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Like many restaurant workers, many of the airport service providers are paid at minimum wage or something called “tip minimum” based on the assumption that these workers have an opportunity to earn extra income from gratuities, the Well-Mannered Traveler writes.
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/3/2007 12:07:37 PM ET 2007-05-03T16:07:37

A Well-Mannered Traveler shouldn’t listen in on other people’s conversations, of course.  But during a shuttle van ride between an airport and a hotel recently I couldn’t help but tune-in to the discussion several airline crew members were having at the end of what must have surely been a very long and frustrating day.

“I’m totally exhausted!” announced one weary-sounding flight attendant. “Every seat on every single flight today was full. And every passenger was incredibly cranky and very needy.  Those blankety-blank weather delays just made it worse.”

“Can you imagine if we were working for tips?” said a pilot in the backseat, “We’d all be broke for sure!”

Tips for the flight crew? It’s an intriguing concept. Something to mull over next time you’re unaccountably left cooling your heels at the gate or buckled in on a plane that’s clearly going nowhere anytime soon.

Imagine: Delayed or bumpy flight? No tip for the captain and his or her co-pilot. Served a stale, microscopic bag of pretzels on a five-hour flight with only weak, tepid coffee or half can of soda to wash it down? Nix the gratuities for the flight attendants.

But be ready to hand out some crisp bills if you should be lucky enough to be bumped up to business class or get slipped an extra bag or two of fancy mixed peanuts from first-class.

Tipping flight attendants and other crew members is officially frowned upon. But cost-cutting measures at many airlines may one day force the issue. For now at least, flight attendants, pilots, gate agents and the folks who work the ticket counters don’t fish for cash tips. But sincere compliments and kind words from passengers are graciously accepted.

Inside the airport, however, it’s a different story. These days it’s customary — but not mandatory — to tip skycaps, wheelchair attendants and the folks who drive the cute electric carts that zip from one end of the terminal to the other. Like many restaurant workers, many of the airport service providers are paid at minimum wage or something called “tip minimum” based on the assumption that these workers have an opportunity to earn extra income from gratuities. So while whether or not you tip — and how much you tip — is entirely up to you, know that your tips do make a difference in a workplace that can be extremely hectic and stressful.

According to a representative from an aviation services company that places workers in a variety of positions at airports nationwide, many service workers are not allowed to solicit gratuities but “may certainly accept any tips offered.”  So if you expect to use skycap, wheelchair or electric cart service at the airport, it’s a good idea to pack some extra dollar bills along with your ticket and ID.

Your ride to the airport: You may be in a hurry, but don’t forget to tip the hotel or parking lot shuttle driver. Standard tips are $1-$2 per bag or per person, but it’s a nice gesture to add a few dollars more if your bags are especially heavy and the driver is especially helpful. An acceptable tip for the taxi or limousine driver who takes you to or from the airport is 10-15 percent of the fare.

Curbside baggage check-in: Most airlines do not (yet) charge passengers a fee for checking bags inside the terminal at a ticket counter or at a self-service kiosk. However, at many airports these days you’ll discover that a few airlines, such as Alaska, United and American, have begun charging $2 per bag for curbside check-in.

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If you do use this convenient service, it’s important to remember that the $2 per bag fee goes to the airline and/or the contracted service company. The fee is not a gratuity for the person checking your bag. So, if you want to give the skycap the going-rate tip of $1-$3 a bag, you’ll need to make a point of doing so.

A $2-$3 per bag gratuity is also customary when you return form your trip and enlist the assistance of a skycap to retrieve your luggage off the baggage claim carousel and haul it out to the curb and into a taxi or other vehicle.

Wheelchair service:  If you or a family member requires the services of an airport wheelchair attendant to get to or between gates and/or onto or off of an airplane, it’s customary to give that person a $3-$5 tip or more depending on how long that person stays with you and how much assistance they provide.

Electric cart driver:  If you hitch a ride on an airport’s electric cart and the driver delivers you — timely and safely — to your destination, a $2-$3 tip would be appropriate.  After all, it’s a special skill maneuvering a vehicle through concourses crowded with pedestrians who may be talking on a cell phone, eating a sandwich, rushing to a gate, or simply zoned out. Feel free to tip more, of course, if you’ve thoroughly enjoyed what sometimes turns out to be a wild rolling race down a concourse.

Food on the fly: Now what about the folks who work in the restaurants, bars, coffee shops and fast-food outlets at the airport?  The rules in the “outside” world apply here as well: tips should be 15-20 percent of the pre-tax bill in a table-service restaurant and $1-$2 for each drink you throw back at a bar.

And don’t forget to throw something into the tip jar when you order a meal packed to go. When you’re racing to catch a flight, it’s the hardworking, often low-paid folks at the grab-n-go counters who make it possible for you to just grab-n-go.

Harriet Baskas, The Well-Mannered Traveler, also writes about airports and air travel for USATODAY.com and is the author of “Stuck at the Airport.”

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