by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
A group of flight attendants who joined American Airlines in a previous merger is asking Congress to resolve a turbulent union fight before the company combines again with US Airways.
The contentious issue has sparked so much tension between the flight attendants and Sen. Claire McCaskill that the Missouri Democrat’s office has said it will no longer communicate with them.
The labor fight, between a group of approximately 900 of American’s flight attendants and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), involves seniority the employees lost more than a decade ago.
The frustrated flight attendants were long-time employees of TWA Airlines before their airline merged with American in 2001. They are looking now for a resolution before the company’s widely expected merger with US Airways is finalized.
US Air has been in talks to buy American for most of the last year. During that time, the Dallas-based airline has been trying to emerge from bankruptcy.
When American purchased TWA, more than 4,000 of the company’s flight attendants were treated as if they were new hires, meaning that they ranked behind rookie flight attendants from their new parent airline. A large majority of the flight attendants have accepted buy-outs from American in the intervening years, leaving the current group at about 900.
The flight attendants that have remained say they tried to win a legislative fix for their seniority situation, working through lawmakers who represented TWA’s former home state of Missouri. McCaskill and former Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) passed an amendment in 2007 dealing with seniority issues in airline mergers, but the legislation only addressed future combinations.
The former TWA flight attendants are worried now that the window on their chance to have their seniority issues addressed will soon be permanently closed.
“TWA flight attendants are already at the bottom of the list,” said Dixie Daniels, who has 40 years of experience between her time at TWA and American.
“The result of another merger is everyone goes ahead of us again,” Daniels continued.
The flights attendants say McCaskill has reneged on a promise to help them win a retroactive application of the 2007 law that requires seniority in airline mergers to be determined by employees’ original date of hire.
McCaskill wrote a letter to the APFA union in 2007 promising to address the “recall rights” of the former TWA workers, many of whom were furloughed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in a funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration.
But in the same letter, dated Aug. 3, 2007, McCaskill said such a legislative effort would “not affect the seniority rights of employees, and it is not my intention to do so.”
Despite that proclamation, however, the former TWA flight attendants say that McCaskill’s office has characterized what they argue are changes in her positions on the seniority issue as misrepresentations of her statements.
“In light of persistent misrepresentations, alongside conduct that has been consistently unprofessional, inappropriate and hostile — including appalling behavior by several who claim to be leaders among the former TWA flight attendants and their consultant — the senator will not engage in this intra-union dispute nor continue discussions regarding the issue,” a policy staffer for McCaskill wrote in an email that was provided to The Hill by the former TWA employees.
“As has always been the case, you are free to work with other offices, within your union or otherwise to advance your interests,” the email from McCaskill’s office continued. “However, this message will serve as the last engagement the senator’s office will have on this matter.”
A spokesman for McCaskill similarly said on Tuesday that the recently reelected senator would be steering clear of the flight attendants’ seniority fight in the future.
“Nobody worked harder than Claire on behalf of the laid-off TWA flight attendants, and Claire’s efforts are the reason they’ve been recalled and have their jobs back today,” McCaskill spokesman Drew Pusateri said. “We wish all the parties involved luck in solving their intra-union issues.”
‘STAPLED TO THE BOTTOM’
The union in question, the APFA, has acknowledged that it “really screwed up” on the integration of the TWA employees when American acquired its company.
“When we merged with TWA, the company did give them top pay but we stapled them to the bottom of our seniority list,” APFA President Laura Glading said in an interview last year with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “That was a mistake. But we did.”
The APFA says now that it is doing “everything possible to protect the interests of each of our members,” including the former TWA flight attendants.
“Specifically, this [APFA] administration has worked tirelessly to ensure that no furloughed flight attendant would fall off the seniority list and end up on the street,” the APFA said in a statement that was provided to The Hill.
“At this time, every flight attendant has been recalled,” the APFA statement continued. “Additionally, each of our members were eligible for the voluntary early out program, which is something our bankruptcy team fought very hard to guarantee.”
Daniels and other former TWA flight attendants vehemently disagree the union has fought for their rights, however.
“When Laura Glading admitted … that APFA screwed up big time and made a mistake in depriving the TWA flight attendants of their seniority, please ask what she has done to rectify that mistake,” Daniels wrote in an email to The Hill.
“The answer is that she hasn’t done a damn thing, because she doesn’t believe it was a mistake,” Daniels continued. “The only reason she said it was because she was sitting next to US Airways CEO Doug Parker, who has suffered tremendous problems in running his own company due to the same problems that APFA dished out to the TWA flight attendants.”
Daniels argued that the McCaskill-Bond legislation was applied only to future airline mergers at the AFPA’s insistence.
“[Glading] has said two opposite things,” the long-time flight attendant wrote. “What is true is what she allows to stand.
“I have 40 years of seniority and I’ll be the first in line to be laid off because McCaskill-Bond is the law of the land,” Daniels added in an interview.
‘LIKE A HOLE IN THE WALL’
The TWA flight attendants say their seniority is not just a matter of personal pride — it affects their ability to draw favorable work schedules or be based out of airports located near their homes, which they say would normally be afforded by virtue of their experience.
“Being junior at this age is tough,” said Daniels, who started working for TWA in 1973. “I have to leave early in the morning and I get back later at night. I’m based in Miami and I live in Utah.”
Daniels added that one of their former coworkers, Amy Ludwig, struggled to get insurance for cancer treatments they argued would have been covered if she had her TWA seniority. Ludwig passed away in December.
Another former TWA flight attendant said the group was trying to get their seniority back to prevent situations like Ludwig’s from reoccurring. The attendant, James Tuller, said he was not concerned if Congress or the APFA union is the one to ultimately resolve their concerns, as long as they are finally resolved.
“We are looking to get our seniority back,” Tuller said. “They say ‘Congress has already addressed the issue,’ [but] it’s like a hole in the wall. Paint it, spackle it, good as new.”
When asked who he hoped would provide them with a satisfactory resolution, Tuller added: “[A]nybody who has the power and authority to do so.”
The flight attendants say they have been in touch with House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.).