- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2008

All the strains on the nation’s troubled airline industry were evident yesterday at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport as Delta Air Lines employees discussed layoffs in the wake of their announced merger with Northwest Airlines, American Airlines pilots protested customer service problems and passengers complained about delays.

High fuel prices, a weak economy and stiff competition have combined to force some small airlines into bankruptcy while major airlines consider consolidating to cut expenses.

A merger of Delta and Northwest would form the world’s biggest carrier, but employees yesterday were more concerned about losing their jobs than plotting a winning strategy for their combined airline.

“They said they’re going to keep as many employees as possible,” said Denise Livramento, a Northwest customer service agent who lives in Alexandria.

Northwest employees speculated that administrative workers such as clerks, secretaries and middle managers were most likely to be laid off as the two airlines merge their work forces.

Company officials told employees yesterday morning they would be “as fair and equal as can be,” Mrs. Livramento said.

When the merger is completed, Northwest would disappear as a corporate entity while Delta would assume the name of the combined airline. It would operate with about 75,000 employees worldwide but could eliminate thousands of overlapping jobs.

Delta now employs about 55,000 workers, while Northwest employs about 34,000.

One Delta worker on an employee bus headed to the airport terminal described how a nervous co-worker’s hands trembled as she weighed the chances of losing her job.

Meanwhile, outside the American Airlines terminal, more than 30 pilots picketed with signs protesting their company’s canceled flights and poor on-time performance.

They accused American’s management of rewarding themselves with big bonuses but cutting back routine operating costs so severely that customer service suffered.

The airline’s on-time performance ranks low among major air carriers, according to the Allied Pilots Association (APA), the union representing about 12,000 American Airlines pilots. The union is in negotiations with American Airlines for a new labor contract.

“It’s a direct result of cost-cutting to the bone,” Kevin Williamson, a union spokesman and American Airlines pilot, said of his company’s customer service problems.

He told about a 45-minute delay on a flight he piloted when an indicator light showed an anti-icing valve on his airplane was faulty. Maintenance workers were forced to take a valve off a parked airplane to replace the broken one because they had no supplies of spares, he said.

In the past week, American Airlines has canceled about 3,000 flights for safety inspections ordered by the Federal Aviation Administration. The airline said flight disruptions are likely to cost it more than $30 million.

Delta, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines also were forced to cancel flights for the inspections.

American Airlines responded to the pilot protests in nine cities with a statement saying its pay rate for employees has been near the top for its industry even while it avoided bankruptcy.

“It is unfortunate that, instead of capitalizing on those advantages and seeking ways to work together to run the best airline possible, the APA is relying on these destructive tactics,” the airline said.

Passengers at Reagan Airport said high fares and flight delays were their major concerns about the state of the nation’s airline industry.

Many airlines are imposing fuel surcharges as jet fuel prices reach record highs. The surcharges are being passed on to passengers with higher fares averaging around $30 per one-way ticket.

Erin Volland, a nonprofit association fundraiser from Chicago, said her flight to Washington was delayed by an hour last week, which she blamed on the safety inspections ordered by the FAA.

“I’m more unsatisfied with the FAA for not taking care of it earlier,” Miss Volland said.

Nancy Morgan, a New York lawyer visiting Washington for a judicial conference, said the Delta and Northwest merger would give the airlines’ regular customers options to fly to more destinations.

“It means I will have more choices because I’m a Delta frequent flier but it means my cost is going to up because of less competition,” Ms. Morgan said.

Other passengers said it’s too early to know how they will be affected by a Delta- Northwest merger.

“I’ll just take a wait-and-see attitude,” said Gregory Kelly, a Charleston, S.C., resident on a stopover flight to Los Angeles to visit his brother.

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