What Color Is Your Parachute?

Her Boss at United Got $3.2 Million. She Got Shoved Out the Door.

Two people recently lost their jobs at United Airlines.

The first was Sheila Adams, 48, a flight attendant making $22,000 a year. In the days following the September 11 attacks, when no one would fly, she got on the planes to keep United in the air. When they furloughed her on October 31, the company gave her 90 days of health and travel benefits, $744 in severance pay, and the promise that sometime in the next six years she might get her job back.

The second was Jim Goodwin, 57, United's CEO, who made a base salary of $900,000 a year and by many counts utterly botched the job, enraging unions and launching a disastrously failed bid to buy US Airways. In the days following the attacks, Goodwin cut 19,999 employees in addition to Sheila Adams. Then he wrote the rest a letter basically informing them that the company was doomed. Forced to resign by the board of directors, Goodwin walked out the last week in October with three years of health benefits, a company car, a country club membership, and a severance package topping $3.2 million.

United Flight attendant Sheila Adams, on post 9-11 layoffs: "They started talking about furloughs before we even had time to grasp what happened."
Photograph by Sylvia Plachy
United Flight attendant Sheila Adams, on post 9-11 layoffs: "They started talking about furloughs before we even had time to grasp what happened."

This disparity has caused some unrest among United's employees. They wonder what portion of the $5 billion Congress just handed the airline industry—a bailout with no provisions for workers fired since the attacks—will be going to Goodwin. United already wounded its laid-off employees once, when, as it was winning its $802 million in federal relief money, executives shipped $11.2 million to France to buy new jets for a luxury spin-off airline called Avolar, which won't even employ United flight attendants.

Sheila Adams takes this in from her apartment in Kew Gardens, which she shares with five other flight attendants, three of whom lost jobs. There are flight attendants in the apartment above them, and flight attendants next door, and so many flight attendants in identical brick buildings up and down Lefferts Boulevard and Metropolitan Avenue that the places feel like college dorms. This is why the Queens neighborhood has come to be called Crew Gardens.

At night, two noises stir the quiet here. One is the mechanical thunder unleashed when commercial jets, taking off from LaGuardia, climb past the 32nd story of the Court Plaza housing project. The other is the low rumble of wheeled Travel Pro suitcases bumping over the cracks in the sidewalks. For a fired flight attendant flipping through the want ads, both sound bitter now.

On a recent evening, Adams sat in her apartment and discussed her frustrations. While she talked, her 17-year-old daughter, Ashley, in from Oregon, packed her mom's stuff into bags and boxes. The airline is allowing the employees to ship 500 pounds home. They were deciding what to take.

As Adams talks, others wander in and out of the small living room with bare white walls. Adams pays $330 a month to live here. She gets $220 a week on unemployment, but only for six months. "A lot of people took advantage of the flying privileges," Adams says. "I can't afford that. I've got bills to pay. Unemployment does not even come close. I'll have to find another job eventually. I may have to leave New York. Then there's the problem of trying to rent our space. 'Cause no one's moving in."

Out over the apartment's narrow balcony, planes are rising to their cruising altitudes. When the hijackings happened, Adams was in the air. "I was on a 7:15 flight from JFK to Los Angeles, on a 767," she remembers. "We were in the air probably an hour. The pilot came on and said that two planes had hit the World Trade Center. We did not know at the time they were commercial planes, but we knew it was severe because they said we had to land and land now. We started descending fast."

They touched down in Kansas City, where they stayed four days. Then, scared, knowing the planes were no safer than before, Adams returned to the air. They resumed the trip to L.A. with half the original passengers. Two more days passed before the crew returned to New York, on a special flight path that avoided Manhattan.

Adams and her colleagues lost 25 coworkers on September 11. Like the cops and the firefighters killed at the World Trade Center, they were doing their jobs. Without their calls to authorities on the ground, we would have almost no picture of what happened on those planes. The surviving cops and firefighters got a huge show of public support. Adams and thousands like her got the ax.

"They started talking about furloughs before we even had time to grasp what happened," Adams says. "Most were not dealing with it well. They lost flying partners, just the loss of life."

Within two weeks, United, like many airlines, had cut what they call probationary employees—anyone there less than six months—and started rolling out furloughs. Some senior attendants took a voluntary three-month leave. Then the company dug into the newest employees. Of the more than 3000 airline workers who've lost jobs in New York, 473 were United attendants.

Newer flight attendants already occupy a precarious position. The first interview question asked of applicants is, Are you willing to relocate? If the answer is no, there won't be another one. They uproot their lives for the trade, first heading to an unpaid six-week training camp—where they need to keep a 90 average on exams or find themselves dismissed—then jetting off to new homes in Denver, in Pittsburgh, in Miami, in Chicago—with no allowance for relocating. The salaries are the same whether you go to an affordable city or a wildly expensive one. Adams left a two-story house's worth of stuff in a $125-a-month storage unit in Oregon and flew to New York.

Next Page »