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Skycaps suing over lost tips from curbside fees

Another victim of the airlines battle to cut costs and increase revenue: Skycaps.

Another victim of the airlines battle to cut costs and increase revenue: Skycaps.

You know them by their blue-and-white uniforms, as they check bags outside terminals at Philadelphia International Airport.

But these days they are seeing red.

The latest blow is new bag fees: $25 for a second checked bag at most airlines, and $15 for a first bag checked by some fliers buying tickets on American Airlines, starting Sunday.

While no one is happy with these new charges, what has skycaps really upset - and in court as plaintiffs in a series of lawsuits - is the $2-per-bag fee for curbside check-in that many airlines implemented in the last year.

Because of that fee, passengers are not tipping skycaps like they used to, either because they think the $2 charge is a tip or because they are not willing to tip on top of the charge.

Skycaps for US Airways Group Inc., who work for airline services contractor Prime Flight Aviation Services Inc., earn a base salary of $2.83 an hour here. Traditionally, they received most of their pay from tips.

Skycaps checking bags outside Terminals B and C last week complained that their earnings had dropped 50 percent to 75 percent since implementation of the $2-per-bag fee ($3 to check a bag at the curb at Delta Air Lines Inc.).

Donald Chandler, 47, of West Philadelphia, a skycap of nearly 12 years, said he used to make $200 to $300 a day before the fee went into effect.

"The $2 they give to the airline now, they would have given to me for one bag," he said. "Now passengers check two bags and give you $5 - $4 goes to the airline and $1 goes to me. But I'm out here doing all the work."

Chandler said he would be lucky now to make $30 a day. "It's a hell of a loss. They give us no benefits, and we make $2.83 an hour. We survived off our tips. That's how we took care of our families, paid our bills."

Skycaps for several airlines, including US Airways, have filed lawsuits in federal court in Boston trying to recover lost wages and tips.

Seven US Airways skycaps, including Chandler, are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the carrier, based in Tempe, Ariz., and Prime Flight Aviation, of Nashville, alleging violations of a federal law that protects tips received by workers who earn less than the federal minimum wage of $5.85 an hour.

A spokesman for Prime Flight, Frederick Strobel, said his company would not discuss pending litigation.

US Airways also declined to comment, noting the skycaps named in the complaint were not US Airways employees.

The suit is being handled for the skycaps by Philadelphia lawyer Mikel D. Jones and Boston lawyer Shannon Liss-Riordan.

In April, Liss-Riordan won the first legal challenge to the curbside fee on behalf of nine skycaps at Logan International Airport.

A federal jury in Boston ordered American Airlines to pay nine skycaps more than $325,000 for lost tips since the fee was implemented in late 2005. The jury found that American violated a Massachusetts law that protects tips received by service workers who are paid below that state's $8-an-hour minimum wage. Pennsylvania's minimum wage is $7.15 an hour.

Skycaps handle 10 percent to 20 percent of all checked luggage. "It's a minority of passengers who use skycaps," Liss-Riordan said. "Obviously, when the airlines started charging these extra charges, the numbers went down somewhat."

Skycaps fear they could be out of jobs altogether - if other carriers follow American's lead and charge for a first bag.

"Why are they going to need us?" Chandler said. "Do you think they are going to let us handle $15 or $25? Passengers will go inside to pay."

Jones and Liss-Riordan filed the Massachusetts suit on behalf of 3,000 US Airways skycaps nationwide. Between 35 and 40 work in Philadelphia.

Jones said he planned to file lawsuits in 20 states, seeking restitution for lost tips and wages. He said he also represented skycaps for Delta, Northwest Airlines Corp., Continental Airlines Inc., and American.

"I'm very interested in getting justice for these skycaps," Jones said. "I have a better chance of accomplishing that in state courts around the country."

Other lawsuits on behalf of skycaps for United Airlines, JetBlue Airways Corp., and American are pending in federal court in Boston.

American says it will drop the $2-per-bag curb fee when the $15-first-bag charge goes into effect this weekend.

Skycap Keith Smith, 44, of West Philadelphia, a 20-year veteran who has worked for several airlines, said skycaps relied on the generosity of their customers. "You give them good service, they give a good tip."

Now, Smith said, he might earn $50 a day. "That's no way to pay your bills." Previously, he would get $100 or $150 a day. "You could make a living with that. Some days you might leave out of here with $40. It hurts," he said.

"Skycaps all over the country now are rebelling," said Russ Davis, of Massachusetts Jobs With Justice. "This is something that is hurting everybody. It started in Boston, but it's spreading around the country. Airlines are in a crisis, but why should skycaps be the victims?"