Countdown: The Last Days of Austrian Airlines' Station JFK

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I

2009 was a transitional year for Austrian Airlines as a company and in North America. Increasingly straddled with debt and unable to reverse the plummeting financial situation created by low cost carrier competition, escalating fuel prices, and the economic recession, its very existence was threatened until a July agreement with Lufthansa-German Airlines, under which it assumed its monetary obligations and acquired the majority of its shares, was concluded. European Union approval of the acquisition was obtained two months later.

Like many worldwide companies that have been forced to outsource functions and then surrendered to takeovers, it was subjected to several fundamental changes, particularly at its JFK station.

This is how its final chapter unfolded.

II

Seeking an investment partner to restore its financial viability, Austrian Airlines explored several options, but the first step to a solution occurred on March 2, 2009, when Lufthansa made a public offer for the tri-carrier Austrian Airlines Group after it reached an agreement with the state holding company to purchase a 41.56-percent stake in it. The 4.46 euro-per-share offer, however, was contingent upon it receiving antitrust immunity and the approval of 500 million euros of restructuring aid from the state holding company. It also hinged upon Lufthansa's acquisition of at least 75-percent of its permanent voting shares.

For North America the clock was already ticking, and nothing foretold its fate more than the series of duty trips undertaken to negotiate new agreements. Although Austrian Airlines celebrated both its 20- and 40-year transatlantic service jubilees on March 26, the occasion was bittersweet, since it seemed unlikely that it would achieve another, at least not with its own staff.

Indeed, during one of the earliest duty trips to Toronto, an agreement was reached in which all operations would be assumed by Lufthansa, eliminating the need for its employees. It became only the first of three to be signed.

Spring usually signaled renewal, but not of Austrian's staff contracts. A second Canada trip, in April, marked the transition, with JFK Station Manager Michael Steinbuegl overseeing the Centralized Load Control and Duty Manager Dorit the passenger handling components of it.

With the dawn of May, the first of JFK's staff members also departed. Jenner, who had been employed as a Ticket Sales-Reservations Agent for three years, was laid off because of "budget-necessitated reductions," and the empty seat next to Sidonie, head of the department, appeared like a void, symbolic of a strongly missed family member.

The dismantling continued. Whitestone, Austrian Airlines' North American fortress, passed its reservations torch to Lufthansa on the tenth of the following month, or what could have been considered the airline version of "black Friday"

If there were any doubts about the hammer hitting the nail, they were eradicated on August 28, when the European Commission officially approved Lufthansa's acquisition, which itself consisted of 500 million euros of restructuring assistance from the state holding company and the merger between the two carriers. In order to achieve the required antitrust immunity, however, Lufthansa agreed to relinquish key flight slots and reduce the number of frequencies between Vienna and Brussels, Cologne, Frankfurt, Munich, and Stuttgart.

Austrian Airlines itself was slated to become one of its many independent, European hub carriers-in this case, a Vienna-based one feeding traffic to its Central and Eastern European destinations.

The fall fell hard-emotionally-for Austrian's JFK staff members and the duty trips, during which the plugs to its North American stations were pulled, continued.

Lufthansa employees were versed in Austrian's ticketing procedures, while two managers departed flew to Vienna to discuss ground-handling details in New York.

Confirmation of the stations' inevitability signaled its death knoll: Lufthansa would assume all ground-handling later in the year and all but the single JFK station manager and its two duty managers (the author included) would be released from their contracts at that time. Even these, however, had six-month limitations.

The news, the equivalent of removing the wing of an aircraft in flight, caused emotions to spiral to the ground, resulting in disbelief and depression, and this was only exacerbated when the head of ground operations informed Swissport that its JFK contract would be canceled on November 16.

Sharing the station's fate with his full-time staff members, Patrick, Austrian Airlines-Swissport Account Manager, attempted to cushion a blow that words could not achieve.

Sadness, demotivation, and resignation hung in the air like thick jet fumes.

The clock's hand continued to unwind and the expected parting words began to filter in. Long-time Austrian Airlines Station Manager at Washington-Dulles International Airport, Regula, for instance, sent the following telex on September 14.

