An inebriated Denzel Washington isn't your biggest problem at the airport. Nor should you be awfully concerned about Searchbags Grabbypants and TSA radiation chambers, or the Hudson newsstand that, for some reason, has no counter to put items on. Instead, focus your deepest worries on the plight of airline workers who serve as the backbone of Big Aviation — everyone from pilots and flight attendants to mechanics. Many of these integral facilitators of safe air travel will soon be replaced by cheap labor, if they haven't been already. And that's not the scariest part.
Take the experienced American Airlines cargo agents here at Logan airport. They're the ones who route goods across the planet, ensuring that important packages arrive when and where they are supposed to. Boston being one of the world's largest medical and health-care hubs, Logan cargo agents handle an inordinate amount of sensitive shipments — coolers, crates, and boxes holding limbs, organs, fluids, and the like. They know how to scrutinize manifests, and they have relationships with colleagues in other cities, who they often contact to doubly confirm deliveries. For this nonunion position, hourly salaries top off at about $22.
As you read this, American Airlines is systematically eliminating many of those veteran cargo workers, as well as ticket agents, nationwide. Since its parent company, AMR, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last November, the airline has escalated its long-running war on the middle and lower ranks. Leveraging the legal perks of bankruptcy, AMR bullied most of its union employees — nearly 70 percent of the company's workforce is card-carrying — into accepting significant concessions. The only holdouts are roughly 10,000 unionized pilots, who are still fighting for perks in the face of a federal court's ruling that AMR can terminate their contracts at will.
Union-haters, and perhaps even those who are respectfully weary of organized labor, might suggest that drastic cuts are necessary to keep planes in the sky. They would be correct; the commercial aviation industry, arguably more than any other, relies on a give-and-take between management and workers. Following the late-1990s, when airlines enjoyed rising profits, wage premiums shot up. On the flip side, after 9/11 stunted business, employees shouldered the burden. In 2003, for example, AMR actually avoided bankruptcy because of nearly $2 billion in initial union concessions and multiples of that since.
But whether you support or loathe unions, it's important to consider how AMR has treated unrepresented workers in its quest to trim jobs, as well as how that treatment impacts service. Ticket agents are increasingly replaced by automated kiosks. As for the cargo agents whose responsibilities include shipping items such as body parts and serums — they're being pushed out for subcontracted laborers who make as little as $8 an hour.At Logan, those who handle international shipments — and are trained in complicated customs protocol — are the only cargo agents who have been spared. Their days on the job, however, are numbered.