United Airlines flight attendant Dianne Tamuk
United flight attendant Dianne Tamuk swinging her feet over a DC 10 engine in the early 1980s when the big airlines ruled the skies, and today, at 52. Tamuk lost thousands of dollars in annual income and 40 percent of her expected pension in United's bankruptcy and restructuring.
Left: Courtesy Dianne Tamuk; Right: Helayne Seidman for The Washington Post

A Future That's Up in the Air

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By Dale Russakoff
Sunday, July 15, 2007

What does economic change look and feel like when it is coming straight at you? The Washington Post takes a close-up look at working Americans who find themselves caught in the path of global forces transforming the economy.

NEW YORK -- It was a perfect day for flying as United Flight 27 soared out of John F. Kennedy International Airport, and Dianne Tamuk, the lead flight attendant -- still blond and exuberant at 52 -- welcomed everyone to United's skies for perhaps the 5,000th time in her career. Tamuk's smile is as winning as when she started out in 1978, her sure-and-steady voice a balm for the rising anxiety of flying.

It's a good thing she's resilient because Tamuk will be smiling her way through at least another thousand of those announcements. The meltdown in the airline industry since Sept. 11, 2001, has decimated pensions and reduced pay for flight attendants, making planned retirements for many in Tamuk's generation unaffordable. The grim joke at United is that those wheelchairs at the end of the ramp aren't just for elderly passengers; soon enough, they'll be for the crew.

"It is amazing to me any United employee can still smile at customers," said aviation industry consultant Michael Boyd. "But they do, and their in-flight customer service is among the best in the world."

Tamuk says her smile is real because she still loves her job, although this now requires some serious compartmentalizing. "You know your entire financial future has changed, but you don't want to face it because there's not a whole lot you can do about it," she said. "In a way, I compare it to the passengers who went back to flying after 9/11. The vulnerability is there, but you're not going to dwell on it. Otherwise you wouldn't get on the plane."

Flight attendants have plenty of company among workers who have lost pay and retirement security as economic change has engulfed one industry after the next. United Airlines was tallying sky-high profits in the late 1990s when the industry took a precipitous plunge. The dot-com bust, terrorism, the rise of low-cost carriers like JetBlue and the proliferation of Web sites directing customers to rock-bottom fares all combined to drain passengers away from the old, established airlines. United, Delta, US Airways and Northwest all filed for bankruptcy protection and American and Continental endured painful restructurings. United was losing $20 million a day at the time of its December 2002 filing. And that was before the spike in oil prices.

Struggling to compete with low-cost upstarts, the oldest and largest airlines cut $15 billion combined in wages in five years, according to Thomas A. Kochan, a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management. United terminated pensions covering 120,000 workers, offloading the obligation to the federal Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp.

Tamuk's income fell from $47,000 in 1994 to $43,000 last year, even though she is working significantly more hours. (Besides the wage cut, she lost international travel bonuses when United stopped flying overseas from New York.) Her pension is worth 40 percent less than she had counted on because it stopped accruing value with the default; instead of an expected $2,400 a month at age 60, she was notified that she will get $1,440. United is matching employee contributions to 401(k)s, but Tamuk said she had to reduce her contributions because, with less pay, she can't save as much. Her expenses are on a steep incline: She and her husband have a son entering college next year and a daughter three years behind.

In the early phase of the downturn, she said, her loyalty to United only deepened. She recalled the horror of hijacked United planes crashing into the World Trade Center and a field in Shanksville, Pa. -- a day that turned flight attendants into first responders. She remembers boarding flights with ice mallets in her pockets soon after the attacks, lest she had to defend the aircraft. To her regular welcome announcements on those dark days when few people were flying, she added her own, heartfelt line: "We'd like to thank all of you for your loyalty to United Airlines."

Now she is a walking embodiment of an eroding middle class as she serves nine-course meals to first-class passengers -- including Hollywood executives and entertainers -- who pay round-trip, full fares exceeding $4,000 on her regular run from JFK to Los Angeles.

Tamuk said she celebrates her passengers' prosperity and works hard to make them feel good about flying United. It's the rising fortunes of United executives that get to her. Tamuk and her colleagues have a code word for the disparity: $40 million. That's what several publications reported was the 2006 package awarded United chief executive Glenn F. Tilton for steering the company through bankruptcy reorganization. United counters that the value of Tilton's package depends almost totally on how the company performs. It includes $20 million in stock that vests over four years, plus options that could raise the total, but only if the market cooperates. Still, Tamuk said, the reports resonate.

"Forty million -- it's a constant on the airplane," said Tamuk, who heads the New York council of her union, the Association of Flight Attendants. "You hear flight attendants asking, 'Who needs $40 million?' "

She said she feels ground down by an economy in which many major corporations peg workers' wages to those paid by low-cost rivals while paying top officers on the ever-rising scale of Fortune 500 executives.

Tamuk is less jarred than some others by the pay and pension reductions because her husband, a retired New York public school teacher, receives a generous pension and has a second career selling commercial real estate. His income should allow her to retire from United in her 60s on her diminished pension, but she still will need a job. A friend who was visiting her last weekend -- also a flight attendant for almost 30 years and a single mother -- has a very different outlook: "My future is I will be dying on the job," she said.

The unease is stark in contrast to the life Tamuk and her colleagues enjoyed when big carriers ruled the skies. "We thought our company was invincible," she said.

"It really was the perfect job," Tamuk recalled in the sunny Cape Cod-style home in Port Jefferson on Long Island that she and her husband remodeled and expanded on a teacher's and a flight attendant's income. "The schedules were so flexible. When my children were really tiny, I flew turnarounds to the Caribbean so I'd be home every night. When they got older, I flew international to Tokyo. The flight would leave at noon on Thursday, and I'd be back for dinner on Sunday. I could do all the things that you could do if you're a stay-at-home mom and still work full time."

And then there was the free travel for the whole family, anywhere United flew. "We've taken our children to China, Thailand, Alaska, South America," Tamuk said. "We'd say, 'It's school vacation. Okay, where do you want to go?' "

The travel benefits remain intact -- the enduring lure of the flight attendants' life. Even with wages down and hours increased, United had 16,000 applicants for 2,000 flight-attendant jobs as soon as it resumed hiring in 2005 after a years-long freeze.

As Tamuk reminisced about her golden age, so recently cut short, a nephew stopped by for a visit. Just out of college, at 22, he was embarking on a management-track job at Starbucks, and he talked with excitement about his future in a company brimming with growth and possibility. Tamuk flashed her winning smile.

"That's how I felt when I was your age and starting out at United Airlines," she said.

Send comments -- and ideas about other people whose jobs place them in the path of economic change -- to russakoffd@washpost.com. Please put Live and Earn in the subject line.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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