TWA takeover hits home for boro airline workers

By Jennifer Warren

TWA, with thousands of employees in the New York area, announced last week it would be “substantially” acquired by American in a mega-deal that would create the nation's second-largest airline after United and establish a vast network of flights around the globe.

Numerous airline employees fly out of LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International airports and the Queens communities of Forest Hills, Kew Gardens and Richmond Hill are among their favorite residential areas. Many area apartment buildings are filled with flight attendants, pilots and other airline personnel.

Alexandra Lopez, a TWA flight attendant who lives in Kew Gardens and has been with the St. Louis-based company for just over a year, said she was pleased with the expected buyout.

“I'm kind of happy this is happening. They've been a little bit degraded over the years from the bankruptcies.”

TWA, long identified as one of the nation's two flagship carriers along with now defunct Pan American World Airways, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Jan. 10 as part of the purchase agreement with American, which is headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas.

“They're trying to figure out how to incorporate our [employees] with American's,” Lopez said. “There will be no way to do that without making someone uncomfortable.”

She said that when an agreement is reached between the two companies on how to merge their work forces, the seniority of both sets of employees will be affected.

“There is going to be some friction there,” she said.

Under terms of the agreement, American would essentially buy TWA's major assets — airplanes, routes, gates and maintenance facilities – as well as absorb 18,000 of its 20,000 employees. However, union officials representing the TWA employees are far from calling the acquisition a done deal.

The incoming Bush administration will have to decide whether to approve the merger between the two airline giants as opposition to the combination builds among some consumer groups.

“Although American is the front runner right now, they may not be the final [acquirer]. There may be additional parties yet to be heard from,” said Frank Larkin, spokesman for the International Association of Machinists representing TWA's mechanics, flight attendants, and passenger service employees.

“At this point the door is open and I don't believe anyone has formally come through that door,” he said.

Most TWA employees look favorably upon the merger, said Larkin. “We're pleased with the verbal assurances of jobs for our members. But as union members we're anxious to see those sorts of things in writing.”

The 2,000 employees not covered by the takeover accord between American and TWA are in management or non-union positions and would still be considered for employment, a TWA spokesman said.

When TWA filed its Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition in Delaware, the company said it had made improvements to its fleet and route system that had helped revenues but, ultimately, higher fuel costs were impossible to surmount.

The rise in fuel prices added $50 million to the company's operating costs in 1999, TWA said, and airline officials expected year 2000 costs to grow by $250 million.

Lopez and other TWA employees also are looking at another wild card that could change the equation in the pending merger with American.

There is a potential strike threat by American Airline flight attendants who have already received strike ballots in the mail, Lopez said. Their union, the International Association of Machinists, has set a mid-February deadline to receive the vote results and count the ballots.

“It's going to be a bumpy ride,” Lopez said.

But members of the Airline Pilots' Association, which represents 500 TWA pilots based in New York, are looking forward to the marriage between the two carriers, said a union spokesman.

“Right now we feel positive about the whole plan as we know it to be,” said APA spokesman Scott Sherrin.

He noted that negotiations are still in the early stages, but the APA was working closely with American Airline's pilots union to ensure TWA pilots receive the same benefits American Airline pilots have earned.

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