Below the Radar

Puget Sound Sage has released its latest report “Below the Radar:How Sea‑Tac Airport’s substandard working conditions hurt our region and how other major airports changed course toward growth and prosperity.


Many travelers are unaware of the work it takes to fly in and out of Sea-Tac Airport safely, comfortably and with all their belongings. The people who handle baggage, clean cabins and provide assistance for the elderly and passengers with disabilities are essential to the quality of this experience, yet they endure poor wages, benefits and working conditions.

The consequences and their underlying causes are below the radar of the public and policy makers.

It does not have to be this way.

Four major West Coast airports — Los Angeles International, San Francisco International, Oakland International and San José International — have set minimum workforce standards to address the adverse effects of low-wage jobs and outsourcing. These airports’ policies are setting standards that create economic success for workers, local economies, airports and their airlines. Moreover, a comparison between airline and airline contractor operations at these West Coast airports and Sea-Tac Airport shows that Sea-Tac is below standard.

For decades, the airline industry has cut costs on ground-based operations that are critical to passenger air service — including baggage handling, cabin cleaning and wheelchair services. By outsourcing these services to businesses with lower wages and fewer benefits, the industry’s workers, their communities and travelers have been subjected to many unintended, negative consequences. Currently, 2,100 workers at Sea-Tac Airport endure poverty-level wages, no benefits and unsafe working conditions.

A majority of these workers live in neighboring suburban cities with a dramatically higher poverty rate (16%) than the rest of King County (9%) and worse reported health. As airport workers rely on public services to feed their families, the airport’s largest carrier, Alaska Airlines, boasts record profits for 2012.

Airline contractors compete fiercely by cutting costs that can also compromise  airport security, public health and passenger safety. Before the tragic events of 9-11, low wages for passenger screeners led to such high rates of turnover (approaching 200% a year) that Federal agencies determined nationwide airport security to be compromised.

Thirteen years later, airport workers with other vital security functions continue to make poverty wages. Also, studies at major U.S. airports show that key personnel, such as wheelchair agents and cabin cleaners, lack proper safety equipment, receive inadequate training and cannot take paid time off for illness. Recent allegations filed by over 50 airline contractor employees with Washington’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health indicate similar problems at Sea-Tac Airport.

Sea‑Tac Airport and its dominant carrier, Alaska Airlines, can meet West Coast standards.

Alaska Airlines has made record profits for several years and analysts expect the carrier to continue outperforming its competitors.

A significant percentage of Alaska Airlines’ operations (12.5%) occur at West Coast airports that have established workforce standards. This number comprises one out of eight of all Alaska enplanements (the number of passengers boarding flights).

Requirements for living wages and better benefits have not prevented Alaska Airlines from expanding business.

In 2012 Alaska Airlines invested $16 million to renovate a terminal at LAX, the airport with the highest minimum wage on the West Coast.

Alaska Airlines increased passenger volume at San José (SJC) by 26% following implementation of living wage requirements.

Several of Alaska Airlines’ contractors at Sea-Tac Airport — all multi-national companies with global customers — operate successfully under workforce standards at other airports.

Sea-Tac Airport’s monopoly on regional air travel will prevent loss of airline business to local competitors.

Recommendations: Sea‑Tac Airport and Alaska Airlines should meet West Coast standards.

Agencies responsible for the health and welfare of King County residents should work together to enact policy and programs that align with the standard set by other West Coast airports.

Alaska Airlines can and should lead this transformation. The minimum standards should include:

• Living wages

• Paid time off for sick and personal days

• Worker retention for airline and airport contractors

• Flexibility for collective bargaining

• Increased security and safety training

Read the entire report at Puget Sound Sage. 



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