Thank You for your Loyalty, Please don't let the door hit you on the way out.

By Rodney Ward, Furloughed US Airways Flight Attendant (rocknrodney@hotmail.com)
 

Flight Attendants... many people think of our safety demo's ("there are two doors in the front of the plane....") or joke about "Coffee, Tea or Me"  or scoff that we are simply overpaid Waitresses in the Sky (as if waiting tables was an easy job!).  What most do not understand is that while much of our job involves service, only a fraction of our training does.
 

With origins in nursing, our job requires us to be able to fight fires at 45,000 feet, evacuate a plane in 90 seconds, command 60 person life raft in the high seas, administer CPR and defibrillation and provide a wide range of first aid treatment.  We are mediators, negotiators and engage in an enormous amount of emotional work.  We are the ones most likely to be bounced off the ceiling in turbulence as we check on the safety of passengers...
 

...and on September 11th, we were the first to die.

 Tuesday, September 11th Through Our Eyes

On September 11th, we found that our coworkers had been slaughtered and our workplaces converted into weapons of mass destruction.  Those of us fortunate enough not to be on one of the hijacked planes worked franticly as our flights were diverted and grounded at the nearest airport.  Often this meant landing in remote towns with no hotel facilities.  We then worked to make sure passengers had places to stay, and in some cases organized school and church bus transportation for them.  We huddled together in airports and hotels watching the nightmare unfold before us worrying about our friends at United and American and worrying about our futures.
 

When the airports re-opened, bit by bit, on Thursday afternoon through Saturday, many refused to fly, either not confident enough had been done to ensure our safety or simply too traumatized to put on our uniforms.  Those of us who steeled ourselves enough to return to work were jumpy and shaky.  With the FAA and our corporate management offering no suggestions of what to do, we began developing our own strategies.  Pilots talked of incapacitating hijackers with wild maneuvers and barrel rolls.  The rest of us inventoried our galleys for means of self-defense.  (We found plenty-after all, we injure ourselves enough in our galleys, so we may as well turn bad ergonomics to our advantage.)
 

Passengers have been solemn and subdued.  Some give us hugs as they boarded.  We all regularly lose it, weeping uncontrollably at random moments.
 

Unfortunately, many passengers as well as some crew members have succumbed to scapegoating of Arabs and Muslims.  I've frequently reminded coworkers and passengers that we weren't fearful of white people when McVeigh blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma and we didn't hold all Christians accountable on account he was a Christian.  Most get the message, but some have a hard time hearing it.  Jumpseat accounts of Arabs being removed from flights suggest this problem has been far worse than has been covered in the media.
 

Nonetheless, we are all shell-shocked and acting out our trauma in countless productive and counterproductive ways.  Thankfully our unions have been working overtime from the very start to provide emotional support through Employee Assistance Programs.
 

But we were not the only ones getting busy.....

Back at the Corporate Palace....

While we were grieving, airline executives were scheming and pleading.  Conveniently neglecting to 1) ask for any assistance for soon-to-be displaced airline workers or 2) mention the business interruption insurance policies the airlines carry, the airlines went to Congress with hat in hand.  Led by Continental's Gordon Bethune and Delta's Leo Mullin, the airline lobbyist were at Capital Hill before the blood had dried in New York.  Claiming a massive daily loss during the shutdown, airline execs presented themselves as on the brink of insolvency.  Years of mismanagement and bloated executive payrolls were set aside.  (When asked about business interruption insurance, US Airways spokesman David Castelveter replied "That's something I don't think we would publicly discuss with anyone.")
 

The Bailout

An incestuous lot, the airline lobby included Linda Hall Daschle, wife of the Senate majority leader and advocate for American and Northwest Airlines.  With enormous political, lobbying and economic resources (further elaborated in 10/10/01 NYT article: "Bailout Showed the Weight of a Mighty, and Fast-Acting, Lobby") the airline executives and their lobbying machine succeeded in collecting $5 Billion in Direct Grants and another $10 Billion in Loan Guarantees.  On October 4th, the government wired the first installment of $2,418,647,432 in taxpayer loot to 95 airlines (for a complete list, go to www.dot.gov/affairs/carrierpayments.htm).

(Note: Linda Hall Daschle assured reporters she was careful not to lobby her husband...)
 

