- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — In the 30 years he worked for Piedmont Airlines and US Airways, Dennis Turbyfill says, he missed all of a day and a half on the job.

He showed up despite illness and even broken bones. Now, two years after his retirement, Mr. Turbyfill says the airline is skipping out on him.

“I thought the airline would provide for my benefits for the rest of my life, but now it appears their pledge may not be worth the paper it was written on,” he said.

Mr. Turbyfill and other retirees are upset about the bankrupt airline’s decision to seek termination of retiree medical and dental benefits on Jan. 1 and its pension-plan obligations in early 2005.

The Arlington-based airline filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Sept. 12, the second time that it has done so in two years.

A bankruptcy court judge said Thursday that he doesn’t expect to make a ruling on the benefits request until early January.

Mr. Turbyfill is one of thousands of US Airways or Piedmont retirees and their dependents who face the loss of company-subsidized health care and a reduction in their pensions. He has gone back to work for another company in anticipation of losing benefits.

“It’s devious what US Airways is doing to us,” said Billy Reid, 57, who retired in March 2003 after 26 years in reservation services. “It’s like having a thief breaking into your house to take away the promises you counted on for your retirement years.”

US Airways Group Inc. employs about 34,000 workers, including about 28,000 in its mainline US Airways operations. Its largest hub is in Charlotte, and it has a reservation center in Winston-Salem.

The reservation center is where Mr. Turbyfill, 62, finished his career with US Airways and Piedmont, which was based in Winston-Salem when it was bought by US Airways in 1989. The name now is used by a commuter subsidiary of US Airways based in Salisbury, Md.

In a memo sent to retirees in mid-November, the airline defended the cuts as a matter of survival. Termination of its pension plans alone would save it about $200 million a year.

But some retirees see the plan as a betrayal.

Dan Shanks, 70, of Winston-Salem worked for the airline for 36 years and retired in 1989. He is taking an active role in a legal challenge to the proposed cuts.

If the court approves, the US Airways pension plan would be administered by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

“We’re especially worried that the airline is trying to limit the retirees’ pension payouts with the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.,” Mr. Shanks said.

The pension agency already covers more than 34.6 million retirees in more than 29,600 plans. The agency reported on Nov. 15 a $12.1 billion operating loss in fiscal year 2004.

The federal agency pays a maximum of $3,699 a month, or $44,386 a year, to an employee who retires at 65. The amount is smaller for those who retire before 65.

“There’s a lot of distraught, stressed-out retirees out there,” Mr. Shanks said. “They don’t understand why the company is treating them this way, especially when management is not sharing in the sacrifices.

“But, then again, this is a company who from the start after buying Piedmont wanted to operate things its way. It’s been clearly shown in the past 15 years that its way has been the wrong way.”

The picture is worse with regard to retirees’ health-care plans. Medicare and a Medicare supplement costing $35 to $50 a month meet most of the health-care needs of retirees 65 and older.

But analysts say retirees younger than 65 struggle to secure a private health-insurance policy even if they can afford premiums that are five or 15 times higher than what they were paying before their company dropped their benefits.

Tony Steelman, 64, considers himself fortunate that he will have to wait only 10 months before he can depend on Medicare for most of his health care. He took early retirement in 1993 after 32 years as a flight attendant.

“It’s still hard to fathom that my health care payments have already gone from $7.80 a month to $158 a month in the past 1 years,” Mr. Steelman said.

“Now, I’m looking at having to pay $358 a month for Cobra coverage or $468 a month for Blue Cross Blue Shield.

“There’s so many people who took early retirement because they were led to believe it was the right thing for them and the company,” he said.

“With the cutting of the health benefits, we’ve all been hit below the belt, and that’s not right.”

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