AMERICA WEST Airlines has sacked 500 maintenance workers at its Phoenix, Arizona, headquarters as the prelude to switching heavy maintenance on its fleet of predominantly Boeing 737s to a third-party support company.

The airline, which emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1994, will contract out "C" and "D" checks performed by the laid-off workers to Everett, Washington-based Tramco, a division of BFGoodrich.

America West says that the switch to a third-party maintenance company will save the company $35 million over a five-year period. The move has caused outrage among airline staff - not least because of the manner of implementation.

Rather than distribute formal lay-off notification, America West posted armed guards at all employee entrances, refusing entry to the laid-off workers who were later escorted one at a time into the hangar to retrieve their personal effects.

America West vice-president Thomas Derieg says that the airline was approached by Tramco in May.

The mechanics had been organising efforts for representation by a local Teamsters union during the same period and, according to union organiser Ray Chaney, had signed up around 80% of the maintenance staff. Because the union was defeated in an earlier representation election less than a year ago, another election could not be held until next month.

Derieg maintains that the timing of the layoffs had nothing to do with the forthcoming union elections.

The layoffs, which bring America West's workforce below 10,500 (from a pre-bankruptcy peak of over 15,000) marks the second time in ten months that the company has reduced staff. In March, 726 non-technical workers were laid off.

America West serves around 70 destinations with a fleet of 737s and Airbus A320s.

Source: Flight International