Ken Diaz, a United Airlines flight attendant, used to drive 45 minutes from his Haverstraw, N.Y., home to his check-in station at Newark Liberty International Airport.
But at the end of last month the company closed its Newark flight attendant base to cut costs. While the airline continues its 14 daily domestic flights from the airport, Diaz and more than 300 other Newark-based flight attendants were involuntarily transferred to other airports. Bases at Philadelphia and Paris also were closed.
For Diaz, it means a much tougher commute every time he begins a two- or three-day shift of flights. It now takes him 90 minutes to get to work at John F. Kennedy International, and he estimates the added distance and bridge tolls will add about $1,000 a year to his expenses, even though he recently traded in his PT Cruiser for a Toyota Matrix "to save a little on gas."
That $1,000 a year is not small change considering hefty pay cuts he and other United workers have taken over the past several years to help keep the airline in business.
For the last few weeks, Newark flights have all been staffed with flight attendants who started their journeys elsewhere.
Many of these United attendants will now lay over in Newark hotels.
Megan McCarthy, a United spokeswoman, said the base closings, which were announced to flight attendants in January just before the airline exited Chapter 11, "made sense financially" for the company. The airline saves money on airport rent and on supervisory salaries by closing the bases.
In Newark, "no one lost their job as a result" of the closing, McCarthy said.
Karen Mazuer, former president of the now disbanded Council 6 of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represented about 350 stationed at Newark, said no one was laid off, but a few either resigned or retired rather than be transferred "because they couldn't work it out."
Flight attendants were able to pick between eight different airports around the country at which to be based, and all received their first choice. The airline helped with moving expenses for those who moved.
For Mazuer, who is 58 and had worked out of Newark since 1971, the close of the Newark base meant the loss of her union desk job and a return to attending to the comfort of passengers at 35,000 feet.
"My life has changed drastically," she said.
Rather than uproot her family, she chose to remain in her home in Avalon on the Jersey Shore and drive to Newark to catch flights to a Chicago base where higher paying supervisory positions on international flights were available, she said.
Parking will be an issue later this year, she said. The airport parking spaces provided by the company are available only until the end of September she said. United pays parking for commuting flight attendants, she said, "but only up to $25 a month."
Diaz says he and other United flight attendants have been through, "a hell of a lot."
They lost co-workers on Flight 175 from Boston and Flight 93 from Newark on Sept. 11, 2001.
And many were furloughed in the subsequent travel slump. United flight attendants also went through two rounds of pay and benefit cuts.
Their pension plan was eliminated, replaced by a 401(k). Health benefits were reduced.
The airline survived, thanks in large part to the steep cost cutting and the securing of a $3 billion financing package that allowed it to exit Chapter 11 on Feb. 1.
To be sure, United and the industry overall are now showing signs of recovery. Air traffic has rebounded, and fleet reductions have eased the glut of seats that sparked revenue-ravaging fare wars. Cathay Financial upgraded United stock Thursday to "outperform" from "neutral," with analyst Susan Donofrio citing cost cuts and a brighter outlook for revenue growth.
United flight attendants who were furloughed after 9/11 have all been called back, McCarthy said.
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