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No High Flyers Here: Where Air Safety Meets Economic Justice

Amy Traub

You usually get what you pay for. That’s why the Village Voice’s recent headline “Air Safety on the Cheap,” was so alarming. The article documented the working life of Prince Jackson, a security guard employed by a contracting company at Kennedy International Airport. Charged with responding to alarms and ensuring that unauthorized people do not enter restricted areas of the airport or get into the terminals without a security screening, The Voice made the case that “Jackson is an integral part of aviation security at JFK.” But it also added: “He makes $8 an hour, doesn't get sick days, and doesn't have health insurance.” The upshot? Shoe removal and fancy body scanners aside, treating security employees with such indifference may say more about the real priority placed on airport safety.

Unfortunately, Jackson’s story is typical of the 14,634 passenger service workers working for airline contractors in the the three major airports serving the New York metro area, according to a new report from New York University’s Women of Color Policy Network. Workers in passenger service jobs -- including security officers and screeners, baggage handlers, skycaps, ramp agents and janitors – earn a median of $8.00 an hour and lack benefits.

It’s clearly a bad deal for workers, and should be enough to make anyone nervous about security, but adding insult to injury is the fact that taxpayers are also getting the short end of the stick. The NYU report points out that the federal government provided $15 billion in grants and loans to the airlines after 9/11 and continues to bestow public subsidies such as tax-free bonds and fuel breaks on the industry. And despite all this public largesse, the airline industry chooses to do business with such low-wage contractors that their workforce policies necessitate a second set of public subsidies: nearly one in four passenger service workers at airline contractors rely on government sponsored health coverage, and one in five depend on food stamps to feed their families. Other subsidies, from the earned income tax credit to rental and heating assistance were not quantified in the report, but are likely substantial.

Much of the wealth of the New York metropolitan region flows through its airports, yet many of the employees critical to keeping the airports functioning live in poverty. The airlines could continue to shrug their shoulders and insist that it is their contractors – not the airlines themselves – that are responsible for the state of affairs. Or New Yorkers could hold the Port Authority, the public entity that is ultimately responsible for the airports, accountable for the contracting practices implemented in its purview. This is a strategy that’s worked before.

In 2000, the San Francisco Airport Commission adopted a program to increase the quality of airport services by establishing a new minimum wage for airport workers and guaranteeing basic benefits and paid time off, among other policies. While the costs of the program amounted to just $1.42 per passenger, low-wage workers saw their incomes shoot up 33 percent and employment at the airport increased. Employers reported increased employee performance. Employee turnover rates declined dramatically, plunging 80 percent for security screeners, a particularly important fact for safety since lower turnover is associated with greater likelihood of detecting security breaches.

A similar program implemented by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey would cost airlines less than one percent of their annual revenue, according to the NYU study. Surely that’s not too much to pay for a boost in both air safety and economic justice.