Introduction and summary
Airport service workers—including cleaners, wheelchair agents, baggage handlers, ticketing agents, caterers, concessions workers, passenger service agents, and lounge workers—are at a breaking point. Although they have provided essential services throughout the pandemic and are supporting the safe return to normalized travel, these workers are typically paid substandard wages and receive few benefits. Now, airport workers across the United States are calling on Congress to require major airports—which receive billions of dollars in federal support every year—to ensure that passenger air travel employers provide good jobs with the family-sustaining compensation necessary to maintain their health and well-being.1 Doing so would improve the lives of these essential workers; boost equity in a federally supported sector; and support safe and efficient airport services across the country.
U.S. airport workers face many of the same challenges plaguing Americans across the economy, such as growing inequality, occupational segregation, and inadequate compensation. However, for airport service workers, these problems are compounded by subsidized industry employers—including airlines, airports, and contractors—that have drastically cut wages and benefits in recent decades.2
Today, median wages for many airport service workers, including cleaners, wheelchair agents, ticketing and check-in agents, and baggage handlers, fall below the private sector median of $20.40 per hour. For example, according to 2015–2019 American Community Survey data, the median earnings for aircraft cleaners are just $13.99 per hour.3 Much of the workforce does not receive employer-provided health coverage, and for those that do, the insurance is often unaffordable.
Moreover, these low wages have a disproportionate impact on people of color, who are highly represented in airport service occupations. The majority of workers in several service occupations are Black or Hispanic—or both—compared with 28.7 percent across the private sector workforce.4
This report supports the case for raising standards for these workers by:
- Providing new analysis on low pay and occupational segregation in the national aviation industry
- Explaing how the federal government provides billions of dollars in funding for airports every year
- Detailing state and local efforts to raise standards for essential airport service workers
- Surveying existing evidence that raising standards for airport workers will improve their lives and result in good value for the public
Low industry wages and inadequate benefits do not harm only workers. Coupled with the tight labor market and high turnover, airline and airport employers are failing to maintain a well-qualified workforce, thereby harming the American public as well. Labor instability and inexperience in the industry are reducing airport safety and security and leading to travel slowdowns.5
Airport and airline service workers are relied on to be part of the response to emergencies such as extreme weather, active shooter situations, and terrorist attacks.6 And although air industry employers have received billions of dollars in pandemic assistance to cover payroll costs, in recent months many passengers have missed flights and been left without critical assistance due to the failure of airlines to retain enough wheelchair attendants.7
A better way forward is possible. For nearly a century, federal policymakers have enacted standards to ensure that recipients of government spending pay fair wages, provide benefits, and support equitable access for workers from all walks of life.8 In 2021, President Joe Biden increased the contractor minimum wage to $15 per hour—indexed to inflation, this rate rose to $16.20 in 2023—strengthened job security for contracted service workers, and called on all government agencies to review their procurement practices to support equity for all workers performing government services.9
However, the patchwork of protections for workers whose jobs are funded through government support is uneven. While workers in jobs funded through the federal contracting system enjoy numerous protections, these policies do not apply to service jobs performed on properties receiving federal grants, loans, loan guarantees, and other federally enabled spending programs. As a result, federal law leaves airport service workers unprotected. For example, the Center for American Progress’ analysis found that the majority of workers employed nationwide as aircraft cleaners, as well as more than one-third of baggage handlers and ticketing agents, earn hourly wages below the 2023 contractor minimum wage.
In the absence of federal action, cities and states are fighting to raise standards for airport workers. For example, wheelchair attendants and baggage handlers at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport are paid a minimum of $18.00 per hour and receive benefits.10 And in March 2022, the City Council of Atlanta helped airport cleaners at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport win a more than decadelong fight for wage increases.11
Yet in other jurisdictions across the United States, the lack of consistency across federally subsidized airports harms workers. Major hubs, such as Charlotte Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, have no airport-specific pay standards for most airport service workers.12 Even across jurisdictions that have enacted airport worker standards, minimim pay standards vary considerably, and most communities have not taken action to require provision of health care and other essential benefits.