"As you may have heard," she wrote, "Lufthansa will take over the handling of our station tomorrow. Therefore, it is time for me to say good-bye.

"It is not easy, as I have met a lot of great people during my years at Austrian Airlines and I had an opportunity to learn a lot. With this, I would like to thank you for all your support and friendship over the last few years."

Like a short string of dominoes, Washington was the second of the three North American stations to fall.

Of whatever small value it served, I elected to end each daily briefing with a "group therapy" session so that Austrian Airlines and Swissport employees could explore their emotions about the pending "family break-up."

On September 15, Michael Steinbuegl, JFK Station Manager for four years, was promoted to Key Account Manager, North America, and became responsible for all three North American stations: New York, Toronto, and Washington.

The only thing anyone had now was the future. The head of Ground Operations discussed the reasons behind the station changes with the two remaining JFK duty managers, and they subsequently met with the Lufthansa Station Manager to discuss potential integration. Patrick held a meeting with his own management to explore the migration of Swissport personnel to other JFK accounts.

As the calendar flipped into October, one of the staff members noted on the washboard used to detail the daily flight information: "Countdown: 45 days." And in the "Notes" section of the daily briefing sheet, I urged, "Smile while you still can. The days are running out."

Clarifying the events, Paul Paflik, former Area Manager of North America, wrote, "Due to the economic environment, I regret that we, as a company, had no other choice to survive but to exploit the full cost synergies with Lufthansa wherever we could. This includes close cooperation at the stations worldwide. It is sad for some of our dedicated staff, but, again, we had no other choice if we wished to survive as a company."

The rest of the Austrian Airlines' route system equally fell victim to this reality.

A former JFK colleague, for instance, who had since worked at several other stations, wrote, "Finally, the ax has come round to smite me down as well. I will leave Austrian Airlines after 20 years... It seems as if I am no longer needed within this Austrian 'New Generation.'

"We walked a 20-year path together, which has predictably terminated with the long-awaited 'Anschluss' we joked about many times, but we had somehow always narrowly avoided. Now that the inevitable has come, it means the end for many of us.

"There is an ironic parallel to the Star Trek saga here. It seems that we, the old, original crew, have been left behind in our old ship to drift away out of sight, replaced by Lufthansa. The good ship 'Austrian" is gone forever.

"So I say farewell with no regrets and a bag full of fond memories to take with me slung across my shoulder."

Andre, an Austrian Airlines Cargo Sales Manager, summed up the prevailing feeling.

"What can I say," he wrote? "From the start, through the middle, and to the end, your life experiences bring out your emotions."

The integration had already begun. Introduced to Lufthansa operations, I was asked to observe one of its 747-400 flights to Frankfurt.

Unwinding to the one-month mark, the calendar's clock indicated October 15 and on the daily briefing sheet I noted, "Observe the date and count backwards from 30... "

Issuing the last Austrian Airlines duty roster on October 18, the station manager distributed it to his staff, but it abruptly terminated on the 16th of November for all but two of them.

Like advancing forces, two Lufthansa Duty Managers began to familiarize themselves with Austrian flight preparation procedures. Could there be any question now?

Halloween dawned mild, but blustery, causing the streets to be blanketed with red and gold leaves. But the blows continued internally, inside station JFK, and cargo was the next to go-and to say goodbye.

Confirming this, Peter Schleinzer, Austrian Airlines North American Cargo Manager, sent the following notice: "This is to advise you that Austrian Airlines Cargo will be moving and transferring its Air Cargo Operations and Sales activities from Menzies Aviation, Building 75, to Lufthansa Cargo, Building 23."

Clearly, no department or division would be exempt.

November 1 marked the last portion of the collective Austrian-Swissport journey. Fifteen days remained until the road would fork.

The next transition occurred on the ramp. In an internal email from Lufthansa Duty Manager Edwin Haas, he wrote, "In order to prepare for Austrian Airlines, I would like to ensure that you are all familiar with their ramp procedures. Therefore, please make sure that one agent per day is present to observe their operation."

Knowledge continued to be transferred. Several Passenger Service familiarization classes were given to Lufthansa check-in staff and their supervisors were versed on Austrian flight preparation procedures. Their blue uniform presence had already begun.

