I saw a video on twitter recently of a baggage handler behaving badly. The person who tweeted the video tagged the airport to complain. Other people chimed in as well, demanding that the airport take action. The problem is, baggage handlers are not actually airport employees. They work AT the airport but they don’t work FOR the airport. The media often makes the same mistake. More than once I’ve come across a headline proclaiming “Airport Employees Accused of…” only to learn that the people in question are employed by some other company that just happens to do business out of the airport.
Unfortunately, if you don’t work in aviation it can be difficult to tell who works for whom. And even if you do work in aviation, the differences aren’t always clear. Further complicating matters is the fact that every airport is different. However, I think my airport is a fairly good example of how things are run at most airports in the US, so here’s how it is for us.
Ticket Counter and Gate Agents
The ticket counter and gate agents at my airport are either airline employees, or they work for a company that has been subcontracted by the airline. These folks are almost never airport employees. I say “almost” because there are a few exceptions. For example, some low cost and charter carriers that operate out of secondary airports will contract with the airport to use airport employees to handle ticketing. However, the vast majority of the time these employees are the responsibility of the airline.
Ground Agents/Baggage Handlers
Once again, these are airline employees, or they work for a subcontractor hired by the airline (with the same exceptions outline above).
TSA/Security PersonnelTSA agents are part of the Department of Homeland Security. They work at airports, but they are hired, trained and supervised independently by the US government. That said, some airports do have their own security teams and/or subcontract with another provider. At my airport we have both TSA agents who handle passenger screening and a private company which manages traffic flow and provides additional security support.
Restaurant and Store Associates:
All the restaurants and stores at the airport are run by independent companies. These companies hire, train and supervise their own employees.
Custodians and Building Maintenance:
Custodians and building maintenance personnel are airport employees. However, certain system specialists are independent contractors. For example, we bring in employees from outside companies to manage things like the baggage systems and the escalators and elevators.
In airports that are run by cities, the airport police are usually city police. At my airport, however, the police are airport employees. So are the K9s.
You may be wondering: don’t airports have ANY authority over the people who work there, even if they work for another company? Well… yes. Sort-of. The airport is responsible for issuing SIDA (Secure Identification Area) badges to anyone who works in secure areas, regardless of who their employer is. If someone violates SIDA rules then the airport can revoke their clearance, effectively preventing them from being able to work. And, of course, anyone breaking the law can expect to spend some quality time with the airport police.
So, who do you contact if you have a complaint or concern while traveling through an airport? Well, if it relates directly to your flight (ticketing, baggage, delays, cancellations, etc.) your best bet is to contact the airline. If it relates to the building (leaks, trash, etc) then contact the airport. However, any time you are in doubt, go ahead and contact the airport. If they cannot help you directly, they can connect you to appropriate party to resolve the issue and get you on your way. Happy travels!