In summer 2022, Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Chuy García (D-IL) introduced the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act to establish pay, benefits, and labor standards for airport service workers—including cleaners, wheelchair agents, baggage handlers, concessionaires, and security personnel.13
Strong, federally mandated floors would help uphold equity and fair standards across the country; ensure that the government stands by its commitment to not subsidize poverty wages; and increase safety and efficiency across the national aviation system by supporting a well-qualified workforce.
Low wages and poor benefits in the airport industry
Hundreds of thousands of Americans work in the air transportation industry, supporting efficient and secure travel across the national air system.14 While state and local policymakers in some jurisdictions have responded to worker advocacy by enacting airport living wage laws, these standards vary considerably and far too many workers struggle at the very bottom. Airport service workers, who in many roles are disproportionately people of color when compared with the private sector, struggle to win job improvements from their employers—whether they are employed by airports, airlines, or contractors. Analysis of American Community Survey data from 2015 to 2019 shows that service workers employed at airports labor for low wages and few benefits.
Airport service employers pay low wages
Figure 1 details the estimated median earnings per hour for workers in a range of airport and other transit service occupations. These data show that workers in service occupations employed at airports earn far below typical private sector earnings: Aircraft cleaners, for example, earn a median wage of just $13.99 per hour, and median earnings across all occupations fall below the private sector median of $20.40.
Moreover, existing wages fall far short of producing a livable income in even affordable U.S. cities. For example, in Jackson, Mississippi, a worker would need to earn $30.28 per hour in order to support themself and a child, according to living wage estimates developed by Amy Glasmeier at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.15 A similarly situated worker in Tulsa, Oklahoma, would have to earn $30.89 per hour. Yet, there is no airport-specific wage and benefits standard covering most all airport service workers in these jurisdictions.
Where possible, this analysis restricted earnings data to cover workers employed solely at airports. However, due to data limitations, classifications of ticketing and check-in agents include workers employed in other kinds of transit facilities. While this report excluded data on other service occupations at airports—including janitors and building cleaners as well as concessions and retail services worker job classifications—because they include all private sector workers in these occupational categories, analysis shows that these workers also earn low wages. Nationwide, janitors earn a median hourly income of only $11.96, with security guards earning $13.28 per hour and concessions and retail workers earning a median of just $8.97. (See Methodology for more details on the analysis.)
Too many airport service workers lack health insurance through their jobs
The compensation gap also extends to health insurance plans. Research demonstrates that health insurance coverage helps Americans maintain good health.16 Conversely, lack of insurance among adults inhibits access to critical preventative services for conditions such as diabetes and cancer, while uninsured children are less likely to receive asthma treatment, immunizations, and dental care.17
Yet, as shown in Figure 2, significant portions of workers in several service occupations with airport workforces lack access to health insurance provided by an employer or labor union, and across airport job classifications large numbers of workers do not have these health insurance plans.
Even when workers do qualify for employer-provided health insurance, many find insurance premiums unaffordable.18 On average, employers with a larger share of low-wage workers—defined as 35 percent earning less than $30,000 annually—contribute 9 percent less toward premiums for a single person and 11 percent less toward premiums for family coverage than those with fewer low-wage workers.19
Low airport service wages contribute to unequal earnings for workers of color
Poor compensation across the sector has a disproportionate impact on workers of color. A majority of workers in many airport service occupations, including baggage handlers, passenger attendants, and aircraft cleaners, identify as Black or Hispanic—or both—compared with 28.7 percent of workers across the private sector workforce.
A majority of workers in many airport service occupations, including baggage handlers, passenger attendants, and aircraft cleaners, identify as Black or Hispanic—or both—compared with 28.7 percent of workers across the private sector workforce.
Research shows that workers of color are underrepresented in high-wage occupations and overrepresented in low-wage service jobs, even after accounting for educational attainment levels.20 As a result, raising standards for airport service workers will help correct long-standing racial pay disparities.
