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Keith Alexander

Workers Asked To Keep Focus On Customers

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, November 2, 2004; Page E01

US Airways chief executive Bruce R. Lakefield had a message last week for US Airways employees who got their first glimpse Friday at the latest bite out of their paychecks -- a court-imposed 21 percent cut.

"People react in different ways: anger, fear and a lot of sadness," Lakefield said in his weekly recorded telephone message to workers. "While 99.9 percent of our employees are professionals, there are unfortunately those occasional accounts of anger interfering with getting the job done." He cited examples of workers "abusing sick time" or "treating customers with disrespect."

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The 21 percent pay cuts, which showed up in checks last week, followed three previous cuts in the past three years. US Airways had told the bankruptcy court the latest cuts were essential if the airline were to remain in business.

US Airways' 28,000 workers are struggling to come to grips with their shrinking paychecks. Last month, baggage workers failed to show up for work in Philadelphia, forcing some travelers to wait nearly 90 minutes for their bags to arrive on the carousel. Last week, the union representing the airline's ticket and gate agents sought strike authorization from its members. But federal strike rules will likely forestall any action.

With the busy Thanksgiving weekend looming, workers feeling the pinch in the pocketbooks will face the challenge of providing the top-flight customer service needed to keep passengers happy. Lakefield told employees: "We need to attract and keep every customer we can."

Customers are showing sympathy for the plight of the workers and cutting them some slack. Arlington psychologist Elliott Jaffa makes sure he offers his appreciation to the flight attendants and pilots whenever he gets off a flight.

"I'll tell them that I realize you're going through a tough time right now and I just wanted to say thank you," he said.

It's not much, Jaffa acknowledges, but he says he hopes it's enough to encourage the workers through a difficult period.

Bruce Damasio, who has more than 218,000 frequent-flier miles on US Airways, said he's concerned that low morale could cause the airline to fail. "Tough times never last long -- tough people last through the tough times," said Damasio of Towson.

Airline service in general has been declining -- not just at US Airways, says John V. Dohman, a Vienna-based life insurance compliance officer, who has noticed longer lines and more lost or delayed bags. "I can't blame employees for being disgruntled. I know they're trying most of the time to do their best," he said.

Ken Rinzler, a Washington-based immigration attorney, blamed executives for taking what he called "million-dollar" salaries and severance packages in recent years instead of applying those funds to the front-line workers such as flight attendants and pilots.

"You want people who are competent and well trained and react well under pressure flying those planes," said Rinzler, who has been redeeming his frequent-flier miles because he fears the airline will not be around much longer.

AirTran Shuttle: Should US Airways not make it out of bankruptcy reorganization, several airlines would love to take over its popular shuttle operations between Reagan National, New York's LaGuardia and Boston's Logan International Airport.

Robert L. Fornaro, AirTran Airways president and chief operating officer, said last week that the low-fare, low-cost carrier would be interested in the shuttle.

AirTran has grown in the Washington area largely by taking over troubled airlines' operations. In 2001, AirTran increased its flights out of Baltimore after US Airways dismantled its low-cost operation, MetroJet. The airline is in final negotiations with ATA, which also is operating under bankruptcy protection, to take over ATA's four daily flights to Chicago's Midway from Washington's Reagan National.

In response, Southwest Airlines said yesterday it will add 16 flights at Chicago's Midway Airport by early 2005.

Question of the Week: How have record gasoline prices affected your business travel? What, if anything, are you doing differently in terms of flying, driving, renting cars or conducting other business travel? Send your comments, along with your name and a daytime telephone number, to alexanderk@washpost.com.


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