2009 was a transition year for Austrian Airlines as a company and in North America. Increasingly overwhelmed with debt and unable to reverse the financial situation caused by competition from low-cost airlines, escalating fuel prices and the economic recession, their existence was threatened until a July agreement with Lufthansa-German Airlines, under which they closed theirs assumed monetary obligations and acquired the majority of its shares, has been completed. The approval of the takeover by the European Union was obtained two months later.
Like many global companies that were forced to outsource functions and then surrender to takeovers, it has undergone several fundamental changes, particularly at its JFK station.
So the last chapter developed.
Austrian Airlines was looking for an investment partner to restore its financial viability and was considering several options. However, the first step towards a solution was made on March 2, 2009, when Lufthansa, after reaching an agreement with the Austrian airline Austrian Airlines Group, made a public offer. The state holding company acquired a 41.56 percent stake. However, the prerequisite for the offer of EUR 4.46 per share was immunity from competition law and the approval of restructuring aid of EUR 500 million by the state holding. It also depended on Lufthansa acquiring at least 75 percent of its permanent voting rights.
The clock was already ticking for North America, and nothing predicted its fate more than the series of missions undertaken to negotiate new agreements. Although Austrian Airlines celebrated both its 20th and 40th anniversary of the transatlantic service on March 26, the occasion was bittersweet as it seemed unlikely it would reach another one, at least not with its own employees.
During one of the earliest business trips to Toronto, an agreement was reached in which all operations would be carried out by Lufthansa, eliminating the need for its employees. It was only the first of three that was signed.
Spring usually signaled renewal, but not Austrian employment contracts. A second trip to Canada in April marked the transition. JFK station manager Michael Steinbuegl oversaw the central charge control and service manager Dorit for the passenger handling components.
At the beginning of May, the first employee of JFK also left. Jenner, who worked as a ticket sales reservation agent for three years, was dismissed for “budget cuts” and the empty space next to Sidonie, department head, looked like an empty space, symbolic of a missing family member.
The dismantling continued. Whitestone, the North American fortress of Austrian Airlines, handed over its reservation torch to Lufthansa on the tenth of the following month, or what could have been considered an airline version of “Black Friday”.
If there were any doubts that the hammer had hit the nail, they were exterminated on August 28 when the European Commission officially approved the takeover of Lufthansa, which itself consisted of EUR 500 million in restructuring aid from the state holding company and the merger of the two airlines. However, in order to achieve the required immunity from competition law, Lufthansa agreed to abandon important airfields and to reduce the number of frequencies between Vienna and Brussels, Cologne, Frankfurt, Munich and Stuttgart.
Austrian Airlines itself was to become one of the many independent European hub airlines – in this case a Vienna-based airline that transports traffic to its Central and Eastern European destinations.
The fall was emotionally difficult – for the Austrian JFK employees and the business trips, during which the plug was pulled to the North American stations, were continued.
Lufthansa employees were familiar with the ticket sales process in Austria, while two managers flew to Vienna to discuss details of ground handling in New York.
The confirmation of the inevitability of the stations signaled their death blow: Lufthansa would take over the entire ground handling later in the year and everyone except the individual JFK station manager and his two service providers (including the author) would be released from their contracts at this time. Even these, however, had six-month restrictions.
The news, which corresponds to the removal of an airplane’s wing in flight, sent emotions to the ground, causing disbelief and depression. This was only exacerbated when the head of ground operations Swissport announced that his JFK contract would be terminated on November 16.
Patrick, Austrian Airlines-Swissport Account Manager, shared the fate of the broadcaster with its full-time employees and tried to cushion a blow that words couldn’t reach.
Sadness, demotivation and resignation hung like thick fumes in the air.
The clock’s hand continued to turn and the expected parting words entered. The long-time manager of the Austrian Airlines station at Washington Dulles International Airport, Regula, sent the following telex on September 14, for example.
“As you may have heard,” she wrote, “Lufthansa will handle our station tomorrow, so it’s time for me to say goodbye.”
“It is not easy because I met a lot of great people in my years at Austrian Airlines and had the opportunity to learn a lot. I would like to thank you for all of your support and friendship in recent years.”
Like a short row of dominoes, Washington was the second of the three North American stations that fell.
Regardless of its low value, I decided to end each briefing with a “group therapy” session so that Austrian Airlines and Swissport employees could explore their feelings about the upcoming “separation of the family”.
On September 15, Michael Steinbuegl, JFK Station Manager for four years, was promoted to Key Account Manager for North America and assumed responsibility 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 for the station changes with the two remaining JFK service providers and then met with the Lufthansa station manager to discuss possible integration. Patrick held a meeting with his own management to investigate the migration of Swissport employees to other JFK accounts.
When the calendar flipped through October, one of the employees on the washboard noted the daily flight information: “Countdown: 45 days.” And in the Notes section of the daily fact sheet, I urged, “Smile while you can. The days are running out.”
Paul Paflik, former Area Manager of North America, said: “Due to the economic environment, I regret that as a company we had no choice but to survive other than taking full advantage of the cost synergies with Lufthansa wherever we could.” This includes close cooperation at the stations worldwide. It is sad for some of our dedicated employees, but we also had no choice if we wanted to survive as a company. “
The rest of the Austrian Airlines route system also fell victim to this reality.
A former JFK colleague who had worked at several other stations since then wrote: “Finally the ax has come to knock me down too. I will leave Austrian Airlines after 20 years … It seems as if I will be in this Austrian “new generation” no longer needed.
“Together we have followed a 20-year path that has predictably ended with the long-awaited ‘connection’ that we have often joked about, but which we have somehow always avoided. Now that the inevitable has come, it means for many end us.
“There is an ironic parallel here to the Star Trek saga. It seems that we, the old, original crew, were left behind in our old ship to get out of sight, replaced by Lufthansa. The good ship ‘Austrian’ is for always gone.
“So I say goodbye without remorse and a bag full of beautiful memories that I can hang over my shoulder.”
Andre, a cargo sales manager from Austrian Airlines, summed up the prevailing feeling.
“What can I say,” he wrote? “From the beginning, through the middle to the end, your life experiences express your emotions.”
The integration had already started. When I was introduced to Lufthansa, I was asked to watch one of the 747-400 flights to Frankfurt.
The calendar clock indicated October 15th and noted on the daily briefing sheet: “Watch the date and count backwards from 30 …”
The station manager published the last Austrian Airlines roster on October 18 and distributed it to his employees. On November 16, however, it ended abruptly for everyone except two.
Like the advancing armed forces, two Lufthansa Duty Managers began to familiarize themselves with the Austrian flight preparation procedures. Could there be a question now?
Halloween broke out mildly but stormily and the streets were covered with red and gold leaves. But the beatings continued internally at JFK station, and the freight was the next to say goodbye.
Peter Schleinzer, North American freight manager at Austrian Airlines, confirmed this as follows: “We would like to inform you that Austrian Airlines Cargo is moving its activities and sales activities for airfreight from Menzies Aviation, building 75, to Lufthansa Cargo, building 23.”
Of course, no department or department would be exempt.
November 1 was the last part of the joint journey between Austria and Swissport. There were fifteen days before the road forked.
The next transition was on the ramp. In an internal email from Lufthansa Duty Manager Edwin Haas, he wrote: “To prepare me for Austrian Airlines, I want to make sure that you are all familiar with the ramp procedures. So make sure that an agent is present every day to operate it to observe. “
The knowledge was passed on. Lufthansa check-in staff received several introductory courses for passenger service, and their superiors were familiar with Austrian flight preparation …