Originally created 09/24/01

Skycaps lose business under new order



SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Sacramento International Airport is humming with travelers again, but skycap Henry Spears isn't benefiting much from the increased business.

The Federal Aviation Administration's order banning curbside check-in has severely cut down on tips that Spear and the 35 to 40 other skycaps who work for Olympic Security at the airport once received from grateful travelers.

"It's just rock bottom," said Spears, the skycap supervisor for Olympic Skycap, the largest baggage handling service provider at Sacramento International.

Skycaps, those men and women in jaunty caps posted at terminal entrances, help passengers with luggage and assist people in wheelchairs. And until last week's FAA order, they provided curbside check-in so that passengers could avoid long ticket lines inside the terminal. The skycaps depend on tips from that service to augment their $6.25 hourly wage.

Today, curbside check- in is out. But skycaps are allowed to take luggage from the curb and trundle or carry it inside the terminal to the ticket counter. For that, they are usually still rewarded with a tip - normally $1 a bag or more.

"It varies," said Johnny Laidler, 51, who was a barber before he became a skycap. "Sometime people want to be very generous and give $10 a bag. That lady in the wheelchair just gave me $10 for three bags. But, hey, the other day, I only made $2 dollars in tips."

Now, though, most business travelers and others aren't choosing to have their luggage hauled inside since there is no longer any curbside check-in. They will simply carry it pass the skycap to the ticket agent. The change was made for security reasons, but an FAA spokeswoman questioned declined to explain how security is enhanced by eliminating skycap check-in.

Skycaps, who undergo safety training, said they ask security questions, make sure the tickets match photo identification and consider themselves an important part of airport security. And although tips are important to their livelihoods, skycaps would never accept a big tip to look the other way, they said.

"We went through this during the Gulf War," said Spears. At that time, curbside check-in was also stopped for a time. But this current national crisis may make the curbside ban permanent, and skycaps said that may force them to look for other work.

The term skycaps comes from "red caps," the term given porters on the old 20th Century Limited railway train. A red carpet was rolled out at Grand Central Terminal in New York when the train pulled up. The porters wore red caps to match the carpet. Later, the term skycap was coined for airport baggage handlers, according to the Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins.