Employees of 'fun' airline aren't amused

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After a MASH television show-themed company holiday party several years ago, Southwest Airlines chairman and founder Herb Kelleher strolled out to an airplane hangar to visit the maintenance crew in his Corporal Klinger costume - a long, lacey, pink dress with a floppy purple hat and gloves.

Risque, perhaps, for a typical company, but Southwest is anything but typical. Employees wear sandals and Hawaiian shirts to work for tacky tourist day.

The airline's stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker LUV, apropos of its nickname as the "love" airline. The workers' shenanigans have even become fodder for a reality television show that chronicles the inner workings of the airline business.

"When you have a tone set at that level, you feel like you have a lot of freedom to have fun with your co-workers and your customers," said Ginger Hardage, a company spokeswoman.

But behind the goofs and gags of the airline that makes flying a little less serious, flight attendants paint a much different portrait: that of an unfair employer.

The airline's flight attendants, who have been negotiating a new contract for nearly two years, say they are working hundreds of unpaid hours each year. They also say they earn below the industry average, while other Southwest employees are better compensated for their work.

Flight attendants complain that they're not paid for time spent on such tasks as security checks, assisting disabled travelers or children flying alone, helping with luggage and cleaning the airplane between flights. They work an estimated 23 unpaid hours per month, they say.

"Is there any other work force that goes to work five days a week and is only paid 3 1/2 days?" asked Cuyler Thompson, a Southwest flight attendant for nine years, during recent picketing outside Baltimore-Washington International Airport. "And we sing little songs to be happy about it."

Southwest said it is eager to reach a contract agreement with the 7,200 flight attendants. The company believes the workers deserve a new contract and pay increases, Hardage said.

"We have presented a contract, and we hope the union will provide that directly to the flight attendants," Hardage said. "It's with industry-leading pay raises, profitability bonuses, stock options and other features that we believe our flight attendants deserve."

Details of the proposed contract have not been made public.

While many airlines struggle in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, price-war environment, Southwest turned a profit last year for its 31st consecutive year.

Last month, the airline reported a net income of $442 million, or 54 cents per diluted share, in 2003 - compared with a net income of $241 million, or 30 cents per diluted share, in 2002. The airline had revenue of $5.9 billion in 2003, up from $5.5 billion in 2002.

With business prospering, Southwest workers such as mechanics and pilots have seen their contracts improve, said Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co. Inc., an industry analyst in New York.

The corporate culture at Southwest is, within the air industry, famously relaxed: Flight attendants may wear tennis shoes and walking shorts to work, pilots wear leather bomber jackets. When flight attendants go over safety procedures at the beginning of each flight, their lines are often delivered with a joke. Company executives once settled a battle with another company over an advertising slogan by holding an arm-wrestling match.

"We like to say, 'We take the competition seriously, but we don't take ourselves seriously,' " Hardage said.

The attitude at Southwest is so unusual that the A&E; television channel launched a reality show on Monday nights that follows Southwest workers in their travels across the country.

The program, Airline, portrays Southwest workers in their daily jobs, from manning a flight carrying penguins in the cabin to conducting an impromptu version of The Price Is Right while in flight in honor of a female passenger en route to Los Angeles to fulfill her lifelong dream of being on the game show.

"The great thing about Southwest was that they are known for their antics: They've sort of put the fun back in airline travel," said Patrice Andrews, a supervising producer for the A&E; program. "It's given us a great opportunity for more fun stories and for us to really develop their employees as characters."

With more than 34,000 employees, Southwest's edge over other airlines comes not from its antics but from its low fares and frequent service, experts point out. To maintain that advantage, the airline must sustain its high productivity, said David Swierenga, president of AeroEcon, an aviation consulting firm in Vienna, Va.

Southwest employees' pay is about average with the rest of the industry, Swierenga said. But for the same money, Southwest's workers are typically more productive than those at other airlines, he said.

"If you're a 737 pilot at Southwest, you make as much money as a 737 pilot at US Airways, maybe more, but you will fly more in order to earn that pay," Swierenga said.

But Southwest's flight attendants argue otherwise.

Thom McDaniel, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 556, which represents all Southwest Airlines' flight attendants, said that his members earn 20 to 30 percent less than the rest of the industry.

A starting flight attendant at Southwest makes about $14,000 a year, he said. The median salary for a Southwest flight attendant is $24,000, typically after about seven years on the job.

Flight attendants customarily get paid for time spent in the air - from the moment the cabin door closes to when it opens after landing, said Dawn Deeks, a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants in Washington.

"You don't get paid for your preflight briefings, you don't get paid for your layovers, you don't get paid for your time in between flights, you don't get paid when you report to the airport before work," Deeks said.

Hardage, the Southwest spokeswoman, said the work that flight attendants do on the ground is taken into consideration in the way pay is structured. She added that the company has always given its employees job security and the freedom to be themselves at work.

"Southwest has a philosophy of putting its employees first, and that is something that has been a mission since our very founding - that employees come first and if you treat employees well, they will in turn treat the customers well," Hardage said.

The labor dispute hasn't hurt Southwest's operations, analysts said. And despite picketing last month at six airports around the country, including BWI, workers interviewed said they love their jobs. But they also say that it's tough to keep up the playful culture their employer is known for with a labor dispute in the backdrop.

Dan McGuire, a flight attendant at Southwest for nearly five years, said that on a recent three-day trip with stops in Nashville. Tenn., and Indianapolis, he worked eight unpaid hours. He spends his time between flights taking care of children traveling alone and cleaning the airplane - discarding banana peels, even dirty diapers left in seat pockets.

"We're the hardest-working flight attendants in the industry. We're the best airline in the world, and we're not getting paid," he said. "It's hard to keep working and keep up the culture if we don't feel valued. We feel like the stepchildren of the industry."

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