- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2008
COLUMN

US Airways‘ skycaps are likely to lose their jobs at the end of this month as the airline institutes a policy that will not allow contract employees to do the baggage handling.

US Airways gave the current batch of skycaps their pink slips this month after another group of skycaps won a lawsuit April 7 in federal court in Boston.

A jury ordered American Airlines to give its skycaps back pay for tips they lost through a new curbside baggage check-in policy.

For every bag handled by skycaps, passengers were required to pay a $2 fee to the airlines. Passengers paid the fees but stopped tipping skycaps, which prompted lawsuits, first against American Airlines and later against US Airways, United Airlines and JetBlue Airways.

A larger issue is whether the skycaps are winning their lawsuits but losing their industry.

Some industry officials say more skycap layoffs are likely as airlines try to eliminate the labor problem they represent.

“I guess that marks the end of an era,” said David Stempler, president of Air Travelers Association, an advocacy group for airline passengers. “Everyone will have to carry their bags inside and either check them at the kiosks or the ticket counters.”

US Airways says the timing of the layoffs this month is a coincidence.

“No, there’s no connection,” said Morgan Durrant, US Airways spokesman. “It has nothing to do with any pending litigation.”

The attorney for the skycaps doesn’t believe a word of it.

“It seems very suspicious,” said Shannon Liss-Riordan, a Boston lawyer.

She filed a complaint June 26 against US Airways in U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts alleging employment retaliation.

A judge is supposed to decide as soon as this week whether to expedite the court schedule to beat the July 31 layoff date.

Even Miss Liss-Riordan worries that her court victory could result in massive layoffs of skycaps in the airline industry.

“I fervently hope that is not the case,” she said.

Many of the skycaps’ customers are disabled or elderly or travel with children and need help getting from the curb to the airplanes.

“I don’t think it’s in the airlines’ best interest to eliminate this service,” Miss Liss-Riordan said. “It would send a devastating message throughout the industry if U.S. Airways is allowed to get away with this.”

The skycaps would be replaced by automated kiosks or customer service agents inside the airport terminals.

US Airways says it has little choice in the matter.

The airline, in a move being taken up throughout the industry, is charging a $15 fee for the first bag checked, $25 for the second and $100 for the third, beginning this month. Its contract with the Communications Workers of America requires that only unionized airline employees can handle bags checked under the new policy.

The skycaps work for contractors and are not unionized. At Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and Washington Dulles International Airport, they are employed by Prime Flight Aviation Services Inc.

US Airways skycaps in the Washington area joined the class-action lawsuit to recover what they said was their back pay from the $2 baggage fee.

The first lawsuit against American Airlines took an unusual twist last month when the federal judge who ruled in favor of the skycaps acknowledged that he made a mistake.

He failed to include a jury instruction asking jurors to determine whether American Airlines could be liable to the skycaps despite the fact that they were on the payroll of a contractor.

He ordered a new trial, which is tentatively scheduled for the fall.

Whether it has any effect on skycaps getting laid off is uncertain.

US Airways officials would not speculate on what the lawsuits mean for the future of the skycap industry.

“I don’t know that I want to go there,” Mr. Durrant said.

Write to Tom Ramstack

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