Senate Democrats Push For Airline Strike: Will American Flight Attendants Finally Get To Walk Out?

American Airlines flight attendants are closest among major work groups at any airline of a deadlock in negotiations, but Alaska and United Airlines flight attendants are in the midst of protracted negotiations as well.

Cabin crew at American haven’t had a raise since January 1, 2019. Their contact became amendable four and a half years ago. Initially the delay in getting a new deal was the pandemic – they wouldn’t have wanted to be negotiating terms in 2020 when airlines were furloughing flight attendants.

Then, their wage demands were outside any zone of possible agreement (the union has reduced its ask), and American wasn’t coming close to offering raises that would compensate for inflation (they have increased their offer).

This week American Airlines and flight attendants are in Washington, D.C. with federal mediators. The union calls it a “last ditch” effort at reaching an agreement. They asked to be released from negotiations by the government, so that they could strike, six months ago.

  • A major airline strike has the potential to tip the balance in the Presidential election. Not only would passengers be stranded, and the economy hurt, but airfares would jump – undermining the ‘middle class pocketbook issues’ work that President Biden has worked to run on.

  • It’s difficult for the National Mediation Board to declare an impasse, starting the 30 day clock towards a strike, right before a Presidential election. A majority of the board was appointed by the President. It would put him in a tough political spot, also because the President can halt a strike but doing so would be politically untenable given his strong union support.

Senator Bernie Sanders and a majority of Senate Democrats may have just given the National Mediation Board the political cover they need to allow a strike.

  • The Senators are calling for the NMB to allow strikes
  • Noting that while there have been only two major airline strikes in the past 20 years – Northwest mechanics in 2005 (they mistakenly say it was 2006) and Spirit pilots in 2010 – “the NMB permitted dozens of strikes during the 1980s and 1990s.”
  • 32 Senate Democrats are calling for strikes to pressure air carriers “to reach agreements quickly.” Without NMB signing off on strikes, as they’ve been reluctant to do, cabin crew lack leverage in their view. Allowing strikes now would shift this dynamic.

Senator Sanders doesn’t have a firm command of the industry, offering on Twitter that “Airlines in the U.S. are making record profits while flight attendants & aviation workers struggle to make ends meet.”

It’s certainly true that flight attendants (and some aviation workers, generally speaking not pilots) “struggle to make ends meet.” Before the Association of Professional Flight Attendants began pushing the narrative about flight attendants on food stamps, I noted last year that Boston-based first and second-year flight attendants at American qualify for SNAP largely as a result of inflation eroding the value of their wages.

Senator Sanders though is incorrect to say that “airlines in the U.S. are making record profits.” Non-union Delta, which earns the highest profits, also generally raises flight attendant pay every year (and pays out substantially more in profit-sharing). Union Southwest, not currently profitable, did a record contract with flight attendants. In the context of American and the APFA union though, claiming record profits is… odd?

And he should know better – he’s a regular American Airlines flyer. Senator Sanders is often up front, too, and though he gets criticized for it this is perfectly fine. Even Air Koryo has business class. A Democratic People’s Republic doesn’t, in fact, mean abolishing class. In socialist paradise “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Sanders wants first class for all, and for the rich to pay for it.

Sanders misunderstand how wages are determined in any case. Senator Sanders sees it as a distributional struggle. The leverage flight attendants have in negotiations is that the government requires airlines to employ them. To an airline like American, fulfilling this requirement is where they see the value of cabin crew coming from. However there are plenty of people willing to do the job even at current wages, and it doesn’t take long to train them, and that limits their wages.

Flight attendants will make more than they do today – going into this week (and the Mediation Board’s gag order), American was offering 17% raises up front, Delta’s profit sharing formula, and bigger retirement contributions. We don’t know where negotiations stand this week. Hopefully, though, for the sake of cabin crew who would have to do without a pay check, passengers trying to get where they’re going, and the overall economy a strike can be avoided with a new deal everyone can live with.

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. It seems to me that when the APFA drags out the complaint that some of their low seniority FAs are on food stamps, they’re being very disingenuous. While the union takes credit for securing high pay for senior flight attendants, they must also shoulder some of the blame for low pay for the entry-level flight attendants.

  2. Question Gary. How long does it take to train someone to be legal to operate a flight?

  3. I honestly feel like this is making a mountain out of molehill. Both sides will bark – and eventually an agreement will be reached. Perhaps there will be a limited strike where half a dozen JFK-LAX flights, a couple of DFW-LHR and maybe the DCA-LAX flights will be canceled due to crew availability for a few days or a couple of weeks.

    At the end of the day the union will ‘maximize’ it’s leverage and AA will settle for the maximum they are able to (even if long term it bankrupts the company).

    None of this is going to impact the election and no one will remember the strike 30 days after it’s over. Let this play out. Trust me…the sky isn’t falling.

  4. The media, i.e. democrats have already decided that Biden won’t be the candidate in November, so this will have almost no impact on him. Politicians and unions both support violence to achieve their goals, so using and supporting strikes seems appropriate.

