The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The airline industry recovered from Sept. 11, but the people who make airplane meals haven’t

Workers for in-flight catering services want back what they gave up when the airline industry nearly collapsed.

Should the airlines add 5 cents per ticket to pay for in-flight catering workers? (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post)
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When you look out from your little airplane window, and you see the little trucks labeled Sky Chefs or Gate Gourmet rushing to deliver trays of frozen chicken and beef, you probably just want them to move faster.

Terrold Turner, who drives one at Philadelphia Airport, just wishes he was paid more.

“Sometimes I feel like I'm working in a third-world country,” says Turner, 47, who makes $8.50 an hour after six years on the job. Five days a week, he punches in at 5:30 in the morning and stays until early afternoon, readying racks of flatware and utensils and ferrying them to waiting planes. Three days a week, he then goes to work pumping gas at Wawa, because 40 hours on that kind of money isn’t enough to get by in New Jersey, where he lives with his girlfriend.

This week in Washington, D.C., he joined a protest calling for higher wages — but not from Sky Chefs. Instead, he was protesting their customers, the airlines. In the modern economy, it’s often not the actual employer that calls the shots, forcing workers to apply pressure up the chain.

Unlike most low-wage workers, Turner actually belongs to a union, UNITE-HERE, which represents 12,000 of the people who bake rolls, cut fruit, pack salad and slice cheese into the freezer trays and snack boxes that keep passengers fed, sometimes working in giant refrigerators in the kitchens that sit near airports. And a decade ago, things were a little better for those workers. Employees at Sky Chefs — one of the world’s largest in-flight catering companies, along with GateGourmet — had a handful of perks, like five paid sick days and a health-care plan for retirees.

But the airline industry was doing terribly after the terrorist attacks of 2001, and Sky Chefs asked for big concessions — a nearly 5 percent across-the-board wage cut, the elimination of three paid sick days, all personal days, three paid holidays, child-care subsidies, a freeze on the legacy pension plan, the cessation of 401(k) contributions and an increase in the price of health insurance. All in all, the union says it amounted to a 30 percent cut in wages and benefits. If the employees didn’t pitch in, the caterers said, they might go out of business.

Donny Krites was there through it all. He’s been a truck driver at Sky Chefs in Dallas for 40 years, and now makes $15.10 an hour — but would’ve been making more had the union not given so much up. He voted against that contract, he says, because he knew workers would never recover.

“What you lose, they never give back,” Krites said. “They're always coming to us saying, ‘We need your help.’ ”

Lately, the airline industry has bounced back — North American carriers are seeing profit margins that exceeded their levels in the late 1990s. Part of how they’ve done that is by offering fewer in-flight freebies, like meals, and by squeezing their suppliers for the food they do provide. Airlines spent $3.62 per passenger on food in 2013, according to federal statistics, down from $4.79 in 2001. And sure enough, Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet haven't brought workers' wages and benefits back to nearly what they were before the big cutbacks, saying the airlines still demand that prices stay as low as possible (while declining to say whether the cost per meal has increased or decreased).

"We look forward to negotiating in good faith to reach a fair and equitable contract with our associates that recognizes their hard work and the realities of a highly competitive business,” said Sky Chefs spokesman David Margulies.

Turner believes that they're under a lot of pricing pressure, and there may not be much left over for wages. “We’ll drive ourselves out of jobs,” he says, if workers press for higher pay. Turner knows what that’s like, having been laid off from a relatively well-paying job at a furniture manufacturer when it went out of business. But he’d at least like to have affordable health insurance — now he depends on Medicaid, since the company’s plan would cost $41 a week.

That’s why, in this round of contract negotiations, Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet employees are putting pressure on the airlines directly, asking for a 5-cent surcharge on each ticket that would supplement their health care and wages. They made the rounds on Capitol Hill this week with a letter for House members to sign backing the fee, which would be a tiny fraction of the $60 in taxes and fees that the industry says is imposed on the average $300 ticket (including a $5.60 “September 11 fee” that funds airport security). The strategy has worked once before: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida got tomato buyers to pay a penny more per pound, which would go toward the people who worked in the fields.

But the airlines are having none of it — they don’t have to. United Airlines’ response to the union’s campaign was typical: "UNITE does not represent a single United Airlines employee, and any questions concerning our vendors and their employees should be directed to the vendors,” said spokesman Luke Punzenberger. "Their request for an increase would more appropriately be addressed to their union and their employer, rather than airline passengers who are already overly taxed,” added Jean Medina, spokeswoman for Airlines for America, the carriers’ trade group.

The airlines’ ability to pass the buck on catering wages is partially by design. Airlines used to do their meals in-house, but gradually spun off their catering operations —  American Airlines offloaded Sky Chefs in 1986, and Gate Gourmet was formed from the catering divisions of several airlines in the 1990s. That’s created more than just a competition problem for UNITE-HERE, which has represented Sky Chefs and Gate Gourmet employees for decades. Because the companies were formed from airlines, they're subject to a U.S. law that prevents them from going on strike, depriving them of the one mechanism that gives them real bargaining power.

Although Donny Krites hopes they're able to get more in their upcoming contract, he doesn’t hold out much hope. He’s still covered under the legacy pension plan left over from when American owned Sky Chefs, barely. But everybody else, he’s not sure about — there’s now a lot more turnover than there used to be, he says, because people don’t have much reason to stick around.

"I don’t see any of these people retiring,” Krites said, hunched into his overcoat, looking out on the small protest on Freedom Plaza.