Nine years ago, Continental Airlines showcased its refurbished Tampa reservations center with a sense of pride. Reconfigured with new computers and festooned in Continental's blue and gray colors, the complex near Tampa International Airport boasted 1,200 reservation agents and was seeking to hire up to 400 more.
That was before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks crippled the airline industry. Before gas prices spiked. Before many turned to the Internet as their preferred way to book a flight.
By July 19, the reservations center is shutting down, forcing 685 employees into other jobs in the company or out of work, Continental said Wednesday.
About 100 of Continental's Tampa employees were immediately laid off, part of 500 of the carrier's reservations agents across the country who lost their jobs this week.
The remaining nearly 600 Tampa employees are being given the option of working from home for less pay, transferring to a Continental reservations center in Houston or Salt Lake City, or taking an "early out" severance package or leave of absence.
In an employee bulletin detailing the closing, the Houston carrier said it has been experiencing reduced call volumes "caused by a customer shift towards Web self-service and the global economic recession."
"We must make these changes to adapt to changing customer preferences toward the Web," reservations and e-commerce vice president Martin Hand told employees through the bulletin.
Continental spokeswoman Kelly Cripe said the lease for the Tampa location is expiring soon.
"It's our oldest facility and our most costly to maintain," Cripe said, "so it would have taken a substantial investment to have long-term viability."
The Tampa center, located at 4101 Jim Walter Blvd., was initially operated by the former Eastern Airlines. Continental converted the 80,000-square-foot building into its reservations center in April 1991. After ramping up and refurbishing it, the carrier started shedding jobs in 2001.
Security guards did not allow reporters onto the property Wednesday, and workers who spoke from inside the barbed wire fence protecting the two-story campus remained tight-lipped, saying they still had jobs and are instructed not to speak publicly.
Many walked around the parking lot in groups throughout the day, talking, or could be seen on cell phones in long conversations.
Some who spoke called it a sad day, but they expected to still be working when the building was shuttered, whether at home for Continental or after an imposed furlough.
They expected job cuts to be based on seniority: last hired, first fired.
In recent years, Continental increasingly has used home-based agents, including hundreds based in the bay area. Carriers like the cost savings from at-home workers and the option of enlisting them quickly if incoming calls suddenly spike. At-home employees like the freedom, flexibility and saving time and money on a commute.
Cripe said that "remote agents" receive a different base pay rate than call center agents because of significant costs associated with the technology used to support the program. Lower pay offsets some of the costs. Other company benefits and incentives are the same for at-home and call center agents.
All told, Continental employs more than 2,700 reservations agents at its three U.S. call centers.