The three years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have been treacherous for airline employees. Thousands have lost their jobs and many of the rest have felt the squeeze on their daily lives as airlines slashed pay and benefits.
For US Airways employees, the unease is intensifying as the carrier takes its second dip into bankruptcy restructuring in two years. In the first restructuring, the carrier's employees agreed to give up $1.2 billion a year in pay and benefits. Now, they are bracing for another wave of cutbacks and wondering how to keep their lives intact.
"Frankly, I expect to lose my job in the next 90 days," said Steve McKee, a pilot who flies Boeing 737s for the airline. "And if I don't lose my job, I expect my salary will go down by at least 25 percent."
McKee is one of 28,000 employees awaiting details on how the Arlington carrier will reduce labor costs by the promised $800 million. About 2,000 of US Airways' employees are based in the Washington area.
"I have a wife who's a stay-at-home mom, three teenage stepchildren and a 3-year-old daughter from my first marriage. No matter what happens, the money is going to be too tight for me. We'll be buying a smaller home," said McKee, 50, who commutes to his base at Reagan National Airport from his home near Kansas City.
John A. Taylor, another US Airways pilot, sold his home in Spotsylvania, Va., 10 miles west of Fredericksburg. "I had to reduce my expenses," said Taylor, 51. "So I'm renting it back from the gentleman I sold it to in May. That gives me the option to downsize if my job goes away."
US Airways' Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing was just the latest piece of bad news from the large legacy carriers. United has been restructuring under Chapter 11 for two years. Delta Air Lines has said it might file for Chapter 11 protection if it can't make a deal with pilots to reduce costs. Delta also recently announced plans to cut as many as 7,000 jobs and close its hub at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
Airlines blame a combination of factors for their problems: the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that grounded airplanes and put fear into flying, the Iraq war, soaring fuel prices and competition from low-cost carriers such as Southwest and JetBlue, which have forced larger carriers to lower their fares.
US Airways Group Inc. sought bankruptcy protection for the second time after failing to win additional wage and benefit concessions from its unions. In a news release, the airline said there will be no disruption in service while it seeks to restructure $8.7 billion in debt. And it assured frequent fliers that their miles will be honored.
At the same time, US Airways chief executive Bruce R. Lakefield put employees on notice that "sacrifices" are "necessary in the changing airline industry."
To some at U.S. Airways, those are fighting words because they feel they have already sacrificed enough under the first restructuring. Pilots, for example, gave up their defined-benefit pension plan for a less lucrative retirement package.
"This management is inept," said Mollie McCarthy, president of Council 70 of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents 2,300 Philadelphia-based US Airways flight attendants. "We've become the excuse for poor management. Every time we turn around they are saying the problems are because the employees are making too much money."
McCarthy, 55, has been a US Airways flight attendant since 1991. She said her annual income has dropped $3,500 a year since the last round of bankruptcy-related concessions in 2002, and she's working the same number of hours. She declined to disclose her annual earnings but said her base pay is $39.56 an hour.
"And now the company is coming after our pension and retiree medical benefits," McCarthy said. "At what point does this management face the fact that at some point the employee cookie jar is just empty?'
Robert Kenia, who heads the union local for US Airways flight attendants in the Washington area, said he will lose 12 of his 33 annual vacation days if the airline's restructuring plan is approved. US Airways is seeking a 15 percent pay reduction for flight attendants, and an increase in work hours, he said.
"The quality of life you have worked and worked and worked for all these years, all of a sudden they want to cut it," said Kenia, who joined US Airways in 1988.
Peter Gauthier, a 25-year US Airways pilot, seemed resigned that evolutionary forces are working against the large, older airlines. "Four years ago, life was good. You know, I bought a home and I would take my kids on vacation from time to time," he said. "But looking ahead to the pay cuts coming forward, I have very serious concerns about how to send my children to college."
Some US Airways employees recognize that more sacrifices are required of all workers if the airline is to survive. "You know the old Titanic? Well, this is the tip of the iceberg. This is the beginning of a whole economic change," said Taylor, a US Airways pilot for 21 years. "We have pooh-poohed the low-cost guys for years and you know what? The economic reality is, they have a better product. It's cheaper. The customers have voted with their dollars."
McKee conceded that life has been tough the past few years. "But I'm not pessimistic about the airline," he said. "The company needs productivity improvements. They need more work for less pay."
McKee, who earned $120,000 last year, said he fears for his job because in seniority he ranks in the bottom 200 of the airline's 3,000 pilots. "I've seen proposals from the company that mention layoffs of over 700 pilots," he said.
He'll probably find work flying a corporate jet if he's laid off, McKee said.
Commercial airline jobs, he said, have become increasingly hard to come by. And pilots who switch airlines generally have to start all over, working at the minimum pay scale and getting the least desirable assignments.
"United, American and Northwest have all laid off pilots," McKee said. "I have applied at Southwest. But I'm told they already have over 5,000 qualified applicants on file."
Taylor said he once earned $297,000 a year as a US Airways pilot and flight instructor. He said he now earns $144,000, and the airline has proposed a 16.5 percent pay cut as part of its restructuring plan, he said.
"What would I do if my job went away?" said Taylor, who has three children and a wife who's a United flight attendant. "I've taught high school, been a ski instructor. But my heart is in flying.
"If I went to work for a regional carrier, those guys are looking at around $25,000 for a first officer. You know, you can make more money as an assistant manager at McDonald's."
US Airways says it was pushed into bankruptcy largely by labor costs, which are much higher than those of its low-cost competitors, and by a fuel bill that will total about $300 million more than the carrier anticipated.
In May, the airline sounded a warning in an employees' newsletter, titled "A plan to reshape US Airways."
"Consumers are demanding lower, simpler fares and carriers like Southwest, America West, AirTran and JetBlue have been successful because they are able to provide what customers want," the newsletter said. "Budget airlines now account for nearly a third of domestic capacity, up 9 percentage points just since 2000 and are expected to top 40 percent by the end of the decade."
In the newsletter, US Airways pledged to reduce costs through "more efficient operations and labor savings."
Low-cost carriers can charge lower fares, in part, because they pay their employees less, airline executives say.
Three-month-old Independence Air, for example, says it pays its senior flight attendants a top hourly base wage of $30. The most-senior flight attendants at US Airways earn a base wage of $41 an hour, according to a union executive.
But with more pay cuts seemingly on the way, " a lot of our flight attendants are out looking for other jobs," McCarthy said. "Many of our flight attendants bought homes and had children, thinking they could afford this. But now the promise that was made to us is no longer there. You know, we can't send our children back."
Gauthier, who lives in North Arlington, says he isn't taking any chances. He's started an after-hours business, buying run-down homes in Baltimore, renovating and selling them.
"I started doing this last year," he said. "You'd have to be blind not to see that economic changes were on the horizon in the airline industry."