Pink slips are flying again at United Airlines as the Chicago-based carrier sizes its work force to fit its far-smaller fleet.
United, the nation’s third-largest airline, plans to lay off 140 employees this month, including 50 front-line workers at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. An additional 100 customer-service representatives and ramp workers at the airport will be demoted to part-time status, according to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
A total of 260 IAM members across United will be affected by cuts, and about 120 of those workers will be out of jobs as of Sunday, according to the union. Among those affected: gate agents, ramp workers who load bags onto planes, and customer service representatives who check in customers, reroute those who are stranded and track down lost bags.
“This is a result of our overall reduction in capacity,” United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy said. “This is a difficult but necessary decision to ensure we have the right number of people in our operation.”
United announced in June 2008 that it was grounding more than 20 percent of its fleet and laying off 7,000 workers as its fuel costs hit the stratosphere. Although oil prices later fell, United continued with the cost-cutting measures, which helped reduce its losses as a global recession cooled demand for business travel in 2009.
But union leader Rich Delaney questioned whether United is cutting too deeply.
“Sometimes, people lose sight of the fact that it’s a service industry,” said Delaney, president of IAM District 141.
United and other carriers have automated much of the work that once was handled by customer-service representatives, encouraging passengers to check in for flights at home and trace lost bags using airport kiosks. United also is testing “line-buster” technology at O’Hare, using hand-held computers to rebook passengers who have missed connections.
Still, United workers at O’Hare were stretched thin as storms swept through Chicago during the busy Christmas travel season, with many working overtime to accommodate thousands of passengers who missed flight connections, Delaney said. He questioned whether the carrier will have sufficient reserves to handle future storms.
“They’re already stressed out,” he said of O’Hare workers. “It’s like we’re staffing in the hope nothing ever goes wrong.”
But United needs fewer front-line workers because it is dealing with fewer travelers, responded McCarthy.
“We are confident that we have adequate resources to serve our customers,” she said.
United also plans to lay off 20 ground mechanics systemwide at the end of January. The move is related to United’s 2008 decision to ground 100 aircraft.
“We don’t like it, but we understand the need for it,” said Capt. David Bourne, director of the airline division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “Hopefully, United will grow so that we can add some of these jobs back.”