A sign above the doorway of Eastern Airlines' Salt Lake City Reservation Center says it all: "Keep Our Dreams Flying."
The message strikes a sharp contrast to the announcement reservation agents heard last March when the center shut its doors when a machinists and pilots strike triggered a work stoppage.As the employees heard the dismal news over the company's public-address system, the center fell hush, employees recalled. "You could have heard a pin drop. It was total devastation," said Jerry Malmer, a 10-year veteran of the airline.
More than 600 full- and part-time employees were placed on a "no work" status and some feared they would not be called back to their jobs.
"Sure, it looked real dark and bleak at one point, but I knew we'd be back. There was never a question in my mind," Malmer said.
And he was right.
The reservation center now employs 750 full- and part-time workers - 150 more than before the strike. Most of the Salt Lake employees have returned to their jobs and six employees who worked at other reservation centers in the South and East have moved to Salt Lake City to take jobs.
"We're rolling almost full blast. We don't have much room left," Burquist said.
Burquist said Eastern plans to increase its Salt Lake work force next year. "We have plans to expand a little to about 900 by the first quarter of next year," he said.
Karin Lorentzon, a newly hired sales agent, said she was concerned about accepting a job with Eastern after it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. "I had my doubts when I came for my first interview but there's a lot of potential for growth here," she said.
The center handles about 35,000 calls a day. The airline schedules about 800 daily flights, compared to 60 flights a day when the strike began. Eastern has recouped approximately 80 percent of its pre-strike business, he said.
"The best part of it is, the customers are coming back in droves," Burquist said.
Lorentzon said she handles about 70 calls a day. "I haven't heard a bad thing on the phone. People are real happy we're back, which makes me happy," she said.
Burquist said Eastern also is considering resuming air service from Salt Lake International Airport. The airline on March 7 discontinued its two daily flights to Atlanta via Stapleton International in Denver. The air service provided 14 jobs locally.
"We're working on something different, but we don't know yet," he said.
Malmer, who at age 50 began working for the airline throwing bags, loading baggage and cleaning the aircraft, said he could have taken an early retirement when the work stoppage occurred. But he wasn't ready for retirement and he believed the airline would survive the temporary setback.
"It isn't doom and gloom here anymore. People are excited. People feel there is a future with this company, which there is no question there is," he said.
Burquist said one reason Eastern resumed its reservation business in Salt Lake was the "spirit of the Salt Lake people. We've got an absolutely dedicated work force. We have people out here who work well in telephone sales. We're positive."