Unbiased Reporter Gets It!.

Tim Thorpe

Aug 20, 2002
Air board action proved United mechanics right

December 08, 2002
An inventory of mechanics'' tools at the United Airlines maintenance shop at Indianapolis might disclose the shortage of one very large wrench.
That would be the spanner heaved at last week''s column suggesting United''s mechanics suck it up and approve a package of costly wage and benefits concessions.

In a barrage of crisply worded -- but always civil -- phone calls and e-mails, the mechanics made it abundantly clear what they think.
The blame for United''s dire position, standing at the door of bankruptcy court, fits squarely on the shoulders of management.
The messages: Management is top-heavy and overpaid. Management, having failed in a costly attempt to merge with US Airways, is none too bright.
And this: Mechanics have already done their share to save the airline.
Most declined to identify themselves. But Mike Deal, a 17-year veteran at United, laid out their case.
All the company can seem to do is cut our jobs and cut our wages, he said. That''s not managing.
The lost jobs at Indianapolis total nearly 700 so far. Wages were frozen through the latter half of the 1990s.
And what about United''s stock, 55 percent owned by its employees, including mechanics? At this point, an economy class snack bag may have more peanuts than a United share has pennies.
All of this has a familiar ring, though. It''s the sort of labor-management feuding you might expect from a company that''s on the ropes.
But unexpectedly, a voice has piped up that says the United mechanics have a point. And this voice comes from the federal government, in the form of the Air Transportation Stabilization Board.
When the board turned thumbs-down last week on United''s plea for a $1.8 billion loan guarantee, the members laid the blame on pretty thick.
But not on United''s union employees.
Instead the board goes straight for management''s jugular. Stripped of bureaucratese, it says United''s business plan for recovery is pie-in-the-sky.
And the company''s estimates for short-term revenue look like they were fetched from the wild blue yonder.
In a letter to Frederick Brace, chief financial officer at United, board executive director Daniel Montgomery says no one else in the industry shares United''s optimism about making money.
To make things worse, United underestimates the continued growth, and competitiveness, of low-cost carriers, the board said. The name of Southwest Airlines doesn''t appear in the letter, but the point is clear.
Only after flailing United for drafting a plan that won''t fly does the board get around to talking about costs.
Even then, the board says United''s pressuring workers for cost cuts isn''t enough. The airline still couldn''t make enough money to cover expenses.
So the mechanics'' union canceled Thursday''s revote on concessions, having first rejected givebacks the day before Thanksgiving.
Mechanic Deal says he would have voted no once again.
Like other mechanics, he''d rather trust the tender mercies of lawyers and judges in bankruptcy court. Desperate words.
United, and plenty of other airlines, were bleeding cash even before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Despite the losses, Deal says, There was no cry to cut costs or improve the monetary picture.
Now that United has acted, the federal government says it''s too little, too late.
Contact Thomas P. Wyman at 1-317-444-6424 or via e-mail at thomas.wyman@indystar.com