Airport employees working for an American Airlines subsidiary are complaining about broken equipment, sprained limbs, and low wages — and they claim it's creating unsafe conditions for workers and flyers

  • A union representing ground agents working for Envoy Air – a subsidiary of American Airlines – has released a survey focused on working conditions and employee pay.
  • The vast majority of survey participants described feeling rushed due to time pressures and chronic understaffing.
  • Many respondents also described skipping over required contraband or damage inspections due to the time crunch.
  • “Envoy has an excellent safety record both in the air and on the ground and always places the safety of its passengers and employees at the forefront of its operations,” an Envoy Air spokesperson said in a statement to Business Insider.

Envoy Air ground service agents are speaking out about working conditions at the American Airlines subsidiary.

A total of 800 Envoy Air service agents participated in a survey created by their union, the Communications Workers of America. The CWA estimated that 8,000 service agents currently work at Envoy.

The survey highlighted a number of overarching concerns regarding pay, staffing, time pressure, and safety.

CWA is currently negotiating its members’ contract with Envoy Air. CWA has represented Envoy Air agents since 2015, and this isn’t the first such survey it has published about the working conditions of its members.

Envoy Air maintains a fleet of 150 aircraft, services 150 destinations, and operates over 1,000 flights a day, according to the Irving, Texas-based regional airliner’s website. Envoy Air got its start as a number of separate regional carriers, which American Airlines began buying up in the 1980s.

Read more: Pilots working for airlines that transport packages for Amazon are not happy – and many are considering quitting, a survey found

“Envoy has an excellent safety record both in the air and on the ground and always places the safety of its passengers and employees at the forefront of its operations,” an Envoy Air spokesperson said in a statement to Business Insider.

“Envoy and its customer service agents are working collaboratively toward an initial collective bargaining agreement. This process should occur at the bargaining table and not in the press, out of respect for the negotiating positions of both parties we are not willing to discuss the specifics of any provision being discussed until a full agreement has been presented to the Envoy customer service agents.”

79% of respondents to the CWA survey said they felt “rushed” during all or most shifts. As for the reason behind the time pressure, 76% of participants cited understaffing and 74% blamed “demanding flight schedules.”

And 53% of survey respondents said they strongly believed they would be disciplined if they failed to meet flight deadlines.

“There’s a great deal of blame that’s placed on workers,” CWA health and safety director Micki Siegel de Hernandez told Business Insider.

When it comes to the issue of understaffing, 70% of respondents said they’d worked on short-staffed teams during all or most of their shifts.

All this rushing sometimes leads to ground agents skipping over required inspections, according to the survey results.

47% of runway ramp agents who responded to the survey said they were “unable to complete every required damage inspection of aircrafts” due to factors like understaffing and time pressure, while 58% of survey respondents who were also responsible for aircraft cabin searches said they didn’t have enough time to complete all the required inspections.

Tina Moore, an Envoy Air ramp agent from Milwaukee, said that the rushed environment wasn’t conducive to always putting worker and passenger safety first.

“We take up to 150 lives in our hands when we make sure that plane is safe and make sure everything is where it needs to be,” she said in an interview with Business Insider on Friday. “If a door’s not closed right, it can throw the pressure off in the cabin. You don’t realise that as a patron when you’re flying, all the things that can go wrong if we don’t have adequate time to look at these things.”

The union survey also claimed that Envoy Air’s OSHA logs listed 1,459 injuries and illnesses across all airport employees from January 2017 to September 2018. That included 829 strains and sprains.

Siegel de Hernandez said that many employees, especially new workers still under Envoy Air’s six-month probation period, underreported their work-related injuries to avoid retaliation.

She added that a number of the company’s OSHA citations – two of which resulted in $US9,000 and $US1,875 fines in 2017 and 2015, respectively – came about as a result of broken machinery. A total of 51% of runway ramp agents who responded to the survey said they often encountered defective equipment on shifts.

Moore told Business Insider that Envoy Air tends to take American Airlines’ “hand-me-downs” when it comes to equipment. Siegel de Hernandez said that employees have expressed to her that, as employees of a regional subsidiary to American Airlines, they feel a bit like unwanted “stepchildren,” especially when it comes to pay and equipment.

“They don’t get the same kind of attention,” she told Business Insider.

Moore said she’s frequently encountered malfunctioning belt-loaders – the machines responsible for transporting bags into the planes – in particular. According to Moore, these equipment failures stress already short-staffed teams.

“Nothing surprises us anymore,” she told Business Insider. “When equipment fails, we just roll with it. When things break down, we just roll with it. When we don’t have adequate staffing, we just roll with it.”

Moore also described a high turnover rate on her team. The union estimated that the turnover among Envoy Air ground agents is at an annual rate of around 40%. A total of 75% of the survey respondents said they worked with “inexperienced” coworkers during most shifts.

Envoy Air did not comment on the specific claims in the union survey in its statement to Business Insider, citing the ongoing collective-bargaining process.

An industry-wide phenomenon

Aviation expert and former National Transportation Safety Board member John Goglia, who also reviewed the survey’s findings, told Business Insider that he doesn’t view the alleged working conditions at Envoy Air as an outlier.

He said that low wages are an industry-wide phenomenon when it comes to ground agents working at regional airlines.

“Nobody stays because the rate of pay is so low,” Goglia said. “McDonald’s is paying $US15 an hour now in many locations. That’s more than what they’re paying passenger service agents, who have a heck of a lot more responsibility.”

The CWA has claimed that starting pay at Envoy is $US9.48 an hour, and that over half of the airline’s agents make under $US11 an hour.

When it comes to time pressures, Siegel de Hernandez told Business Insider that it will always be necessary for agents to hustle on the job, given the nature of the airline industry.

“We do want planes out on time,” Siegel de Hernandez said. “That’s how the airlines function. There will always be time pressure, but when you layer on top of that understaffing, that makes it extremely difficult for people to do their jobs without chronic stress, without taking risks, and without skipping steps that need to be taken.”

Envoy Air currently has a 3.1 out of 5 rating on Glassdoor, but that number relies on anonymous reviewers and likely features reviews from Envoy Air employees who are not ground agents.

Moore, who has worked at Envoy for four years, told Business Insider that she and her colleagues do share a “camaraderie that’s like none other,” but said that this was one of the “only reasons” she and many of her coworkers stuck around.

“We do a bang-up job every day,” Moore said. “We’re out there in the cold and the rain and the crap and we get you where you need to be.”

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