What Color Is Your Parachute?

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

"That's the thing," she says. "They ask you if you will move anywhere, if you will give up your entire life for the company. I did. I moved halfway across the country."

Despite all this, flight attendants display a rare fidelity for the job. They love it. The insignia of this strong feeling is their wings, which they receive after training and wear proudly on their navy blue uniforms.

While Adams talks, one of her roommates, Janice Jean Francois, 28, has been sitting and listening. US Airways fired Jean Francois and their other roommate, Elizabeth Wilson, with two days' notice, 26 days before they reached the end of their probationary period, when they would have been furloughed instead. They received no severance, only 60 days of health benefits and 90 of free flying. Then the company started to ask for things back.

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."

First US Airways—whose chairman, Stephen Wolf, made nearly $11.6 million in salary and stock options last year—asked the women, who made about $17,000 a year, to return their uniforms. OK, Jean Francois says, the airlines don't need regulation uniforms loose in a world worried about security. Then the company asked them to return their little black Travel Pro suitcases—these suitcases, mind you, are beat-up, they have no company logo, and astoundingly, from the time the attendants started, US Airways has been deducting $10 from their paychecks to pay for them. Now the company says this was not for purchasing the bags; this was a "user fee." OK.

But the wings, the wings are something else all together.

"They are the same people who called me and asked me to keep the airline together and come back to fly," Jean Francois says. "We believe in the company. And then they ask you to give back your wings. That's degrading to me. That's what I earned, what I worked for. That's like debadging a cop. Asking for my wings back is telling me I did something wrong, when I gave 110 percent."

To make it worse, they say disaster relief agencies are turning them away, telling them Congress already gave money to the airlines. Because of a technicality about her start date, Elizabeth Wilson won't qualify for unemployment until January. "The little people who need the most help are not getting that help," she says. "What are they going to do for us? Where is that help?"

Some see the treatment of the flight attendants as part of a long tradition of disrespect for them as workers in a profession historically made up largely of women. For years, until courts struck the regulations down, the airlines forced women to adhere to strict requirements on height, weight, and marital status; they could have no children, and had to retire at 32. The last of these rules didn't fall until 1994.

"It's not about ditzy blond women with makeup and high heels serving drinks," says Jean Francois. "It's not what they thought a flight attendant was 30 or 40 years ago. We have men now; our uniforms have changed. We have women who are skinny, women who are bigger. They have to start respecting what we are."

She goes on, remembering September 11. "The question is why they disabled the flight attendants first," she says. "Why were they handcuffed? Why were their throats cut? You need to understand why, then you'll know. We're a threat. We're security professionals."

Now, clearly, the airlines are flopping in a pile of financial slop. United recently posted the largest quarterly loss in its 75-year history—$1.16 billion for the three months ending September 30. The others aren't doing much better. Nationwide, the airlines have laid off almost 150,000 people.

But even before September 11, despite what analysts say should be the most profitable route structure in the business, United looked ill, as the deepening recession eroded corporate travel. While Wall Street has faulted United for its high labor costs, union leaders say the real problem is runaway executive salaries and decision making that favors investors who do no work over employees who have a lifelong commitment to the company. The flight attendants, some of whom make less than $20,000 a year, say they're even willing to split shifts and retire early to keep United aloft.

They also say that if the airlines took dramatic action on security—they could even boast about it in advertising, the safest airline in the sky!—they'd lure passengers back more quickly than with the cut-rate tickets they're offering now. Instead, union leaders say, the companies and the feds just seem to be watching each other, saucer-eyed, like one herd of deer watching another herd of deer in an IMAX movie.

"In the last couple months you'd think they'd take the initiative," says Dawn Deeks, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants. "But the FAA is just waiting to see what the airlines do, and the airlines are waiting to see what they're forced to do."

Waiting for Congress has proved fruitless. Workers had hoped the bailout package—a $5 billion cash grant and $10 billion in federal loan guarantees—would extend the measly 26-week unemployment insurance, give them health care, and include job training perhaps. No such luck.

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