"They Took More Than They Needed from Us"

For Tom and Mary Gallant, being flight attendants at US Airways offered two valuable perks: travel and flexibility. "It just seemed like it worked for us. One of us was always home with the kids," says Mary, a 25-year veteran of the airline.

But after three rounds of concessions in and out of the airline's bankruptcy, it's not working so well anymore. This husband-and-wife team, based at US Airways' Pittsburgh hub, is struggling with pay cuts and rising medical costs. Worse, work-rule changes may undermine the delicate balancing act the couple faces to make sure one of them is home with their four children, aged 17 to 3. How management applies the new rules, and how much flexibility the Gallants' supervisors extend, will be crucial. Already, "there are more petty arguments about who's going to work when," says Tom, a 20-year veteran.

The Gallants say they can already see how the cuts have hurt service. There's more bickering among flight crews, and with staffing down to legal minimums, overtaxed attendants sometimes just skip drink-and-snack services altogether. Still, US Airways continues to rank high on customer service, and it's handing out gifts such as merchandise to employees who perform well. "We can't reward with money so we're trying different things," says Jerrold A. Glass, US Airways senior vice-president for employee relations.

Tom and Mary Gallant, flight attendants
US Airways is looking to cut costs by 25%. For the Gallants and other attendants, that means working more days and longer hours for less pay. Tom, 50, and Mary, 43, each earns the maximum for an attendant, about $34,400 a year. But that's after an 8.4% pay cut under the new contract and a 5% temporary pay cut due to the Iraqi war. Throw in higher health-care costs and other benefit cuts, and Tom figures his family has lost 25% of its income.

So there are sacrifices big and small. There's no more eating out, except on holidays. The 1991 Toyota truck with the rusted fenders won't be replaced. Three of the four children still attend Catholic schools, but the family pleaded for and got tuition discounts. "There's a lot more snapping at the kids about turning the lights off and getting out of the shower," says Tom.

Because they have seniority, the Gallants don't fear for their jobs. But their daily working conditions have declined dramatically. One of the biggest changes is in the "duty rigs," which ensure that flight attendants get paid for some of the time they spend sitting around at hotels and airports. Before, they got an hour's pay for every three away from base. Now the ratio is 1 to 4, so the Gallants both work an extra two or three days a month, for less pay. Just as bad, the easier one- and two-day trips are rare, with three and four days now the norm. "We're gone more from our family," says Mary. Plus, the two are rarely home at the same time.

Although the Gallants accept the fact that concessions were needed, they feel lingering bitterness about their length and depth. "We know we had to help the airline," says Mary. "But we think they took more than they needed from us." Clearly, winning concessions isn't the same as winning hearts and minds. As US Airways battles for its life, it needs to do both.

By Wendy Zellner in Pittsburgh

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