United Airlines said yesterday it plans to close its reservations call center in Kent, a move affecting 400 workers. Other call centers around...

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United Airlines said yesterday it plans to close its reservations call center in Kent, a move affecting 400 workers.

Other call centers around the world, including in India, will handle the work after the Kent center closes June 4, United said.

The move comes as United, under bankruptcy protection since December 2002, is grappling with high fuel costs, low passenger revenue and competition from budget airlines, the airline said.

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United said all of the Kent workers — reservations agents and supervisors — would be offered jobs in other reservations offices in Chicago, Washington, D.C., Detroit or Honolulu, with United paying moving costs.

Workers who turn down a transfer will receive severance payments based on years of service and position. Both the relocations and severance are required by a labor contract United has with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

“We’re in the process of restructuring the business so we’re constantly looking for ways to reduce the cost,” said Jean Medina, a United spokeswoman in Chicago.

United’s work force has dropped to about 60,000 from 100,000 before the Sept. 11attacks, she said.

The announcement came without warning yesterday and left some employees stunned and sobbing, one worker said.

“Total shock, total shock, total shock,” said Kathy Hartley, a former service director who now works as a union representative at the call center full time.

“This is huge parts of people’s lives. In many cases, people have worked here 25 to 30 years and are within five or six years of retirement,” she said. “Now they’re being forced to make the decision to move to a strange city or chuck the retirement they’ve worked for.”

The jobs paid well, she said. Hartley, 43, said she started at the center 21 years ago when it was in downtown Seattle, earning $6.50 an hour. She worked her way up to the top of the scale, earning as much as $25.12 an hour last year.

A series of wage reductions, the latest a temporary cut ordered in January, lowered the top scale to $18.33 an hour. United is seeking permanent cuts in wages and benefits.

Hartley said large call centers in Chicago and Washington, D.C., could accommodate the Kent workers.

“They’re offering every person here a job,” she said. “That sounds like good news. But it’s going to mean uprooting your family and moving them to do it.”

A Washington native with her family here, Hartley said she wasn’t going to take that step. She said she would get 26 weeks of severance.

“I don’t know what I’ll do,” she said.

“I’ve got about six months to figure my life out.”

Alwyn Scott: 206-464-3329 or ascott@seattletimes.com