Continental Airlines, already besieged with legal, financial and safety problems, was accused by its flight attendants union Wednesday of improperly firing eight Los Angeles-based attendants last week in retaliation for their refusal to work beyond the number of hours limited by company rules.
Continental spokesman Bruce Hicks countered by saying the attendants had been fired for violating federal safety rules about the number of attendants who must be on a plane while it is on the ground with passengers aboard.
Elly Brekke, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration in Los Angeles, said the agency is investigating the incident.
The attendants said at a news conference at Los Angeles International Airport that they had walked off a Los Angeles-to-Newark flight April 17 after it was repeatedly delayed by safety problems.
The attendants said that had they remained on board for the flight, they would have exceeded the number of consecutive hours Continental rules permit them to work and that this would have jeopardized passenger safety. The FAA does not limit the number of consecutive hours flight attendants may work. Pilots, however, are limited and the cockpit crew on the April 17 flight was changed.
The flight was originally scheduled to leave at 8:25 a.m., but it was twice delayed and it did not take off until 11:40 a.m.
Over Denver about an hour later, however, the pilot informed passengers that the plane would return to Los Angeles due to a mechanical problem--low oil pressure in one of the engines--and because poor weather in Denver prevented landing there.
The plane landed in Los Angeles about 2 p.m. Passengers were transferred to a new plane and takeoff was rescheduled to 6 p.m. At 6:16 p.m. the 14 flight attendants on board determined that if they continued to work until the flight landed in Newark they would exceed the company's 16-hour time limit for a work day, according to those at the press conference.
Continental supervisors tried to lock the doors to the plane, according to one passenger interviewed Wednesday, but when that failed, a new crew of attendants was brought aboard. The plane left at 8:12 p.m.
Ann Nelson, one of the eight, said she had been told by the airline that they had been fired because "we had been filmed by a local television crew in Los Angeles when we walked off the plane." The others were not filmed.
Hicks said the reason the eight attendants were fired was because they had left the plane "en masse," putting Continental in violation of FAA rules specifying that a plane on the ground with passengers aboard must have half of its normal complement of flight attendants. One of the fired attendants, Monica Gogerty, confirmed she was told that was the reason for her firing.
Hicks said three of the other attendants were less severely disciplined, one remains under company investigation and the other two were not penalized.
The attendants at the press conference said that there was no time that the plane had fewer than seven attendants aboard, and said that there had been additional attendants on the flight as passengers.
One of the passengers aboard the plane was Ron Scherer, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, who wrote a story about his 18-hour day trying to fly from Los Angeles to Newark.
'Lot of Confusion'
He said in a telephone interview from New York that there was "a lot of confusion" on the plane about 6:15 p.m. when the attendants decided to leave. He said that after the attendants left, passengers on the plane helped themselves to free drinks and started a pool on when the plane ultimately would take off. He said four passengers guessed right and won $19.
The flight attendants had their contract abrogated in 1983 when Frank Lorenzo, chairman of Texas Air, Continental's parent company, took Continental into Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. The Union of Flight Attendants is still recognized as the bargaining agent for the company's attendants, but they have been working without a contract since then.
Negotiations for a new contract are ongoing, but there is no imminent prospect of agreement, Carla Winkler, president of the union, said Wednesday. Lorenzo also abrogated the contracts of his pilots and machinists and has been the subject of continuous criticism by both of those unions for more than four years.