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For flight attendants, seniority is everything. It can mean the difference between flying to such exotic places as Morocco and Paris or spending 12-hour days shuttling back and forth across the country. So, when Delta Air Lines hired more than 1,800 former Pan American World Airways flight attendants a decade ago, they wanted to be certain their new employer would determine seniority status in a “fair and equitable” manner. The flight attendants were among 6,600 employees hired by Delta, which is based in Atlanta, when it bought Pan Am’s Northeast shuttle operation and European routes in 1991 for $416 million. Pan Am, a pioneer in international air travel that had its roots in South Florida, descended into bankruptcy court and ultimately vanished from the scene as one of the nation’s pre-eminent airlines. Shortly after the Delta deal closed and the flight attendants began to bid for flights and request vacations, they found their new contract was anything but “fair and equitable,” said one flight attendant, who didn’t want to be identified by name. They filed suit, but it was thrown out of the state trial court. On Wednesday, the flight attendants will attempt to breathe new life into their case when they ask the state’s 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami to reverse the dismissal by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ronald Friedman. The flight attendant and others say they fear retaliation from the employer that adopted them if they speak publicly about the seniority issue. The more the former Pan Am flight attendants talked to each other, the more they realized their seniority had been slashed — some by as much as 50 percent — under a formula their new employer used to integrate them into its existing seniority list. After much research, attorney-hunting and fund raising, 13 flight attendants formed a group called Flight Attendants for Fair Seniority Integration. In August 1994, they filed a breach of contract suit on behalf of more than 1,000 flight attendants against Delta in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. The case wended its way through the courts until last June, when Judge Friedman granted Delta’s motion for summary judgment. Attorneys for the flight attendants will argue this week that an ambiguity existed in the contract because the new hires had no way of knowing whether the deal would be “fair and equitable” until all of them were integrated into Delta’s seniority list. That ambiguity, they argue, precluded the trial court judge from tossing the case out of court. “A promise to integrate the Pan Am flight attendants fairly and equitably is ambiguous and not susceptible to summary judgment resolution,” writes Fort Lauderdale appellate attorney Bruce Rogow in his brief to the 3rd DCA. Rogow represents the flight attendants. In making their decision, the flight attendants relied in part on Delta’s willingness to offer “fair and equitable” deals to those hired during previous takeovers of the now defunct Western Airlines in 1987 and Northeast Airlines in 1972. The flight attendants had no reason to believe they wouldn’t do so this time, according to Stuart Goldstein, a Miami solo who represented the flight attendants in the trial court. The issue of seniority is significant in the airline industry because it governs everything from promotions and salaries to the number of hours worked and vacation days permitted, said George Price, spokesman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants in Dallas. “It’s the name of the game in the airline industry. It’s the quality of work life,” Price said. For flight attendants it can mean the difference between being able to take four trips a month flying between 12 and 15 days to glamorous international destinations and having to fly 18 to 20 days a month on a domestic flight hopping around the country. The seniority integration formula, which was outlined in a Delta memo, stated that no Pan Am flight attendant would be included on the list of the top 3,000 Delta flight attendants. At the time, Delta had about 15,000 flight attendants. The plan called for Pan Am flight attendants to be integrated into the list starting with number 3,001 at a ratio of one for every five Delta flight attendants. As a result, the average Pan Am flight attendant lost between 10 and 13 years of seniority, said Goldstein. “That’s a huge loss.” Delta recognized that no matter how they went about integrating the flight attendants, not everyone would be happy, be it the current Delta flight attendants or those being hired from Pan Am, said David Ross of Greenberg Traurig in Miami, who represents Delta. “When the Pan Am flight attendants — including the plaintiffs/appellants in this case — accepted their contracts of employment, they agreed to be bound by this seniority formula,” writes Ross in his brief to the 3rd DCA. Delta admits that the formula could only be calculated “based on future events,” said Ross. But, he added, “they agreed to the contract with that knowledge.” Ross said the agreement was no different “than lots of other contracts people enter into, such as an adjustable rate mortgage. On the day you sign that mortgage, all you have is a formula.” The flight attendants didn’t go into the litigation lightly. Because a union no longer represented them as it had at Pan Am, the flight attendants engaged in a grassroots effort to get their suit off the ground. Calling on friends and family for donations, the flight attendants raised $20,000. They then spent nearly two years interviewing, finally hiring attorneys experienced in seniority integration litigation. In 1994, “only reluctantly concluding that Delta management had no intention of remedying the wrong, did they determine litigation was necessary,” writes Rogow in his brief. The flight attendants have since spent about $1 million in their battle against Delta. “Delta misjudged us. Pan Am flight attendants are not like any others. Because of their diversity, they have a rogue elephant attitude,” said the flight attendant.

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