What Color Is Your Parachute?


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.

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.

“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.

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.

Although 46 Democrats, six Republicans, and two independents managed to vote against the package, 356 members of Congress voted for it, including Democrats Nita Lowey and Anthony Weiner, who represent parts of Kew Gardens. Those who cared about laid-off workers took Republican leaders’ word that they would bring up workers’ benefits later. A bill that would deliver these benefits, the Displaced Workers Assistance Act, doesn’t appear headed for a vote soon.

So the flight attendants put hope in United’s new CEO, John Creighton, who arrived October 28 with the approval of the machinists’ and pilots’ union representatives on the board of directors. As the head of Pacific Northwest timber and paper giant Weyerhaeuser until 1997, analysts say, Creighton earned the respect of unions and even some environmentalists, for training his loggers to tailor their clear-cuts to protect habitats and scenic integrity. In recent weeks, Creighton has invited the unions in to look at United’s books. And since he took over, the probationary flight attendants United had fired were placed on furlough instead.

Union leaders, who say help for the probationaries had already been in the works, are reserving judgment.

“We understand that the guy has a good reputation, that he’s committed to the idea that United Airlines does not face bankruptcy,” says Greg Davidowitch, president of the United flight attendant’s local based in Kew Gardens. “That’s a good start.”

Those with real concerns over Creighton come from the human rights circuit, which for years has been protesting the oil company Unocal, where he has served on the board of directors for six years, including a recent term as nonexecutive chairman. He must know, then, about the company’s $1.2 billion Yadana gas pipeline in Burma, a joint venture with a French company and a military dictatorship internationally censured for rape, torture, and executions without trial. According to one lawsuit, the military violently relocated Burmese citizens in the pipeline’s way, used forced labor to build service roads and helipads, and forced villagers to carry its heavy loads and guns under penalty of severe beatings or even death.

Creighton met with an activist priest about these matters this year. “The board of directors definitely knows what’s going on,” says Marco Simons, at EarthRights International, which is representing 11 refugees from the region in the suit against Unocal. “If they have not found out from their internal sources, we’ve told them. The former president of Unocal has acknowledged the existence of forced labor at shareholders’ meetings. It’s clear what’s going on. The members of the board of directors are either willfully complicit, or they are turning a blind eye to the human rights abuses.”

In press statements, the company has countered that the project not only helped change military labor policies but also led to widespread socioeconomic improvements.

Then there’s Unocal’s earlier love affair with the Taliban. From 1997 to 1998, when Creighton was on the board of directors, Unocal dreamed of a pipeline moving oil from the former Soviet republics across Afghanistan to tankers in the Arabian Sea, and tried to strike up a business relationship with the Taliban. The company flew key Taliban members to Houston for a party and continued courting them until pressure from feminist groups in the U.S. and the embassy bombings in Africa finally forced the executives to scuttle the pipeline deal, which could have netted the Taliban $100 million a year.

Just imagine. John Creighton is a director on the board of the oil and gas company Unocal. Disregarding the Taliban’s dismal record on human rights, the company spends a year cozying up to these rulers, giving them money and legitimacy. The Taliban sponsors camps that train militants who hate the United States. Some of these men fly to America, hijack two planes owned by United Airlines (among others), murder the flight attendants first, kill 4800 or so others, flatten financial and government buildings, and wreck the airline industry. United Airlines is one of the worst hit. To fix this mess, United’s investors hire one of their board members, John Creighton. As CEO, Creighton will probably make, like his predecessor, about a million dollars a year. He steps down from his chairmanship at Unocal, but retains his seat on the board.

Sheila Adams, meanwhile, is on her way to a job fair in California, home of Unocal, hoping to find a new source of income, even as John Creighton is moving from Seattle to Chicago to accept his new executive post. For those mapping the networks and ironies of corporate globalization, there could hardly be a better object lesson.