Flight Attendants Union Seeks To Undo Court Victory That Allows California To Regulate Cabin Crew Breaks

This summer the Supreme Court let stand a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that said flight attendants based in California are subject to the state’s rest rules.

In Bernstein v. Virgin America the court found that California could require 30 minute meal breaks for flight attendants every 5 hours, and 10 minute rest breaks every four hours.

  • Alaska Airlines, which had acquired Virgin America, argued that flight attendants were covered by federal law, and that the Airline Deregulation Act pre-empted state regulation. Issues of price, routes, and service are covered by the act, seeking to avoid a ‘patchwork’ of 50 sets of rules for interstate travel.

  • The ruling applies to flight attendants based in California even when they’re traveling out of state (The former Virgin America flight attendants in this case worked only 31% of their time in California.)

  • The Supreme Court let the matter stand, rather than considering whether labor laws were trumped. Ironically, the flight attendants are covered by a union contract and are represented by the AFA-CWA which didn’t consider bargaining over these issues to be a priority in past contracts.

Now, Sara Nelson’s AFA-CWA – which supported the lawsuit – regrets the outcome which is that basing employees in California could become too costly to an airline operation. Flight attendants could be forced to move bases to maintain their employment.

However she sees an opportunity, and is pushing for legislation that would exempt airlines from the rules the lawsuit upheld provided the airline makes acceptable union contract concessions.

In a new state bill tabled by California Senator Dave Cortese, flight crew would be exempted from California’s rest and meal break rules – but only if they are covered by a collective bargaining agreement which has provisions that address meal and rest breaks

Acceptable provisions include guaranteed meal and rest periods, as well as providing compensation in lieu of meals or recognizing that it is acceptable that flight crew eat and drink while onboard the aircraft.

The lessons here are (1) be careful what you wish for, but (2) it’s all just leverage anyway. Of course, unless limited to California bases, would mean that California effectively regulates flight attendant pay and work rules for the entire country. And if airlines have a specific ‘budget’ for flight attendant compensation heavier work rule restrictions limit pay increases. That could be another ‘unintended consequence’ for flight attendants of Sara Nelson’s efforts.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Another good reason not to live in California. Figure how you can move to Nevada, Oregon or Arizona and commute to an airport in California. Arrive at the airport and never leave the arrival hall. Technically I don’t believe you have entered California.

  2. You are spot on ” be careful for what you wish for” In this particular case the FA’s sued won now let them live with the consequences. We seem to live in a “ala carte” society. Like some airlines are more concerned with being “woke” than operating like an airline should, provide service at a reasonable price and treat their FF’s well. Not to mention names but they are based “west”.

    “bob” is correct commuting up and down the coast is a snap I moved staff effortlessly around the west coast, AZ, NV, allowing staff to chose where they wanted to live, very few in California.

    No Gary this is one time I have no real sympathy for the FA’s

  3. Oh one more comment, I have been in waiting area’s where “commuting” FA’s were given available seats ahead of paying passengers, Really? I remember several times returning from Bozeman seeing this happen guess who the airline was, Alaska.

  4. Another example of pro labor court rulings and union contract negotiations that almost never do anything to promote customer service or work place efficiency. I’m flying at 35,000 feet and need help, ring for the FA, and get no response because he/she is at lunch or on break? Maybe the law addresses such a situation. Sadly, CA by its size and wealth has a disproportionate impact on the other 49 states.

  5. @Bob – does not work that way. Also, the lawsuit benefited the flight attendants, and not punishing them.

    @Ghostrider5408 – you don’t know whether they were deadheading or commuting.

  6. Unions are overwhelmingly a force for good when they have intelligent and thoughtful leaders. Unfortunately for Nelson, she ain’t it.

  7. I’ve forgotten what the issue was…maybe related to pandemic issues…but I drafted a strongly worded letter to her responding to her views. Decided not to mail it….feared being put on her no-fly list!

