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The Sensible Traveler

Skycaps and customers feel airlines' pinch

Email|Print| Text size + By Bruce Mohl
Globe Staff / July 17, 2005

Skycap baggage service is starting to get expensive.

It used to be free at every airline, and it was no big deal to tip a hustling skycap a couple bucks a bag.

But now some airlines are starting to charge customers $2 a bag for skycap service. With a tip added in, the cost of checking just two bags can run as high as $8.

Many travelers feel caught in the middle, between skycaps trying to make a living and airlines trying to cut costs to the bone.

''It's another chit you have to pay," said Tim Cabot of Cambridge, who paid the baggage fee and tossed in a tip for a United Airlines skycap who processed his family's bags recently at Logan International Airport. ''I guess it's a function of how we fly, trying to find the cheapest ticket anywhere."

Cabot's right. As passengers migrate to the airlines with the lowest fares, airlines are responding by cutting costs wherever they can. Most have done away with free food. Some are eliminating magazines, pillows, even pretzels.

In March, United became the first airline at Logan to implement a $2-per-bag skycap fee. At the same time, it let passengers change their itineraries at curbside and also allowed international travelers to check in there.

United, which currently charges $2 a bag at 12 airports, says its motivation was to cut costs. By requiring its skycap subcontractor to charge customers $2 a bag, United was able to cut what it pays the subcontractor to offer the service. The subcontractor partially offset its skycaps' loss of tips by increasing their hourly wage.

American Airlines, the biggest airline at the airport, is preparing to implement a similar skycap fee. Northwest Airlines is also reportedly considering tests of a similar system at other airports.

''There's no decision yet, but we may test it in Boston," said Ned Raynolds, a spokesman for American. The airline is already charging a $2-a-bag skycap fee in Anchorage, Seattle, Tampa, and Portland, Ore.

''It's a revenue-generating move," Raynolds said. The baggage fee collected from consumers helps defray the cost of supplying the skycap baggage service, which is paid for by American but run by a subcontractor.

Globe Aviation Services, a Texas company that runs skycap services for a number of airlines, including American, could not be reached for comment on the fees.

Raynolds said it's up to customers whether to tip the skycap.

''These folks do get an hourly rate, but they are accustomed to being tipped," Raynolds said. ''People would still be encouraged to do so."

Everyone has an idea of what's a fair tip. Most tipping guides suggest at least $1 a bag, but some recommend $2 a bag or $5 for two. On a ''Seinfeld" episode in 1992, Jerry thought $10 for three bags was a reasonable tip while Elaine thought that was way too much. (Jerry's bag ended up at its correct destination; Elaine's was sent to Honolulu.)

Most skycap tipping guides I found on the Internet haven't been updated since airlines began charging the new baggage fees.

Skycaps at Logan wouldn't talk on the record about the new fees. Many said they had been warned not to discuss it by their bosses. The skycaps said they don't get paid much as it is. Now that customers are being asked to pay a baggage fee up front, they say, their tips are drying up.

''You're working twice as hard for less money," said one skycap.

At the United check-in, skycaps patiently explain to each customer that the $2 fee doesn't go to them, in the hope of encouraging a tip. Most customers seemed to respond favorably, but one skycap said that wasn't always the case.

''Some keep giving the same tip they've always given, some are doing less," the skycap said. ''Some aren't giving a tip at all."

Contact Bruce Mohl at mohl@globe.com.

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