Mention outsourcing and most Americans who travel frequently will roll their eyes and think of reservations offices in India.
But, in reality, outsourcing happens right here in the United States and it affects travelers more than many think. For example, hotels may outsource maid service to a contract firm that can offer lower wages and fewer benefits than the hotels themselves.
As I heard from a lifeguard at the Westin Maui last year, hotels can also do the same thing with their recreation staff, firing the employees and working with companies that provide contract staff; again, with lower wages and benefits.
Airlines are not exempt. Recently, United announced plans to turn customer positions at 12 U.S. airports into contract jobs — more than 600 positions that include ticket and gate agents and baggage handlers. United says they are mostly airports served by United Express flights, although the list includes some big cities: Detroit, Albuquerque, Buffalo, Charleston, Charlotte, Columbus, Des Moines, El Paso, Sioux Falls, Wichita, Pensacola and Salt Lake City.
(To be fair, United does say at the same time they are converting 400 contract workers to employees at hub airports such as Denver, Honolulu and Dulles. Where the airline has a large presence, and a desire to fight off competition.)
For travelers, the difference between a contract worker and a United employee may not even be noticeable. The job descriptions are the same. But United workers get union wages and airline benefits, including travel benefits. So, their motivation might be a bit different than that of a contract worker not making much more than minimum wage and with zero benefits.
Presumably, these contract companies have some incentive clauses for their workers. But when it’s one of those really awful travel days with maintenance and/or weather delays, or simply bad holiday traffic, it’s hard for me to believe the contract workers will have the same motivation as an airline employee.
Plus, a contract worker won’t have the same sort of long-time system knowledge that most frequent fliers have benefited from at times when there’s a problem. More than once, even as a travel agent who can solve a lot of my own problems, I’ve still needed a good gate agent to help. Whether it’s rebooking a flight or helping with a connection or luggage issue, having a crafty veteran on our side is the key to good service.
These new contract jobs also don’t seem likely to even have the chance of becoming permanent airline jobs again, as the affected airports are ones where United is downsizing its presence. Worse, with smaller planes and less service, the airline will lose still more market share.
Now, on the other side, airlines exist to make a profit, as do hotels and other travel companies that are moving to contract labor in many cases. From a strict bottom line perspective, sure, outsourcing seems to be considerably cheaper with a contractor from a benefits perspective alone, not to mention lower wages even with the contractors’ fees.
For that matter, contract workers at the airport or at a hotel presumably have to do reasonably competent jobs to stay employed.
We’ve all had frustrating travel days when we think, “Don’t these people even care about their company’s survival?” Increasingly, the response has to be “It’s not MY company.”