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The ban on curbside check-in sends skycaps’ income plummeting.

Bobby Gregory has been a skycap at Dulles International Airport for a year. In the wake of Sept. 11’s terrorist attacks, however, Gregory is finding that his already low-paying and strenuous job has suddenly become even less lucrative. In fact, it may not be much of a job at all anymore.

Gregory’s principal responsibility—checking luggage for passengers interested in avoiding long lines at the ticket counter—has been eliminated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“It’s a trickle-down effect,” Gregory observes with resignation. “It starts at the top, and it affects everybody down to the bottom.”

The scene at Dulles last Saturday confirmed his assessment. While check-in lines grew to a several-hour wait inside, many of the skycaps stood idly outside the terminal, waiting for something to do.

“It’s hard. We can’t do what we’re paid to do,” says Gregory. “We still help out domestic and international passengers, but it’s not the same.”

Larry Dawson, who’s been a curbside checker for about a year, adds grimly: “We take bags inside if they need help. That’s all we can do.”

The problem for Gregory, Dawson, and their 20 or so co-workers is that carting baggage inside and directing lost passengers through the terminal—their other main responsibilities—are not likely to result in tips. And like many customer-service employees, skycaps live on gratuities.

According to Nick Anis, a contributing writer for Travel-Watch magazine, the average skycap wage is $2.58 an hour. The skycaps at Dulles earn only $2.13 an hour. They do not receive medical coverage or paid vacation.

Skycaps don’t get free plane tickets, either, because they are not airline employees, as popularly believed. They are hired by Argenbright Security (which provides their services to United and its related airlines) and by Huntleigh USA (all other major carriers). Argenbright, a division of the staffing conglomerate AHL Services, came under fire in the wake of the terrorist attacks when it was learned that the Atlanta-based company—which provides security at two of the three airports where planes were hijacked—was fined $1 million last year for inadequate background checks on its employees.

Melvin Holland, a Huntleigh assistant manager at Dulles, doesn’t think the newly reinstituted FAA ban on curbside check-in—originally imposed during the Persian Gulf War and lifted in May 1991—will lead to skycap layoffs, although he admits

that it will certainly make their lives more difficult.

“I don’t perceive layoffs, because we do many more things than just checking bags for the airlines,” Holland says. “But a lot of people are just going to have to find other jobs.” Holland estimates that 85 percent of a skycap’s income derives from tips received when checking bags.

No one from Argenbright returned calls from the Washington City Paper about the new ban and its effect on skycaps. According to one Dulles skycap, however, Argenbright has already started making changes.

“They have provisions,” explains Augustke Karoma, a Dulles skycap since 1997. “If you don’t want to come to work, you don’t have to. If you do want to come to work, they’re not going to stop you.”

And, having no union (like most of the nation’s curbside baggage handlers), the skycaps at Dulles have little recourse. All they can do is sit around and wait.

These days, they’re getting plenty of practice at that. CP