Audrey Stone

Audrey Stone, 36, of Mount Vernon, is the president of the Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents Southwest flight attendants (Courtesy Audrey Stone, Baltimore Sun / June 13, 2010)

Audrey Stone doesn't hesitate when asked how long current contract negotiations will last between Southwest Airlines and the flight attendants union she leads.

"As long as it takes," Stone said on a recent morning in Baltimore — a city she has called home since 2004 despite regular commutes to Dallas, where Southwest is headquartered.

Stone, 36, is one of about 1,200 Southwest flight attendants whose home hub is Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, where Southwest is the largest carrier.

As president of the Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents more than 10,500 Southwest flight attendants nationwide, Stone is also the lead union representative at the table with the airline as the parties negotiate a new contract that will have broad implications for the airline's workforce.

For decades, Southwest has been known for relatively peaceful negotiations with its various worker groups, a reality that industry observers chalk up to an in-house mantra of valuing employees — the company's stock ticker symbol is LUV — and the strong unionization of the company's workers.

However, negotiations with some of its unions — including ground workers — have stretched for more than two years as the company attempts to adjust its workforce amid growth, Stone said.

The company is growing, having acquired AirTran, and is eying new overseas markets, and growth often prompts efforts to change contracts, airline industry analysts said.

Company proposals have been floated to scale back sick-leave accrual and other benefits for some work groups, Stone said, and she doesn't know if that represents an across-the-board culture shift for the company that she'll have to confront.

If so, things could get bumpy in coming months, as her talks with the company shift from agreeable aspects of the flight attendants' contract to issues of benefits and compensation, Stone said.

"Our negotiations are really going to be the test for whether the culture has really changed," said Stone, a Texas native who lives in Mount Vernon. "We're prepared for similar proposals, but hopeful they have learned after protracted negotiations that the employees are not going to stand for it."

Stone entered into negotiations with Southwest officials in June.

Brandy King, a Southwest spokeswoman, said the company's goal in negotiations with all of its workers is to "remain the best place to work" and to secure the company's future.

"In order to achieve this goal, we are always looking to improve efficiencies; reduce unnecessary costs; reward our outstanding employees; and continue to partner with our work groups," King said in a statement.

She declined to discuss specific issues of contention in the company's current negotiations with flight attendants, saying the company has "an obligation to discuss these directly" with union officials.

Stone said much is at stake.

One issue of concern for flight attendants is how the airline intends to work out logistics with its new, larger Boeing 737-800 planes, which carry more passengers than the standard Boeing 737 and thus take longer to board, disembark and ready between flights, Stone said.

The turnaround of a 737 takes about 20 minutes, while a 737-800 takes 45 minutes to an hour, Stone said.

Flight attendants are paid per hour while flying, but aren't paid when not flying, so "from the flight attendants' perspective, the time of their day when they're not getting paid has increased," Stone said.

The hourly wage for Southwest flight attendants starts at $22.36 for new employees to $56.29 for the most senior, according to Stone.

Flight attendants wonder how Southwest will expand its routes in coming years as it takes on AirTran's "near international" routes in Central America.

Seniority issues with the hundreds of incoming AirTran flight attendants already have been worked out, with Southwest flight attendants getting an extra 21/2 years of seniority over their AirTran counterparts, Stone said. But tensions remain as AirTran flight attendants transition to Southwest hubs.

About 2,200 AirTran flight attendants were in a separate union at the time of the acquisition, Stone said. Between 500 and 600 will have transitioned to Southwest by the end of this year, she said.

Many of AirTran's most veteran flight attendants, who are transitioning to Southwest first, have requested to be stationed out of BWI because it is one of the closest Southwest hubs to Atlanta, where AirTran was based, Stone said.

"Baltimore has seen a shift in flying seniority, more so than other bases with the acquisition," she said.

Seniority is a major issue for flight attendants, because it is a key determinant in how they get to select routes, hubs and schedules.

As Stone and other union representatives negotiate their new contract, they will likely keep job security under the acquisition at the forefront of their minds, said Lee Hays, a former aviation contract negotiator and an assistant professor who teaches aviation labor relations at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

Amid such transitions — and the "continuing shake-out in the aviation industry, in which the major players, what we call the legacy carriers, are simply looking to expand their routes and grow" — there come a "lot of labor issues," Hays said.

As companies like Southwest are watching their bottom lines, unions are keen on maintaining "past practices" that benefited them and avoiding new policies that could chip away at the protections they have won over the years, he said.

"If I were a flight attendant at Southwest, I would be saying, 'As they bring these [AirTran flight attendants] in, we'd love to have them, as long as they aren't replacing us,' " Hays said.

According to Michael Boyd, president of the aviation consulting firm Boyd Group International, the idea that Southwest might lose touch with its positive labor stance amid the transition is "a legitimate fear" to have as the company grows.

"As you get bigger, lines of communication get stressed," he said. "With the AirTran transition, there is always going to be a little bit of heartburn."

Still, Boyd said he doesn't expect too much trouble at the negotiating table after decades of labor peace at Southwest.

Stone said she's ready for the back and forth that inevitably comes with high-stakes negotiations.

She is younger than her predecessors and is the first woman to be the local's president in 13 years, despite the union membership being about 80 percent women. But that, she said, has only translated into more support from the union's membership.

Back in 2004, Stone was working in public health when she decided to become a flight attendant and travel for a few years. She thought it would be an adventure before going to graduate school.

Once at Southwest, however, she felt she had become part of a family, she said.

"We have always been given the freedom to be more ourselves on the planes, to joke with customers," she said.

It's that culture she wants to protect in whatever contract she signs off on, she said.

As for her own future, Stone said she'll see what happens when her term as union president ends in 2015.

"I could be here another 20 years and still not have found all the charm Baltimore has to offer," she said.

krector@baltsun.com

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