Data: Threatening To Fire Sick American Airlines Flight Attendants Doesn’t Boost Attendance

The American Airlines attendance system awards points for not showing up to work even when taking contractually-allowed sick days. An employee taking sick time during peak periods for the airline can be subject to a performance review and even terminated.

  • Employees absolutely abuse their sick time, even (stupidly) going so far as to nonrev on the airline taking vacations when they’re scheduled to work, calling in sick, and posting contemporaneous vacation photos to Facebook.

  • And sick time coincidentally focuses on when people want to work least, weekends and holidays, and tends to be focused on junior employees most likely to be scheduled to work at those times.

The airline wants to prevent a mass exodus of staff when they need those staff most. So they impose penalties for using sick time at inconvenient times even when someone is sick (and likely to get customers sick, too). In years past sick calls with documentation were excused but under the point system, they aren’t.

Before the pandemic the flight attendants union won a grievance over the policy. And it was so embarrassing to the company to speak about that then-Chairman and CEO Doug Parker multiple times denied this even existed during employee forums, suggesting ‘we would never do that.

There are two ways to avoid the problem:

  1. Paying out hefty bonus pay for working at undesirable times
  2. Penalizing employees who call out during those times

The question is, which one actually works? And it turns out there’s a natural experiment that seems to shed some light.

Effectively the points system doesn’t apply to the 600 or so flight attendants based in Boston, due to ‘Mass Sick,’ state law which mandates 40 hours of no-penalty sick time. (And that’s actual duty time hours in the case of a flight attendant, a Boston – New York roundtrip uses only about 10% of that.)

And while there’s just as much shenanigans with Mass Sick time as there is with regular sick time, the Boston base doesn’t appear to have greater absenteeism at peak times than other bases. That’s according to American Airlines testimony in the Air Transport association vs. Healey Massachusetts Earned Sick Time law case.

Q. And can we look at page 11 for Boston. On December 24, [the sick rate] was only about 2 percent higher in Boston on December 24?

A. Yes.

Q. And if we can go back to page 3. If we look at the percentage sick leave rates for the system wide for December 26 through the end of that period, January 2, it ranges from 14 percent to 11 percent?

A. For the system, yes.

Q. And can we go to page 11. In that same period, December 26 to the beginning of the next year, January 2, with the exception of December 29, it’s only about a 2 or 3 percent difference between the two, isn’t it?

A. Yes.

Q. And in fact, on the New Year’s weekend, Boston was actually lower than the systemwide rate, wasn’t it?

A. I don’t remember what the other one was.

Q. Go back to — if we can take a look at the system for New Year’s weekend. That’s the blue line, correct?

A. Yes. 13. Okay.

Q. If we look at January 1, it’s 12 percent. January 2 is 11 percent system wide. It’s 11 percent and 9 percent; is that correct?

A. Yes.

Q. So it’s actually a little bit lower by 2 or 3 percent?

A. Yes.

Maybe that just means the average flight attendant isn’t thinking beyond the moment they are calling out under regular points-earning sick time, but it does suggest not only is the system punitive it doesn’t seem like it actually helps.

This suggests that the company should be pushing for more modest pay increases across the board, and higher pay for trips during peak periods, in their current contract negotiations with flight attendants. (Whether or not the same phenomena holds for other works groups can’t be derived from this data.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @Gary – What did you leave out that I need to read?

    “Before the pandemic the flight attendants union”

  2. Why are you pretending this is a new thing? It’s been going on forever! The AFA-CWA is shit and doesn’t do anything.

  3. @Biagini Marco – AFA-CWA does not represent flight attendants at American.

    Nothing new in there being a points system, I’ve covered it in the past and link to some of that coverage, but reviewing this *testimony* on the natural experiment of Boston (since points essentially don’t apply there but do at other crew bases) was new to me. And I found it interesting, a counterintuitive result honestly.

  4. “This suggests that the company should be pushing for more modest pay increases across the board, and higher pay for trips during peak periods, in their current contract negotiations with flight attendants. (Whether or not the same phenomena holds for other works groups can’t be derived from this data.)”

    Agreed – though of course, the unions would vehemently oppose that precisely because such peak period pay bonuses would accordingly “tend[] to be focused on junior employees most likely to be scheduled to work at those times.”

  5. 10-12% sick time off seems very high for “real sickness”. (approx 24 days a year?) Compare that to management staff or regular office employees. Or compare to random dates in April. Shows some abuse.

  6. Anyone can get a doctors note for being sick. It’s a joke. No matter what system an employer uses to curb absenteeism some employees will still game the system which in many workplaces penalizes the good employees who are forced to work overtime to cover the abusers.

  7. Great data and article, Gary.

    Practically every company in the US including companies that operate 24/7 as airlines do are seeing much higher sick rates post-pandemic. The whole mindset of work is changing and UA’s CEO specifically said they will have to hire more pilots than they had pre-covid just to cover the schedule which fewer pilots once flew.

