Will American Airlines Flight Attendants Strike This Christmas? Inside the Labor Dispute

American Airlines flight attendants have asked the National Mediation Board to release them from negotiations, in order to allow them to strike. Officially they’re suggesting that this won’t mean a strike, but rather enough leverage (a potential strike) to get a deal done. According to the union, the airline didn’t improve the economic terms of its offer at their most recent bargaining session, while the airline points out they continue to make progress on other parts of the contract (and progress, in their view, means there’s no impasse).

The National Mediation Board did not release Southwest Airlines pilots from negotiations over the summer. They do not have to release American Airlines flight attendants, either. They have to determine whether they believe further mediated negotiations are likely to be constructive.

The messaging from the union has been that they could shut down the airline over Christmas. I do not believe there is much chance of this, at all.

  • There is no set timetable for the National Mediation Board to respond to the request by flight attendants. And they don’t have to start the 30 day clock that would allow a strike at all.

  • If they do, they’re almost certain to wait until at least December 4 to do so. There is no reason they must act quickly enough to allow for a strike over Christmas.

  • Currently two of the three members of the (independent) National Mediation Board are appointees or re-nominations by President Biden. While generally pro-union, and one a former attorney at rival flight attendants union AFA, they don’t want to hand the Biden administration a massive political hot potato heading into re-election.

According to American Airlines,

APFA’s assertion that we’ve reached an impasse is inaccurate. Since resuming negotiations in 2021, the company has routinely met with APFA and presented proposals that maintain our commitment to paying our team members well and competitively.

For months now, we’ve had an industry-leading economic proposal on the table, and we continue to make progress on other items, including as recently as last week. We stand ready to continue working with APFA and with the support of the National Mediation Board to reach an agreement that our flight attendants have earned.

Facing a Christmas strike by a major airline, the President would be forced to choose either to allow the strike to go forward, taking personal responsibility for foiled travel plans of voters, or to appoint a Presidential Emergency Board to study the issue (usually ensuring at least another 30 day delay) and reducing leverage for a labor union and angering the labor movement that he needs for his re-election. It’s an impossible choice, and one we can be confident that his National Mediation Board picks won’t put him in – when they can simply sit on this request for two weeks.

Things are getting vicious out there, though. Some flight attendants are gearing up for a fight.

The union is promoting the 1993 strike as some sort of guide to action, when mostly it’s the opposite?

In 1993 American Airlines flight attendants went on strike. For a couple of days it was completely unclear which flights would operate. By day three things had stabilized. The airline had begun training replacement crew, in case the strike lasted. They offered base transfers out of seniority order for employees who came back to work. And they threatened that anyone that didn’t returned would have their seniority stapled below the replacement workers who were hired.

Come day 4, President Clinton intervened, pressing the parties to accept binding arbitration. They did, and the union didn’t get much more in wages than American had already been offering, and the airline got the better of work rule changes.

Meanwhile the American Airlines flight attendants union has talked about not even doing a real strike.

  • Their members can’t afford to be out of work for long
  • So the plan they’ve articulated is to strike specific flights that might change each day
  • This way they create uncertainty for the airline and for passengers, without having to have many flight attendants give up much pay

Meanwhile the biggest thing standing in the way of an agreement between flight attendants and the airline may be union officers’ upcoming re-election.

They need to sound tough, since they’ve promised flight attendants a lot. Giving them anything less than 50% pay bumps would look like failure and cost them their jobs. And those became much more lucrative jobs with the US Airways takeover of American Airlines.

In exchange for supporting the merger, union officers got a big increase in pay. The imposed contract included extra trip removal hours. The value of being a union officer grew thanks to what appeared to amount to a quid pro quo from Doug Parker.

Currently the airline is offering economic terms that would give cabin crew raises up to Delta Air Lines pay, including pay for boarding. The union is demanding much higher pay than any other cabin crew in the industry. If American Airlines flight attendants want a better deal, their best strategy would be waiting to strike, not striking. If United’s flight attendants, currently in negotiations, strike a better agreement then they can fight to match. Getting American Airlines to agree, when it’s more financially challenged than competitors, seems like a much tougher fight.

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. This has been ongoing for years and union members should reflect these leaders?

  2. Gary

    The reason I won’t purchase a ticket for family on myself on AA at Xmas is not because of fear of a strike, it’s the fear of the “WOE” program that will happen, I do not want to miss my connections when they start working to the letter of the law/rules. When I purchase a ticket the primary thing is to get to my destination on time.