The parting messages also continued. Helnut Haubenwaller, Chief Boeing 767 Pilot, sent the following email in early November.

"With the final days for the Austrian Airlines JFK Station to come, I would like to thank all of you for your professional, solution-oriented, and always-friendly work at Terminal One. Your motivation and the quality of the handling of our flights has always been of the highest level, even if other factors sometimes made life difficult. From crew check-in to receiving the load sheet and leaving ahead of schedule, all of you gave us the feeling that we were departing a home station. And we know that you did far more for our crews than anyone could have expected.

"Once again, a big THANK YOU and all the best to all of you from Austrian Airlines Flight Operations."

Characteristic of any move was its preparation and packing. Sending the following email reminder to station staff, I wrote, "It is with a heavy heart and much sorrow that I must remind everyone that the days are rapidly dwindling and that we need to begin the lengthy clean-up process of our 'home.' New tenants have already taken a look at our residence and intend to move in on December 1."

Like memories, the old flight files were deposited into history.

Friday, the 13th, was a desolate, gray, rainy day. Then again, they all seemed to be that fall.

The "home" the staff had so painstakingly created over the years began to be dismantled, reduced to memories, and their remaining time as a joint Austrian Airlines-Swissport station could now be measured in hours.

Anyone clinging to the last hope of being rehired by Lufthansa was abruptly disillusioned when they read the latest telex.

"I have been informed by Lufthansa today," wrote the head of Ground Operations, "that, unfortunately, they are unable to take over anyone from Austrian Airlines due to legal reasons."

Why would anyone expect a silver lining in the dark cloud that hovered over station JFK now?

Despite what may be emotional attempts to prepare for reality before it occurs, the November 14 note on the washboard quickly nullified that theory. "Countdown: 1 day," it said. And if it needed any more proof, it came in the form of an email on the same day.

"Please be informed about the following changes at JFK as of November 16, 2009," it said:

"Supervision and Station Management: Lufthansa.

"Passenger Handling and Lost and Found: Lufthansa.

"Weight and Balance: Centralized Load Control, Lufthansa."

The only hope anyone had now was they would soon wake up from the same nightmare. They didn't.

Another acknowledgment of the situation's finality came in the form of a letter from Pio Neria, Swissport Terminal One Manager.

"Thank you very much for all the things we went through together during the past seven years," he said. "It was sometimes fun and memorable.

"Mike, thank you for always treating the Swissport staff as one with Austrian Airlines. This is something that does not happen all the time and something we will not forget.

"Robert, thank you for all your support and for guiding and grooming the staff members."

November 15 was mild, but gray and heavy, as if an anvil had been pounded into it, and the mostly fallen leaves left the trees bare, reflecting everyone's internal emptiness. Today, they would write the last page of Austrian Airlines' station JFK history.

All Austrian and Swissport staff were scheduled to work that day-or, more accurately, to say "goodbye" that day.

Omi, wearing personal clothes, walked into the office at 11:40 and automatically asked, "What's up?"

"Well, this is the last day," I hesitantly replied. "Let me see if I can find something else... "

Swinging her head around, she looked at the washboard, whose note hit her like a bullet. "Countdown: 0 days," it said.

The 1:30 briefing, somehow arriving more rapidly than it had on any other day, could barely support the more than 20 staff members, as many, braking from their traditional, company-dictated roles, confirmed the group's disbandment. Damian read part of the briefing sheet, while Monica and Madaive became temporary "Supervisors of the day."

The "Notes" section of the briefing sheet read: "Last day, last briefing, last chapter."

Flooded with emotion, I read the "Parting Speech" I had prepared, but often felt as if I were wading my way through a thick trench.

"On New Year's Day, January 1, 2003," I began, "I sat at my usual desk and then-Station Manager Mary Tretter walked into this very office. Lufthansa, which had performed most of Austrian Airlines' ground-handling at JFK in Terminal One since Austrian itself joined the Star Alliance, passed the torch to Swissport USA that day. Since Lufthansa was well acquainted with our procedures and used their own computer system, she had some trepidation about the transition, looking me in the eyes and asking, 'Are we really going to go through with this today?' That was January 1, 2003. Today is November 15, 2009, or almost seven years later. The interval proves two things to me:

"First, that time passes much faster than you think. And second, that nothing in the physical world is permanent. Everything has a beginning and everything has an ending. And I think you know which end we're at today. We have done so much in these briefings. Now we have one last order of business to complete-namely, to say goodbye.

