The Secret Life of the American Airport Worker

The Secret Life of the American Airport Worker

I’ve spent the last six months investigating the lives of America’s airport workers: the wheelchair pushers, the cabin cleaners, the baggage handlers, the people who will—instead of heading back to their own family members—assist ours as we travel this week. If you ask airport workers what they’re doing for the holidays, or any holiday, they’ll nearly always respond that they’re working. What they never say is that they’re doing so for almost nothing.

At first I thought of my reporting as a means of exploring the hidden juxtapositions of the airport industry: how these workers are the foundation of a billion-dollar industry on a “tipped worker” pay rate, how they handle Louis Vuitton bags and wipe urine off wheelchairs in the same breath. But then, in the process of conducting interviews across the country, I found that these men and women are in a low level of constant danger. This is not only because of their unsafe and deregulated working conditions, but also because, in the event of crisis, low-paid airport workers are often our first-first responders.

What I couldn’t have anticipated is that I myself, mid-interview, would wind up on lockdown in Terminal 4 of Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport, because there was a shooter nearby.

The most recent high-profile airport shooting happened around 9:20 a.m. on November 1, 2013, when a single shooter attacked Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), killing a TSA officer and wounding three other people. Newspapers and television sets boomed the names of the shooter and his victims; few reporters talked to the employees.

But this is what it was like on the front line. One Special Services worker stated:

I was by myself. I saw two TSA agents with a passenger by the wall, and then heard more shooting. One of the signs above shattered and that’s when I saw the second TSA agent get shot. I tried to radio for help but my radio didn’t work, so I ran in the opposite direction of where everyone else was going. At Gate 39, passengers were waiting and not knowing what to do. I screamed at those passengers to get out because there was a shooting.
After that, I was by myself again in that area of the terminal. Then, I encountered the shooter. I didn’t know it was him at first—I saw a person facing away from me, and ran to him thinking he was someone who needed to evacuate. As soon as I ran close to him, he turned around and we were face to face. He was holding a gun under his jacket. He said to me, “Where is TSA? Where is TSA? Where is TSA?”
I didn’t say anything to him, I didn’t reply to him. We backed away from each other slowly. He went east toward the gates, and I ran in the other direction, right into the police. I told them that they needed to be careful, the shooter was nearby. I pointed them the direction where he went, and they went over there. That’s where they shot him, probably about 30 seconds later. It was probably just a few minutes from the first shot to when the shooter was down.

That guy went home to his worried wife. He explained his day, explained being face to face with a shooter. He continued to go to work with his busted radio. Perhaps he was extra cautious, looking too strongly at men with jackets. His palms flashed with sweat, armpits hot and prickly.

Currently Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport employs 46,633 people. Many of these jobs are in low-wage industries: retail, passenger services, security, food and beverage, parking, ramp operations, and car rental. Increasingly, these jobs go to Phoenix residents living at the very margins of the valley’s economy, like refugees from East Africa. The people working low-wage airport jobs today usually cannot afford at least one out of these four necessities: health care, gas, food, or rent. In reporting this piece, I found an unexpected challenge involved in interviewing them: their prepaid cell phones get shut off from week to week.

But there’s one good perk. One company offers flight benefits: free flights with a companion. But your companion has to fly stand-by, you have to use this benefit within a certain period of time, and if you work for the company it means you don’t have any paid time off.

A woman who cleans the cabins said, “The flight benefits are a kind of indentured servitude for people from other countries.”

The majority of the people employed by this company are responsible for cleaning the planes between flights. That means checking the seats for leftover debris (sometimes dangerous items are left behind), scrubbing the toilets, getting rid of waste—some of it contaminated with blood and feces—cleaning the lavatories with harsh chemicals, pushing heavy carts across the tarmac, and finally laying the seat belts nicely on the seats for the next passenger. The job pays minimum wage, $7.65 an hour. In some cases you can get a bump in pay of .90 cents per hour for a lead role. According to many workers, the added responsibilities outweigh the extra chump change.

Working in the airport means, to many people, a certain amount of workplace pride. You are part of a community that runs on hard work and the desire to be of utmost service. Every single person I spoke with said, “I work here because I like to help people.”

I talked about this more with Serena, a petite woman in her early fifties, which you would never guess by looking at her. The morning we met her hair was in a braid down the center, looking like a faux-hawk. She cleans the cabins of the planes flown by American Airlines and US Airways.

In Arizona the airplane cabins get hot—no air circulation, no ventilation. Every morning the team is given a safety briefing: Drink Water. Take Breaks. The overriding message is to get in and out of the plane as soon as possible. At night, in the hangar where the planes are kept, the planes themselves are not connected to air at all. If the cabin cleaners ask for it, they’re told to contact the tower and request it, but sometimes the maintenance people never come. The cleaners are advised to step in and out of the plane in five-minute intervals.

