United cutbacks could affect customer service

April 23, 2008 3:54:00 PM PDT
How hard will cutbacks at United Airlines impact passengers? Some former United employees say the actions will compromise customer service.

In recent weeks, six airlines have filed for bankruptcy, four of them have stopped flying all together. The problems in the airline industry are certainly not unique to United. But two recently laid-off United workers are offering some insight into the airline. They made a base salary of $9.61 an hour and their jobs were anything but secure.

"This was my dream job. I love planes and always wanted to work at the airport. I got it, but as soon as I got it, it got taken away," said David Sebastian, laid-off United employee.

David Sebastian and Sylvia Mendez are two faces of United's latest financial turbulence. They were part of a class of 30 new customer service representatives United advertised for -- and hired -- in January. The airline trained them at O'Hare for seven weeks. Then let them go last week.

"How could they not know in the beginning when they hired us?" said Sebastian.

"We would ask them: Are you going to cut us? They said no, don't worry. If you keep thinking about it, it will happen. Just do your best," said Sylvia Mendez, laid-off United employee.

Thinking "good thoughts" isn't enough in the airline industry today. Eleven-hundred United employees -- including 500 managers -- are learning that lesson the hard the way this week.

Chicago's hometown airline blames fuel prices. The cost of oil has gone up $30 a barrel in just the four short months David Sebastian and Sylvia Mendez worked for United. Every dollar-per-barrel increase costs United an extra $65 million a year. That helps explain how the carrier lost $537 million in just the first quarter of this year.

"In this extraordinarily difficult environment, we recognize the pace of change needs to accelerate. Our actions today reflect just that," said United CEO Glenn Tilton via telephone.

Wednesday was a relatively light day for United at O'Hare. Planes were, on average, 82 percent full. That enables the carrier to take advantage of a program called "ANP," or "authorized no pay." It's where employees agree to go home early and forgo the rest of the day's pay. And it can lead to long lines.

The two former United workers ABC7 talked to say morale on the ground and in the air is sinking.

"I think they're all in fear. I think everybody is trying to do their best to keep their jobs," Mendez said.

The 1,100 job cuts system-wide at United are expected to impact almost every work group. Passengers will feel the pinch through higher fares and fuel charges plus fewer domestic flight options.

To put it in perspective, if oil prices stay at current levels, United is expected to spend $2 billion dollars more on fuel this year than it did last year.


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