"We all traveled this road together. For some it was longer than for others, but the number of faces seen and the events experienced during that time, both good and bad, is almost unfathomable.

"The road, however, is actually a shorter portion of the longer 'life road' we all walk everyday, in that both serve as developmental paths and thresholds to our ultimate, higher existences.

"Of that development, there are two types. The first, the professional one, includes learning, understanding, and performing job-related functions, such as Passenger Check-In, Ticketing, Baggage Services, Ramp Supervision, Load Control, and Management. The second, the personal one, deals more with personality and character refinement, strengthening, and growth. You have all, whether you are aware of it or not, engaged in both types here, where many successful professional and personal chapters of your own lives were written. For many of you, Swissport in general, and Austrian Airlines in particular, served as your entry into the airline industry. None of you will leave today the same way you came in--that is, when you first began your employment with us.

"Annie, for instance, is one of only two remaining from the original team and holds the third highest seniority of anyone on the station. Having weathered the Delta Air Lines code-share agreement, the joint Austrian Airlines-Sabena-Swissair station under the Atlantic Excellence banner, the Star Alliance, numerous ground handling companies and concepts, and four terminals, she was instrumental in building JFK over the past 15 years, and has performed Passenger Service, Ticket Sales-Reservations, Ramp Supervision, and even Duty Manager functions, as well as a myriad of other activities too numerous to cite here.

"Sidonie, with whom I have shared more alternate names and recipes than any other person, led her team to and at the Ticket Sales-Reservations counter.

"Dorit, who joined the JFK team as Duty Manager in 2006, was instrumental in creating the North American Station Ticketing Procedures Training Program, having frequently taught in Chicago, Toronto, and Washington, as well as having occasionally performed this function here at JFK.

"Ecaterina was one of only two to transition from Swissport to Austrian Airlines, and during her five-year tenure has performed Passenger Service and Ticket Sales functions.

"And Susanna, who was the only one to join the airport staff from Whitestone, equally performed Ticket Sales functions. Although she was only with us for six months, we quickly came to love her.

"Patrick, with Swissport, has held Passenger Service Agent, Ramp Supervisor, Load Controller, Lead Agent, and Account Manager positions; has taken nine local courses within the Austrian Airlines North American Station Training Program and two in Vienna; and is the second Load Controller to have been licensed on the local level. In his personal life, he had a son, earned his Private Pilot License, and completed his Bachelor of Science degree in aviation.

"David achieved many of the same things: he performed Passenger Service, Baggage Services, Ramp Supervision, and Load Control functions; took six local courses and one in Vienna; was the third locally licensed Load Controller; and also had a son.

"Josue, the fourth locally licensed Load Controller, performed Passenger Service, Ramp Supervision, and Load Control functions; took seven local courses and one in Vienna; and later completed load sheets for Saudi Arabian Airlines and Turkish Airlines.

"Omar, who joined the Austrian Airlines account from Royal Air Maroc, was the Baggage Services/Lost and Found Lead Agent and ran an exemplary department, establishing procedures, organizing, training Whaid and Steven, and even structuring other North American Baggage Services departments. Because of his efforts and contributions, JFK won an award for its improvement.

"Omi and Berqui, having both commenced their careers with Swissport in Passenger Service, were equally promoted to Lead Agents of the Austrian Airlines account. They intermittently completed their university degree studies, and Omi even pursued a minor in aviation. Both developed into beautiful ladies.

"Damian, having spent more than half a decade with Swissport-Austrian Airlines, performed Passenger Check-in, Arrivals, Flight Controller, and Departure Gate functions, but Austrian Airlines was more than just a 'job' for him: it was his family, his friends, his laughs, his holidays, and his annual ski trip vacations to the Poconos. For him, it was 'home.' In fact, he twice ran away from home, to other airline accounts, during his five-year tenure, and twice he came back.

