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With temperatures soaring, Charlotte airport plane cabin cleaners demand more water and working AC

A jet on the tarmac
Charlotte Douglas International Airport
American Airlines jet at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Jetstream, a subcontractor, employs cleaning crews who say they need more drinking water and working AC.

When you get off a plane at Charlotte Douglas Airport, a cabin cleaning crew quickly comes aboard to get the jet ready in minutes for its next flight.

Many work for Jetstream Ground Services, a subcontractor hired by American Airlines.

Those employees say their working conditions are unsafe in the summer, and that they need more drinking water and to make sure all of their break rooms have air conditioning.

They have pleaded to the Charlotte City Council for help and have given Jetstream a petition. They plan on a protest march Tuesday afternoon.

Katie Otten is one of those cabin cleaners.

She and her team haul bags of trash off the planes, walking across the tarmac, where the heat index can exceed 100 degrees.

She said a coworker once “had to wheel me over from the C break room to the B break room in a wheelchair because I was so exhausted from heat and so lack of water that I couldn’t even walk.”

She said Jetstream doesn’t do enough to keep them safe. A lack of drinking water is a big problem, she said.

“They were just saying take water from the B break room and take it with you,” Otten said. “And they wouldn’t give us enough. They would say we need to make sure this lasts for all of the shifts. And then they would complain that we were drinking too much water and then not having enough.”

LaShonda Barber works for Jetstream Ground Services.
Steve Harrison/WFAE
LaShonda Barber works for Jetstream Ground Services.

In addition to not having enough water to drink, Jetstream workers said their break room on the C concourse has insufficient air conditioning.

LaShoda Barber, who drives a truck for Jetstream, said the employee petition was “just asking for basics.”

“Just give us air conditioning in our break rooms, give us cold drinking water and ice,“ she said. “Buy us an ice machine dispenser so we can constantly have it.”

She said the company sometimes gives them two cases of water, which is a few dozen bottles, for a shift of 150 people.

“I’ll be on the radio making a fuss, saying you have to bring some water,” she said. “I went to Charlie break room, and that break (room) is a hot break room. It doesn’t have any AC. The little air conditioning unit is probably over there since the airport first got built.”

WFAE reached out to Jetstream multiple times. Its Charlotte office referred questions to its corporate office in Florida, which didn’t respond.

Charlotte Douglas Airport officials said that Jetstream’s break rooms are located within the American Airlines leased space. The airport said it investigated the HVAC units in the break rooms and that “everything was operating normally.”

The Jetstream employees said the AC in the C breakroom doesn’t blow cold air.

Shawn Montgomery is a cabin cleaner for Jetstream Ground Services in Charlotte. He said he and his colleagues aren't given enough drinking water.
Steve Harrison/WFAE
Shawn Montgomery is a cabin cleaner for Jetstream Ground Services in Charlotte. He said he and his colleagues aren't given enough drinking water.

Shawn Montgomery has been a cabin cleaner at Jetstream for two years. He said people who work directly for American Airlines have plenty of water, ice and cold break rooms.

That’s what he wants.

“The heat and the conditions with the heat have been extremely intense,” he said. “It’s been so intense that it’s reagitated my heart failure and my blood pressure.”

He said a typical cleaning job is hard work — especially in the summer.

While planes are parked at the gate, their AC is often turned off.

After cleaning the plane, he and his colleagues are tasked with “carrying trash 24 steps down the jet bridge.”

He said they walk across the tarmac carrying the trash bags, which can weigh in total anywhere from 20 to 70 pounds, he said.

The city of Charlotte has prioritized keeping costs low at Charlotte Douglas Airport, which is American Airlines’ second-largest hub. The airport is known for being one of the most efficient in the country.

The city has historically been hesitant to get involved in labor disputes between private contractors at the airport.

City Council member Braxton Winston, who is running to be North Carolina’s labor commissioner, said he’s told city staff that they need to help the Jetstream workers even if they aren’t city employees.

Most states, including North Carolina, have no standards or regulations to protect workers from the heat.

“When it comes to the rules, it doesn’t seem like the employers are doing anything out of compliance,” Winston said. “But that doesn’t mean that things shouldn’t be changed. You have workers increasingly working in conditions with extreme heat. We have to think about the best ways of taking care of them.”

Jetstream workers in Charlotte unionized in May, at the start of what’s been a long summer of increasingly bold labor actions, including strikes by Hollywood writers' groups and Detroit auto workers.

On Tuesday at noon, Jetstream workers — as well as their colleagues in Dallas and Phoenix, which are also large American Airlines' hubs — will march for better working conditions and higher wages.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.