Archive for March, 2010

British Airways passengers face disruptions (AP)

Saturday, March 27th, 2010 | Finance News

LONDON – British Airways workers took to the picket lines Saturday for a second round of strikes against the struggling airline, causing widespread disruption and frustration among passengers.

Union officials say 12,000 members are taking part in the four-day strike, which comes only a week after another walkout touched off travel chaos.

BA has been taking a hard line against strikers, and has promised to fly more than three quarters of booked passengers. But its Heathrow services will be severely depleted — down to 55 percent for short haul and 70 percent for long haul — as the dispute over pay and changes to working conditions trudges on.

"This is the second part of the biggest contingency plan we have ever launched and our aim will continue to be to fly as many customers as we can," the airline said in a statement.

Both the airline and the union say they are willing to return to negotiations, but there is little sign of reconciliation from either side.

A first round of strikes last week cost the airline about 21 million pounds ($31 million).

Chief Executive Willie Walsh outraged union members by withdrawing valuable travel perks from workers who walked off the job, arguing they were not part of their contracts. The union, Unite, says any deal must restore those privileges.

News of a report commissioned by BA that advised airline bosses to hit the union's leadership "where it hurts," will add further pressure to the tense situation.

The report, leaked to The Guardian, urged BA three years ago to confront the Unite union's flight attendant arm, Bassa. Written by Frank Burchill, a visiting professor at Strathclyde University, the report says BA should recognize "there is no prospect of ... partnership" under the union's current leadership. It advises hitting union leaders "where it hurts." by reducing time off for union duties, which would hit their earnings since they are paid for such work.

BA shot back by saying the document was merely three-year-old advice — not a policy statement.

"The document excerpt leaked to The Guardian does not express the views of British Airways or any individual employee from the airline," the airline said in a statement.

The airline notified passengers five days ago about the strike action, but that offered little consolation to exasperated passengers at Heathrow's Terminal 5. They included John Cawley, 54, from Liverpool, who swore he'd never fly BA again.

Cawley, his wife and two sons were due to fly to New Jersey before going on a cruise — but their internal flight between Manchester and Heathrow was canceled. The family needed to hire a van to drive them to London — a journey that cost 350 pounds ($520).

"It seems there are no certainties with BA at all," he said. "We're having to take this trip one step at a time, once one bit is over we start to worry about the next one. There are question marks over everything."


AT&T will take $1B non-cash charge for health care (AP)

Friday, March 26th, 2010 | Finance News

NEW YORK – AT&T Inc. will take a $1 billion non-cash accounting charge in the first quarter because of the health care overhaul and may cut benefits it offers to current and retired workers.

The charge is the largest disclosed so far. Earlier this week, AK Steel Corp., Caterpillar Inc., Deere & Co. and Valero Energy announced similar accounting charges, saying the health care law that President Barack Obama signed Tuesday will raise their expenses. On Friday, 3M Co. said it will also take a charge of $85 million to $90 million.

All five are smaller than AT&T, and their combined charges are less than half of the $1 billion that AT&T is planning. The $1 billion is a third of AT&T's most recent quarterly earnings. In the fourth quarter of 2009, the company earned $3 billion on revenue of $30.9 billion.

AT&T said Friday that the charge reflects changes to how Medicare subsidies are taxed. Companies say the health care overhaul will require them to start paying taxes next year on a subsidy they receive for retiree drug coverage.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday that the tax law closed a loophole.

Under the 2003 Medicare prescription drug program, companies that provide prescription drug benefits for retirees have been able to receive subsidies covering 28 percent of eligible costs. But they could deduct the entire amount they spent on these drug benefits — including the subsidies — from their taxable income.

The new law allows companies to only deduct the 72 percent they spent.

AT&T also said Friday that it is looking into changing the health care benefits it offers because of the new law. Analysts say retirees could lose the prescription drug coverage provided by their former employers as a result of the overhaul.

Changes to benefits are unlikely to take effect immediately. Rather, the issue would most likely come up as part of contract negotiations between the company and unions representing its employees and retirees. AT&T is the largest private employer of union workers in the U.S.

Candice Johnson, spokeswoman for the Communications Workers of America, which represents more than 160,000 AT&T workers, said these employees have contracts in place until 2012. An agreement covering retirees also runs through 2012.

AT&T rival Verizon Communications Inc. was among 10 companies that sent a letter to congressional leaders in December warning that their costs would increase with the health care changes. Verizon spokesman Peter Thonis said the company had no comment.

Also on Friday, Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said they are asking the CEOs of Caterpillar, Verizon, Deere and others to testify at an April 21 House subcommittee hearing on claims that the health care law could hurt their ability to provide health insurance to workers.

Shares in AT&T, which is based in Dallas, climbed 9 cents to close Friday at $26.24.


Big-time hacker from Miami sentenced in 3rd case (AP)

Friday, March 26th, 2010 | Finance News

BOSTON – For the second time in as many days, a computer hacker accused of one of the largest-ever thefts of credit and debit card numbers stood before a federal judge and apologized for his actions.

"I have violated the sanctity of millions of individuals around the United States," said Albert Gonzalez, in pleading for lenience. "I'm guilty of the crimes ... I accept full responsibility for my actions."

Federal Judge Douglas Woodlock sentenced Gonzalez to 20 years and a day in prison, but ordered that the term run concurrently with a 20-year term Gonzalez received from a different judge Thursday in two related cases.

The concurrent sentence means the 28-year-old Miami man, a one-time federal informant, will not serve any significant additional prison time.

Woodlock said he believed the sentence was sufficient to deliver a message of deterrence to other technologically-gifted individuals from pursuing similar crimes.

"You're in your mid-20s. You're going to be in your mid-40s when you get out," the judge said to Gonzalez. "That's a tremendous loss."

The case Friday involved the theft of credit card numbers from the Scarsborough, Maine-based Hannaford Bros. supermarket chain, Dallas-based convenience store chain 7-Eleven, and Heartland Payment Systems, a New Jersey-based card payment processor.

Thursday's sentence stemmed from two cases that were combined and involved major retailers including TJX Cos., BJ's Wholesale Club, Barnes & Noble, OfficeMax, and the restaurant chain Dave & Buster's.

Prosecutors said tens of millions of credit and debit cards numbers were stolen, costing the companies, banks and insurers nearly $200 million.

Gonzalez, who pleaded guilty, was also fined $25,000 by Woodlock and will be required to serve three years of supervised probation following his release from prison. Prosecutors had sought a 25-year sentence, while defense attorney Martin Weinberg asked that his client serve 15 years.

Gonzalez still faces a hearing in June on what restitution he might have to pay. Woodlock indicated that Heartland was the only defendant in the case before him that is seeking restitution.

Authorities said Gonzalez amassed $2.8 million he used to buy a Miami condo, a car, Rolex watches and a Tiffany ring for his girlfriend. They said Gonzalez and two foreign co-defendants would drive past retailers with a laptop computer, tapping into those with vulnerable wireless Internet signals. The trio would then install "sniffer programs" that picked off credit and debit card numbers as they moved through a retailer's computers before trying to sell the numbers overseas, authorities said.

Prosecutors have said the two co-defendants, identified in court documents as "Hacker 1" and "Hacker 2," are fugitives.

Gonzalez was first arrested for hacking in 2003, but was not charged because he became an informant, helping the Secret Service find other hackers.

A report submitted by a defense psychiatrist said Gonzalez was addicted to the Internet and displayed behavior consistent with Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism.