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Turbulent times

Employee groups at five of the seven largest U.S. airlines are haggling over new contracts. Experts say the number of ongoing labor battles at major carriers increases the chances of a strike that could cripple travel and commerce in some regions.

By STEVE HUETTEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


TAMPA -- American Airlines flight attendant Sarah Harris suffers persistent deep heel pain from trudging through miles of jet aisles and airport concourses.

Harris, 30, usually gets a sinus infection every few months, thanks to germy travelers. Don't even ask about passengers handing over their used tissues and dirty diapers.

But what really irks Harris is the message she gets when she opens her pay statement: Flight attendant salaries at American are dead last among the top six U.S. airlines and, she says, pathetically low compared with the carrier's other workers.

"Flight attendants," she says, "are probably the lowest of management's priorities."

Like all 23,000 American flight attendants, Harris hasn't had a raise in more than three years. American does not contribute to her 401(k) retirement plan or pay for at least an hour she's on duty before her first flight of the day departs.

If you think travelers are angry over how airlines are treating them these days, just ask the people flying the planes, serving snacks, fixing engines and loading bags. Employee groups at five of the seven largest U.S. airlines are haggling over new contracts.

President Bush intervened Friday to block a strike by mechanics against Northwest Airlines for two months. He pledged to take similar action if other airlines and employee unions can't work out their disputes. That could keep him busy.

American flight attendants and Delta Air Lines pilots have asked federal mediators to start a 30-day countdown to a walkout. United Airlines flight attendants are threatening a strike as soon as next month if the airline moves ahead with a planned purchase of US Airways.

Even Southwest Airlines, where chief executive Herb Kelleher encourages employees to join unions, is in a labor fight. Ramp workers, who soundly rejected a contract deal and remain in mediated talks, this month staged the first picketing against the airline in more than two decades.

None of the disputes may end in a strike. But experts say the number of ongoing labor battles at major carriers increases the chances of a strike that could cripple travel and commerce at least in specific regions of the country.

"I can't remember a period in which the four largest airlines were in some kind of labor acrimony," says Paul Stephen Dempsey, a University of Denver law professor and author of books on transportation policy.

Thousands of airline employees expect to be paid back for concessions they made in the mid-'90s as airlines tried to recover from losing $12-billion in the recession. Like Harris, they're demanding a piece of the record profits airlines earned in the economic boom that followed.

While American negotiators offer flight attendants raises that match inflation, Harris notes, the airline has provided $200-million in financing for TWA as part of a deal to buy its assets in bankruptcy court.

"It constantly amazes me that we are showing record profits but are last in pay" among the top airlines, she says.

The two sides head back into negotiations this week. But if they can't agree on a deal and federal mediator releases them to walk out, Harris says flight attendants won't hesitate to leave passengers of the nation's No. 2 airline stranded at the gate.

"I won't feel guilty," says Harris, who lives in Tampa and works out of American's hub at Miami International Airport. "If they were doing the same job, they'd be in the exact same position."

* * *

The last time American tangled with flight attendants, Harris was a rookie fresh out of Baylor University earning about $17,000. She lived with four other flight attendants, paying $175 a month for her share of a two-bedroom house in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Plantation.

Robert Crandall, American's combative chief executive nicknamed "Fang" for his prominent eyeteeth, was willing to risk a strike to cut costs.

American fought to weaken staffing rules that promoted hiring more flight attendants and to maintain a lower pay scale for new hires such as Harris. The airline wanted to keep weight rules that didn't account for increasing numbers of mothers and middle-age women in the ranks.

Harris worked the picket line at Miami International, handing passengers leaflets saying their median salary of $23,007 was less than roofers or security guards earned.

A week before Thanksgiving, the flight attendants walked out. American was effectively shut down for five days before President Clinton persuaded both sides to enter arbitration that produced a contract.

Crandall is gone, but much of the bitterness remains.

Harris and other American employees thought management had been de-fanged when Crandall turned over the reins to Donald Carty. Even before Crandall left, his smooth-talking No. 2 man headed negotiations with pilots in 1997 to keep from further inflaming the talks.

But American and the flight attendants remain far apart on a contract after more than two years of talks. In its last contract proposal, American offered average annual raises of 3.2 percent, less than half of what the union wants.

The airline initially proposed contributing to 401(k) retirement plans that supplement company pensions. But American withdrew the offer after flight attendants rejected a tentative agreement with their union, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, in 1999.

"With Crandall, you knew what you were getting," Harris says. "Don Carty says he wants to get along, then you get the same runaround."

True, flight attendants haven't received raises during prolonged negotiations, American spokeswoman Karen Watson says.

But the delays resulted from turmoil at the union, which replaced its negotiating team and leadership after members rejected the tentative contact. The union refused American's offer of an immediate 8 percent raise in December.

"We've told our flight attendants they're doing a great job for us, and we intend to give them an industry-leading contract," Watson says.

Harris' $32 hourly salary sounds good. But the clock only runs at that rate when Harris is flying or running between airplanes.

She gets paid a little more than $18 an hour while waiting at an airport between flights. Her gross pay last year, including overtime flying and meal allowance, came to about $38,000.

Harris enjoys the freedom the job offers.

She largely sets her own schedule, working as much or as little as she likes. Flight attendants bid each month on routes, with the most senior ones getting first choice. Harris works 18 days or more each month.

The work can be exhausting and demands a nomadic existence in hotels and airports for most of the month. Harris is trained in CPR, procedures for evacuating six types of jets, how to spot terrorists and deal with bomb threats.