According to a flight attendant I interviewed, the FAA has temperature regulations. “We are not allowed to board if the plane is above 88 degrees,” she explained. But the cabin cleaners told me that cabin temperatures have reached up to 120 degrees while they’re on the job.

At this particular airport the cabin cleaners get around the tarmac by way of a cargo van. They take themselves and their carts filled with cleaning supplies onto the van; there are seat belts, but nobody bothers because they are squished, sometimes doubled up. There’s no air conditioning on the van either; the knobs have been tampered with by the supervisor. “This is so we don’t hang out,” said Serena. Another cabin cleaner compared it to battle: “It’s like they send us to war without weapons.”

They need to do their job within 10 minutes. Sometimes more than one plane lands at a time. There’s a lot of pressure to do the work fast; if a flight is delayed, the company has to pay a fine to the airlines, and the lead cabin cleaner is held responsible.

I met a young woman who was pregnant and cleaning cabins. I asked her if they offered any accommodations. Her sister chimed in that she’d been told that “being pregnant does not make you special. If you cannot do the job just stay home.”

I met another woman named Lisa. She confessed, “A lot of women lose their babies on the job. If you are hurt they treat you—send you to their doctors, then you come back. But they demand that if you are there you are like everybody. If you don’t want to do the work you write a statement that you refuse an assignment and go home.”

Cabin cleaners usually work through their pregnancy. One of the women actually went into labor while she was doing her job; a lead cleaner began to use this as a standard. Felicia said her dispatcher once told a pregnant cabin cleaner to stop complaining, that he often threatens to—somehow—reduce their pay. The pregnant woman in question, like her peers before her, worked all the way until she was in labor.

There been speculations that the chemicals these workers handle put them at greater risk for miscarriages and even certain types of cancer. The Harvard Health Letter of October 1992 states, “Men who work in aircraft industry or handle paints or chemical solvents have a higher risk of producing children with brain tumors.”


Ever since 9/11, travelers have paid an additional surcharge: the Aviation Passenger Security Fee. This fee brings in about $1.7 billion a year, and is mainly supposed to protect us from terrorism.

To further protect us from terrorism, the cabin cleaners are tested, often, on how to identify suspicious items. What that means is that TSA hides a bright orange wooden gun or wooden blocks with words like BOMB imprinted on it. If you find that toy gun, you get five bucks. If you miss it, you get written up. Three write-ups equal a suspension.

If a cabin cleaner discovers a bright orange gun, the protocol is to call it in. TSA will come and procure it. But the protocol is unclear with everyday items.

“Last week I found a wallet,” said Serena. “It’s scary because if you find that wallet you don’t want to get in trouble. So I had four of us come around and said Let’s open it. Let’s count it. We found $59. I made sure I had witnesses. At least 10 to 15 minutes passed and then someone came to pick it up.”

The cleaners get nervous around these items: the responsibility, the differing protocol. After all, where would you hide a bomb? In an everyday item or in a wooden block marked BOMB? What exactly are these people risking their lives for? $7.90 an hour?


In fact, some airport workers make even less, like the people who push wheelchairs, who are considered tipped workers and in Arizona make 4.90 an hour. These workers transport our most vulnerable passengers: our elderly, our disabled, our children—nearly always passengers that do not have a steady income, and cannot afford to tip.

Furthermore, most people don’t even know they’re supposed to tip the wheelchair pusher, and the wheelchair pusher is not allowed to ask, because that would be solicitation—grounds for termination.

Another company tells their employees to complete a daily tip report: a form required by the IRS, the Form 4070. They tell their employees what to claim. They have their employees fraudulently report that they received $24 a day in tips. Failure to report $24 a day or what is equivalent to an additional $3 an hour is, within this company, grounds for termination.

Skycaps, like wheelchair pushers, work for tips too. I talked to a skycap named Mr. Johnson, who has been working at the airport since 1979: his young supervisor, young enough to be his grandchild, follows him around to make sure he’s not making any more money than he claims to be. He says this is better than his former job working for a company that actually charged their employees a $50 fee to operate in the baggage claim area. If you couldn’t pay the $50 fee, you had to pay $24 in interest after the fact, which makes $74 to be able to collect tips.

In the United States, nearly all airports are publicly owned. Their status as quasi-government entities makes them governed by a set of laws that makes it nearly impossible to organize a labor union amongst the workers, who even among themselves will agree that the passengers and their safety are everyone’s primary interest.

But what this means is that the people who carry our airports are the ones at the corners that get cut. You won’t be surprised to know that there is a high turnaround in this employment sphere. Each year the employers bid into a new contract with the airport. The lowest bidder wins. And labor is often the cost that gets cut.

