Flight attendants at Southwest picket, protest work schedules

Demonstrators at BWI, 2 other airports dispense meals, information cards

March 13, 2003|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

In a rare moment of discord at the country's most successful carrier, dozens of Southwest Airlines' typically cheery flight attendants picketed airports yesterday in Baltimore, Chicago and Oakland, Calif., to protest long hours, no breaks and the lack of time to grab a hot meal.

Protesters gave away hundreds of picnic basket lunches containing warm soup and fruit to fellow attendants, and handed thousands of informational cards to passengers in order to draw attention to contract negotiations between the low-cost carrier and the Transport Workers Union, which represents about 7,300 Southwest attendants.

Yesterday's demonstration was the second since the union began negotiations on a new contract in May with Southwest, whose ticker symbol is LUV. In the first protest, workers gathered on Valentine's Day to sing the old Righteous Brothers hit "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" at Dallas Love Field across from Southwest's headquarters.

"Working a flight to Fort Lauderdale Monday, I had to beg the captain to do some of my duties so I could go to the bathroom," said Lucy White, a 28-year-old flight attendant who has been with Southwest for seven years. "I asked him if he could please board passengers for me so I could run to the bathroom. I love my job. I love being a flight attendant. I enjoy it. It's just that it's hard sometimes. You don't have time for anything.

"It would be physically impossible to work a 13-hour day with no break and give customers the best service possible," White said. "I'm not cheerful at 10 1/2 hours and I'm like, `Get me off of this plane.' My tolerance is at zero."

Company officials declined to discuss specifics of contract talks, but said they're supportive of the picnic basket giveaway.

"It's a family matter," said Christine Turneabe-Connelly, a Southwest spokeswoman. "Negotiations are proceeding very productively. We think our flight attendants are the best in the industry. We respect the right of our employees to communicate with our customers, other employees and us.

"We're working together to develop a contract that recognizes them for their contribution," she added. "We've successfully negotiated five labor contracts in the past year and we expect this will turn out the same."

Although common at most of the nation's airlines, such friction is unusual for Southwest, which has prided itself for years on harmony between the company and its employees.

But the severe falloff in air travel after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and continuing economic uncertainty have produced billions of dollars in losses for the nation's major airlines, which have cut thousands of jobs and trimmed flight schedules. Low-fare carrier Southwest, while remaining profitable, saw its earnings fall 53 percent last year from 2001.

Southwest, which historically has focused on short city-to-city hops, recently introduced nonstop coast-to-coast service, with Baltimore-Washington International Airport as its main East Coast hub.

To keep costs down, Southwest does not offer VIP lounges or passenger meals and offers rapid gate turnarounds. It uses three attendants per flight, who are also required to clean the plane between stops, unlike at other carriers, which hire a cleaning service.

Southwest flight attendants typically work a 10 1/2 -hour day, but can work up to 12 hours with no overtime pay. Although issues regarding salary, work rules and quality of life are also being negotiated, protesters say it's the grueling hours that are squashing their sunny dispositions.

Flight attendants say the company now wants to extend the workday to 13 hours and decrease the minimum amount of rest time allowed between workdays, which is currently 11 hours.

Southwest has completed negotiations with its pilots, mechanics, ramp agents, flight instructors, and customer service and reservation agents.

Many flight attendants say they are counting on a successful resolution, too, which might explain the good-natured protest.

"We believe in our company," said Portia Reddick, a 12-year veteran at Southwest who flies mostly out of BWI. "We believe in the Southwest spirit and we just want that to continue. But we also want people to know that we have long duty days. We get no scheduled breaks and no meals. We spend ground time cleaning the aircraft, which we don't get paid for. The only time we get paid is when we're in the air."

Flight attendants say they resort to asking pilots to buy food. Or packing a sandwich. Or heating soup on a coffee warmer during the flight because there aren't any microwaves on board.

And it also means eating by the plane's trash compactor for privacy because Southwest removed the galleys from its airplanes to make room for more seats.

"It's pretty difficult to keep that smile on your face," said a smiling Reddick as she held up a sign that said, "Gimme a Break."

Other signs that said, "Discounted Fares Not Discounted Employees" and "Southwest, Keep that Luv'n Feeling" caught Doug Duvall and Jim Kepler's attention.

"Give me a break," said Duvall, a Westminster business developer who was flying Southwest to Cleveland. "I don't think it's right for them to have to work 13-hour days, but what about the airline passengers who are flying? We don't get meals either. We get peanuts."

Kepler was only slightly amused.

"I work 16-hour days," said Kepler from York, Pa., who was flying to Louisville on Southwest for business. "That's just the nature of the world nowadays. ... I do think their employees need a break, though."

That would be a good start, the protesters said yesterday.

"We want them to take us seriously," said Thom McDaniel, president of Local 556. "It's a serious quality-of-service issue."

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