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American Airlines warns workers of potential layoffs at MIA

Nearly 10 months after one of Miami’s largest private employers filed for bankruptcy protection, the number of local American Airlines employees who will lose their jobs is still not quite known.

But thanks to a federal law that requires companies to warn workers if there’s a chance they might be affected, the picture is becoming clearer as the airline works its way through restructuring.

The worst case scenario for the airline’s 9,000 employees in the region is glum: more than 1,400 people potentially affected, the vast majority of them at Miami International Airport, according to a notice filed with the state’s labor agency.

But the airline and a local union representative said the number of workers likely to lose their jobs in Miami is expected to be much lower. And some of those whose jobs are outsourced could find employment with companies that are contracted to do the same work.

Nationwide, the airline is sending warnings of possible job loss to more than 11,000 employees with the expectation of laying off closer to 4,400.

American Airlines spokesman Bruce Hicks said Tuesday that fewer than 40 percent of those getting notices will lose their jobs. Federal law requires the company to notify anyone whose position could change including those who could get “bumped” by more-senior employees whose jobs are eliminated or outsourced.

In a statement, Hicks said that through “early out” incentive programs, negotiations and other solutions, the airline expects to need to lay off only a third of the employees it originally estimated systemwide. American said in February that it planned to cut 14,000 jobs, including 13,000 held by union workers.

Over the summer American accepted slightly smaller cost-cutting measures as it negotiated new labor contracts, and it agreed to give bonuses to flight attendants and ground workers who quit. So far 1,800 flight attendants and 800 ground workers have applied to leave, the Associated Press reported.

“Because some of the incentive programs are still open, and because the business changes will take place over several months, we don’t yet have final furlough numbers,” Hicks wrote.

According to a notice filed with the state’s labor agency, the number of employees that could be affected at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on or around Nov. 16 is 47; about 158 employees on the same date could be affected at Miami International Airport and another 1,209 workers could be affected at MIA around Dec. 16.

The bulk of the jobs detailed in the notice — 668 — belong to fleet service clerks and crew chiefs at MIA, followed by 323 mechanics, 174 plant maintenance workers and 102 airport agents.

But Sidney Jimenez, president of the Transport Workers Union’s local Chapter #568, which covers Miami and Fort Lauderdale, said the union expects far fewer people to lose their jobs involuntarily. TWU represents fleet service, plant maintenance and mechanics, among other groups.

“If all the stars align and everything were to be the worst that could happen, that’s what the number could be,” he said. “Because of other internal ways to mitigate the number, we believe it’s going to be substantially lower as far as the number that are involuntarily separated.”

In a separate notice last week, regional carrier American Eagle warned that 146 employees at Miami International Airport could be affected, including 77 pilots and 65 flight attendants. Parent company AMR had wanted to sell or spin off its smaller Eagle operation, but those plans have been on hold since the November bankruptcy filing.

Part of the airline’s overall strategy for post-bankruptcy success is to increase traffic at key hubs by 20 percent over the next five years. American has emphasized that Miami, with its profitable Latin American routes, is critically important to American.

On Tuesday, an airline spokeswoman said that growth is happening already. Through August, the number of available seats flying to and from Miami has increased by 4.6 percent year-over-year and passenger numbers are up 6.1 percent compared to the same time in 2011.

American is by far the largest carrier at Miami International Airport — and the airport said it does not expect that to change with layoffs.

“While this action represents an undetermined decrease in jobs and local employees likely being replaced, and the County is certainly saddened by any potential job loss, American Airlines has assured us that it remains committed to expanding operations at Miami International Airport as one of its most profitable hubs,” said Greg Chin, spokesman for the Miami-Dade Aviation Department. “The company has also assured us it will provide assistance to employees who are replaced or laid off with job placement tools.”

The airline said previously that it intends to outsource some jobs, such as cargo agents and maintenance workers, but plans to help displaced employees get new jobs with contracting companies.

Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant in Evergreen, Colo., said outsourcing makes sense as AMR tries to appease creditors by cutting payroll. But cut too deep, and American risks tarnishing its standing with passengers, he said.

“An airline is a service organization. You can’t just outsource everything,” Boyd said.

While agreements with several labor groups have helped to reduce the number of layoffs that will be necessary, pilots voted overwhelmingly against the company’s last contract offer, and a federal bankruptcy judge allowed American to impose new pay and working rules on pilots.

The Allied Pilots Association has asked federal officials to approve steps that could eventually lead to a strike, but permission hasn’t been granted.

Still, pilots are holding a strike-authorization vote. And according to the company, in recent days they have called in sick more often than usual, contributing to an increase in canceled flights. American has trimmed its September and October schedule by up to 2 percent to make sure it has enough pilots to operate flights.

Hunter Keay, an analyst for Wolfe Trahan & Co., said the threat of cancelations won’t cause travelers to avoid American. But he said there has been “a clear deterioration in labor relations” at American.

Keay said that an American merger with US Airways Group Inc. could produce a bigger airline with more revenue and more labor peace. The two companies announced on Aug. 31 that they would start talks to discuss a potential merger.

Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report, which was supplemented with information from the Associated Press.