As Pay Falls, Airlines Struggle to Fill Jobs
Tighter Staffing Makes Morale 'Severely Tested'; Why Your Flight Is Late
By MELANIE TROTTMAN and SUSAN CAREY
May 16, 2007; Page A1
Wrestling suitcases on and off planes got so grueling late last year for Southwest Airlines Co.'s 350 ramp workers in Chicago that by Christmas season one-fourth of them were reporting on-the-job injuries. Starting pay for the position: $8.75 an hour.
Airlines used to offer prestigious jobs with good wages and coveted flight benefits. Now, in the aftermath of aggressive cutbacks, a growing number of airline jobs are more akin to those at a fast-food restaurant. The pay is low, the work is tough and, in a new twist, airlines are having trouble hanging onto workers and finding new ones.
"What once was a glamorous job…doesn't look so good any more," says Andy Roberts, executive vice president of operations for Northwest Airlines Corp. Mr. Roberts says Northwest and its peers used to have a list of applicants "as long as your arm." Now, "we have to go seek them out, even pilots."
That's not good news for passengers, as the combination of fewer and less experienced workers is causing more service problems. Planes sit on tarmacs because airlines are short on gate workers. Service on planes is slower because many airlines are flying with fewer flight attendants. When bad weather hits, tight staffing may mean more delays or canceled flights.
The situation isn't likely to improve anytime soon. Although airlines were able to raise fares the last two years as travel surged, customers have begun to resist fare increases, domestic demand is softening, and jet-fuel prices have started rising again. These are the same pressures that contributed to more than $50 billion in net losses from 2001 through 2005.
The U.S. airline industry is profitable today in part because big network carriers shed more than 170,000 workers, or 38% of the total, between August 2001 and October 2006, according to the Air Transport Association. That happened even as the number of passengers flying has returned to pre-9/11 levels. Pay has fallen, sometimes substantially.
Capt. Gene Malone, a 56-year-old pilot for AMR Corp.'s American Airlines, says his annual pay dropped to $140,000 from $175,000 after the airline won concessions to stay out of bankruptcy. He's flying more overnight "red-eye" flights from his base in Los Angeles. He plans to retire early in about 18 months. "An airline career is not worth it anymore," says Capt. Malone. "It's a very different profession than it was 23 years ago when I started."
When UAL Corp.'s United Airlines decided recently to bring back pilots who were furloughed during the downturn, most didn't want to come back, says Capt. Steve Derebey, a spokesman for the pilots union. "It takes 10 letters to get one back," he says. UAL disputes this, saying a majority have returned. It acknowledges having a hard time recruiting new workers in some locations where unemployment is low and the cost of living is high.
American Airlines now staffs full MD-80s with three flight attendants, the minimum under federal regulations, down from four. The plane carries about 130 passengers. Though airlines say they can get by with the minimum because meals have largely disappeared from domestic flights, operating with minimum staff increases the likelihood of a flight being canceled if a crew member calls in sick.
Pamela Lopez-Lewis, a Northwest flight attendant for 28 years, says she started working a second job as a bartender 18 months ago to make up for what she estimates is a $15,000 drop in pay imposed by the airline in bankruptcy. "Everybody is reaching their breaking point," she says of her colleagues. "Morale is so low. You've been insulted by the pay you're getting. You're not feeling happy. I absolutely think it affects service. Apathy prevails."
Mr. Roberts, the Northwest executive vice president, says: "Morale is certainly severely tested. It's hard to keep people enthused."
American Airlines passenger Leana Hill had her holidays upended by short-staffing last Christmas Day, when she and her family had two of their flights canceled due to lack of crews. The Hills missed spending Christmas in St. Louis with her in-laws, eventually arriving around midnight. American called her experience "unfortunate" and said staffing is difficult for all industries during the holidays.
Advances in technology account for some of the declining need for workers. Many passengers book their tickets on the Internet and check in via self-service kiosks. Also, airlines need fewer gate agents because passengers are now generally required to check in at the main terminal before undergoing security screening.
Nonetheless, by many measures, service is growing worse. Last year, 22.6% of flights were late, the highest percentage since 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. That isn't all the fault of airlines; the outdated U.S. air-traffic-control system also plays a role. In March of this year, passenger complaints about U.S. airlines nearly doubled from the same month a year earlier, with big increases in gripes about cancellations, delays, and missed connections. That same month, the rate of mishandled baggage rose nearly 33% from a year earlier at the largest 20 carriers, says the department.
US Airways Group Inc. recently acknowledged the cuts have gone too far. After slashing its work force and keeping its ranks lean during two trips through Chapter 11 and a merger with America West Airlines, the carrier is now profitable. But in March, the airline ranked last among its peers in punctuality, at just 55.5%. US Airways also admits its baggage handling has suffered, particularly at its hub in Philadelphia, with long waits and too few "runners" to transfer bags of passengers making flight connections.
The airline last month said it will hire more than 1,000 airport workers to help it manage the busy summer travel season. US Airways has already hired more runners in Philadelphia, and started deploying "virtual agents" with cellphones to airports to assist passengers waiting on long lines.