Additional findings on working conditions for airport service workers
Only a handful of studies and surveys of individual airports have focused on the wages and benefits of airport service workers. Yet, these workers have reported similarly poor working conditions. For example, according to a 2017 Economic Roundtable report, nearly half of airport service workers earned less than $15 during the 2010–2014 study period, and 37 percent of all air transportation workers were rent-burdened—paying more than 30 percent of their household income to rent.21
In addition, as part of successful campaigns to raise airport worker wages, UNITE HERE local unions conducted surveys of concessions employees at both the Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International Airports and found that, prior to winning compensation increases, retail and food service workers earned as little as $9.74 per hour at Dulles when surveyed in 2015 and $8.50 per hour at Baltimore-Washington in 2014.22 Similarly, an analysis of the impact of a living wage law on many service workers at the San Francisco International Airport in 2001 noted the very low wages earned by many airport service workers.23
Not only do available data show that earnings are low for airport service workers, research has also found that wages for air travel service workers have fallen significantly in recent decades. The average hourly real wage for baggage porters and bellhops declined by 45 percent from 2002 to 2012, while wages for vehicle cleaners and transportation attendants fell by 25 percent and 13 percent respectively, according to a 2013 study from the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley) and Simon Fraser University.24
While this decline in sector wages coincides with a significant increase in the contracting out of airport service work, it is important to note that the UC Berkeley and Simon Fraser University researchers found that wages have fallen across both direct employees and outsourced airport service workers.
Large proportions of airport services workers earn hourly wages below the 2023 contractor minimum wage
Strong federal prevailing wage protections can help level the playing field among all industry actors by applying wage and benefits standards to workers employed in facilities and projects that benefit from government spending—regardless of whether they are direct employees or subcontracted workers. Indeed, even when work is contracted out, major airlines and airports ultimately exercise significant control over industry pricing structures, and they could factor decent wages and benefits for airport service workers into their overall cost and revenue structures.
Even the lowest-paid service workers covered by federal contracting protections will typically be entitled to a minimum pay standard—which is currently $16.20 per hour—health and welfare benefits or a cash equivalent, and paid time off typically including federal holidays and vacation leave as well as seven days of paid sick leave annually.25 Furthermore, service workers employed directly on federal contracts can earn even higher minimum wages due to the prevailing wage protections of the Service Contract Act (SCA) of 1965.26
Yet, until the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act passes, these protections do not apply to airport workers, despite the federal government spending billions of dollars every year to support the national aviation system. Large proportions of airport services workers—and a majority of workers employed as aircraft cleaners—earn hourly wages below the 2023 contractor minimum wage. (see Figure 4)
Even relatively higher-pay airport service occupations will benefit from strong standards. According to CAP’s analysis, while median pay for ticketing agents was $17.44 per hour, more than one-third of ticketing agents earned wages below the current federal contractor minimum wage, and regional carriers often paid significantly lower wages.27 Because the Good Jobs for Good Airports Act includes both a minimum and prevailing wage requirement, the legislation would help uphold consistent industry norms.
To overcome this race to the bottom and respond to airport workers who are mobilizing for fair work conditions and unions, many cities and states are enacting policies to raise pay and benefits for airport service workers.
Airports receive billions of dollars in government support
For the better part of the past century, the U.S. government has played a major role in supporting airports. In the lead up to the country’s entrance into World War II, the federal government scaled up national funding to construct and repair airfields that would support the national defense.28 Following the war, federal spending continued—first to convert military airports to be used for civilian purposes, and then to expand airports to prevent congestion and keep up with growing consumer demand. Today, passenger air travel is essential to the U.S. transportation system. Every year, the federal government spends billions of dollars to expand and maintain U.S. airports.
According to a 2020 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), U.S. airports received an average of $3.2 billion annually from 2013 to 2017 in federal Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants for the construction of improvements related to aircraft operations, such as runway expansions and upgrades.29 While smaller airports received relatively more AIP funding than large and medium hub airports, approximately 3,300 airports that are part of the national airport system are eligible to receive these funds.