"Passenger Service and Ramp Supervision contributions were also made by everyone else, including Syed, Kewal, Lorena, Cristina, Monica, Pinky, Madaive, Wendy, and Jean.

"Because of all of you, JFK can be credited with numerous strengths, accomplishments, and successes.

"And if you think I forgot Mike, think again. He is singularly responsible for cultivating the atmosphere and orchestrating the steps that allowed every one of these strengths and accomplishments to have been made here. If you think he is like most station managers, you better think again. He is a rare breed indeed!

"My own accomplishments can be reflected by the numerous roles I played here: manager, director, mentor, psychologist, teacher, writer, travel agent, entertainer, jokester, recipe creator, alternate name provider, and even Omi's father.

"Throughout our joint history, there was never any barrier between the two groups, just a seamless interface between Austrian Airlines and Swissport-in other words, humanity connecting with humanity, regardless of which company they worked for.

"I could cite the economic reasons--although no one would agree with them--why this had to end today. But if it had not been for them, it would have ended anyway, one way or another. Do I say this because I know of some deep, dark secret from Vienna? No, I say it because, as previously mentioned, nothing is permanent in this physical world, and it prepares us, in some small way, for the sometimes-difficult task of moving to the next stage of our development. When we are finished with that segment, we must leave it behind. Someday, after we 'walk' all the developmental paths of our lives here, we will leave them all behind.

"Today may serve as one small preparation for that inevitability. But, paradoxically, that is when we will regain the bond we were forced to break today. That is when we will see each other, everyday, when there are no days left down here.

"I do not know if we will walk the same path again in this existence. But I do know that, whatever paths you do walk, if you walk them well, and correctly, and ethically, that every one of them will lead to the same destination-up there.

"Your tears are tears of conversion--an attempt to 'convert back' those empty pockets you will assuredly feel when you leave here tonight--as you 'disconnect' from everyone, because, you see, this began as a venue where we would work together, but it ended up one where we played together, and laughed together, and cried together-in other words, we temporarily re-merged into the 'oneness' from which we all came.

"And now comes the difficult part--leaving behind what we created and making a significant life change. Change is something everyone resists, yet it is actually the mechanism by which we are moved to the next stage of our developmental paths.

"Today, I want you to take three things with you.

"First, I want you to take all your professional-level learning experiences with you, whether they concern check-in or load control or ticketing.

"Second, I want you to take your pleasant memories with you. For each of you, they will be different. They may be a joke, a funny name, a glance, the cheese provided by Rocio, the Secret Santas at Christmas, the ski trips, or the pumpkin soup served during Thanksgiving. Whatever they are, cherish them. And remember, no one can take them away from you.

"And finally, I want you to take with you the 'bigger picture' lesson that was taught here-namely, that, when you give to others what you yourself have been given, whether you are asked to or not and whether you are paid to or not, that a harmony results, and that you are not only a part of that harmony, but the partial creator of it.

"And now, as the clock rapidly consumes our final hours together, the last order of business is to thank each and everyone of you for your time, efforts, contributions, ideas, jokes, and laughs-your presence. And most of all, I thank you for letting me lead you.

"Each one of you is one small reason why, together, we were one big success.

"I wish you that same degree of success as you leave here today, as you write the next chapter of your lives and follow the next part of your developmental path.

"Until we see each other again-and we will... "

During the speech, it was difficult to gauge which sound was louder: the uncontrollable sobs or the stark silence.

Cameras, flashing throughout the day at the check-in counter, captured the final closing of the aircraft door--a picture of a waving flight attendant, a second of Austrian Airlines' JFK history frozen in time and forever preserved.

Depressing the button on my radio, I announced, "The last Austrian-Swissport 088 is off the blocks at 42 past the hour," or 13 minutes ahead of schedule with 30 business and 176 economy class passengers on board.

And with the last flight, even Kewal was granted his long-awaited wish: he finally ramped the aircraft, with Cristina.

Amid computer cord disconnections, emptying shelves, and furniture movement in the office--a piece by piece dismantling of our seven-year "home"--a post-departure and post-station party ensued, highlighted by visits of more than a dozen prior Austrian Airlines and Swissport employees who felt compelled to return "home" one last time, and ended with the inevitable tears and the draining emotionalization generated by each and every final "goodbye" as they left-that is, with each and every final disconnection.

