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Flight attendants in limbo as United prepares to close its Seattle crew base

Date: March 30, 2021

The Seattle Times Paul Roberts:

Barely a year after making Seattle a base for flight attendants, United Airlines is closing the operation and giving attendants based there the choice of moving or coping with multiday commutes.

None of United’s 141 Seattle-based flight attendants will lose their jobs in the closure, which was announced last month and takes effect May 1, said United, which is headquartered in Chicago. The airline blamed the closure partly on the Seattle operation’s higher-than-expected costs.

But flight attendants and union officials say the decision will force many attendants to either relocate to United bases in other cities, such as Denver, Houston or Newark, New Jersey, or spend several days commuting each week to their new base cities.

If “you have a two-day trip, you’re gone now for four days, if not five, if not even longer than that,” said Dusty Cannon, 49, a Seattle-based United attendant and Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) member who lives in Spokane and is being reassigned to the airline’s base in San Francisco.

It’s the second time Cannon and other Seattle-based United attendants have lost their base here.

In 2015, United shuttered the Seattle base and gave 264 flight attendants the option to relocate to San Francisco. The company, which reportedly had been losing Seattle-based business to rival Delta, said in a statement in 2014 that “it simply does not make economic sense” to operate a Seattle base.

This time around, United cited costs related both to the pandemic and to the Seattle operation, one of seven satellite bases United has opened since 2019.

In a Feb. 4 company memo to employees, United officials said the high number of sick days reported by Seattle-based flight attendants required the airline to bring in replacement crews from other cities at considerable cost.

“The financial benefits that support maintaining a satellite base are lost when we resort to costly decisions, such as recrewing a trip with flight attendants from other locations,” read the memo from John Slater, United’s senior vice president of inflight services, which both the union and the airline provided to The Seattle Times.

United said sick days was one of several metrics used to assess the viability of satellite bases. Other metrics included customer satisfaction, cancellations and on-time performance.

United has not announced plans to close its six other satellite bases — in Austin, Texas; Fort Lauderdale and Orlando in Florida; Phoenix, and San Diego. “But we continue to evaluate each base,” said United spokesperson Leslie Scott.

Although United’s Seattle-based flight attendants will be reassigned to the cities they worked from before Seattle’s base reopening, the airline won’t require them to physically relocate, said Scott. Roughly half of all United’s attendants already commute, she said.

Dante Harris, president of AFA’s Seattle council, said reassignments pose an extra hardship for flight attendants and their families already dealing with “the worst pandemic of our generation.” He was also skeptical of United’s claims about sick days.

Cannon, who also is caretaker for her husband and had commuted to San Francisco after the 2015 Seattle closure, said she was “ecstatic” when United announced it would reopen its Seattle base in 2020.

When she heard about the latest closure, she said, “I’m just like, holy smokes … why are they doing this to us again?”

Harris said the union has asked United to at least postpone the Seattle closure until the fall. “That’s not something we are considering,” Scott said.

Paul Roberts: proberts@seattletimes.com; on Twitter: @Pauledroberts.

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