Safety cuts put friendly skies at risk, United workers say

CHICAGO — Question: Who would order the captain of a 767 jet, loaded with passengers and crew, to take off with a split in one of its tires?

Answer: Glenn Tilton, chairman and CEO of United Airlines.

While Tilton bragged about his once bankrupt airline’s “rebirth” May 10 at the first shareholders’ meeting since 2002, many of the 1,000 pilots, flight attendants and mechanics who demonstrated outside the meeting here related horror stories like the one above.

“I’m angry because under bankruptcy we took a 60 percent cut in wages, health and retirement benefits,” said Sara Nelson, a Washington, D.C.-based flight attendant who stepped off the picket line to talk with the World.

“I am angry,” she said, “because we got nothing while Tilton raised his own salary and compensation from $700,000 a year to $39 million.

“I am angry,” she repeated, “because the cutbacks hurt us all. I feel awful about having to serve passengers with poor equipment on planes that are filthy and, frankly, dangerous.”

Danger to both flight crews and passengers was on the mind of many of the airline workers.

“They tried to fire me last year,” union mechanic Brian McKeever told the World, “when I tried to stop a fully loaded passenger plane from taking off because it had a split in one of its tires. The plane was not one of the ones we were supposed to inspect. Tilton put in rules that cap at 50 percent the number of flights we are allowed to inspect at takeoff.

“Those same rules actually cut it way below 50 percent, because he told us not to inspect planes if there was no trouble of any kind reported on the prior flight,” he said. “We used to do nose-to-tail inspections of every plane before it took off.”

McKeever noted that last year United sought and got a federal court order to prevent the union from inspecting more than the 50 percent of takeoffs allowed.

He has subsequently been elected vice president of Local 9 of the Aircraft Mechanics Union. “It is now the official policy of this union,” he declared, “to refuse to sign off on any document that testifies to the flight-worthiness of any UAL flights. We used to sign off on every single flight.”

Among the demonstrators was Herbert Hunter, the Seattle-based pilot who had flown the plane with the split tire.

Hunter was holding a sign that read, “Management feeds from the trough. Labor gets the scraps.” He said, “We are skilled pilots and we know how to compensate for problems but we should never be asked to put our passengers or crew in danger. This is an issue of safety, an issue of fairness and an issue of equity.

“This company survived bankruptcy because many thousands of workers made sacrifices,” he said. “The sacrifice of the workers yielded some pretty big rewards — but all for the executives. The workers got nothing and the public got dirty and dangerous planes.”

This reporter caught Tilton as he tried to slip unnoticed into a service entrance used moments earlier by a catering company. Asked if he was trying to avoid hundreds of pilots, attendants and mechanics assembling on the other side of the building, Tilton said, “We’ve come out of bankruptcy and that’s great for all of our employees.”

Asked how he reconciled the gap between $39 million in compensation hikes for himself with a zero increase for the workers, he said, “You must be from a labor paper,” and closed the door.

Learning that Tilton had just entered the building, flight attendants who were the first to begin picketing began chanting, “Tilton’s Golden Rule: I make the rules. I take the gold.”

The airline workers reached out for and got support from other segments of the labor movement. The plumbers’ union allowed them to use their hall to assemble and plan for the demonstration.

The event brought together for the first time three major unions representing airline workers, in a spirited mass action. It was a signal to management not to expect workers and their unions to bear the cost of corporate mismanagement.

“This is only the beginning for us,” Sara Nelson, the flight attendant, told the World. “There will be many more actions from now on.”

Only the week before, her union had lobbied in Washington, joining many other unions, demanding congressional action to curb corporate abuse of workers.

UAL lost $10 billion from 2000 until last year, when it returned to profitability with gains in the second and third quarters. It posted $100 million in losses in the last quarter. “Unacceptable!” said Terry O’Rourke, another airline mechanic who was walking the picket line. “These so-called losses are the result of a combination of greed and incompetence. The workers are tired of paying for this.”

O’Rourke continued: “Outsourcing maintenance and production of parts, endangering the flying public, taking $45 billion in concessions from workers, giving the CEO more than a 3,500 percent wage hike and giving the workers nothing — that’s no way to run an airline.”