The Sellout

Neither the House, nor the Senate acted to include support for soon-to-be dislocated airline workers.  As I write this, nothing has been passed to address our economic concerns.  Bush thanked us for having the courage to put on our uniforms and go to work, but so far nothing.  Well actually, worse than nothing.  The Loan Guarantee program stipulates preferential treatment for airlines whose business plans include employee concessions.  Offering nothing, this bailout actually serves to take yet more from a workforce that feels it ought to receive combat pay instead.
 

The Big Opportunity
  Prior to September 11th, the airlines had been reeling from the double effects of years of mismanagement and the general economic slowdown.  Union contracts restricted their ability to carry out cutbacks.  The airline industry is extremely heavily unionized and executives have lamented the fact that they could not restructure the industry without having to negotiate with those of us who do the work.

Then came September 11th.  Describing US Airways inept attempts to establish a Plan B in the wake of a failed merger with United, one industry analyst stated "Thank goodness then for Plan C:  Using the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington to justify a $15 billion airline industry bailout, courtesy of taxpayers."  And indeed airline executives turned those frowns upside down and privately grinned like cats with a canary as they set in motion a massive restructuring of the industry.
 

Wringing their hands with talk of agonizing decisions, airline execs began announcing plans for massive layoffs.  With Continental leading the way (12,000 layoffs), cuts were quickly announced at American (20,000), United (20,000), Delta (13,000), US Airways (11,000), Northwest (10,000) and a host of other airlines and related industries.  Between 120,000 and 150,000 airline layoffs have been announced.
 

Invoking Force Majeure, airlines claimed there were little known clauses in contracts that allowed them to ignore No Furlough clauses, provide zero notice and deny benefits and severance packages.  Force Majeure or Greater Force, is a commercial contract law doctrine which excuses a party from contractual obligations if there is an "Act of God" or a war.  It has not generally been applied to labor contract law, but the airlines busy "making stuff up" as one crewmember put it.  There is no such clause in the US Airways flight attendant contract!
 

American's Carty declared a State of Emergency, as if he represented some sort of State (which, perhaps he does).  Despite management claims this is a War Emergency, most airline workers understand this is really a Shareholder Emergency!  One wonders whether employees' bill collectors will allow them to invoke Force Majeure when bills come due.
 

Overall, airlines are engaging in a savage attack on union contracts and a skillful manipulation of the situation to undermine a union election campaign (at Delta).  As they attack worker rights, they are also shedding unprofitable routes to the point that entire cities will no longer have air carriers.
 

In spite of the fact that passenger loads are quickly returning to normal (Priceline.com reports demand increasing faster than expected), the downsizing continues unabated.  Crewmembers report that USAirways has cut so close to the bone that some flights are overbooked by as much as 150 passengers.  (Such oversold flights invariably lose a tremendous amount of revenue due to the free round trip tickets that must be offered to entice volunteers!)
 

The bottom line is that industry management wanted to restructure and downsize prior to September 11th.  On 10/1/01, Craig Jenkins, an independent airline analyst in NY told the WSJ "The crisis is causing things to happen that people have long said should be done."  And so they are.  Taking full advantage of our tragedy, executives are carrying out the cuts that were politically untenable prior to September 11th.
 

Meanwhile, Back at the Corporate Palace, Take II

But it appears things weren't so bad for airline management and shareholders after all.  While tax monies were heading for United's coffers, United was wiring $11.25 million to Dassault in France as a downpayment on the Avolar bizjet fleet.  American is continuing to spend $6.5 million to have its name on a stadium in Dallas and another $2 million on a stadium in Miami.  US Airways found cash to buy Shuttle America and discovered it had over a billion in the bank.  The GAO reported on 10/5/01 that (surprise!) airline losses had been overstated and placed them on the low end of the range of $6.5 B to $10.5 B.  Southwest Airlines gave the lie to all of the airlines' claims of the need to "resize" by announcing they wouldn't be laying anyone off!  Instead, they plan to grow, gobbling up markets left behind by the big airlines.
 

So what did the airlines need the bailout for?  Aside the opportunity to get from free cash from the taxpayers, airline executives realized that it is expensive to carry out a mass layoff and restructuring.  Grounding aircraft in the desert and severance packages entail expenses the industry would rather pass on to you and me.  Our tax dollars are helping finance our layoffs and restructuring!
 

