Cabin Pressure

Mark Gehrt hands out posters to flight attendants. CHAOS stands for
Mark Gehrt hands out posters to flight attendants. CHAOS stands for "Create Havoc Around Our System," a union response to compensation cuts. Flight attendants said disruptions could begin tonight. (By Glen Stubbe -- Associated Press)
By Dale Russakoff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 25, 2006

The Web site of the Northwest Airlines flight attendants union plays ominous-sounding marching music, heavy on the drumbeats, as this menacing message fills the screen: "CHAOS -- coming to an airport near you."

It is the buildup for a job action -- Create Havoc Around Our System -- that the flight attendants vow to unleash to protest steep compensation cuts imposed by the troubled airline through a bankruptcy proceeding. Unless an appellate judge stops them, or Northwest relents, they say disruptions could begin tonight for targeted flights and airports.

The planned action is far short of a strike, and some airline experts question whether it will materialize, but it poses a significant counterpoint to the relative acquiescence of almost all of organized labor to five years of dramatic wage and benefit cuts at one after another of the nation's six oldest and largest airlines.

As United, Delta, US Airways and Northwest declared bankruptcy and American and Continental went through painful restructurings, flight attendants, ground crews, machinists, mechanics and pilots have given up more than $15 billion in combined wages, often losing 30 percent or more in real income, according to Thomas Kochan, professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management. Northwest is the last of these "legacy carriers" to restructure its finances.

"This is a sort of last, agonizing chapter," Air Line Pilots Association President Duane Woerth said of the five years of upheavals at the six airlines.

In its bankruptcy filing last October, Northwest said it needed $1.4 billion in wage concessions from its various unions to compete with low-cost carriers such as Southwest, JetBlue and AirTran that have transformed the industry. All except the flight attendants have gone along. (Before the bankruptcy filing, the airline's 4,400 mechanics and maintenance workers went on strike, and Northwest eliminated most of their jobs, turning to outsourcing and replacement workers.)

Even as they plan their job actions, the Northwest flight attendants union says its members are prepared to accept pay and benefit cuts to keep the company in business -- though not the cuts Northwest imposed.

"It's not as though we believe we deserve a pay raise. We understand concessions have to be made, but this is too much," said Ricky Thornton. The 17-year flight attendant said his pay had fallen from about $48,000 to $35,000 a year and he now is away from home 21 days a month instead of 15 or 16.

"The benefit of this job was you were a full-time employee and your time away from home was balanced by time off so that life didn't cease to exist," Thornton said. "If I'm away four to five extra days a month, I don't see my family, and my garden is dead."

As they tell their stories, the flight attendants are highlighting the extent to which workers throughout the airline industry have had to downshift their way of life as major carriers struggle to survive in a world of low-cost competitors and high-cost fuel. More than 100,000 jobs have been eliminated at legacy carriers. Many remaining pilots have lost 50 percent of real income, according to Woerth, particularly at United and US Airways, which terminated their pensions in bankruptcy proceedings. Flight attendants at the same airlines have lost as much as 30 percent of real income when benefit cuts are considered, according to the Association of Flight Attendants.

"The days of airlines being fun and lucrative, that's over," said aviation industry consultant Mike Boyd. "Fun maybe, but definitely not lucrative."

And maybe not even fun. James Lucas, a Northwest flight attendant for 10 years who flies out of New York, said he understood when he began his job in the booming 1990s that he would have to live on credit cards and borrow from his parents to make ends meet for a while. "A lot of us were just getting to the point where it would all pay off, and all of a sudden we're back to where we were," said Lucas, 33, who said he bounced a check this month for the first time since he was 17.

He said that a more junior colleague, a single mother, would not have enough downtime under the new work rules to keep the part-time job that she needs to provide for her child. Starting this month, Northwest flight attendants are required to fly four extra days a month.

Pat Friend, president of the 55,000-member Association of Flight Attendants, said longer weeks and lower pay at all airlines could reshape the workforce to resemble the one she encountered 40 years ago: people in their twenties who stay a few years, then leave in search of a more livable wage.

"When I started out in 1966, I signed an agreement to voluntarily leave at 32. We could not be married," she said. "As time went on, we were able to eliminate discrimination and we bargained to make this a career, so we had a reasonable expectation of providing for a family. This is not about concessions or no concessions, but whether it remains possible to put food on the table and educate your children."

Airline executives do not dispute that the changes are wrenching for employees. "This is bigger than any one union or work group or company," said Northwest's director of media relations, Kurt Ebenhoch. "Because we compete with the low-cost carriers in price, it's essential for us also to compete with them in cost." With the latest changes, Northwest's labor costs will be the lowest among legacy carriers but still higher than those of most low-cost carriers, including JetBlue, ATA and AirTran.

One reason is the seniority of workers at legacy carriers. Ebenhoch said two-thirds of Northwest's flight attendants are at the top of the pay scale, typical for older, established airlines. Boyd, the consultant, said Continental would have made $400 million last year -- instead of losing $68 million -- if its workers had the longevity of JetBlue's.

This is why flight attendants fear that airlines are trying to turn their jobs into high-turnover, short-term positions unsuitable to long careers.

"Our goal is to achieve competitive wages, said Ebenhoch. "Whether it's a long-term life choice is a decision the employees have to make."

Meanwhile, labor struggles are unfolding on new fronts -- at regional carriers that feed the legacy airline networks. Mesaba Airlines, a Northwest affiliate now under bankruptcy protection, is seeking to use the bankruptcy process to cut wages 19 percent and sharply reduce health benefits, according to the pilot union's Woerth. Pilot salaries there currently start at $21,000 a year, far below legacy carrier levels, and the average for all pilots is roughly $48,000, he said.

"What's being proposed there is not even living wages for anyone," Woerth said. "There is most certainly going to be a strike if that contract is imposed."

And as legacy airlines begin returning to profitability, he said, unions will expect returns for their sacrifices of the last five years when many of the concession contracts expire in four or five years.

"No one is under any illusion how deep these concessions were," he said. "If they make this money and don't give some of it back, there's going to be trouble in 2009."

Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company