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The Flyer Next Time

Why US Airways' bankruptcy is worst for those in coach

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Why do airlines always seat first-class passengers first? Is it really that great to sit on an airplane for 20 minutes longer than everyone else? Wouldn't the ultimate luxury be getting on last?

 

Maybe it's not to benefit the first-class passengers, but to punish everyone else. We shuffle past and admire the elite in their expansive leather seats, realizing that if you want to be treated right, you should have (and spend) a lot more money. And as we settle into coach, the flight attendants sometimes close off the view of first-class with a curtain, just like the royal carriages preferred by Marie Antoinette.

 

But thanks to US Airways' recent repeat bankruptcy filing, Pittsburgh travelers won't have to board the aircraft to experience such snubs. Which may be a lucky thing if you were hoping to use your frequent-flier miles next year.

 

Even if you weren't, this bankruptcy may cost you. Among the airline's biggest creditors is the U.S. government, which loaned the carrier more than $700 million in 2002. That money, like all the airline's debt, is now at risk. It's bad enough watching your neighbors lose their jobs and move away; even worse is knowing that your tax dollars might be flying south too.

 

Worst of all, though, is knowing that the employees of US Airways are at odds not just with the high-powered execs, but with those of us in coach: their fellow workers.

 

Nearly 40 percent of US Airways is owned by the Retirement Systems of Alabama, a pension fund that represents 290,000 current and former public employees. The fund's head, David Bronner, is the chair of the US Airways board, and he has consistently taken a harder line with employees than the company's CEO, Bruce Lakefield. During Bronner's tenure, pilots have already given up their own pension plans to keep the airline aloft this long.

 

To protect their pensions, one group of employees has been going after the pensions of another. So much for solidarity. Marx must be spinning in his grave to see what really happens when the workers control the means of production.

 

Of course, there isn't much solidarity left anywhere -- including Pittsburgh. Our history of blaming unions for economic problems is almost as lengthy as our history of relying on unions to solve them. Some are already blaming the unions for US Airways' collapse. Just before the airline declared bankruptcy, the pilots' union refused to allow members to even vote on a final contract offer. Pilots have also prevented the airline from establishing a "mini-hub" in Florida that would serve the Caribbean -- among the few routes that make money. Machinists declined to negotiate with the airline, while some flight attendants used sick time to retaliate against its unpopular policy on absenteeism.

 

But US Airways employees can't be accused of making too much money. Most earn less than their counterparts at such "low-cost" competitors as Southwest Airlines. The problem isn't that US Airways pays such high wages; it's that it pays them to too many people. It relies on shorter routes and an inefficient hub-and-spoke system that requires more employees. And management clearly hasn't done enough to solve that problem. As pilots' spokesman Bill Pollock said late last year, employees "have supported this management through two restructuring plans. …We have seen absolutely no accountability from management. "

 

They aren't likely to in the future, if the past is any guide. Pollock was complaining about David Siegel, Lakefield's failed and generally despised predecessor as CEO. Siegel later left the airline, but he got a cool $4.5 million in severance pay to take with him. Siegel's failed and generally despised predecessor did even better. Whether US Airways' landing is hard or soft, Lakefield will be able to walk away from it.

 

For the rest of us, this bankruptcy is going to be a bumpy flight. Taxpayers, retirees, and workers will be squabbling in coach, elbowing each other over the armrests and kicking the backs of each other's seats. Up in first class, meanwhile, Lakefield will be able to calmly order a double, and ask to have the curtain closed behind him.

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