Flight attendants see trouble in the skies. Two years after TWA strike, workers say discrimination persists

For Francie Kelly-Miller, a Trans World Airlines flight attendant for 19 years, Sunday was a day of celebration. Exactly two years after the beginning of a nine-week strike over wage cuts and work conditions that initially cost 5,000 TWA flight attendants their jobs, Mrs. Kelly-Miller learned that she is finally being called back to work.

``I'm ecstatic,'' she said during an interview at Masonic Hall as she and 150 New England-area flight attendants gathered for a nationwide teleconference marking the second anniversary of the strike. ``I feel I deserve this job.''

Yet for most members of the International Federation of Flight Attendants attending the teleconference at 30 sites across the country, the mood was far less jubilant. They are among 4,300 TWA flight attendants still waiting to be reinstated after TWA chairman Carl Icahn replaced them with new, lower-paid workers.

Last Thursday a federal judge ruled that the airline did not bargain in bad faith to precipitate and prolong the strike - a decision the union is appealing.

Although the TWA strike remains the most visible sign of unrest among flight attendants, TWA employees are hardly alone.

Late last month Northwest Airlines flight attendants voted to strike in a dispute over wages, benefits, and work rules - a strike that has since been postponed. And in December flight attendants at American Airlines averted a threatened strike by ratifying a five-year contract that gives them pay increases and improved retirement benefits.

At issue at these and other airlines is what flight attendants see as a consistent pattern of discrimination against a profession that is 86 percent female. Airlines argue that intense competition, brought about by deregulation, has made cost-cutting measures such as two-tier wage scales necessary.

Flight attendants counter that replacing older ``A''-scale workers with younger ``B''-scale workers represents an attempt to turn long-term career opportunities into short-term jobs.

``They don't want people like me at the highest pay scale who have long vacations and a retirement plan,'' says Jytte Wells, a TWA flight attendant for 27 years. ``They want a fast turnover of 20-year-olds.''

Salaries, benefits, and status improved since the 1960s, when flight attendants were not allowed to marry, have children, or work beyond the age of 32. As a result, more employees are staying in their jobs longer.

Now, flight attendants charge, the hard-won gains of the 1960s and '70s are being eroded.

``We fought for so long to make this a job worth having,'' says Alice Curran of Winchester, Mass., who became a TWA flight attendant in 1960. ``We made it a profession. In a flash, a wink, corporate raiders came in and took us right back to where we had been.''

Rocky Miller, Francie Kelly-Miller's husband and a TWA flight attendant still waiting to be recalled, offers this perspective: ``I'm a white male, and I see that there's definitely a prejudice out there against women, and against their ability to function in the workplace and achieve a decent salary.''

At Eastern, senior flight attendants are leaving ``in record numbers,'' according to Nancy Currier, vice-president of Local 553 of the Transport Workers Union, representing Eastern flight attendants. ``They're being replaced by new hires at a much lower pay scale.''

But even on a short-term basis, the lower pay scales - $817 a month at Eastern, for instance - pose problems. ``I go with these young kids on a flight to Europe,'' says Ms. Wells of TWA. ``They tell me, `I never left my hotel room. I brought a brown bag. I couldn't afford to go out.'''

Eastern flight attendants are still smarting over a well-publicized incident in December, when four flight attendants for the airline in Denver refused to serve on a plane whose wings they believed needed de-icing. The four were suspended.

``Disciplining flight attendants for acting on legitimate safety concerns sends a terrible message to every other airline employee,'' Ms. Currier says. ``We don't want flight attendants or any other employee to not call attention to potential safety problems, because they're afraid they may be disciplined if they're wrong.''

These four attendants, she adds, are among a growing number of Eastern flight attendants either suspended or terminated in the past two years. The majority of these are ``A''-scale workers, Currier says.

``Since the late '40s, we had never had more than 25 terminations in a year. In 1986, when Frank Lorenzo bought Eastern, that number went up to 123. In 1987, it increased to 150,'' she says.

Those terminations, Ms. Currier continues, occur ``for just about everything you can think of - for being $2 short on beverage and headset sales, for workers' compensation injuries, and for poor attendance.'' Flight attendants have won 86 percent of cases that have been arbitrated, she says.

Karen Ceremsak, a spokeswoman for Eastern, acknowledges that ``terminations have increased.'' But, she says, ``we don't discuss publicly the discipline or termination of our employees.''

At Northwest, flight attendants maintain that management's current attempt to extend the ``B'' scale from five years to eight years of service is unnecessary, because the airline had net earnings of $103 million last year - a 33.9 percent increase over 1986 profits.

``This is a social issue,'' says Jeff Musto, a Northwest flight attendant and spokesman for Teamsters Local 2747. ``Now they've found a way they can keep young, fresh people in here. They can legally discriminate, is what it comes down to.''

Bob Gibbons, news bureau manager for Northwest, responds: ``The pay scale for the life of a contract which would go to 1992 should not be based on how much profit an airline makes in any one year. We had a 3 percent operating margin in 1987. We need at least 5 percent in order to finance our future. We have $7 billion worth of new aircraft on order or on option.''

At Pan Am, flight attendants recently won a suit in which they charged the company with applying stricter weight standards to women than to men. Pan Am is appealing the decision.

``The judge said it was basically discrimination against females, perpetuating the stereotype of wanting a slim-bodied female flight attendant for a sex-appeal purpose,'' says Margaret Brennan, president of the Independent Union of Flight Attendants.

Now, instead of suspending women for weight, Pan Am is ``subjecting them to an appearance standard,'' she claims. ``They're really looking for the hour-glass flight attendant.''

Pamela Hanlon, assistant director of corporate communications at Pan Am, counters by saying, ``We have always had both weight standards and appearance standards. They are separate.''

Patt Gibbs, president of the American's Association of Professional Flight Attendants, says the real questions airlines should be concerned about is: ``Can you open the door in an emergency? Can you perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?''

Safety is, in fact, a recurring theme in conversations with flight attendants. A combination of shorter training time, longer work hours, and greater turnover, they argue, could pose serious threats to passenger safety.

``The company just thinks we're up there to serve Coke and Seven-Up and to smile,'' says Brian Planer, who is marking his third anniversary as a Northwest flight attendant this week. With so many types of aircraft today, well-trained attendants are more critical than ever, Mr. Planer says.

As one step toward better working conditions, representatives of eight flight-attendant unions met with Rep. Norman Mineta (D) of California, chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, to voice concerns about training, duty time, and the need for federal licensing for flight attendants.

Unlike pilots, flight attendants are not protected by FAA regulations governing duty hours and rest periods. And because they are not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act, they do not receive time-and-a-half pay for overtime.

Another ``big issue'' for the future, according to Eastern's Nancy Currier, involves health concerns. A study on reproductive problems is in progress, she says.

Pan Am's Brennan hopes airline executives will give flight attendants more dignity by treating them as an asset instead of a liability. ``Change won't be fast, but it has to come,'' she says. ``After all these megamergers, the industry is settling down. There won't be so many fare wars. The only way these huge carriers will be able to compete is with service.

``The flight attendant is an integral part of that. We're the ones who are with the customer the longest. We're the ones responsible for a lot of return business. We're definitely a revenue-generating group of employees.''

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