Average annual funding amount airports received in Airport Improvement Program grants, 2013–2017
Average annual amount of federally authorized passenger-facility charges, 2013–2017
Funding allocated to airlines through the CARES Act
Funding allocated to airports by the American Rescue Plan for operations, personnel, cleaning, and rent relief
In addition, the federal government authorized airports to collect from passengers another $3.1 billion, on average, annually over the same period of time through passenger-facility charges (PFCs).30 PFCs, a per-passenger fee charged by the airport where travel is initiated, are primarily levied by medium and large hub airports to finance eligible infrastructure projects and service debt incurred to carry out these projects.31
Average annual revenues from AIP grants and PFCs accounted for more than 40 percent of total infrastructure development funds collected during the GAO review period.32 While airports also use private revenues—for example, from concessions and fees charged to airlines to land at their facilities and use terminal space—without federal support, major airports would likely increase landing fees or rely more heavily on debt financing.
The federal government’s response to the pandemic illustrates how reliant the national airport system is on federal support. Air travel declined by approximately 60 percent in 2020 compared with the previous year, due to the COVID-19 crisis.33 In order to prevent this decline from devastating the national airport system, Congress allotted the aviation industry billions in support through laws such as the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriation Act of 2020, American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act of 2021, and Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.34
The laws both expanded federal support for infrastructure and included direct support for airport concessions and payroll assistance covering airline employees and contract workers in order to protect jobs; ensure that essential traveled continued; and support the industry’s long term stability.35 For example, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided $54 billion in funding to major U.S. airlines through the CARES Act Payroll Support Program, and the ARP supported $8 billion for operations, personnel, cleaning, and rent relief for concessionaires.
Notably, Congress supported workforce stability by requiring recipients of CARES Act assistance to refrain from furloughing or laying off workers or cutting pay and benefits. However, in December 2021, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation conducted an oversight hearing with executive leadership from the major airlines questioning whether recipients abided by these requirements, citing high levels of flight cancellations and delays caused by ongoing labor shortages post-pandemic.36
The 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law includes $25 billion to improve airport safety and capacity and modernize traffic control, and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 provides tax credits to expand the use of sustainable jet fuel worth up to $1.75 per gallon.
Finally, airports are a focus of the Biden administration’s economic and climate change agenda. For example, the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law includes $25 billion to improve airport safety and capacity and modernize traffic control, and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 provides tax credits to expand the use of sustainable jet fuel worth up to $1.75 per gallon.37
In total, these investments result in hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for a large hub airport in a single year. For example, Charlotte Douglas International Airport received nearly $123 million in grants in fiscal year 2021 and collected another $46 million in PFCs, compared with the $60 million the airport collected in passenger landing fees, terminal arrival fees, rents, and utilities.38
Yet, despite the industry’s dependence on federal support, the government does little to ensure that the national air system provides decent work.
Upholding higher standards on government spending
Nothing is preventing the federal government from adopting protections to ensure that the national aviation industry creates good jobs for service workers. In fact, more than 1 million service workers employed through direct federal contracts are covered under a series of laws and regulations to ensure that they are paid fair wages and benefits, are treated fairly on the job, and are not harassed or discriminated against.39
Congress enacted the Service Contract Act in 1965 at the height of the civil rights movement to set labor standards for federally contracted service workers. The SCA sets the basic hourly rate of wages and benefits paid to a number of similarly employed service workers in a given geography—and thereby helps ensure that government dollars uphold local wage and benefit standards, including collectively bargained wage rates; support good jobs; and provide good value to taxpayers.40
Even at the time of passage, the law was long overdue and supported pay equity across government spending. Federally subsidized construction work included prevailing wage protections to ensure that workers in the construction industry were paid market wages and benefits following the Great Depression.41
Democratic and Republican lawmakers who supported the act recognized that workers of color employed on federal contracts disproportionately labored in service industries that paid poverty wages. For example, one Republican co-sponsor argued:
If ever we had a group of employees in this country who deserve the aid of the Federal Government in improving their wages and working conditions, it is the large and growing group of service employees, many of them members of minority races, who furnish such important services to the Nation.42
Also in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed executive order 11246 to ban discrimination among contractors on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin.43
Over the years, these protections have been bolstered to ensure that workers are paid fair wages and benefits and to protect more workers from workplace discrimination. For example, President Barack Obama used his executive authority to create a contractor minimum wage and extend anti-discrimination protections to LGBTQ Americans working for federal contractors. Moreover, President Biden improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of underpaid contract workers by raising the contractor minimum wage to $15 per hour with annual adjustments for inflation.