The Economic Terror Spreads
  The double shockwave of the direct economic dislocation caused by September 11th and the outrageous opportunism of executive management has spread far beyond the layoffs in the airline industry.  Aside from 100,000+ jobs lost in NYC, hundreds of thousands more are being kicked to the curb.  30,000 at Boeing, 6500 at Bombadier (despite no order cancellations), 3-4000 at GE Aircraft Engines.  1/3 to ½ of HERE members have been laid off in past 3 weeks, and many more are on reduced hours.  LSG Sky Chefs (airline catering) has cut 4800 jobs.

All told, the Wall Street Journal predicts 1.5 million jobs may be lost (I think this estimate is low).  Blue Chip Forcast predicts unemployment will jump from 4.9% to 7% within a month.  Evidence also suggests a dip in wages in the works as well.  As businesses around the country have gotten into the act, GDP for the 3rd Quarter has dropped 0.4% and is expected to drop even more dramatically in the 4th Quarter, spelling and almost certain recession in the U.S. and beyond!
 

Companies across the world are jumping on the bandwagon.  India Air has announced restructuring.  Singapore Airlines, Czech Air, Asiana, Varig (Brazil), Aer Lingus, Iberian, Aeromexico, and many more are taking the opportunity to slash jobs.  Swissair/Sabena filed for bankruptcy protection.  S. Korea has told Asiana and KAL they must reduce deficits through "asset sales and layoffs before getting any aid." (Asian Pulse, 10/5/01)
 

Trends to Expect

Globally, several trends are likely unless powerful resistance is mounted by airline workers and their allies.  The industry will continue to consolidate while spinoffs of regional jet (RJ) carriers will accelerate to take advantage of the lower tiered wage system at the RJ's.  Cutbacks (layoffs, concession demands, elimination of routes) will accompany all of this.  This complex dynamic of consolidation and spinoff of lower wage enterprises will be mirrored in the rest of the economy both in the U.S. and abroad and we can expect a downward spiral of wages amidst a rising tide of unemployment and underemployment.  Fiscal crises are already arising as city, state and federal budget surpluses evaporate, and further waves of layoffs can be expected in the public sector.
 

The Response
The response has been outrage and this has manifested itself in a variety of ways ranging from grievances and media campaigns to outright strikes.  In the US, our unions have focused upon grievances, protesting in the media and to congress.  In some cases, these protests have spilled over into actual pickets.  In Charlotte, 40 probationary flight attendants (who had been summarily fired by US Airways) organized a picket at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport.  In Switzerland, massive protests are challenging management and banking industry handling of the debacle at Swissair/Sabena.
 

Workers at the commuter jet manufacturer, Embraer (Braxil) are threatening to strike unless the company backs off on plans to lay off 14% of the workforce.  In Canada, the Industrial Board recognized the union contract language which prohibited layoffs and has blocked Air Canada from laying off 5000.  In the U.S. airlines which attempted to welch on severance packages have been forced to abide by their obligations by political pressure.  At United, employee pressure was key in the ouster of CEO Goodwin.
 

On the congressional level, we do not need a supply-side "stimulus" package, bloated with tax giveaways to corporations and super wealthy.  We need a dramatic expansion of unemployment, health and education benefits for those of us dislocated by Sept. 11th and the subsequent management opportunism.  Tax relief for working families, and particularly an end to the taxation of unemployment benefits.  Real economic stimulus would involve direct investment in rebuilding our national education, health, transportation and energy infrastructure, not giveaways to the wealthy.  We need to stand united and strong and we need true support of our national leaders, not just praise!
 

Much more is needed at the political as well as workplace levels.  Our response needs to draw lessons from the workers at Embraer and the picketers in Charlotte.  We need to go beyond grievances and public statements or else we will be set back decades in union strength in this strategic industry and beyond.

Copyright 2001.

Online Articles:

Spotlight On
Explore

Browse Topics | Site Guide | Multimedia Bookstore | Magazine | Publications | Activists Resources

Political Research Associates

Copyright Information, Terms, and Conditions

Please read our Terms and Conditions for copyright information regarding downloading, copying, printing, and linking material on this site; our disclaimer about links present on this website; and our privacy policy.

Updates and Corrections