SEATTLE (AP) -- Alaska Airlines said Friday it has hired Menzies Aviation to provide ramp services at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the carrier's busiest hub, and is laying off 472 workers.
A statement issued by the airline, which is operated by Alaska Air Group Inc. of Seattle, said the move would save $13 million a year amid rising fuel costs and fierce competition.
Edward W. White, vice president of ground operations, said displaced workers will be offered ''a more lucrative severance package than that specified in the current contract'' with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
The change affects baggage handlers and workers who guide planes into and out of terminal gates. Alaska Airlines, the dominant carrier on north-south routes along the West Coast, previously contracted out ramp services in 41 of its 56 destinations.
''A decision of this kind, impacting people who have served this company well, is extremely difficult,'' said William S. Ayer, chief executive of the airline and Alaska Air Group.
''Our success working with providers in other cities gives us confidence that we can continue moving Seattle customers' bags reliably while reducing our operating costs significantly,'' Ayer said.
The decision was announced Friday morning before the union's local office opened for the day, and there was no immediate comment from union leaders.
Earlier in the week, however, Bobby De Pace, president of Machinists District 143, said hiring an outside company to take over baggage handling in Seattle could mean chaos for passengers during peak travel season for the airline's and the airport.
''The new people coming in cannot do as good a job as the ones who have been doing it,'' De Pace said. ''There's a learning curve.''
Caroline Boren, a company spokeswoman, said four flights were canceled overnight because of the change but added that operations were back to normal by daybreak.
Menzies provides ground services for more than 500 airline customers worldwide, including Alaska Airlines in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., Portland, Ore., and all of the company's Mexican destination.
Still under negotiation with the Machinists union is a contract covering more than 450 ramp service, air freight and supply agents in Alaska; nearly 140 air freight and supply agents in Seattle; and 13 supply agents in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Phoenix and Oakland, Calif.
De Pace said company officials have not discussed replacing baggage handlers in Alaska. Negotiations for the contract covering the remaining Machinists' workers at Alaska are expected to resume this summer with federal mediation, company officials said.
The airline's news release said the Seattle decision followed a long evaluation of moneysaving and cost-cutting options and 20 months negotiations for concessions from the Machinists union.
''Unfortunately, we were unable to achieve a contract approaching the savings available from service providers,'' White said.
He said the company's severance offer, ''in line with the severance offered to management, maintenance and fleet service employees last year,'' will include two weeks of base pay for each year of service, a cash bonus of $3,000 to $15,000 based on length of service, a year of company-paid health care coverage and travel benefits for each worker and eligible dependents, plus a nine-week extension of wages and benefits as required by law.
The displaced workers also may apply for jobs with Menzies.