The Aftermath of 9-11 for Airline Employees
When the 9-11 hearings were finally approved in late November 2002, we at United Airlines had been hearing rumbles for months that our company might be filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Many of us who began with the title “stewardesses” and were now known as senior flight attendants, started to realize our careers and our way of life were about to end. Little did we know that the evening of September 11, 2001, before the ashes of the towers and the fire at the pentagon and the smoke from the giant hole in Shanksville, PA smoldered, that airline lawyers were getting themselves into position to lobby for money for the U.S. carriers so they could financially survive this catastrophe. These lawyers requested $24 billion in financial aid. In response, Congress appropriated close to $15 billion in taxpayer money ($10 billion in grants and $5 billion in loans). The airlines were also able to collect on their business interruption insurance, plus secure tax breaks from Congress for 2001 and 2002.
However, nowhere in their plan was financial help for the loyal airline employees. We, the labor force, were about to get hit and hit hard. But that was just the start of the unbelievable tragedy occurring in our airline world. On September 15th, 2001, just four days after being attacked, the airlines were busy notifying employees that their service was no longer needed. On that day, Continental announced the lay-off of 12,000 workers, and United and American each laid off 20,000 employees. Northwest, US Airways, and Delta’s numbers combined reached almost 35,000. When the totals topped more than 140,000, a Washington Post writer, David Montgomery, wrote, “What thanks are flight attendants getting? How does this sound, ‘You’re FIRED!”? (Note 1)
As the airline employees are being let go or furloughed, a new government agency is getting ready to hire thousands. On November 19, 2001, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was established. Much of this new agency’s focus was for the safety of the airline traveler, but it also branched over to highway, rail, and bus travel. Our mass transits, ports, and pipelines now had extra security too. Venues that the U.S. public took for granted as being safe were now being provided extra security. Venues like sporting events and concerts also had new rules of entry to enhance security. Initially, TSA was part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. But on March 9, 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security was established, TSA was moved to this new Department. (Note 9)
During this turbulent time, airport security rules changed drastically. Some airport designs were changed to protect the secured areas in the airports, and passengers were now required to show tickets and picture IDs before being allowed to enter the secured areas. Additionally, passengers had to remove shoes and jackets and have their baggage screened. Travelers also had to remove their laptops and toiletries for additional inspection; no liquids were allowed in containers larger than 3.4 ounces. Finally, if any metal was noted on passengers, they had to undergo intrusive “pat down” inspections by the TSA agents. (Note 5)
After September 11, 2001, only satellite parking was allowed at airports. Later, blast shields were installed in some airport parking structures, so that close-in airport parking could again be allowed and cockpit doors were redesigned making them stronger, bullet proof and locked from the inside. (Note 4) Flight attendants who still had jobs were given new responsibilities for protecting the cockpit with their bodies and service carts, and one flight attendant needed to be in the cockpit if one of the pilots needed to use the restroom.
Days and even months later, as we welcomed the brave passengers on board that were still flying, we, the flight crews, were walking on pins and needles as we pushed our carts down the aisle and made our inflight announcements. On November 12, 2001, a week before the TSA was established, and while we were preparing our 747 cabin for boarding for a flight to Narita, Japan, we heard that American Airlines had a plane crash shortly after departure from JFK Airport in New York. As boarding began, it was hard not to think, “Was this another terrorist attack?” Putting our concerns aside, we welcomed our passengers and continued our duties on this 11-hour flight. Months later it was reported that American Flight 587 had crashed due to a pilot error, killing a total of 265 people. (Note 8) We were now working in a dangerous unpredictable environment afraid to call in sick for fear that we would be fired, but then what was our alternative. Not only that, but each time we went to work we were treated like the enemy, being touched and scrutinized for our normal layover items. Those of us who wore underwire bras would give the TSA agents more of a challenge as if we were smuggling harmful metal objects.
For the airlines, however, there was a silver lining to the tragedy of September 11th. The events of that morning helped them financially reorganize by going after negotiated employee contracts using the clause in the agreements regarding a “force majeure” (a term meaning an act of war or act of God) happening to their corporations. Even though there was no precedent for using a “force majeure” clause to negate labor contracts, the airlines were successful in doing just that. They were able to escape their contractual obligations even though there was no precedent in labor contract law for this. The results were reduced salary and benefits and altered working conditions. This savage attack on the employees in part was driven by the need for the airlines to show operating concession before the government would grant their bailout requests. This was especially true for US Airways which was in financial peril and United which had spent millions of dollars trying to merge with US Air twice and failed both times.
Interestingly, as the big carriers were letting workforce go and reducing their route structure, Jet Blue and Southwest (which did not furlough employees) moved into the vacated routes and expanded their domestic route structures.
On December 9, 2002, United Airlines filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy as predicted. The 9-11 hearings had not even started when our employees got this devastating news. Few of us were even aware that the formal 9-11 hearings were about to begin in just a matter of months. (Note 2)
When the first hearing session began at the end of March 2003, thousands of airline employees had already lost their jobs, were furloughed, or were soon going to be forced into early retirement. (By June 30, 2003, 2,500 senior United flight attendants had already turned in their manuals and ID badges.) To have 2500 flight attendants choose early retirement was due to the devastating contract that arrived in the mail in mid-April 2003. Negotiated terms and conditions which we had earned over the years were being taken away from us. Things like hourly flight pay decreased, vacation days and bidding changed decreasing the number of vacation days that could be used, fewer flight attendants were authorized on both international and domestic flights down to FAA minimum requirements which placed a severe burden on our flight service and a hardship on our customers. Pension contributions were decreased while medical insurance costs increased. All in all, we lost almost a third of our income in the new contract. By using the “force majeure” clause, the airlines caused traumatic changes to our work environment and careers over and above us having to deal with the new threats to our lives.
We at the top level of seniority were given the option that if we retired by June 30th, we could take our small pensions plus have United cover our medical expenses until we reached Medicare eligibility. Faced with that choice, on June 30, 2003, 2500 senior United flight attendants retired. I suspect other airlines did the same with their employees. Interesting, but not totally shocking, was that as soon as we were gone, United tried to renege on the medical care promise and wanted us to begin paying them for the coverage. Happily, with the help of our union, they did not win that battle.
On May 11, 2005, a bankruptcy judge ruled that United Airlines could walk away from close to $10 billion in pension obligations in the largest pension default in U.S. history. When they did this, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (a government entity) assumed a $9.8 billion commitment but was only provided $6.6 billion by the company, so labor had to absorb the incremental loss by reducing pensions, the burden of these reductions fell largely on the pilots. (Note 6)
On February 1, 2006, after 1150 days under court direction, United Airlines exited bankruptcy after having gotten $3 billion in concessions from labor unions. (Note 7)
As I wrote in my earlier book Turbulent Skies, “Tomorrow I go to LAX to surrender my manual, travel card, and ID. It is so interesting to think that after all of this , it would be as if I never existed. It does hurt the self – the ego – that one could be forgotten so fast. But hey, that’s modern America, isn’t it.” (Note 3)
- http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2002/0502ward.html (September 11th and the restructuring of the airline industry-Rodney Ward)
- Dorger, Barbara. Turbulent Skies. Xlibris Publishing, 2004, page 99.
- Seaney, Rick blog. August 22, 2017 (https://www.farecompare.com/travel-advice/9-ways-security-has-changed-since-911).