  3. In stark contrast to the UAW and SAG/AFTRA labor cohorts, the AA flight attendants might be surprised to discover what actual store of public sympathy they can appeal to.

    It takes some guts to ignore service guidelines, flaunt contempt for both management and customers, make an ostentatious show of working as little as possible and demand to be required to do even less, and routinely provoke operational showdowns that throw innocent passengers into the crossfire … then expect sympathy in this situation.

  4. well said, Gary.
    Although plenty of people want to drum up every possibility for chaos, there is really no chance that the labor process will play out at any US airline to allow a strike over the holidays. Federal mediators can look at a calendar and know the risks of their actions and aren’t going to do anything that disrupts the US economy when the same purposes can be accomplished just a couple weeks later.

    The government and AA also looks at how reasonable labor’s demands are; given that airline employees in general and flight attendants specifically are very well compensated compared to the average American worker and AA is offering DL FA compensation, there not only will be no sympathy from the public but there is a point at which AA just says “it is time to shut down their unions” as the union is allowed to try to walk away. The fact that labor didn’t get anything more in 1993 than what was on the table is telling and AA has to be willing to not allow labor to hurt its business – already fragile – for even trying to extract a pound more.

    And the tripe about management not only gets old but is factually false. Airlines do a better than average in corporate America of promoting front line people into management positions. WN’s CFO is a former FA, IIRC. Tell us in how many other fortune 500 companies something like that has happened. And “executive” salaries are a fraction of what is spent on frontline salaries and “executives” won’t get the level of salary increases that labor is getting.

    before ghost comes in and tells us how we just want to see AA liquidated, AA can and needs to get its labor costs back in line. They failed to do it post 9/11, they failed to do it as part of the AA/US merger and they still have far more people to do the exact same mainline jobs as DL and UA.
    AA needs to draw a line in the sand and on the picket line and let them know they will dismantle the union if they even begin to threaten a strike, whether popcorn or any other type.

  5. “Safety Professionals” don’t strike. You prove once again you’re a bunch of spoiled incompetent in flight waitresses.

  6. @Tom +1

    As a huge American Airlines supporter, I can say that I have little sympathy for the FAs.

  7. Why wait? President Biden has the courage and competence to handle this issue without delay. He’s not going to defer the problem because it could affect the election. Let’s go, Joe.

  8. I’ll take “corporate greed” over lazy FA greed any day. AA barely makes any profit, why don’t you go unionize Apple? Just lock out this terrible, entitled FA union. You’ll get 100k new applications from eager workers who actually are excited to do the job. Your job is basically unskilled labor with a couple weeks of training, get over yourselves.

  9. I agree with Tim here and Gary. This won’t happen over a holiday. The impact to the economy would be too great and all that does is drum up more votes for Trump. American shouldn’t back down. If they are faced with a CHAOS-style action in say, mid January-February during slow travel periods, AA should lock out any flight attendant who does so for the duration.

    Long ago when I worked for Midwest Express, the AFA group there voted for CHAOS. Everyone who could at headquarters as well as station managers/supervisors went through F/A training (myself included). That way if a F/A decided to take action at a non-hub location, their company IDs and manual were to be confiscated on the spot and someone could step in. An agreement was settled pretty quickly as the F/A group didn’t wanna play FAFO up against such a solid defense. And this is coming from an airline that was practically the national carrier of the Peoples Republic of Wisconsin.

  10. As an AA Plat Pro who has tix on AA to HNL on December 25…I would be glad to fly without AA flight attendants. One Air Marshall per cabin class would be sufficient for safety. I can bring my own food and the air marshalls could pass out water bottles.

  11. I was just on board, and asked a purser if she thought they would strike during the holidays. She said that it seemed very unlikely, as the FA union would not be released from mediation. Fingers crossed for our 26 -27 December flights!

  12. Sure you do DC not in DC.

    Nedskid, have you actually flown lately? Slow travel period? Jan-Feb? Not hardly. Funny!

  13. Hold on. Some help please.

    If they strike does that mean that I will need to be surly to myself and sit on one of those little seats in the galley the entire flight and ignore the passengers?

    I mean, I’d like to chip in and do my part but I don’t have the surly or lazy gene.

    Maybe some can post some crib notes for me and others in case we are forced into (in)action.

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