  8. “Another example of pro labor court rulings and union contract negotiations that almost never do anything to promote customer service or work place efficiency.”

    You know what would be really “work place efficient”? No breaks at all! It was good enough for the first railroad workers in the 1800s, laboring 6-7 days a week with no meal breaks whatsoever.

    Jesus. I mean if an airline can’t arrange for employees to have any breaks at all, perhaps it deserves to go under. (I notice that nobody seems to mind pilots getting 10 min every 4 hours to take a piss. But god forbid first or business class passengers have to go 10 min with nobody answering the call button to refill their glass…)

  9. Somebody please tell all airlines to stop flying to the People’s Republic of California, instead of carving out an exemption solely for the airlines.

    — CA Employer

  10. living in another state and commuting to California, doesn’t cut it. The law is where you are based ,not where you live.

  11. By all means….let the flight attendants have their “W”. Close the SAN and SFO bases. Oh….they don’t like that? L.O.L.

  12. Hmmm….yet another anti-union click bait rant from Gary Leff….

    One suspects ever more tiresome and boring for those with a genuine interest in matters frequent travel (other travel bloggers quite simply do it better).

    Exeunt omnes…

  13. Like who? Sam Chui? He’s getting pretty tiresome. One Mile at a Time? Unsubscribed because it was getting too nasty and too political. I do like Jeb Brooks/Greener Grass, Paul Stewart, The Points Guy (ok but as expected, really for those into monetizing their credit card points/rewards), and a few others.
    Do you have any favorite aviation travel bloggers? Thanks!

  14. You can probably cite examples but do most construction workers get breaks? Lettuce pickers? Warehouse workers? Truck drivers (Federal law might require certain periods of rest/sleep)?
    I’ll stick with my opinion that most unions do not do schit for the economy. They just drag things down (like the old example of changing a Broadway SuperTrooper light that anyone could do but task had to wait until an electrical union guy could be located), drive up costs, increase non-revenue producing paperwork, etc. etc. ad nauseum on a list somewhere of anti-union horribles. FYI, I was a union member decades ago…forced to join the Amalgamated Meat Cutters Union in order to work in a frozen foods plant in Bloomsburg, PA. Happy New Year!

  15. Airlines have long had a financial incentive in basing too few employees at each and every one of their hubs and outstations. This SCOTUS stance which de facto supports the 9th court decision doesn’t really move the needle on airlines continuing to move like they do with regard to high labor cost milieus.

    That such operational decisions by airlines to close down/reduce crew basing at some airports come at times with adverse consequences for consumers, and this is yet another reason why there needs to be something like EC 261/2004 applicable to all US flights so it shifts the country closer to airlines having strict liability for irregular operations hitting ticketed customers.

  16. @ Ghostrider5408

    So once again you show you and the poster know nothing about the airlines, They were probably must rides protecting flights at the other end and DHeading them there. All Airlines do this .

  17. I wonder, based on the proposed legislation, if the union’s fear is that a member could sue the employer under California statutes (and even get class representation) which would be outside the union’s control? The fact a union member could do that, could undermine the value of belonging to the union.

  18. thank Sara and her UNION again!! Calif has toooo many laws/regulations and another 80 went into effect Sunday…

  19. @ Platy

    “Exuent Omnes” is “all go out.” Are you “all”? Or are you multiple?

  20. @ Jack the Lad

    The degradation of this blog into a sensationalist click-bait fest has been noted by more than my own single self.

    The need to engage the mob during the travel lean days of the pandemic are past.

    Surely its time to get back to content core value for frequent travellers?

    Or is this website solely destined to rouse the DWIAs in our midst?

    All exit the stage…

  21. This, I think, has more to due with a State trying to govern a Federally Regulated Enterprise. It appears that a FA could be leaving Calif. for a week but still be under rules of that State flying from Singapore to Dubai, or starting a flight from KC to Jacksonville. Crews could also be co-mingled requiring different rules depending on where they were based.

    Employers base planning shifts around Union Contracts, typically better for workers.

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