Baggage handlers watch incomes fly away

Patrick Jack said he needs money to help his wife survive breast cancer, but that his job as a skycap at the Bay Area’s busiest airport — helping travelers check in luggage and pull heavy suitcases on carts — is preventing him from giving his spouse the care she needs.

Like dozens of other curbside baggage handlers, known as skycaps, at San Francisco International Airport, 60-year-old Jack, of San Mateo, said he has seen his income plummet since airlines began instituting luggage-handling fees in the range of $2-$3.

Many customers, he said, think skycaps keep the handling fee and hesitate to tip on top of it. He said the fees cost baggage handlers a great deal of money since most skycaps earn minimum wage and earn about 40 percent of their total income through tips.

“I pay $400 per month just for [my wife’s] medical treatment,” said Jack, who’s worked for American Airlines at SFO for 17 years. “I see [other skycaps] getting a second job. That may be what I’ll have to do if it continues going the way it is.”

Jack is not alone in his fears. Recently, a federal jury ordered American Airlines to pay a group of 10 skycaps in Massachusetts more than $325,000 in lost tips. The civil lawsuit by the skycaps against American claims that the airline violated the state’s tips law by keeping the $2 fees and by making it harder for them to earn income.

The $2 or $3 extra per bag is sorely needed by the skycaps’ employers, airline officials said, as airlines continue to declare bankruptcy, drastically cut service and lose hundreds of millions of dollars regularly. Most airlines at SFO have skycap service through a third-party vendor.

American Airlines will be eliminating its $2 curbside baggage fee when its new mandatory $15-per-checked-bag fee begins June 15, a trend that skycaps fear could make their tips even worse.

But American spokesman Tim Smith, explaining that the handling fees were introduced to offset skyrocketing fuel costs, said theairline posts signs indicating that gratuity is not included in the fee.

A bill recently proposed in the state Legislature would allow skycaps to keep any luggage-handling fee. That bill is far from a sure thing, however, and would not take effect until Jan. 1 if it passes. San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano is drafting legislation he will introduce at Tuesday’s board meeting that would allow SFO skycaps to make the sort of wages they were used to.

“I am very concerned that if we don’t find a resolution to the current situation, the struggle that skycaps face could also have an adverse impact on the airport, which serves as a lifeline to The City and the Bay Area,” Ammiano said.

mrosenberg@sfexaminer.com

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