Laid off airline workers ask Meeks for assistance

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At least a dozen people recently laid off from TWA’s offices at a Kennedy Airport sought help at a town hall meeting called by U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans) at York College Saturday.

“JFK is the largest employer in this district and over 3,000 people have lost their jobs,” said Meeks, whose congressional district covers most of southern Queens from Queens Village to Far Rockaway.

Meeks said he set up the meeting to find ways to help southeast Queens residents affected by the World Trade Center disaster.

Airlines announced a rash of layoffs after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but the industry was suffering even before two hijacked jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center.

The airline workers at Saturday’s meeting said they were laid off before the World Trade Center was attacked and received letters in the mail promising them severance benefits. After Sept. 11, those letters were rescinded, they said.

TWA was purchased by AMR Corp., the parent of American Airlines and American Eagle, in March after TWA filed for bankruptcy protection.

Linda Burke, a resident of Jamaica, was among those laid off before the terrorist attacks. She estimated about 5,000 people lost their jobs working for TWA and American Airlines at Kennedy, but some of them took jobs with the airlines in St. Louis or Kansas City.

“I’m angry, because we were just taken on by American and all of a sudden we are laid off,” Burke said.

Lillian Lockhart does not know what to do. Her husband had already been furloughed from his Hertz rent-a-car job at JFK when she lost her job at TWA. And they have four children, ages 9, 14, 17 and 20, who they had hoped to send to college.

“Who is going to help them? Not me, I can’t help,” Lockhart said of her children.

Meeks said that although Congress has approved federal grants to help the aviation industry recover from the business lost after the World Trade Center disaster, those funds would not help airline workers like Burke and Lockhart.

“To be honest, there is nothing in place that will help airline employees,” Meeks said.

He said two bills that could be helpful are currently stalled in Congress. He expressed hope they would be approved within a week.

After Sept. 11, AMR Corp. announced plans to lay off 20,000 employees, according to published reports, but its financial records showed the company was suffering economic losses even before the World Trade Center disaster.

Catherine Clark, a TWA worker laid off before the Twin Towers collapse, said she understands the airline is hurting from low ridership now, but it should not use the terrorist attack as a scapegoat.

“If they really cared, they would do everything they could to help us,” said Charles Coleman, who worked for TWA for 33 years.

Ollie Madison was employed by TWA for 24 years before he was laid off prior to Sept. 11.

“I am very upset, very angry,” he said. “I spent 24 years of my life there and now — not being able to retire, not being able to have a pension. It is very upsetting.”

Despite these cuts in staff and flight schedules, American Airlines said Tuesday it plans to accelerate the construction of its new terminal at JFK.

Representatives from TWA’s St. Louis and Queens offices were not available for comment Tuesday due to the high volume of calls to their offices. A call placed to American Airlines and TWA’s executive offices in Dallas was not returned by press time.

Reach reporter Betsy Scheinbart by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 138.

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