These people have families or are starting families and are in a place with limited opportunities or they came to this country in pursuit of a dream. I look at the man that is old enough to be my father and I think: how can this happen?

When you go to Phoenix in the summertime, the air is thick. An electricity hums throughout the city, like machines whirring at a 24-hour laundromat. A neon nicotine-stained tinge stretches into evening. I walked around the city after talking to the airport workers thinking about a group of kids I’d met one summer in Oaxaca, who had followed me to a movie that was playing in an old stone church and marveled at my tattoos: a sleeve full of bright calla lilies.

Some of the kids asked to touch the tattoos and I let them. One of the boys asked, “How much was it?” He looked very young, maybe around six. And then another girl who looked even younger, maybe five, fingered my dress. It was a pink knit dress and she asked me also, “How much?”

I remember wishing that I could give every one of them the moments of my life that made it so I could buy that dress and buy that tattoo: the moments of my life where I got an education, and a decent place to live, and health care and good wages, but I couldn’t. Because that is not how the world works.

The workers at the airport should be able to have these things: access to health care, safe working conditions, a decent wage. But a guy pushing wheelchairs at the Phoenix airport had just said the same thing to me—”Cool tattoos. How much?”—and I felt the same touch of despair.


September 19, 2014: it’s 3:55 p.m. and I’m talking to a baggage handler in Terminal 4. He’s telling me, “If someone is sick—well, if they’re dumb they call in. If they are smart they come in and then get sent home.”

He explains that calling in is dumb: you can get fired if you call in, because the boss will want a doctor’s note and since they don’t have insurance there are no doctor’s notes.

And then, two floors below, in baggage claim with passengers and the skycaps who don’t make minimum wage, a group of armed police in full riot gear start yelling, “Get behind the columns! Get behind the columns!” People start running. The wheelchair pushers with passengers stand frozen. The police officers barricade the doors.

I end my interview. The terminal floods with passengers and armed police officers. About three hundred of us are on lockdown in the food court of Terminal 4. I walk over to the bar and gather the information: an hour earlier, about five miles away, a shooting took place at a Shell gas station in Tempe. The shooters fled and wound up exactly where I am—in Terminal 4 at Sky Harbor airport.

Right outside the bar by a barricaded escalator, an Ethiopian wheelchair pusher tries to explain to an elderly woman that he cannot take her anywhere. She seems flustered. He looks askance at me. “Can you explain to her what is going on?”

I say, just like he did, that we can’t go anywhere, that there’s a shooter on the loose. “Would you like to get something to eat or drink?”

The passenger says, “That sounds good.” She explains her mouth is dry from medication.

She pulls out money to pay for her beverage. I suggest that I’ll pay for her drink and she could give that money to her wheelchair pusher, because he works for tips. She insists that I pay for her drink with her money and then give the pusher the change. When I attempt to hand him the change, she yells across the Starbucks, “No no no, don’t give him ALL of it.”

Finally, after three hours, the escalators are opened on our end of the terminal. The police start letting people out. The wheelchair attendant looks at me and says “God bless you,” and he leaves me with the passenger, unpaid for the lockdown overtime and late for his second job.

I am amazed, briefly, that he left the passenger. And then I start to marvel that he had stayed with her at all, through the whole lockdown, instead of simply joining everyone else at the bar.

I leave the airport. I get my rental vehicle. I hear on the radio that one of the shooters snuck onto an airport shuttle and was caught eventually; the other was found locked in a stairwell in the parking garage. I drive past men and women wearing army green outfits, SWAT vests, and submachine guns. A man on the radio is saying, “They were not prepared for an emergency.”

Since the lockdown at the airport I’ve been uneasy at a certain light at 44th St and Washington. Here I push the button at the crosswalk and a loud, sharp, male voice tells me to wait. When the light turns green it will sound with the alarm of a machine gun spray. I know this and l feel scared every time, and I was only at the airport during one of those situations once.

It’s 100 degrees outside. The machine gun sound fills the air. It’s so jarring that I almost forget what it reminds me of, which is helpful, and exactly what airlines must want. They want to shield us from the lives of the underpaid people who wiped down our tray table, loaded our baggage under the aircraft, fueled the aircraft, pushed us up that ramp and out the gate to welcoming, flowered arms. The airlines feel this is such a good thing they are doing for us, the mercy of ignorance carrying us on our way.

Melissa Chadburn’s essays and short stories have appeared in Guernica, McSweeney’s, SLAKE, Salon and The Rumpus. Her essay “The Throwaways” was noted in 2013’s Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading. She hopes that if you or one of your beloved family members requires assistance this most busy traveling week, that you’ll remember to tip your wheelchair attendant.

Illustration by Tara Jacoby. Photos via faungg/flickr; antefixusFE/flickr; Alan Levine/flickr.

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