Thursday, Dec. 12, 2002 | 11:12 a.m.
United Airlines employees in Las Vegas continue to give to the community in a big way, and they say that won't change despite the company's bankruptcy.
More than 20 Las Vegas United employees plus retirees and other volunteers got together Wednesday night for United's annual holiday event, Fantasy Night at the North Pole, for some 200 local children -- many facing serious health problems.
The event used to be called Fantasy Flight to the North Pole. United, in some 40 to 50 cities nationwide and around the world, would give children referred from various charities a chance to fly on its Boeing 747 airplanes. On their return home, the children would be greeted at United's gates, which would be festooned in North Pole theme, by a Santa Claus and presents.
Fantasy Flight was introduced in Las Vegas in 1996 by Louie Cartagena, a United supervisor of customer service, who had seen the event in other cities and decided to help bring it to the various children's groups in Las Vegas.
Since 1996, some 200 children from Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation, Wednesday's Child, CASA Kids and the Make-A-Wish Foundation had been ferried each year on United 747 planes from Las Vegas over the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam.
But security concerns and new regulations prohibiting individuals from entering airline gates without tickets following the 9-11 terrorist attacks ended that event last year.
Undaunted, the 20 plus United flight attendants, pilots, customer service agents and more than 20 other sponsors donated gifts, carollers, food and beverage, entertainment and up to $5,000 to create "Fantasy Night" Wednesday at McCarran.
"There's no reason to stop doing it. The children shouldn't suffer because of the Chapter 11 filing. United will continue to do it," Cartagena said. "This year, McCarran provided the room for the event. When Fantasy Flight was still on, the airport gave us exemptions for landing fees."
"Anderson Dairy provided 250 ice cream bars, HMS Host provided the hamburgers and chips, Circus Circus provided 250 toy bears, Neiman Marcus and JC Penney provided gifts, Green Valley High School provided us with a choir and Nick and Robert Alexander, two of our premium member flyers, donated cash and helped contact several of the sponsors for this event," he said.
Sharon Beck, a United customer service representative who has been with the airline for 38 years, said she has been volunteering for the event since it began in 1996 and feels very fortunate despite concerns over the airline's bankruptcy filing.
"We're trying to get Fantasy Flight back. But it will take a lot of coordination to get the kids through security," she said. "Even if they laid me off tomorrow, I'd still come back for this event."
For Kim Ryan, whose son, Dalton, suffers from aplastic anemia, a blood disorder that causes him to have weekly blood transfusions, Fantasy Night was a "good thing for children and parents."
"We almost lost him this year. But he's on the road to recovery now," she said.
Ryan said she was disappointed that Fantasy Flight had been canceled but said she was pleasantly surprised that the airline had continued with the improvised annual holiday event despite its bankruptcy filing.
Stories like Ryan's and the sight of children hauling off bags of goodies and gifts are why Maureen Manion-Luterzo, who has been a United manager of inflight service since 1986, participates in the event every year.
"It's worth it when you see the faces of these kids. The (United) employees need this right now. It's so motivational," she said.
"It's tough right now. Everybody is worried about a lot of different things. We're obviously going to be downsizing. But the reality is that the company has been so forthright in sharing information with us. There were no surprises or blindsighting. We get hundreds of e-mails every day updating us about the filing and explaining what it means.
"Despite all the negativity over the bankruptcy filing, there's still a lot of us who support the airline," Manion-Luterzo said. "My dad worked as a supervisor of inflight for United since 1959. My husband has been a United mechanic since 1984. Even if they told me I didn't have a job tomorrow, I'd still support United because they gave me my education and that's where my dad worked."
Chris Brathwaite, United Airlines' spokesman, described the Las Vegas market as an important one in terms of leisure travel for the airline. But he said it was premature to determine if any of the 500 United employees including flight attendants, mechanics, customer service workers, salaried and management employees in Las Vegas will be laid off.
United has 28 daily flights to Las Vegas.
John Eisenhart, a United captain for about 18 years, said he is bracing himself for pay cuts and downsizing, but described the bankruptcy filing as a second chance for the airline.
But like the others, he got a momentary reprieve from these concerns at Fantasy Night.
Eisenhart, who piloted a plane ferrying 200 Las Vegas children for Fantasy Flight 1998, said that prior to the 9-11 attacks, the captains were allowed to open cockpit doors during the Fantasy Flight and let the children in the area.
"Rules governing these flights are different from rules in commercial flights," he said. "But all that's ended."