American’s woes weigh on carrier’s front-line workers

An American Airlines plane landing at the Miami International Airport on Sept. 18, 2012.

TULSA, Okla. (AP) – One employee described spending an entire shift in almost complete silence, her co-workers too unsettled to keep up the usual banter along the maintenance line.

It came last month, after American Airlines posted a “Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification,” known as a WARN letter.

It told nearly 3,000 Tulsa employees they could be laid off in the next few months, as the company struggles to cut costs and emerge from bankruptcy.

Nobody knew how many jobs would really be cut, or exactly who would face unemployment, leaving nearly half the Tulsa workforce uncertain about the immediate future.

“It’s been a little less gloomy lately,” says John Bell, who performs maintenance on the facility itself rather than working on the aircraft.

“As the numbers went down, people realized that most of us were going to be OK, at least for now,” Bell told the Tulsa World.

The airline originally planned to cut 2,700 jobs in Tulsa. But the union negotiated the number down to 1,300. And with early retirements and attrition, the actual number of layoffs will be less than 450, officials say.

About 300 of those employees can shift into other positions at American, leaving about 140 out of work, according to the union. But the future is still cloudy for American, a company that remains in bankruptcy with a possible merger on the horizon and more downsizing possible.

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“There is never a time that our membership can get comfortable and say the long-term outlook for job security in Tulsa is good,” says John Hewitt, chairman of Maintenance Transport Workers Union Local 514.

“We are under constant attack from foreign maintenance organizations and politicians who are making it easy for large corporations to send work overseas.”.

Tulsa’s maintenance base employs 7,000 people overall, 3,000 of them aircraft maintenance technicians or mechanics. The Transport Workers Union represents 5,500 workers in several job classifications, including AMTs, plant maintenance technicians and logistics specialists.

Marco Enriquez, who has 26 years of experience at the maintenance facility, expects the company to outsource more and more work.

“I can imagine a lot of bad scenarios,” he says. “Who knows what will happen?”.

More layoffs seem possible. But the concerns don’t stop there.

“If you outsource maintenance,” Enriquez says, “who’s going to be doing it? How much training will they get? And who will do the training? It’s a safety issue.”.

The average American maintenance worker makes about $65,900 a year in salary and wages, according to published studies.

Under the latest plans, the layoffs and reassignment will affect just 4% of the local workforce.

But that’s little comfort to Jessie Moore and her husband, who met each other at American.

The company told their entire department that it was being eliminated, effective Dec. 16.

“We’re gone,” Moore says. “Honestly, I don’t know what to do next. It’s kind of hard to be 50 and starting over.”.

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With a daughter in college and a 13-year-old at home, the family has gone on a “crash-diet” budget, paying down bills and saving up cash, Moore says.

“I really want to stay with American,” she says. “I’m hoping for a miracle or something.”.

Part of a crew that refurbishes the upholstery on airplane seats, Moore went to American about 12 years ago, after giving up a career in the medical field.

And she doesn’t regret that decision, even with the layoff.

“American has been good to us,” she says. “It helped us raise a family and gave us a good living.

“I just thought it would be a place to retire from.”.

After its parent company filed for bankruptcy late last year, American Airlines announced a plan to cut 13,000 jobs, including 2,100 Transport Workers Union jobs in Tulsa. Including non-union jobs, the reductions in Tulsa initially were expected to include about 2,700 employees.

After negotiations with the union and early retirement packages, company and union officials said this month that American would lay off 300 mechanics and about 70 fleet service workers in Tulsa by February. The layoffs will be effective in November and December for the fleet service workers and in December and February for mechanics.

Layoff notifications have been given to fleet service workers and will go out to mechanics in November.

The company must present a restructuring plan by Dec. 28. That plan must receive creditors’ approval by Feb. 28. The airline is seeking to cut employee-related costs by $1.06 billion a year and increase annual revenue by $1 billion per year.

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Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.Tulsaworld.Com.