Still, she says, passengers treat her like a waitress in the sky.

"It's not brain surgery, but it's not an easy job, either," Harris says. "We're trained professionals. We're just not treated that way by our company or the general public."

* * *

A recent workday begins with an evening jet commute to Miami. She can fly free if there's an empty seat.

In her black suitcase with wheels, Harris carries peanut butter, an apple, protein bars and shakes. It's cheaper and healthier than eating in airport or hotel restaurants. She always brings two homey comforts: a thin, fleece blanket and a candle.

Harris gets into Miami International at 10 p.m. American doesn't pay for lodging until her work trip begins. Rather than spring for a hotel, Harris claims a recliner in the flight attendant crew lounge, snuggles under the blanket and gets a few hours of fitful sleep.

She usually showers at the gym of the Miami International Airport Hotel. But the gym isn't open early enough to bathe and report for her 8:45 a.m. flight to Atlanta this day, so Harris washes up at a sink in the crew lounge bathroom.

American requires her to sign in an hour early, but the airline doesn't start paying her until the plane leaves the gate. Typically, Harris works her first hour -- checking the cabin's emergency gear, putting out pillows and counting catered snacks -- for free.

This isn't a typical day.

A gate agent comes on board the Boeing 727 and tells Harris there has been a change. Her flight will leave from a different concourse, he says. Why? "Who knows? It's Miami," he offers.

Harris hikes to the new gate and finds another 727 waiting. But this one is headed to New York's LaGuardia Airport.

The Atlanta flight is posted to leave at 9:32 a.m. Harris finds out at American's operations center that the plane isn't even due to arrive from Montego Bay, Jamaica, until 9:45 a.m. then must clear U.S. Customs. She ducks out for breakfast in an employee cafeteria.

When the flight finally pulls away about 11 a.m. -- and Harris' pay clock starts ticking -- her first-class passengers are understandably cranky.

"That's it?" snaps a woman when Harris hands her a snack of fruit and a bagel. It's the same food American's competition serves on the 90-minute flight. Besides, Harris thinks to herself, you had two hours in the airport to get something.

After the plane lands at Atlanta Hartsfield Airport, Harris gets on the intercom and delivers the company-issue "Thank you for choosing American." She then says sorry for the delay.

"That's the first person who's apologized all day," a man in first class grouses to fellow passengers.

Delays already have begun to snowball. The continuing flight to Dallas-Fort Worth, scheduled to depart at 12:02 p.m., leaves Atlanta two hours late.

If Harris' first-class passengers are angry, they don't take it out on her. They're pleasant throughout the flight, even when storms in Texas further delay their arrival as the pilots swing 200 miles south around Houston. She grabs a leftover sandwich for lunch.

Harris boards a new plane at American's huge terminal in Dallas-Fort Worth. After waiting an hour for a unionized cleaning crew to show up, the captain and a customer service manager pick up newspapers and put up blankets and pillows for the flight to Raleigh, N.C.

The union representing ground-service workers is negotiating with American for a new contract. Harris never finds out if the dirty plane was a message from an unhappy cleaning crew. (American isn't aware of work slowdowns at Dallas-Fort Worth, spokeswoman Karen Watson says.)

Storms delay eastbound takeoffs from Dallas-Fort Worth. Again, her passengers in first class aren't visibly upset when the Raleigh flight takes off more than two hours late. They saw the bad weather in Dallas and don't blame Harris or any other crew member.

Her day finally ends at 8:45 p.m., 13 hours after reporting for that first flight in Miami.

She walks into her room at a Holiday Inn 15 minutes from the Raleigh-Durham Airport. Harris washes her face, brushes her teeth, lights her vanilla cookie-scented candle and climbs into bed to call her husband in Tampa.

She's too tired to eat, too tired for a shower. She hopes the hot water runs in the morning so she can bathe before signing in at 6:50. It didn't when she stayed in the same hotel last month.

"For everything we deal with as flight attendants," Harris says, "we really ought to be treated better."

- Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Getting to an airline strike

Under the Railway Labor Act, contracts for employees don't expire but become "amendable." Workers can strike only after a federal mediator tries to broker a new contract; the National Mediation Board declares an impasse and offers binding arbitration; one side refuses the offer and a 30-day "cooling off" period begins; and the 30 days pass without a deal. Even then, the president can postpone a strike by giving a Presidential Emergency Board 60 days to propose an agreement. Here is the status of ongoing disputes at major airlines:

(Amendable date, carrier, group, notes)

Oct. '96 -- Northwest -- Mechanics -- Presidential Emergency Board appointed March 9; 60-day cooling-off period

Nov. '98 -- American -- Flight attendants -- Mediated talks resume today through March 14

Dec. '99 -- Southwest -- Ramp workers -- Mediation

May. '00 -- Delta -- Pilots -- Strike authorization Feb. 12; union and management request arbitration Feb. 28

May '00 -- America West -- Pilots -- Negotiation

July '00 -- United -- Ramp workers -- Mediation

July '00 -- United -- Mechanics -- Mediation; talks resumed Feb. 15

Jan. '01 -- TWA -- Flight attendants -- Negotiation

Jan. '01 -- TWA -- Mechanics -- Negotiation

March '01 -- American -- Ramp workers -- Management proposal March 5; negotiation

March '01 -- American -- Mechanics -- Management proposal Feb. 26; negotiation

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