‘We’re Just Robots’: US Airline Workers Stranded Amid Staff Shortages
May 3, 2022
By Michael Sainato, The Guardian
US airlines are still experiencing staffing shortages as air travel rebounded after initial Covid-19 shutdowns in 2020 when many airline workers were encouraged to go on furlough, resign, or retire early.
The phenomenon promises to disrupt travel for flyers even as Americans largely seek to return to many pre-pandemic habits, including air travel for work and tourism.
At JetBlue, flight delays and cancellations have been attributed to staff shortages. Transport Workers United, which represents about 5,000 flight attendants at JetBlue, criticized the airline’s blaming of flight attendants for not accepting enough assignments, causing delays and cancellations.
The union argued JetBlue had responded to staff shortages and operational problems by increasing disciplinary actions toward workers, including increasing the amount of critical coverage days workers must be available to work or else accrue disciplinary attendance points that could lead to termination.
“Historically, JetBlue has always run a skeleton staff of crew members in all their departments,” said a longtime flight attendant at JetBlue who requested to remain anonymous as they are not authorized to speak with the media.
The flight attendant said problems related to Covid-19 such as canceled, rescheduled or delayed flights that prolong time on duty or away from home and difficulties with transportation and hotel lodging for flight attendants have made many workers reluctant to accept extra assignments.
They also said many flight attendants experiencing delays or flight changes have waited several hours for JetBlue to get them a hotel room or transportation to a hotel in a layover city, cutting into their rest time. Some have given up and paid for a hotel or transportation out of pocket.
“You are kept hostage at times and are unable to get home. This is really hard for people that do have children or parents that they help take care of,” the flight attendant said. “They’re not thinking of us as humans. We’re still human beings involved in all of this too. We want to see our company succeed and we all want to come to work, we want to do the best we can, we want the passengers to keep coming back, but I feel like the thought of us as actual human beings has been removed from the equation. We’re just robots that are here to get the job done and I think that’s the thing we’re struggling with the most, that there is no respect for the workers any more.”
Gary Peterson, vice-president of the air division at Transport Workers United, argued JetBlue and other carriers have been competing in a race to the bottom terms of how workers are treated, retaining enough workers, and maintaining airline jobs as career jobs.
“I think there’s a systemic problem in the industry – everybody’s trying to compete against the lowest carrier, instead of setting themselves up to be the premier carrier,” said Peterson. “Sleeping in the hallway at the airport – that never used to happen in the industry, and now it’s becoming the new norm.”
At Spirit Airlines, staffing problems have contributed to four operation meltdowns since August 2021, an unheard-of frequency according to the Association of Flight Attendants – Communications Workers of America (AFA-CWA).
Workers at Spirit Airlines have protested outside airports in Las Vegas, Orlando and Dallas in recent weeks over contract violations by the airlines, mass cancellations that have stranded flight attendants, and persistent staffing shortages.
Don Reno Intreglia, a Spirit Airlines flight attendant based in Orlando, Florida, and AFA-CWA vice-president for Spirit Airlines, said the airline’s cancellation team and a separate team that handles flight attendant scheduling will get out of sync or fall behind, causing a domino effect in operations and leaving flight attendants to deal with frustrated passengers with no information.
The result, he said, had been flight attendants being stranded away from home with no hotel lodging, left for up to 30 hours with no answers or resolution.
“It’s been horrible on the morale for the flight attendants, because you’re sleeping on an airport floor, you’ve got pretty much nowhere to go. We had flight attendants who were getting kicked out of airports in the middle of the night,” said Intreglia. “We want the traveling public to know that we’re trying to pressure management into making serious changes, so that we are prepared for the summer travel.”
Pilots have been experiencing similar difficulties.
Pilots with Alaska Airlines are voting on a strike authorization as new union contract negotiations continue and the airline experiences a shortage of pilots.
At Delta Air Lines, pilots represented by the Airline Pilots Association have been protesting over the past several weeks outside Delta hubs in Seattle, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Detroit, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, over excessive scheduling and fatigue.
“Our pilots are tired and fatigued,” said Captain Evan Baach. “Our pilots are working record amounts of overtime, we’re working longer days, we have shorter nights in between our duty periods. We want the company to match their words with action and make changes to the pilot schedules.”
A spokesperson for Delta Air Lines said in an email, “Pilot schedules remain in line with all requirements set by the FAA as well as those outlined in our pilot contract. All of our people, including our pilots, are working hard to restore our airline and deliver for our customers as we emerge from the pandemic. We are grateful for and proud of their efforts.”
JetBlue and Spirit Airlines did not respond to multiple requests for comment.