Airline Workers: The Thanks We Got

Against the Current, No. 95, November/December 2001

Rodney Ward

MEMO TO OUR Employees: Thank you for your loyalty, please don’t let the door hit you on the way out.—The Airlines

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 ninety seconds, command a sixty-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.

On that day, 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 frantically 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.

Preparing for the Worst

When the airports reopened, bit by bit, on Thursday afternoon through Saturday, many refused to fly, either not confident enough had been done to ensure 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.

On my first flight after September 11th, I repeatedly dropped stuff, breaking a considerable amount of first class china (we flew directly over the gaping hole of Manhattan).

At my first crew briefing—a normally routine activity at the beginning of any trip—we all were clear that the old training for dealing with a hijacking, the doctrine that the man with the gun was in charge, was out the window.  With the FAA and our corporate management offering no suggestions of what to do, we began developing our own strategies.

Pilots hid their anxiety behind militaristic swagger about 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 might as well turn it to our advantage.  In contradiction of company policies we took delays, no longer allowing ourselves to be rushed in performance of safety duties.  Many of us dispensed with pre-departure drinks in first class, and many of us left the curtains open between first class and coach.

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

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 for him being 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.

We are all shell-shocked and acting out our trauma in countless productive and counterproductive ways. 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 outstretched corporate hand.

Led by Continental’s Gordon Bethune and Delta’s Leo Mullin, the airline lobbyists were at Capitol 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, U.S. Airways spokesman David Castelveter replied “That’s something I don’t think we would publicly discuss with anyone.”

An incestuous lot, the airline lobby included Linda Hall Daschle, wife of the Senate majority leader and advocate for American and Northwest Airlines.  With such enormous political, lobbying and economic resources (further elaborated in 10/10/01 New York Times article, “Bailout Showed the Weight of a Mighty, and Fast-Acting, Lobby”), the airline executives succeeded in collecting $5 billion in Direct Grants and another $10 billion in Loan Guarantees.

On October 4, the government wired the first installment of $2,418,647,432 in taxpayer loot to 95 airlines (for a complete list, go to

The Sellout and Big Opportunity

Neither the House of Representatives nor the Democratic controlled 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 work force that feels it ought to receive combat pay instead.  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.  Flight attendants are perhaps eighty-five percent in unions!

Then came September 11th.  Describing U.S. 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.”

Indeed airline executives turned those frowns upside down and grinned like cats with a canary as they set about 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), US Airways (11,000), Northwest (10,000) and a host of other airlines and related industries.  Something like 150,000 airline layoffs have been announced.

Act of God (Making Shit Up)

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 (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 shit up” as one crew member put it.

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! I’m just hoping my utilities will allow me to invoke Force Majeure when bills come due.

Overall, airlines are engaging in a blitzkrieg 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 ( reports demand increasing faster than expected), the downsizing continues unabated.  Craig Jenkins, an independent airline analyst in New York, told the Wall Street Journal (10/1/01),”The crisis is causing things to happen that people have long said should be done.”

Back at the 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 down payment on Avolar’s bizjet fleet.  American is continuing to spend $6.5 million to have its name on a stadium in Dallas and another $2 million on one in Miami.

U.S. Airways found cash to buy Shuttle America and discovered it had over a billion in the bank. The Government Accounting Office reported on October 5 that—surprise!—airline losses had been overstated and placed them on the low end of the range of $6.5 to $10.5 billion.

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.

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 over 100,000 jobs lost in New York City, 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.

One-third to half of HERE members (hotel and restaurant workers) have been laid off in the past three weeks, with many more 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 Forecast predicts unemployment will jump from 4.9% to 7% within a month.  Some evidence also suggests a dip in wages in the works as well.

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.

South Korea has told Asiana and KAL they must reduce deficits through “asset sales and layoffs before getting any aid.” (Asia Pulse, 10/5/01)

Globally, several trends are likely unless powerful resistance is mounted by airline workers.  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 RJs. Cutbacks (layoffs, concession demands, elimination of routes) will accompany all of this.

The Response

The response has been outrage that has manifested itself in a variety of ways, ranging from grievances and media campaigns to outright strikes.  In the United States, 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, forty probationary flight attendants (who had been summarily fired by U.S. 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.

The most interesting has been the workers at the commuter jet manufacturer, Embraer: They are threatening a strike unless the company backs off on plans to lay off fourteen percent of the workforce.  Also, Canada’s Industrial Board blocked Air Canada from laying off 5000.

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.

Rodney Ward is a furloughed flight attendant.

from ATC 95 (November/December 2001)