  5. Any time the senate or house demoncrats get involved, you know it will cost taxpayers money and the results will turn to shit.

  6. @Frustrated
    They could get it down to 2 weeks if they really tried. All the customer service training is obviously a waste, so they might as well not do it.
    You could be replaced by 18-year-olds in 2 weeks!

  7. “while flight attendants & aviation workers struggle to make ends meet.”
    Why is that Bernie? Ever notice how Bernie and his socialist comrades will never ease off the ever expanding financial burden and regulations they are putting on the US taxpayers? It’s always someone else’s fault. Look in the mirror jackass.

  8. Thank God we will NEVER have to endure Bernie as President. The guy never gives up on quasi-marxist socialism. But beware of that young one named AOC, a product of liberal and well off northern Westchester. She is young and can bid her time.

  9. From a purely observational attitude I would love to see a strike even wtih the impact on us travelers. Over the last 10 years AA has added an incredible number of new hire flight attendants, about a third of total. Those folk are, no doubt, wanting more money, but I have to imagine are not big savers. They will not have big cushions to fall back on and the rent and car payments won’t wait. Add in a decent percentage of the 10-20 year seniority people also needing to pay the bills. I suspect that once the first strike paycheck comes in from the union the militant strike tune of a lot will change.

    The old battleaxe 30 year seniority mama flying regular DFW-LHR could care less about the new hires so it will be great fun to watch the discord.

  10. Please Bernie, just retire to one of your plush house and leave economics to the smart people.

  11. As someone who works for American Airlines, I can say first hand they are a completely terrible company. I work 80 hours a week, and still need food stamps or I can’t eat more than bread. To spare the right wing “get a better job” screams, I am disabled with strong seizures and still work, but American has me on the firing block because they don’t allow sick days. Bet you right wingers want to institute that rule in your workplace. You right wingers are the reason when someone asks me where I’m from I say it’s from a more educated, loyal, respectful, and decent country than the US. Mexico.

  12. AA has no future on it’s current trajectory and it’s only a matter of when it will hit ground. The only way forward is to tell the Cabin Crew to pound sand, declare bankruptcy, renegotiate all of their union contracts and start fresh without a burden that makes it impossible for the airline to survive long term, much less provide a return to their shareholders.

  13. The irony is that Bernie et all want the free enterprise system of LABOR to work instead of government interference in the process.
    In a free market system for labor, the company and labor both make their final demands and each is allowed to resort to what they believe needs to happen
    Sanders et al don’t realize that the realistic outcome is that AA might very well choose to lock out the APFA and permanently reset its FA costs. There is no guarantee and alot of doubt that APFA will come out ahead in all of this – and they are holding the lives of tens of thousands of AA employees in their hands.
    When you factor in that UA FAs are right behind and it is clear that ever-increasing post-covid labor costs are hurting many airlines, someone is bound to push back. AA is most likely to balk at the increase in costs because it does not generate the revenue to continue to support higher and higher labor costs.
    I do not see AA caving to APFA’s demands.

  14. Interesting criticism from Gary here, Bernie did not say “American Airlines are making record profits” – he said airlines in the US are. Both United and Delta had a record profit for 2023. When combined with American, it was the most profitable year for the legacy carriers on record. Just because 2 airlines are getting the lions share does not make his statement incorrect. In fact his push on the NMB is also related to United’s FAs who are also in contract negotiations whose airline is making record profits…

    Gary I like your airline news, but I’m getting tired of you putting your own political agenda into your articles, especially when you’re wrong.

  15. Señor Leff cheering for the defeat of Democrats in the coming November election for control of the White House, US Senate and US House of Representatives? Why can’t I say I am surprised if that is the takeaway from this blog article headline too.

  16. Just more and more meddling by a bunch of two-bit politicians sticking their noses into what should be the normal bargaining process. So now theses bozos want to be he decision makers as to when a labor union can stike…..labor laws be damned. Just one more reason to get the fumbling, bumbling government hacks out of our day-to-day affairs!

  17. Bernie Sanders is lying again about record profit for the largest airlines. Quote: “Airlines in the U.S. are making record profits while flight attendants & aviation workers struggle to make ends meet.” Delta Airlines made more in 2019 as did United Airlines. United Airlines had record profit (net income which is the same as net profit) in 2015. Delta Airlines had record profit in 2013. American Airlines had record profit in 2015. Southwest Airlines had record profit in 2017. Source: Macrotrends.

  18. @GUWonder

    Gary is simply stating the truth. A walkout by AA personnel will absolutely infuriate the flying public, ruin summer vacations, weddings, travel to funerals, etc And it will further reinforce that unions are the problem, and Democrats created this mess by actively encouraging AA employees to strike and bring travel to a standstill. When Democrats lose, America (the country) wins.

  19. Train me. I would be a great FA. I would cross the picket line so hard. I would only do it if the FAs were locked out. Walk out lock out. I would be like no pre-departure beverage and seat belt sign on whole flight.

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