Torqued: Airport Workers Deserve a Living Wage

 - September 2, 2018, 9:44 AM

A recent New York Times editorial highlights the stagnation and even decline of wages for many low-paid airport workers. These workers include baggage handlers, ticket agents, cleaners, fuelers, drivers, and others who work on the ramps and within the secured areas of airports around the country. The particular focus of this editorial was the three major airports in New York area operated by the Port Authority of NY & NJJFK, LGA, and EWR—and advocated for a raise in the minimum wage at these three airports.

According to the editorial, “Real wages for the men and women who do much of the work at airports declined by 14 percent between 1991 and 2011, according to a study by the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley. While airline profits have become robust since that period, airport worker pay has stagnated, like the wages of so many low-paid Americans. And the decline was even sharper since the days before airline deregulation, when unionized workers also got paid vacations and days off as well as medical benefits.”

Many of these jobs are physically demanding jobs; I’ve worked loading bags both as an airline mechanic helping out on the ramp and when I ran my own FBO at Logan International Airport, so I know the physical exertion involved and danger of personal injury from lifting and moving bags. Cleaners, too, don’t have it easy; with the pressure to make short turn-around times and the high load factors, airplanes are dirtier than ever and the time to clean them shorter than ever. But regardless of the physical exertion involved, working a full-time job should not require food stamps to put a family’s meals on the table as the editorial points out. Nor should these workers have to take on multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Of course, working people deserve a living wage. But when it comes to aviation, it’s not just that they deserve a living wage. To me, it’s also that air safety (and security) require it. The consequences of low wages include frequent employee turnover as workers leave a job to make even a small amount more per hour and employees working multiple jobs to make ends meet. The former results in employees being improperly trained and lacking the on-the-job experience that benefits both safety and security. As far as working multiple jobs, clearly this frequently adds up to sleep deprivation and chronic fatigue and can lead to worker injuries, as well as incidents and accidents both on and off the airport. Both the NTSB and the FAA have highlighted the aviation safety consequences of fatigue, especially chronic fatigue.

Training and Experience Matter

Lack of experience and improper training of airport workers, such baggage handlers, has led to accidents. While the probable causes of the ValuJet crash in May of 1992 were properly placed on SabreTech, ValuJet, and the FAA, better trained and more experienced baggage handlers working ValuJet Flight 592 would likely have noticed that the cargo they were loading contained oxygen canisters and at least questioned their carriage, since ValuJet was not authorized to carry hazardous materials. We all know how that ended. A fire in the DC-9’s cargo compartment was started by the actuation of one or more of these improperly carried oxygen generators. In just a couple of minutes, the airplane was engulfed in flames and crashed in the Everglades, killing all 105 passengers and five crewmembers. 

And, of course, while it’s not always obvious to those who haven’t worked on the ramp, baggage handlers don’t just throw bags on and off aircraft. They’re responsible for the proper load distribution of bags and cargo. If done improperly, this can—and has—caused weight-and-balance issues for the aircraft and can result in a dangerous shift in the center of gravity and loss of control of the aircraft. 

From a damage perspective, drivers on the air operations area probably cause the greatest recurring dollar loss from incidents and accidents with other vehicles, aircraft, and even terminal and hangar buildings. While I’m not aware of a specific study correlating driver turnover and accidents, it’s clear in my experience that so much turnover—I’m aware of facilities with 50 percent annual turnover—will result in poorly trained, low-experience drivers. These include drivers of tugs, lavatory trucks, water and catering trucks, fuel trucks and even stair and jetway drivers. Sometimes it seems that every day brings a report of ground damage at an airport somewhere in the country, so it’s not surprising that ground damage consistently exceeds billions of dollars worldwide.

In fact, there have been a number of recently reported fuel and other truck crashes at airports around the country: in July, a fuel truck hit a United Airlines 777 as it was parked at a gate at Dulles International Airport; in May, a fuel truck flipped over on the general aviation ramp of Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Montana; in March, a fuel truck crashed into a fence at Buffalo Niagara International Airport in New York, spilling 2,000 gallons of fuel. And it’s not just property that gets damaged. A passenger van and fuel truck collision a year ago at Denver International Airport injured 11 people, five of them seriously.

Of course, not every incident gets reported. How many of these are caused by inexperienced, under-trained or fatigued drivers is hard to say definitively without data, but in my experience investigating accidents on the ramp, these are frequently the leading causes.

Another area of concern with inexperienced and/or fatigued workers is fueling. While the industry and the FAA have taken significant steps over the last 30 years to prevent fueling errors, they still happen. A 2017 NTSB accident report of the fatal crash of a February 2015 Piper PA 46 Mirage in Spokane, Washington, states: “Post-accident interviews revealed that, when requesting fuel from the fixed-base operator (FBO), the pilot did not specify a grade of fuel to be used to service the plane. The refueler mistakenly identified the airplane as requiring jet-A fuel, even though the fueler ports were placarded “AVGAS [aviation gas] ONLY.” The fuel truck had an improper nozzle installed; fuel nozzles for jet-A and avgas are different to help prevent these types of errors. A similar refueling error occurred in 2014 in New Mexico, resulting in the crash of an air ambulance flight that killed all four on board. 

These incidents and accidents can’t be tied directly to low pay, but they illustrate what some of us may sometimes forget: every job at an airport can have an impact on safety.