Yet, the protections of the SCA and contract worker minimum wage only apply to jobs directly funded through the federal contracting system. This leaves millions of American workers whose jobs are funded through other sorts of government funding or federally enabled spending—such as grants, tax incentives, loans, and loan guarantees—without protection. For example, in fiscal year 2021, the government spent $637 billion on federal contracts, $1.4 trillion in grants, and $275 billion in loans.44
In contrast, Davis-Bacon Act prevailing wage standards for construction workers have been extended to grants, loans, and loan guarantees on numerous occasions through a series of Davis-Bacon Related Acts. For example, Airport Improvement Program grants include prevailing wage protections for construction workers working on airport infrastructure improvements, and the overwhelming majority of funds included in the bipartisan infrastructure law are covered by prevailing wage protections for construction.45
Similarly, anti-discrimination and affirmative action protections for recipients of government funds cover all employees of a firm that receive federal contracts—not just those working directly on a contract. As a result, these protections cover roughly 1 in 5 American workers.46
Because these federal standards have not been extended to airport service workers, cities and states are increasingly enacting laws to raise their wages for airport service workers. For example, the first major win of the Fight for $15 movement was a 2013 voter referendum in SeaTac, Washington—a Seattle-area suburb developed around the Seattle-Tacoma International (Sea-Tac) Airport—that phased in a $15 minimum wage at the airport and surrounding community.47
The first major win of the Fight for $15 movement was a 2013 voter referendum in SeaTac, Washington, that phased in a $15 minimum wage at the airport and surrounding community.
More recently, the New York and New Jersey state legislatures have enacted “Healthy Terminals Acts” establishing a health benefit supplement that cover service workers at airports in order to improve worker well-being, retention of experienced staff, and airport service and security.48 While not identical, both laws protect service workers employed by contractors of covered airports, airlines landing at the facilities, and concessions leaseholders; establish a benefits supplement set to $4.54 per hour in New York and the SCA-enumerated rate in New Jersey, which is currently $4.80 per hour; codify wage standards previously established by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; and create penalties for airport employers that violate the standard.49
Similarly, cities in California have enacted strong job quality standards for airport workers. For example, San Francisco requires airport employers to provide health care coverage for service workers and their families at no cost, 50 and the Los Angeles standard includes protections to ensure that workers can keep their jobs when a service contract changes hands.51
More than a dozen other communities, including Washington, D.C.; St. Louis; Oakland and San Jose, California; Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Denver; Philadelphia; Boston; and Houston, have enacted airport wage standards.52
Even more politically constrained jurisdictions have helped win reforms for airport workers by supporting their efforts to bargain for decent wages and benefits through unions. Cleaning staff at the Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in Atlanta won a 13-year fight for better wages last spring after the city council enacted a resolution urging airport contractors to raise wages for cleaners to $15.00 per hour.53 As recently as March 2022, cleaners at the airport reported earnings of as little as $8.50 per hour.54 The new collective bargaining agreement will result in a 41 percent increase in starting pay, pay differentials that would increase hourly rates up to $15.00 per hour, and enhanced leave benefits.55
Despite state and local advocacy, there is little consistency in work standards across federally subsidized airports. As discussed above, action varies from policies that mandate wage and benefit standards to policymakers using the bully pulpit to push airport employers to bargain with workers fighting for fair wages and benefits. Worse still, some major hubs, such as Charlotte Douglas International Airport, have no airport-specific standards for the vast majority of service workers.56
A federal wage standard for airport workers would help create consistency across the sector and ensure that federal spending does not undercut workers’ collective wins, thereby helping guarantee that experienced airport workers are able to support industry safety and efficiency.
Airport job quality standards improve the lives of workers and support good value for the public
Wage standard laws help improve the lives of working people; increase worker tenure and productivity levels; improve the ability of firms that respect their workers to compete; and ensure that the public receives good value for its investment.