    There will continue to be local rules that require more restrictive labor provisions and will provide examples like this but using Jan 1 as a real comparison isn’t terribly meaningful – it is a one day holiday which may or may not mirror other days and bases.

    The real comparison would be AA vs. DL to see if DL’s non-union workforce is actually more productive and calls out sick less often – and I suspect that is the case.

  8. Name a problem or issue, why does American always seem to be in the middle. After being the #1 airline, seemingly forever under Crandell, nothing works at AA. Just a guess, but if you follow all the buyouts and mergers, the only consistency seems to be terrible management. Just why can’t they every seem to get it right?

  9. Delta uses the carrot approach offering extra pay when they are short. Much more effective than punitive. Delta’s positive employee relations policies impacting flight attendants show up in higher morale and superior customer service.

  10. F/a s are exposed to lots of germs time changes pressurization changes ect. The average worker goes home at night to their own home bed ect. Try it on for size lots of germs in hotels too. We get sick alot. The airlines need to support us not penalthe last majority that are good employees.

  11. Face it thru a re still short staffed. The average worker has no idea what a f a goes thru. Lots of germs time changes , bouncing around and eating gross airport food lots of days? Flying with hungover sick party animal passengers coming back from las msy Mia ect on full flights ? No wonder we get sick a lot . Work with us .

  12. I’m with John D. on the carrot approach. However, I asked a F/A instructor what’s going on and the problem is, new hires don’t want to work. Oh, the pay is good but, “…well that interferes with when I was gonna…”. The jet is ready to board and the gate agent is waiting for the cabin crew to show up. They call scheduling…”Hey, we don’t have a cabin crew for DL1234.” So scheduling calls the F/A’s scheduled. “Oh, we had an invitation to go to Lake XXX for the weekend. We’re calling in sick.” Now, scheduling has to scramble a reserve crew. After a couple of times of this, the new hire gets fired. Of course, the fired new hire has the FAA flight attendant certificate in hand (at Delta’s expense) and the hiring process starts all over again. This is what I said in a prior article regarding AA:… Frankly, I think their major problem is employee morale! Many years ago, Dougie Parker TOLD them that if they do what management tells them to do, they’ll make money. Well, that hasn’t worked out AT ALL! Management’s p*** poor relationships have caused many issues. The unions aren’t much better. With both sides working against each other, there is no hope for a better product. Management and the union leaders need to take a Dale Carnegie Training Class to learn how to work together. My company GIVES a monetary reward to EVERY employee when we meet or exceed DOT statistics. At my level, that amount doesn’t affect my paycheck as much as the people who empty the “honey wagons” but the point is…WE ALL PULL ON THE SAME SIDE OF THE ROPE. If anyone comes up with an idea that can save money, enhance the customer’s experience, etc. that person gets a portion of that year’s savings! Tell me which side of the rope I’m gonna pull on??? Of course, if American went out of business…

  13. I might be missing something but I don’t understand the issue with the points system. At another airline it’s commonly used. You get 7 points, with one point deducted per total time away when sick.

    You’re not terminated until you go through all 7 points in a year. How many people call in sick 7 times in a year? If you have a condition that results in you calling out that often, you’d likely qualify for FMLA, in which case your absences wouldn’t even deduct a point.

    Honest question, but don’t other companies track sick usage and follow up with people with excessive (non FMLA) call outs?

  14. There need to be positive incentives, but for workers, it’s all just punishment, all the time. If you know that you can lose your crappy job and your health insurance when you get a serious illness, and then end up bankrupt, what are you even working for exactly? It’s impossible to plan your life. There’s no stability in anything. And increasingly concentrated financial rewards go to the top 1%, with approximately zero upside for workers. The American dream of a home and a family is impossible for most millennials and Gen Z.

    What is it all for? Running the entire country for maximum shareholder value (and only that) has destroyed our society.

  15. Brady Byrnes and company seems to have missed the fact that “The beatings will continue until morale improves” is supposed to be a joke.

    Morale is in the dumps and this management team strategy is twofold:
    1) pit workgroups against each other and punish the loser
    2) punish the winner for fun.

  16. Why is this so hard for so many industries to figure out? Healthcare has been offering weekend shift, night shift, and holiday shift pay differentials for decades and it has worked great at maintaining staffing levels across all shifts. The differentials don’t even have to be that high. 10-25% is the standard for healthcare depending on the shift.

  17. When the airlines push maximum duty days of 14-16 hours and then minimum rest (8 hours behind the door equates to about 6 hours sleep) of course the sick calls are going to be high. Crandall worked people hard, but also realized they needed rest and food. AA does not even provide food aka crew meals for the flight attendants. Tired and starving can only work so long before needing sick days to recover.

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