United is also adding back some staff. The airline says it hired 2,000 flight attendants last year and plans to add 1,700 this year. Sara Nelson, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants branch at United, says one reason for the extensive outside hiring is that the airline had trouble calling back its own attendants. United says a majority of those recalled came back, and it was overwhelmed by applications for the new jobs it created.
Despite the additions, US Airways Chief Executive Doug Parker says the low-fare market leaves airlines with little choice but to operate lean staffs. "You can't get the passengers to pay more so the airlines can staff another flight attendant. It's the reality of the business and what the consumer has told us they want," he said in an interview.
For decades, airline jobs were coveted, and many of the largest carriers attracted multiple generations of the same families drawn to the glamour of aviation. The pay was better than comparable jobs in other fields, the benefits were generous, and travel passes allowed workers to fly for little or no money.
Now, snarling passengers and trimmed pay have taken away much of the industry's allure. And airline workers have a harder time taking an inexpensive vacation: With planes full of paying passengers, they're often unable to grab a free seat for themselves.
Even the more financially successful budget airlines are doing more with fewer people. "We're trying to grow the company without adding head count," says Greg Wells, senior vice president of operations for Southwest Airlines. When Southwest was faced with the ramp-worker injuries at Chicago's Midway Airport over Christmas, the airline muddled through by asking for or imposing overtime and using fewer gates so there would be enough manpower to cover each one. It is studying why there were so many injuries.
JetBlue Airways Corp. got a huge black eye when it mishandled a Valentine's Day ice storm in New York, stranding customers in airports and on planes for hours at a time. David Neeleman, the founder and chief executive officer, days later admitted there "are some areas of the company…that needed to be beefed up and didn't keep pace with the growth" of the discount airline. Last week Mr. Neeleman stepped down as CEO.
While unions criticize what they call excessive staffing cuts, they're not happy about one response to the problem: outsourcing work. A few years ago, Northwest hired lower-wage "skycaps" to help check in passengers inside the terminal, but it had to halt the practice after the union argued successfully that the skycaps violated contract terms governing customer-service agents.
Last month the union representing United's mechanics filed a grievance saying the airline is outsourcing a higher percentage of maintenance spending than the union's contract allows. United says it is within the contractual limit.
Carefully negotiated union pay scales also can make it difficult to raise wages for hard-to-fill jobs. Stephen Gordon, president of the International Association of Machinists district that represents Northwest ground workers, says Northwest was having trouble recruiting ramp workers and wanted to raise starting pay to $10 an hour from $9. The union's reply: If you do that, you need to give everyone a $1-an-hour raise. The wages stayed the same.
When outsourcing does happen, the process isn't always smooth. In 2005, Alaska Air Group Inc.'s Alaska Airlines outsourced ramp jobs in Seattle to an outside firm. The transition was marked by misplaced luggage, late flights and an incident in which a damaged aircraft had to make an emergency landing. The airline and the outside firm, John Menzies PLC, say the problems have been fixed.
Overall, airline and government officials say tighter staffing doesn't represent a threat to passenger safety. A spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration says air travel "has never been safer."
Ground operations are among the most acutely affected by the airlines' cutbacks. Troy Bacon, a ramp agent in Atlanta for Delta Air Lines Inc., says he has seen a shortage of drivers to transport luggage at the international terminal during weekends, which contributes to baggage delays. "Sometimes, they may be 10 minutes late because they're so undermanned," though the company has been hiring, he said. Delta says it recently adjusted staffing to address problems like the one Mr. Bacon describes. Mr. Bacon says his pay fell nearly 20% as Delta reorganized in bankruptcy court, to $14.07 an hour from $17.28, although he has gained some of that back recently.
Mr. Gordon of the machinists union said Northwest is having difficulty hiring and retaining qualified employees in expensive cities such as Boston and New York. In Minneapolis, where the airline has a hub, "you can hire on the ramp for $9 an hour" and work bad shifts out in the cold weather, or "you can work inside a Target for $11," he said. Northwest confirms that it is having hiring difficulties in some places.
In Dallas, Southwest Airlines had 140 customer-service agents before 9/11, compared with about 90 now, says Debbie Aven, an official with a part of Mr. Gordon's union that represents these workers. (Southwest says the pre-9/11 figure was closer to 120.) The company now sometimes assigns one or two agents to handle multiple gates, which can cause problems when a flight is late or oversold, says Ms. Aven.
Southwest says it doesn't think the new staffing arrangement has worsened service for passengers, although it won't roll it out fully until it introduces technology that will help rebook passengers automatically when there are storms or other disruptions.
Yesterday, the University of Michigan released its American Customer Satisfaction Index. U.S. airlines scored 63 out of a possible 100, their lowest score in seven years and two points lower than last year. Airlines fared worse, by nine points, than the federal government and even lagged by two points the Internal Revenue Service.
American's vice president of customer-services planning, Marilyn DeVoe, says the airline's overall staffing is adequate. "Would we like to have more manpower?" she asks. "I would. But it just isn't prudent as a business."