Somehow appropriately, I accompanied Annie to the parking lot. We were the first to work for Austrian Airlines, tracing our respective roots to 1989 and 1994, and we were the last to leave.

"For God's sake," Annie exclaimed, "I've known you for 16½ years," as tears preceded a final hug.

Driving away from the airport that night, I felt the most overwhelming sense of emptiness I had ever experienced in my life.

III

The final nail had been hammered into Austrian Airline's North American operation, sealing its fate. JFK was the third and last station to have been ceded to Lufthansa, after Toronto and Washington, and its reservations department, Whitestone headquarters, and cargo handling had also been lost in the process.

In November, Swissport, its seven-year ground handler, passed the torch to Lufthansa, and station JFK, both North America's first and last, closed its doors to autonomous handling after 21 years.

My emptiness, now coupled with numbness, continued the following morning.

Ecaterina, representing the last thread to the now-closed play, stopped by to pick up some personal belongings, but as I escorted her to the escalator, I saw her take one last glance at the ticket counter that had served as her daily "home" for the past three years. Watching her recede, I saw her form the word "goodbye" on her lips, but she refused to match it with the sound that would have finalized its reality.

The last move was my own--the relocation to one of two duty manager desks in the Lufthansa office. How long I would sit there and would I ever equate these new surroundings with the word "home" were questions that filtered through my mind.

No longer in uniform, both I and the other Austrian Duty Manager wore business attire and were now responsible for the daily operation of five Air China, Austrian Airlines, and Lufthansa flights.

Untethered to the family I had known, I felt displaced, as if I no longer belonged there. Then again, there was little "Austrian Airlines" left to which to belong. Infiltrated with feelings of guilt, I wondered why I had survived the transition while most of my colleagues had not.

During passenger check-in, which had been relocated from aisle H to aisle G, I stole a glance at the former Austrian Airlines ticket counter. It only revealed emptiness-no red uniforms, no Annie, no Sidonie, no Jenner, no Ecaterina, no Susanna-and two keyboards their hands would never again touch.

The same Austrian 767-300, registered OE-LAX, departed from the same gate that day as it had the previous one, but, now handled by agents I was only acquainted with and who wore blue Lufthansa uniforms, it seemed different and somehow far removed from the one I had always known. What a difference a day can make.

I thought of the four no-longer present Ticket Agents who were laid off and their empty chairs. Six months from now, I felt, mine would be one of them. (It was.)

IV

The morning of December 31 revealed a transformed world. The ground was covered with a light blanket of snow and the trees, like an endless line of brown sculptures, appeared coated in white sugar.

Re-entering the now-former Austrian Airlines office, I walked through it, allowing the past to replay in the present-in my mind.

I looked at the narrow room where the Baggage Services Department had been located and the countless, sometimes multi-faceted briefings had occurred, before moving into the main office.

Passing the area where a table extension had once stood, I thought of the hundreds of cockpit crew briefings that had been held there and the makeshift "buffet" that it had become during holidays, displaying birthday cakes and Thanksgiving dishes.

Eyeing the floor in front of what had been the load control desk, I could just detect where the small Christmas tree had been annually placed, at least in my imagination.

Visualizing the chair where David, one of the three load controllers, sat, I swore his daily question reverberated in my mind.

"Robert, are we closed yet," he would ask, in anticipation of sending the load sheet?

Yes, David, I answered, permanently.

Stark and silent, deserted and devoid, the Austrian Airlines office now seemed like a lifeless stage where the past seven years had played out. But the desks were gone. A cabinet door, still ajar, revealed an empty shelf. A piece of tape was still stuck to the wall, but whatever had been affixed to it had apparently long ago relinquished its grip. And an old boarding pass resting on the floor seemed to bear the collective shoe prints of the countless hundreds who had worked there.

Somewhere, at the stroke of midnight, someone clinked glasses of champagne, amidst another dusting of snow, to ring in the New Year, but no one was present to hear them. The soul that was Austrian Airlines had departed the station.