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Flight Attendants threaten strikes over low pay and unpaid work

Date: September 17, 2023

Flight Attendants threaten strikes over low pay and unpaid work

The Guardian, by 

Published September 17, 2023.

Major US airlines have recovered from Covid-19 pandemic losses and are amassing vast profits, but amid those record-setting financial performances flight attendants are threatening strikes and calling for substantial wage increases and improvements in working conditions.

The sums of money are huge. American Airlines reported record quarterly revenue in the second quarter of 2023 at $14.1bn, United Airlines reported record revenue in the same quarter at $14.2bn and a threefold increase in profit, and Alaska Airlines also reported record revenue in the second quarter of 2023 at $2.8bn.

But workers are also negotiating new contracts and campaigning hard for better pay and conditions.

The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) represents more than 6,500 flight attendants at Alaska Airlines, who have held pickets at airports in their fight for a new union contract. They are pushing for a 40% wage increase and threatening a possible strike during the 2023 holiday season.

The union is still working under a 2014 contract that was extended twice and has requested mediation with the National Mediation Board.

Kiara O’Bryant, a Seattle-based flight attendant at Alaska Airlines for more than 12 years and negotiating committee member for the union, said flight attendants were currently only paid from door closure until door opening on flights.

“All of that time we spend with passengers on the ground or sitting and waiting for other aircrafts in between flights goes unpaid,” said O’Bryant.

“There are instances where flight attendants are sitting anywhere from two to four hours, what becomes a mechanical rolling delay, where that full time is not accounted for and paid for. So it’s not just the boarding, but it’s anytime that we are required to be on duty at work in uniform that we are advocating for pay,” she said.

The union provided annual pay estimates for Alaska Airlines flight attendants, with average base pay ranging from $24,000 to $27,000 a year, which they note is not nearly enough to keep up with the high cost of living, especially in expensive cities where Alaska Airlines bases are located, including San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles.

A spokesperson for Alaska Airlines said the airline currently has meetings with the union through November but claimed the union’s counterproposal in June 2023 was not economically feasible. They claimed new flight attendants receive a 29% pay increase in their first four years of service.

“We remain committed to reaching an agreement on a new competitive contract that fairly compensates flight attendants and continues to provide significant flexibility, but also maintains an emphasis on productivity that is critical to the sustainability of the company’s business model,” a spokesperson said in an email.

Meanwhile, about 26,000 flight attendants at American Airlines represented by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike with a vote of 99.47% in favor of the authorization.

The flight attendants are pushing for significant wage increases, with a proposal of a 35% uplift. Negotiations between the flight attendants and American Airlines began in January 2019.

“We’ve been negotiating for four years now, but flight attendants haven’t had a pay raise or cost of living raise since January 2019,” said Paul Hartshorn Jr, a veteran flight attendant and spokesperson for the union.

He explained the primary points of contention for workers in the new contract were compensation for work performed by flight attendants that is currently unpaid, bringing retirement contributions in line with the rest of the airline industry and improving work scheduling flexibility.

“I think we’ve got a clear mandate from our flight attendants on where they want to go with this if talks don’t produce the improvements that we need to see,” added Hartshorn.

Under the Railway Labor Act, a strike cannot be called until the National Mediation Board releases the union and airline into a 30-day cooling-off period. The last strike by American Airlines flight attendants was in November 1993.

The union is holding informational pickets at American Airlines flight attendant bases around the US as contract negotiations continue.

“We’re proud of the progress we’ve made in negotiations with the APFA, and we look forward to reaching an agreement that provides our flight attendants with real and meaningful value,” said an American Airlines spokesperson in an email.

Flight attendants at United Airlines held pickets on 31 August at 19 airports around the US to demand the airline negotiate a new contract with the AFA-CWA, which represents more than 25,000 flight attendants at the airline. They want the airline to resolve understaffing and outstanding operational issues.

During operational problems in June that stranded passengers and canceled hundreds of flights, United’s CEO, Scott Kirby, received public scrutiny for taking a private jet flight.

Ken Diaz, a flight attendant for 26 years at United and president of the United AFA MEC, argued United had not addressed the union’s priorities in a new contract. They included resolving scheduling issues where flight attendants can be stranded on duty, unpaid, for hours trying to get through to the scheduling department to be released from duty.

“We’ve had flight attendants sleeping at the airports because they can’t get hotels because they can’t reach the company,” said Diaz.

According to Diaz, the union has been in direct negotiations with United for 21 months and the delays have disillusioned flight attendants and depressed morale.

“We are one of the last groups here at United that does not have a contract to present to our members and the morale is probably at the lowest it’s ever been in the 26 years that I’ve been here at United,” added Diaz. “The flight attendants are already demoralized by the day-to-day operations, you add on to that they’re not seriously negotiating.”

A United spokesperson in an email: “We’re continuing to work with the Association of Flight Attendants toward an industry-leading agreement. All United flights will operate as planned while our flight attendants exercise their right to distribute information and picket while off-duty.”


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