THE FEDERAL Occupational Health & Safety Administration has launched an inspection into working conditions at Philadelphia International Airport in response to a series of complaints filed last week on behalf of subcontracted baggage handlers and wheelchair attendants.

The inspection, which can take up to six months, is a standard response to work-condition complaints, OSHA spokeswoman Leni Fortson said.

The complaints allege that some airport workers employed by the subcontractor PrimeFlight Aviation Services, which does business in Philly with US Airways, United and Southwest, do not receive training on how to help handicapped passengers, are exposed to blood and other bodily fluids without protection and are forced to use faulty equipment.

"I want proper training, proper equipment, and I want to be treated like a professional," Nikisha Watson, a PrimeFlight wheelchair attendant and one of nine complainants, said yesterday at a City Hall news conference.

PrimeFlight issued a statement saying it rejects the complaints, calling the move an "apparent union organizing effort."

The company "has a long and outstanding performance and safety record and meets all government and airline legal requirements. Our employees receive training according to those specifications and have been recognized by airlines and passengers for service excellence," the statement said.

Service Employees International Union is representing the employees in the case, although they are not part of Local 32BJ's collective-bargaining agreement at the airport.

The complaint is part of a larger effort to change work rules for the airport's workforce. They're asking the city to mandate that subcontractors pay them a living wage, at least $10.88 an hour plus benefits, as it does for those employed by companies that contract with the city directly.

Some workers, because they are expected to receive tips for handling baggage or assisting handicapped passengers, make less than the federal minimum wage. They say travelers don't tip like they used to and that they're barely getting by on wages alone.

"I make $5.25 an hour plus tips. There are days I don't make any tips at all," said Izzy Fernandez, another wheelchair attendant and complainant.

Airport chief executive Mark Gale's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Also yesterday, Qatar Airways announced that it will add Philadelphia as its fifth U.S. destination. The tiny but extraordinarily wealthy Persian Gulf country's airline already flies nonstop from Doha, its capital, to Houston, New York JFK, Washington Dulles and Chicago O'Hare.

Qatar will begin its direct route to Philly in March 2014.

On Twitter: @SeanWalshDN
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