Former TWA Attendants Press On

The past five years haven't been easy, but now their plight is drawing congressional attention.
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Everybody knows that mergers can be bad for workers, but few know better than the former flight attendants of TWA.

TWA had about 4,000 flight attendants on the payroll when it merged with

American

(AMR)

in April 2001. About 3,000 stuck around after the merger. Yet today, not a single one of those flight attendants is employed by American.

Instead, the TWA flight attendants -- most of them middle-aged -- were gradually laid off, as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks triggered a massive restructuring of the airline industry. Now, although some have moved on, many remain on a recall list of 2,517 flight attendants furloughed by American, which has been slower than other carriers to add capacity after downsizing.

A recent survey of some 500 former TWA flight attendants shows just how badly they have fared since losing their jobs. The survey, compiled online by former flight attendants, indicates that 46% of the group has not found full-time employment. About 47% have had their income reduced by 50% or more, while 49% have had to tap their retirement savings.

Additionally, 36% said they have had to move or downsize, and 42% have been diagnosed with a medical condition since being furloughed. Today, 48% of the group is 55 or older.

The survey was cited by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) at a Jan. 24 Senate Commerce Committee hearing on airline consolidation. "I have a great deal of angst over what has happened to the former TWA employees," McCaskill said then.

Falling Off the List

Recently, TWA flight attendants have suffered more misfortune.

After the merger, they were placed at the bottom of the seniority list by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), which represents American's flight attendants. As a result, they were first to go when the layoffs began. And now, because the contract limits recall rights to five years (which is standard in the airline industry), they are gradually losing their recall rights.

The first group of 167 TWA flight attendants, laid off in October 2001, fell off the recall list last October. The last group, laid off in July 2003, would fall off in July 2008.

When the merger agreement was reached in 2001, "we were promised our jobs, and seniority was left up to the unions to negotiate," says Roger Graham, an 18-year TWA flight attendant who oversaw the survey and is spearheading efforts to seek redress for the group. "We were promised that a facilitator would be involved in the seniority integration. But that never happened."

"Most of these people had 20 to 40 years of service, and now they are going to lose their jobs to people who had only one or two years of service when the layoffs began," says the 43-year-old Graham, who is now employed at a brokerage firm but who devotes 20 to 25 hours a week to working on behalf of his former co-workers.

At TWA, flight attendants made a series of concessions that eventually reduced their salaries to roughly $30,000 annually, Graham notes. Under American's pay scale, top salary for senior flight attendants is about $46,000 to $50,000 annually. TWA flight attendants were covered by the American pay scales starting in January 2002, but many were laid off before then. By contrast, new hires join American at roughly $16,000 annually.

Seeking a Resolution

American spokesman Tim Smith says the union controls the seniority list, while the contract limits recall rights to five years for all flight attendants. The contract becomes amendable in May 2008.

In September, about three dozen TWA flight attendants picketed the APFA office in Dallas. The union has said that while it regrets the loss of recall rights, it cannot take the risk of reopening contract talks early in order to get the rights extended.

"If we open our contract to amend this language ... all items in the contract would be open for discussion," the union said last month, in a recorded message to members. "Now is not the time for our work group to subject ourselves to the possibility of further concessions while American is just beginning to regain its financial footing."

TWA's flight attendants were members of the International Association of Machinists. The union no longer represents the group, but IAM General Vice President Robert Roach says he met with McCaskill at the commerce committee hearing and asked her to set up a meeting between American, APFA and flight attendants' representatives, including Graham.

"It's not an easy situation," Roach says. "Everybody was promised a job, but then 9/11 came, and American started closing bases and cutting operations. These people were not given seniority, and they went out the door.

"Now it's a matter of collective bargaining, and people are trying to find a resolution," he says. "APFA is motivated to get that done, the senator is motivated and the airline is motivated, so the intent is just to get them all in the same room so they can work it out."

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