September 25, 2010. When American Airlines Inc. bought Trans World Airlines Inc. in 2001, one of the prime assets was TWA's enormous maintenance base in Kansas City and its team of skilled workers.
But American has shrunk its workforce and its fleet significantly since then. On Friday, American closed the 53-year-old Kansas City facility.
"It's really about sizing the maintenance capacity to fit the size of the airline now," American Airlines president Tom Horton said this week. "That's what it's all about."
The April 2001 purchase of TWA came just as the airline industry was heading into a recession, with the decline accelerated by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
American's 2001 fleet of 904 jets – 724 at American and 180 from TWA – has shrunk to 619 as of June 30. It has laid off most of the TWA employees.
With a smaller fleet and smaller airline, American decided last year it no longer needed three maintenance bases. It decided to keep its bases at Fort Worth's Alliance Airport and Tulsa International Airport and to close Kansas City.
"After spending the last nine years fighting and exploring every opportunity to preserve this unique and one-of-a-kind aircraft overhaul facility, the fight is over," Transport Workers Union local president Gordon Clark told members this summer.
"We fought hard, gave it everything we had, and executed our battle plan to a T," he wrote in a message. "But the odds were just not in our favor. Sept. 11, 2001, seemed to establish our fate, as the economic realities of the airline never fully recovered so that we could have been given a fighting chance."
Horton said the former TWA employees at the Kansas City facility are "outstanding mechanics," but it made more sense for a smaller American to close that base rather than its bases at Alliance and Tulsa.
"It goes to where the proper capabilities were. The principal wide-body capability was in Alliance, and the principal narrow-body capability was in Tulsa," Horton said.
"As a consequence, when you look where our capabilities were against the fleet we're operating, Kansas City was the obvious choice for closing," he said.
TWA opened the facility in 1957 at what was then called Mid-Continental Airport, renamed Kansas City International Airport in 1972. At its peak, the facility had well over 10,000 employees as TWA reigned as one of America's four biggest carriers.
But financial troubles caused it to shrink through the 1980s and 1990s, including two trips to bankruptcy court. By the time TWA filed a third time for bankruptcy protection and was bought up by American in 2001, the Kansas City base had dropped to around 2,500 mechanics.
The base employment has been on a downward slide since then as more work was shifted to other American Airlines bases. As of Sept. 1, Kansas City had only 398 employees left, American says.
"Fortunately, we have been able to offer voluntary leave options and alternative positions to all affected TWU employees interested in working at other AA locations," American spokeswoman Missy Latham said.
American said 22 workers are moving from Kansas City to the Alliance base in Fort Worth, and 85 are transferring to American's maintenance hangar on the east side of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
"We are doing a lot of drop-in work there today, line maintenance work," Horton said. "Down the road it may play an even bigger role. We'll see. We've got ample capability with what we've got without Kansas City."