Second Thought: Wednesday, April 17, 2003
Facing Furlough at 50

“Fair” is not where\r\nthis flight is headed.


Work hard boy, you’ll find

One day you’ll have a job like mine.

— Cat Stevens

I’ve always known that an airline career would be different than any other “normal” career. First, there are the working hours, which vary from day to day, month to month, year to year. Start your day in New York or Chicago, and end it in Paris or Tokyo. Movie stars and CEO’s up front, crying babies — some of them actually infants — in back.

But nothing prepared me for the roller-coaster ride that has been my 27-year career as an airline flight attendant. I started in 1976 with Trans World Airlines (TWA), one of the premier airlines of its day, one of only two airlines that flew around the world from the United States. The most highly qualified people applied to work for TWA, the airline of choice for movie stars, celebrities, presidents, and popes. The odd hijacking to Cuba didn’t keep the passengers away.

Then came deregulation of the airlines in 1978. Suddenly it was a dog-eat-dog industry with a free-for-all ticketing war. Dozens of new airlines started up, charging radically cheaper fares, forcing the established airlines to compete. The established airlines survived; all but one of the start-ups folded. Next came the air traffic controller strike, throwing the system into chaos. Airlines merged, but most survived.

Corporate raiders followed. Carl Icahn was getting rich just by scaring people into thinking he wanted to take over their companies, then dumping his stock for millions after all the jackals tried to profit on his moves. In 1975 he bought out TWA. His first step was to cut the salaries of the employees by 17 percent — except for the flight attendants. From them he required a 44 percent cut, as he felt “they were not bread-winners, they were only second incomes.” The flight attendants fought that by going on strike in 1976, the first workforce to go on strike in favor of a pay cut. Icahn tried to replace them, so, to retain their jobs, the union called off the strike. It was three years before most of us were recalled to work — with the 44 percent pay cut.

Thirteen years later, we thought we saw the light at the end of the tunnel, only to learn it was an oncoming 737. American Airlines acquired TWA in a pre-arranged bankruptcy and merged the two airlines.

Seniority determines your whole life in the airline industry. It controls when you fly, where you fly, and the quality of life your career gives you. If you quit one airline and join another, you lose all seniority and start again at the bottom. In a merger, the employee seniority lists of the two companies are usually merged. In this case, however, the bargaining organization for the AA flight attendants, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), decreed that the 5,000 TWA flight attendants should be placed below the 25,000 AA flight attendants in seniority. At the same time, the APFA negotiated another contract clause ensuring that, if another airline were to merge with American , the same would not happen to the AA flight attendants. In other words, it’s OK if we screw you, just as along as the same thing doesn’t happen to us.

While the TWA flight attendants were fighting for their seniority rights, Sept. 11 happened. The industry hit a massive downswing and started downsizing their fleets and laying off employees. Since then, there have been five rounds of furloughs at the now-combined TWA/American, with 90 percent of the cuts coming from the newly “junior” TWA side.

By May 1, 2003, the most junior flight attendants at TWA will be 50 years old, with 26 years continuous work experience. Meanwhile, on the American side, there are flight attendants in their 20s still flying with only four or five years experience. And now the company is looking for concessions from all the workforces, to stave off bankruptcy. One sought-after concession: the elimination of furlough pay, equivalent to two months salary. And while the pilots are receiving unlimited recall rights, flight attendants only have the right to be recalled from furlough for five years, after which they will no longer be AA employees.

The battle for our seniority continues in court, while I await the inevitable notification that I’m the next to be cut. My 27 years of experience will not save my job, and I will find myself on the street, looking for employment in an industry currently oversaturated with qualified furlough-ees.

Suffice to say it is just not fair.

Tim Kirkwood is the author of The Flight Attendant Job Finder & Career Guide.

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