Yes, they accept tips Skycaps: The workers who assist travelers at airports can tell you that the rich aren't always the most generous tippers.

November 28, 1996|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

A white stretch limo pulled up to the curb, spilling a toddler, seven large pieces of luggage, a 30-something man with airline tickets and a roll of bills, who promptly slipped a $5 tip to the skycap.

It was a decent tip. So far, so good. But then came the interminable wait while the woman inside behind the dark tinted glass slowly filled out seven luggage address tags and finally got out.

"You want to get the bags in there and be back out [on the curb] fast," said Juan Espinol, explaining the economics of his profession.

The scene provided the first two lessons of skycapping: Time is money, and the rich don't always provide the best tips.

At Baltimore-Washington International Airport this week, thousands of people will walk past the blue uniformed skycaps. The demands and the rewards of the job will be greatest this month. Part entertainer, part porter, part airline check-in clerk and part security agent, skycaps are the front line of the airport.

All are employees of Hunt-leigh Inc., a St. Louis-based company that in six years has grown to the largest in the industry, supplying 2,000 skycaps to 40 airports.

Another lesson comes when some skycaps are asked how much they make a year. Invariably, they shake their heads and equivocate. "It depends," they say.

At large, busy airports like Los Angeles, a skycap can make as much as a lawyer. But in Baltimore, the money is likely to be far less. So they say. One conceded that he will make about $100 a day in tips plus $2.13 an hour in salary with no health benefits.

But no one really knows. Like waitresses, they don't report their tips to anyone but the federal government at tax time. And even the IRS is getting a little more suspicious. Several skycaps said their co-workers are being audited.

Even the president and chief executive officer of Huntleigh won't divulge the secret. "I really can't say. There are lots of variables," Bill Glassman said.

Third lesson: Never tell how much money you make. The tax man might be listening.

Whatever the money, it can't be too bad. Joey Lewis, the skycap supervisor at BWI, said he gets 15 or so applications a week from people who want the job.

"Overall, it is basically a good job. You can do well. The guys aren't in poverty," said Robert Tucker, who has been a skycap for 36 years. But the best part of the job is the people and the freedom. "People have trusted me with their mothers, their fur coats and their cosmetic cases," he said. Trust and an outgoing personality are key ingredients for the job. Tucker aims to be so personable that a person he has helped won't forget him. And it may come as no surprise that when Dancing Harry, who gained fame dancing at Bullets' basketball games, stopped dancing and returned home to Baltimore to take care of his aging mother, he became a skycap. (Yes, you can find Harry Cooper at BWI).

When a skycap is not particularly nice, it can cost him his job, said Glassman.

Lesson four: Seniority in this line of work can mean everything, because skycaps with seniority can choose where they work. Hat cocked to one side, his salt-and-pepper mustache twitching, Tucker strolled through the main concourse and described the landscape through skycap eyes. There are the short lines at the first-class express check-in counters. To the skycap, that means a first-class passenger with money can get service as quick inside as on the curb.

Then he points to Southwest, the airline that treats "everybody the same," he said with a twinkle in his eye. Translation: It also can be full of people who don't fly often and therefore may not know how the skycap system works. So it may not be financially beneficial to be assigned to Southwest Airline's door, although it does have volume. Those with seniority choose USAir, which has the greatest volume of passengers.

Outside USAir, Melissa Martin is a student making her way back to the New York area for the holidays.

She uses skycaps, she said, because they are easier than standing in the long lines inside. A frequent traveler, she trusts the skycaps more than the baggage handlers. "With the skycaps, I can talk to them."

Skycaps first started as red caps, many of them having previously worked in railroad stations, and "they did everything," Tucker said. "They loaded the planes and closed the door to the aircraft."

Over the years, the skycaps have been moved farther out to the curb.

Still, the skycaps are increasingly important players at the airport.

With airlines dealing with longer and longer lines, the skycaps take the pressure off during a traveler's check-in.

For an average tip of $1 a bag, a passenger can go from a skycap at the curb to boarding without having to check with another airline employee.

At BWI, the airlines have a contract with Huntleigh to provide them skycaps. And according to Glassman, the skycaps are doing a good job.

There is rarely a month when the skycaps make more mistakes than the agents at the airline ticket counter.

And if they make four mistakes in a six-month period, they are fired. A mistake, Glassman said, would be putting the wrong tag on a bag so that it ends up in Denver rather than Jacksonville.

Pub Date: 11/28/96

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