon to be filed in Boston and Los Angeles against Delta, Northwest, American and United Airlines. The firm has set up a toll-free number to field calls from potential class members, and has established a website,

As for Chandler, he says he has taken on a part-time job to supplement his income, since his work hours were cut, too.

“The skycap was my primary job that kept my head above water,’’ he said. “If they would have gave us the incentives, I wouldn’t have a problem with the $2 a bag. But they lied to us from day one.’’

Photo by Elgin Jones/ SFT Staff . A sign at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport indicates the new $2-per-bag fee.