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Hating Your House
Written December 30, 2004

The first little pig built his house of straw.  But the big bad wolf came along and blew it down.

The second little pig built his house of sticks.  But the big bad wolf came along and blew it down.

The third little pig was wiser than his brothers.  He built his house of bricks.  When the big bad wolf came along, he huffed and puffed, but the house remained standing.

Seeing this, each of the other pigs also built himself a brick house.  All three of them lived happily for a time.

But then dissatisfaction set in.

"My house is too small," said the first little pig.  "I need more closet space.  And the kitchen is so old-fashioned."

"My house is also too small," said the second little pig.  "Plus, it needs a new roof."

"My house is too small as well," agreed the third little pig.  "And I never did like the carpet in the living room."

So the third little pig rolled up his sleeves and went to work.  He added more rooms to his house and replaced all the floors.  It cost him time and money, but he was happy with the result, and he lived there happily ever after.

The second little pig didn't want to go to that much trouble.  Instead, he contacted a real estate agent and started looking for a better house elsewhere.

Alas, the first little pig refused to consider either of these remedies.  He didn't want to work harder, and he didn't want to move.  Instead, he wanted everything to stay the way it used to be.

Still, he wasn't happy with his house.  To tell the truth, he hated his house.  So he punished the house for not being better.

The kitchen was old-fashioned, so he stopped trying to keep it clean.  There weren't enough closets, so he just threw his clothes on the floor.  It wasn't his fault that he lived in a pigsty, he told his brothers.  It was the house's fault.

Seeing some loose bricks in the wall, he angrily kicked them into the yard, further weakening the structure.  Soon the first pig's house was so trashed that it might as well have been made of straw, and the big bad wolf once again began sniffing around.

That house is like the airline on which I've done most of my flying, US Airways.  By the time you read this, US Airways may no longer exist.  It's been struggling financially for years now, renegotiating union contracts, drastically cutting wages and benefits.  Its survival is still in question.

It's even more in question after an "operational meltdown" canceled 455 flights on one of the busiest travel periods of the year — December 23-26, 2004 — and lost 10,000 pieces of luggage.  Some of those bags weren't expected to be reunited with their owners until New Year's Eve.  Industry analyst Terry Trippler called it "one of the worst baggage messes I have witnessed in my 36 years in this business" and warned, "Don't fly US Airways — anytime.  Stick a fork in them, folks.  They're done."

Airline workers blamed bad management planning.  Airline management blamed bad worker attitudes.

This has been going on for years.  Once, I recall, the Association of Flight Attendants was upset about something.  They weren't allowed to strike over the issue, so instead they organized a slowdown in which many members would call in sick.  For the maximum effect, an attendant wouldn't call in the night before; instead, he gave no warning until just before he was supposed to show up, forcing the abrupt cancellation of the flight that he had been counted on to work plus a ripple effect that canceled other flights for hours afterward.  The flight attendants called this CHAOS, an acronym for Create Havoc Across Our System.  They weren't striking, but they were deliberately trying to cause as much distress as possible for the passengers that they served and the company that issued their paychecks.  They were inviting catastrophe into their own house.

This time around, the unions say there was no organized action.  The problems more likely resulted from hundreds of decisions by individuals to abdicate their duty.

On December 20, one Internet poster predicted that many US Airways baggage handlers in Philadelphia would be "spending Christmas at home instead of on the ramp."  Some were fed up with the airline's repeated requests for cuts in pay and benefits; others were using up their spare sick days.  "I would not fly through here this weekend," he warned.

Flight attendants were also expected to call in sick.  From figures provided by US Airways spokesman Chris Chiames, the airline usually plans for an absence rate of about 6%.  Teddy Xidas, president of the Pittsburgh branch of the AFA, said that management should have planned for more, because "we have sick calls every single year around the holiday" — typically around 13%.  This year it was 18%.

So here's the problem:  It's accepted that a certain number of healthy employees will claim that they're ill, thus lying to their employer during this critical time.  Having agreed to do a job, they will go back on their word.  But this year, morale was so low that even more of them than usual skipped work.

Lynn Alstadt, who lives near the Pittsburgh airport, wrote a letter to the editor describing her family's Christmas Day attempt to fly to Florida to visit Grandma.  They got as far as Philadelphia, where their Fort Myers flight was canceled "because the scheduled flight crew had not come to work ... knowing that their absence would prevent their customers from spending the holidays with their families."  The airline sent the Alstadt family back to Pittsburgh, but their luggage didn't make it.  Lynn talked to a baggage claim agent and told her that the result of this lack of service will be that travelers will "avoid US Airways whenever possible, that the airline would go out of business, and that she would lose her job.  She answered, 'I don't care.  Our CEO is overpaid!  All I do is listen to complaints all day.'"

Jane Shoemaker, who lives near US Airways' hub in Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote another letter deploring this uncaring attitude which left "thousands of paying customers unable to celebrate Christmas with their families.  ... Homecomings delayed.  Celebrations disrupted.  Hearts broken.  ... For an airline struggling to stay alive — and counting on the confidence and goodwill of passengers — this kind of employee selfishness ... is like cutting the oxygen tube."

Or like destroying the house where you live.



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