Dozens of airline staff members that prepare and package airplane meals and are demanding affordable health care options, or more money to pay for premiums, were arrested today in a protest event that's part of campaign they've dubbed "nickel a ticket."
On Thursday afternoon, some 200 workers rallied at Freedom Plaza, near the Washington, DC headquarters of Airlines for America — the country's largest airline trade association — protesting over the fact that they aren't earning enough to pay for their health premiums, and would like airlines to add $0.05 to the price of tickets to help pay for their insurance.
Twenty-seven people were arrested today after staging a sit-in, union organizers told VICE News.
Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for Airlines for America — whose members include United, American, and Delta Airlines — responded to the protest to VICE News, stating that, "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."
The workers — who clean dishes, prepare meals, and transport the food and beverages consumed aboard — are not employed by the airlines but by catering companies contracted by them. But failing to get better coverage from their employers, workers are now taking their demands straight to the airlines — and their passengers.
"People paying money to this company need to know how the company is treating its workers," said Maria Espinosa, a mother of three from Colombia who spent 15 years working for LSG Sky Chefs, an airline catering company.
Espinosa said she makes $10.45 an hour — and pays a $45 a week premium for her so-called "minimum value plan."
"The company doesn't want to negotiate with us, they don't wanna have a conversation, but a nickel a ticket can become a reality," Espinosa told VICE News, speaking in Spanish. "That would help me cover at least some of the costs of my medical insurance."
Workers like Espinosa argue that they have been left out of the airlines' economic recovery and now soaring profits. American Airlines, for instance, reported a record $1.2 billion net profit in the third quarter 2014.
But those profits don't trickle down to contractors, as companies pay an average of $2.50 per passenger for food — nearly $2.00 less than they did in 2001 for similar services, union leaders said.
Contractors, in turn, aren't able to offer workers a better deal. Ultimately, the airlines control the industry — which is why workers are now taking up the fight directly with them.
Representatives for Gate Gourmet and Flying Food group, two major airline caterers, did not respond to VICE News' requests for comment. A spokesman for LSG Sky Chefs said in a statement that there is no evidence the added nickel would make a difference for workers.
"There is no way that we can evaluate the claim that a five cent increase in ticket costs would equal a specific amount of revenue or that additional revenue would flow through to our company or others in our field," he wrote in an email. "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."
"A nickel a ticket is not much to ask for when it's your health," Chris Barnes, an employee of Sky Chefs who was at today's rally in Washington, told VICE News.
Barnes, who is HIV positive, recently had to take a second job — which is more than common among his colleagues, and low-wage workers in general.
He makes $8.80 an hour — and pays $240 a month in insurance premiums, which he said is up from $160 when he first took the job. But he still has to make co-payments out of pocket for his four prescriptions — $100 each. For the last three months, he couldn't afford the medicine, so he just went without it. And for the last six months, he has been homeless.
"I'm paying out of pocket and way more than what I actually make," he said. "I work at Sky Chefs during the day, from 7:30am to 7:30pm, and then once I get off that I go straight to my other job which I start at 11pm and that's an overnight job. By the time I get off that, it's time for me to go back to my other job."
"I don't live anywhere, I sleep at the job in between jobs," he added. "By the time I pay for my insurance, I have nothing left."
Related: Faces of the fast food movement.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter:@alicesperi