When current American Airlines management ran US Airways they were notorious for bad labor relations. They never managed to get a single pilot contract for America West and US Airways pilots, so never completed the merger. Instead they sat back and benefited from lower wages as the two pilots groups fought against each other.
Now American’s flight attendants may wind up fighting against each other, as two classes of employees within the union are treated very differently. This, as the flight attendants are ostensibly in new contract negotiations with the airline and as there’s a move afoot to dump the current Association of Professional Flight Attendants with the Association of Flight Attendants-Communications Workers Of America.
With only a fraction of American Airlines flights scheduled to operate in May, the union has determined that the most junior flight attendants will have to fly while senior flight attendants will be paid not to work. That’s the reverse of the usual procedure, where the most senior members of a union are assigned to work first.
In a highly unusual move, the union that represents some 28,000 flight attendants at American Airlines has decided that its most junior members will be the ones who are expected to work flights throughout the month of May with more senior flight attendants paid up to 70-hours of flying time but not actually working any flights. Normally, the flight attendant contract requires trip bids to be assigned in strict seniority order.
The Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) told its members in an internal update that a reduction in normal flying hours in May by as much as 80 per cent meant there simply wasn’t enough flights to go around. The PBS bidding system that builds flight attendant schedules works on assigning every crew member a roster with at least 75 to 85 flying hours but this clearly isn’t achievable.
The outdated IT system, however, can’t be reprogrammed easily to account for the reduced flying hours so a decision had to be made as to which flight attendants weren’t even going to have the option to bid for trips.
I believe the correct way to handle this situation would be:
- Flight attendants first volunteer to work
- Non-working flight attendants see reduced pay, with that money used to fund higher ‘hazard pay’ for those who volunteer.
Instead junior flight attendants will have to work, and risk discipline for calling out, while more senior flight attendants will collect guaranteed minimum pay without having to work at all (though higher than usual amounts of sick and personal time requests by working flight attendants will likely call more than usual off of reserve).
The decision by the union to advantage some members over others is hardly new at the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. The union faces a similar issue in its contract negotiations over schedule flight attendants for trips versus working reserve, and whether that should be done strictly based on seniority or a mix where everyone gets both scheduled trips and waiting time.
These sorts of issues divide a membership, improve the company’s relative bargaining position, and risk an outside union like AFA-CWA from becoming an attractive alternative for disenfranchised workers. For now the risk is small – with less than 20% of flights operating, the number of flight attendants working is small, however if this same approach prevails as the airline’s schedule returns it could create a real problem holding the union together.