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US Airways couples look for alternate landing spots

Luis Fábregas
| Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2004

These days, even a cute little puppy can't curb the sky-high stress levels at Debbi and Craig Nagel's house.

"She peed in the hallway twice last night," Debbi Nagel said, half laughing as she talked about her 6-month-old miniature dachshund minutes before leaving home for her job as a US Airways flight attendant. "This is making me more stressful. I have enough stuff going on."

The Nagels, who live in Robinson, belong to a particularly vulnerable subset of US Airways workers: those with a spouse who also works for the carrier. Officials of the Association of Flight Attendants Local 40 estimate that about 1,000 of its members are married to other company workers.

In May 2003, three couples featured in a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story said they were doubly worried about smaller paychecks, the prospect of a job loss and a hazy future.

Today, as they cope with the airline's most recent bankruptcy Sept. 12 and await a doubtful reorganization, their anxiety is higher than ever. The company has cut about 3,000 jobs in the last three years, and experts predict its current workforce of roughly 7,000 in the Pittsburgh region could dwindle to about 1,500 -- and that's only if the company endures.

"We're very apprehensive (about) whether the company will be able to survive or end up liquidating," said Tom Gallant, 52, who has worked as a US Airways flight attendant for 21 years. His wife, Mary, has worked as a flight attendant 25 years. "It's going to be difficult to come out of a bankruptcy this time around."

In the last two years, the Gallants' take-home pay has been cut by about $1,000 a month. More cuts could be on the way if the company goes through with a proposed 23 percent pay cut for almost all of its union employees. The airline wants its unions to consent to wage and benefits cuts of about $800 million.

Although they scrutinize how they spend every penny, money isn't everything for the Gallants. Tom Gallant said the biggest stress factor is the prospect of having to work out of Philadelphia or Charlotte now that US Airways flights out of Pittsburgh continue to be downsized.

Such a move would add incredible strain on his family, possibly putting both away at the same time with no one to care for their four children, who range in ages from 4 to 19. Gallant works during the week and his wife works on weekends.

"That could be disastrous," he said. "It would be very hard on us."

If they're forced out of the Pittsburgh hub, the Gallants would consider moving to Fort Lauderdale, where they own a time-share and US Airways has a base. But before considering a move south, Gallant said he is dusting off his resume and will consider jobs in other industries.

"We're not giving up but the prospects are weakening," said Tom Gallant, who in November was re-elected to a six-year term as a Findlay supervisor.

As much as she complains about her dog, Ruby, Debbi Nagel is not about to give in to stress. It actually was her idea to get the puppy for her daughter, Emma, and her husband's son from his first marriage, Steven.

Nagel, who has worked for US Airways for 23 years, said she has learned to accept things beyond her control.

"What they decide to do, there's nothing I can do," said Nagel, 44.

Nagel and her husband love their jobs. Craig Nagel, 50, has worked for US Airways as a flight attendant for 25 years. The Nagels said they couldn't stand the thought of moving out of their 4-bedroom home.

"We are procrastinators, we are dreamers," said Debbi Nagel, who once lost $100,000 in US Airways stock that tumbled from $30 a share to about $6. "We're dragging our feet."

Still, she's been gathering pamphlets and brochures from schools to enroll in a health-related program, possibly to become a radiologic technologist. She said she likely will decide in January. Her husband said he will consider careers in the medical field, and just about anything else.

"If I had to go sell cars, I guess I would," Craig Nagel said. "You do what you have to do to support your family."

He said the couple will consider moving to Charlotte, N.C., or Phoenix. Debbi Nagel is enticed by the warmer weather, and they have friends there who keep them up to date about homes for sale.

Despite the uncertainty, Debbi Nagel said she still gives her very best at work every day. She is especially critical of colleagues who do nothing but complain.

"I like to tell people who .... moan about money, 'If you have something else that you can do, go do it,'" she said. "'Don't stay here and ruin it for the rest of us. Go, go, go.'"

The US Airways saga has now spanned three years, and workers have endured two bankruptcies, thousands of job losses, pay cuts and incessant rumors.

"If you let it get to you, it can really disrupt your life," said Marcy Schott, 40, who has worked as a ticketing agent for 19 years. Her husband, Randy, is a US Airways mechanic who has worked for the airline for 17 years.

The couple met in 10th grade at South Hills High School and live in Bridgeville with their two children, ages 12 and 10.

Marcy Schott is now enrolled at the Community College of Allegheny County, where she is taking a math class twice a week. Her goal is to take some general courses and apply to a nursing program in the spring.

"It's different going to school at this age, but I am enjoying it," she said. "Some people would be intimidated. It's something that I can come out and get a job. I'm proud of myself that I'm doing it."

Schott said her husband hasn't made any moves to find a new job, mainly because it could be a while before US Airways decides what to do.

"It could take another three years. Who knows?" Marcy Schott said. "Everything is always delayed with them, everything is always extended."

Like the Nagels and the Gallants, the Schotts say they will survive no matter what happens.

"If the company goes down, we won't," Marcy Schott said.

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