For example, research shows that prevailing wage standards help workers earn middle-class incomes; expand health and retirement coverage; and, even in lower-paying service occupations, can support compensation rates well above legislated minimums.57 These laws also help close racial wage gaps and ensure that government spending does not erode standards in the service sector, where many jobs are held by Black and Latino workers.58 Boosting minimum wages is especially important for workers of color, who are significantly more likely to be paid poverty-level wages than white workers.59
Indeed, new research from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the University of Illinois finds that the enactment of state-level wage standards for janitorial workers and custodians boosts wages and health insurance coverage while reducing racial pay gaps.60
While airport wage standards are little studied, one notable study of San Francisco International Airport’s wage standard showed that the policy produced good outcomes for workers and the public alike.61 After the wage standard was implemented, wages rose for all covered customer service employees, ramp agents, cabin cleaning workers, fuelers, and security screeners by 22 percent, and by 33 percent for entry-level positions.
After San Francisco International Airport adopted a wage standard, annual turnover rates fell significantly: Among security screeners, turnover fell from nearly 95 percent to 19 percent. Turnover reductions saved employers about $4,275 per employee replaced in re-staffing costs.
In addition, annual turnover rates fell significantly: Among security screeners, turnover fell from nearly 95 percent to 19 percent. Turnover reductions saved employers about $4,275 per employee replaced in re-staffing costs.62 Employers also reported that the standard helped improve indicators of security as well as work performance and customer service, and it increased morale.
Conversely, the Port of Seattle conducted a study on airport service workers’ impact on safety and security at the Sea-Tac airport in 2014—prior to the adoption of its minimum wage standard—finding that low wages, poor benefits, and other job quality factors were primary drivers of high turnover rates, with some employers experiencing a turnover rate of 80 percent per year.63 As a result, the report concluded that many employees “lack[ed] mastery of their jobs, which can affect safety, security, efficiency and timeliness and customer service” and that “newer workers are almost twice as likely to be cited for security violations as more experienced workers.”64
Prior to adopting an airport minimum wage, low wages, poor benefits, and other job quality factors were primary drivers of high turnover rates at the Sea-Tac airport, with some employers experiencing a turnover rate of 80 percent per year.
Similarly, a review of state and local contracting practices by the National Employment Law Project found that the adoption of wage standards often decreases employee turnover, which leads to savings in re-staffing costs, a more productive workforce, and improvements to the quality of service provided to the public—thereby helping to offset the cost of such a standard.65
Moreover, when workers are poorly compensated, the public often bears hidden costs by providing services to supplement workers’ incomes, such as subsidized health insurance, housing and nutrition assistance, Medicaid, and earned income tax credits.66 One 2017 study found that among airport service workers, 29 percent received Medicaid and 18 percent received food stamps to supplement poverty wages paid by employers.67
While the problem of high turnover in the airport industry has received new focus during the pandemic recovery period, a 2017 report from the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education and San Fransisco International Airport documents how the long-standing problem has harmed aviation safety.68
When workers are poorly compensated, the public often bears hidden costs by providing services to supplement workers’ incomes, such as subsidized health insurance, housing and nutrition assistance, Medicaid, and earned income tax credits.
In 2000, a Government Accountability Office study found that low wages and resulting high turnover rates among security screeners led to poor performance in detecting dangers and cited a 1979 Federal Aviation Administration-industry task force that had come to similar conclusions.69 Similarly, a 2007 GAO report found that low wages and high turnover among ramp and fuel workers contributed to ongoing problems with ramp accidents and aircraft entering runways without permission.70
Finally, evidence suggests that implementing prevailing wage standards also helps level the playing field for high-road companies that pay decent wages and invest in their workers and thereby encourage more companies to compete. Indeed, without strong standards, companies that pay good wages and provide decent benefits are frequently forced to compete against low-road contractors that undercut the market. For example, after Maryland implemented a contractor wage standard, the average number of bids per contract increased by 27 percent.71 Almost half of companies interviewed said they were encouraged to bid because the standard leveled the playing field.
