East Coast's fliers breathe sigh of relief

US Airways, union avert crippling shutdown, strike over contract

`Operating normally'

Five-year agreement would increase pay for attendants by 10%

March 26, 2000|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Anxious travelers awoke not to a calamity but rather to the news that US Airways and its flight attendants had reached an early morning labor compromise, averting a shutdown that threatened to cripple airports throughout the East.

The deal came after 3 a.m. -- well beyond the midnight deadline that the Arlington, Va.- based carrier had set for grounding 2,200 daily flights and withdrawing nearly a third of the East Coast's commercial air traffic from the skies.

But by dawn, US Airways' employees were working, passengers were boarding and the airline was beginning its long- sought recovery from four years of sometimes damaging negotiations with its work force.

"We have an agreement, and we're not shutting down," said airline spokesman David Castelveter. "Everything is operating normally."

But two things were not normal yesterday.

US Airways' 10,000 flight attendants, who have worked without a contract and without a raise for the past 3 1/2 years, were close to getting both. The five-year agreement offers workers a 10 percent salary increase over the life of the deal and a signing bonus, along with improved pension and family leave benefits.

And the nation's sixth-largest airline found itself no longer locked in painful negotiations with one of its labor unions. Yesterday's contract, which must be approved by members of the Association of Flight Attendants, capped a string of union talks that at times rattled nerves, delayed flights and cost the airline millions of dollars.

"The AFA leadership and the company's management worked extremely hard to put in place an agreement that works for our flight attendants and allows the company to compete in the marketplace," US Airways officials said. "We are very pleased."

Clinton kept updated

President Clinton, who has strikebreaking powers in the transportation industry, was kept updated on progress while traveling in South Asia.

During the night, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart issued a statement saying that Clinton was urging the sides "to stay at the table and redouble their efforts to reach an agreement as soon as possible. They owe that to each other and to the American people."

The airline's promise to shut down rather than subject customers to the flight attendants' threat of random, unannounced strikes sent customers scrambling for alternatives over the past few weeks.

Competing airlines had promised to accept US Airways tickets, but most were booked heavily with spring break and vacation travelers, and they could promise little more than standby status.

A shutdown would have been like a straitjacket for the passenger transportation network on the East Coast, where US Airways is a dominant carrier. The airline moves an average of 180,000 passengers a day during the busy spring season. It is the largest or second-largest airline at all three Baltimore-Washington area airports, as well as in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston, Charlotte, N.C., and New York's LaGuardia Airport.

Travelers pleased

At Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday afternoon, Sue Seubert was reading a book in Pier D, waiting to board a connecting flight to Orlando, Fla. She lives in Utica, N.Y., and had to be awake by 5 a.m. to check her flight's status. She was happy to hear it wasn't stuck on the ground.

"My travel agent checked another airline last week, and it would have cost me close to $1,000," said Seubert, who planned to visit relatives. "There was nothing else to do. I'm glad this all worked out."

The contract agreement will be reviewed in the next few days by the union's Master Executive Council, which will vote on whether to accept it and recommend it to members. The union plans a "roadshow" of meetings around the country to discuss the contract's details, after which the full membership would be asked to vote on it by mail.

The process is expected to take several weeks.

Though the deal was called "tentative," company and union officials hailed it as an end to four years of difficult negotiations.

US Airways had asked the flight attendants to accept a contract giving them salaries and benefits 1 percent higher than the average paid by the country's four largest airlines. With its expensive, short-haul routes and a mature work force, US Airways has higher operating costs than almost all of its competitors.

Flight attendants rejected the proposal. Not only would it amount to a 5 percent pay cut, they said, but it would have subjected them to too much uncertainty whenever a competitor's contract was revised.

Company officials declined to discuss the tentative contract yesterday. But they seemed to back off their insistence on a "parity plus one" contract Friday, when the company announced that "alternative ways to achieve its goal" were under consideration.

Analysts said a shutdown would have cost US Airways $20 million a day or more. But the negotiations were costly for the airline, resulting in reduced bookings throughout its system.

Negotiations with the airline's pilots three years ago caused similar grief for the company, when the talks threatened to delay delivery of new aircraft and forestall creation of the low-fare spinoff MetroJet. And last year, when the company was negotiating a contract with its mechanics, maintenance delays began forcing expensive and troublesome flight cancellations.

US Airways lost $166 million in the last half of 1999 and is not expected to make a profit in the first half of this year. But the airline has fixed its computer glitches, lowered some of its high costs and improved its schedule performance, and analysts have called the flight attendant contract one of the last bandages it needs.

Deal praised

"It feels great. We stuck together and didn't give in, and it looks like we got what we needed," said Michelle King, an 11-year flight attendant preparing to board a flight from BWI to Chicago yesterday. "I am so happy to be at work today."

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