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I have 10 minutes to clean a plane before passengers board. Here’s why the holidays’ air travel chaos was entirely avoidable

January 5, 2023, 5:01 PM UTC
Verna Montalvo speaks during a press conference held by airport workers to ask Congress to pass the "Good Jobs for Good Airports Act" on Capitol Hill on Dec. 8.
Jemal Countess - Getty Images - SEIU

Air travelers are still reeling from the impacts of a busy and chaotic holiday travel week. From thousands of canceled Southwest Airlines flights to painful delays due to inclement weather–they’re not the only ones left frustrated. Workers like me are hurting along with them. 

Much of this air travel dysfunction was entirely avoidable. The root of the issue is that for too long, major corporations have created and exacerbated a crisis for airport workers and travelers alike while raking in record profits. Major airlines and their contractors have received billions of dollars in federal funding, and for what? Worse service for passengers and jobs that still often pay poverty wages without enough protections. And it’s airport service workers, like me, who’ve been unfairly tasked with cleaning up the mess.   

In February of last year, I started working cleaning cabins for a company that cleans American Airlines planes at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. A large part of my job is to make sure that passengers have a clean and safe cabin for their travels. I’m also responsible for doing safety inspections to ensure the plane is free of weapons and anything that could pose a danger to passengers or crew. In other words, the safety of everyone on the plane depends in part on the work that I do. With that level of responsibility, one would think that workers like me would be respected, protected, and paid living wages for the vital work that we do. Sadly, that’s far from the case. 

I’m proud of the work I do and love interacting with passengers–but the high turnover and short staffing are making my job nearly impossible. Oftentimes, I have less than 10 minutes to clean each plane, and with fewer people available to help, I’m constantly being saddled with more work, as well as responsibilities that extend beyond my role, like helping with translation for Spanish-speaking passengers and workers. Despite the extra work, I make just $12/hr. I can barely make ends meet, sometimes even having to skip meals to ensure my girls have enough to eat.

The fact is, airport service workers across the country aren’t being paid enough to support their families or pay the bills. Yet revenues continue to soar for major corporations like American Airlines, who just last year made a record $13.5 billion in revenues off our backs. At airports here in Dallas and across the country, workers’ wages have been near the poverty level for the past 20 years with no paid time off, no affordable healthcare, no sick days, insufficient staffing, and no guaranteed worker protections.

Even still, workers like me continue to show up every single day to keep our economy and our world connected, and we’ll keep showing up this year through travel peaks, holiday chaos, and beyond to help ensure people can safely travel. But airlines created this problem, and they need to fix it.

That’s why I’m standing with workers across the country to demand that Congress take action to ensure that public money serves the public good. The Good Jobs for Good Airports Act, introduced last year in the Senate, would establish a minimum wage and benefits standard for service workers at certain hub airports across the country, which would in turn help stabilize the workforce, help lower turnover, and increase the number of experienced frontline staff. 

Airports are powered primarily by Black, brown, and immigrant service workers like me, who work hard to give our families a better future. Congress has the power to radically transform my life by setting wage and benefits standards and ensuring public dollars are not reinforcing systemic racism. The holidays’ travel woes offer a timely reminder that we must reinvest in this vital workforce that helps keep our airports safe, clean, and running. 

We deserve to be treated better. We deserve jobs that pay us enough to survive, and workplaces that give us a voice on the job and the opportunity to live our lives with dignity, while caring for our families. 

Over the summer, I rallied with other workers outside American Airlines Headquarters to call on the CEO to make sure that all airport jobs are good union jobs, with fair wages and benefits.

After months of silence from corporate executives, I joined members of Congress last month to demand action to uplift the airport service workforce. To borrow Senator Blumenthal’s words, “there is an ugly, dark truth here.” And it’s time our elected leaders heed workers’ calls: the workforce that powers our airports deserves a fair shot at a good life.

As we start the new year, what better time to provide airport service workers a stable job with wages and benefits that could help us build a better future for our families? Congress must take action now.

Verna Montalvo is a cabin cleaner at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and member of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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