Airport service workers across the country are winning respect on the job through state and local wage standards. These policies have improved the lives of airport cleaners, wheelchair agents, baggage handlers, concessionaires, and security workers, among others. Yet today there is an uneven patchwork of standards for these workers across the United States. While some workers have won wage and benefits standards and job stability protections, this analysis shows that too many of these jobs pay poverty wages. This harms the people of color who disproportionately work in these jobs and reduces airport efficiency and security, as airports struggle to attract workers.
By attaching job quality standards to the billions of dollars the federal government spends every year on airports, policymakers can help ensure that all airport service workers are fairly compensated; increase aviation workforce stability and experience levels; and thereby promote efficiency and safety in the system.
For this analysis, the authors relied on data from the 2015 through 2019 five-year sample of the American Community Survey (ACS) conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and published by IPUMS USA.72 This survey offers earnings, hours, job classification, and demographic data on workers representative of the U.S. population.
The ACS classifies a worker’s occupation and industry using codes developed by the Census Bureau.73 Occupation and industry classifications are restricted where possible to include only workers in the air travel industry; however, ticketing and check-in agents are coded in a manner that makes it impossible to discern whether a given respondent works at an airport or another kind of transit facility.
Large workforces of other service workers—including janitors and building cleaners, security guards, and workers at retail or concessions inside an airport terminal—also work in airports but were omitted from this analysis. Industry classifications for these workers are only as specific as the entire private sector workforce, meaning that the authors could only analyze earnings and demographic data at the private sector level for workers in these occupations.
Despite this limitation, an analysis of the available data shows that these workers earn low wages across the private sector—for example, janitors earn a median income per hour of only $11.96 nationwide, with median earnings as low as $8.97 for concessions and retail workers and $13.28 for security guards. These workers also frequently lack health insurance coverage, with up to 60.6 percent of concessions and retail service workers, 60 percent of janitors, and 47.8 percent of security guards in the analyzed sample lacking health insurance coverage through an employer or union. Furthermore, Black or Hispanic workers make up a majority of each of these workforces, meaning these low wages disproportionately affect people of color.
For this analysis, the private sector workforce includes all respondents who reported working 50 to 52 weeks the previous year in any industry classification except public administration (Census Bureau codes 9370 through 9590) or the military (codes 9670 through 9870).
Survey waves used in the 2019 ACS five-year sample do not always specify the exact number of weeks a respondent worked during a previous year; instead, they most often report whether a respondent’s weeks worked fell within a given range—one to 13 weeks, 14 to 26 weeks, and so on. The analysis was restricted to workers who worked 50 to 52 weeks in the previous year, and it assumed that these workers worked the full 52 weeks when estimating hourly wage rate, as this was most common response in that range for survey waves in which data on the exact number of weeks worked were available.
Weeks worked may also be estimated by assuming a worker in a given range worked the average, or midpoint, number of weeks in that range—for instance, 51 weeks for respondents in the 50 to 52 week range—which has the advantage of enabling inclusion of all workers in the sample, not just those who worked the full year. This approach, however, is also more likely to include seasonal workers or workers who experienced job transitions. Moreover, workers in wider week ranges may have worked different numbers of weeks than the average. The authors found that using this approach did not dramatically alter the estimated wages, and restricting to a full year of work did not exclude a large proportion of workers from the sample.
The authors estimated wage income from the respondents’ estimate of weeks worked, usual hours worked per week, and annual wage and salary income for the previous year. Hours worked in the previous year were therefore estimated as the product of 52 weeks and the number of hours worked in a typical week, with wages estimated by dividing total wage and salary income for the previous year by this estimate of hours worked in the previous year.
Income data are adjusted for inflation using annual averages of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers (CPI-U).74 The 2023 contractor minimum wage of $16.20 per hour was adjusted to 2019 dollars using the CPI-U inflation index for the first half of 2022, the most recent average available at the time of the analysis.
The ACS asks a question for respondents to describe whether they are of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin, with a second question that lacks these options prompting a respondent to indicate their race. For this analysis, the authors refer to a respondent as Hispanic or Latino if they stated that they are of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin in the former question, and as Black or African American if they answered that they are Black or African American in the latter. Because these questions are separate, they are not mutually exclusive, meaning some respondents describe themselves as both Black or African American and of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin.