AFA to represent flight attendants at the “new” United

One hotly contested issue that has been going on behind the scenes with the Continental/United merger is which union will represent the flight attendants of the “combined” United. Previously the IAM (International Association of Machinists) represented Continental’s flight attendants while the AFA (Association of Flight Attendants) represented United’s flight attendants.

Well, the results are in, and it seems that the AFA will be representing flight attendants at the “new” United, having won 55% of the votes. That’s not all that surprising given that “legacy” United had more flight attendants, which translates to more votes.

While it doesn’t have a direct impact on me, I have plenty of friends that are flight attendants, and over the past few months I’ve had quite a few conversations about this with them.

One of the major issues on the line here was how to combine the seniority lists of the two airlines. United’s flight attendants, on the whole, are more senior than Continental’s flight attendants. The logical way to “merge” seniority lists is to do so by hire date. Obviously the AFA is for that, given that they represent flight attendants that are on average more senior. If the list were merged that way, a mid-range seniority United flight attendant would suddenly have a higher relative seniority, while a mid-range seniority Continental flight attendant would have lower relative seniority at the new United.

I can see both sides here. If I’m a flight attendant for United and have 25 years seniority and get to mostly work flights to Asia, there’s no way I want a more junior flight attendant (in absolute terms) at Continental “outbidding” me. At the same time, if I’m a senior Continental flight attendant, it doesn’t seem fair that I have to go from flying almost exclusively internationally to ending up back on domestic flights.

I will say this, though. Based on everything I’ve heard and seen, the AFA has been all about preserving the current United system. The IAM, on the other hand, has been touting that they basically want to “start from scratch” and rebuild the way they think about the profession. That might just be hype or it might be sincere, who knows. The end result, however, has been that Continental’s workforce is much less hostile towards management than United’s (and I don’t know the reason for that, it could be because the union is better, it could be because Continental’s management is better, or it could be a little bit of both).

But here’s where it gets interesting. I have a handful of (legacy) United flight attendant friends that I’ve talked to this about. They’re the “good ones,” or else I wouldn’t be friends with them. I’ve flown with all of them. Without exception, every one of those flight attendants supported the IAM.

Why? The answers ranged anywhere from the potential for better pay, to a less “whiny” union that blames management for everything instead of trying to negotiate with them, to making the airline better for all (and by that they mean looking at reserves too, and not just the more senior flight attendants). The AFA has always had a “whatever it takes” mentality when it comes to negotiating just about anything, yet we’ve seen that it hasn’t gotten them anywhere (United’s flight attendants are paid substantially less than Continental’s), while the IAM has been more about making it work for both parties.

Regardless where you stand on this debate or unions as a whole, let’s hope the integration is smooth and that this doesn’t cause hostility between the two workforces as they’re integrated.

Filed Under: Unions
  1. I may be in the minority here but I think the concept of bidding for FA (and pilot) positions should be eliminated or reduced in importance. Maybe FAs can state preferences but management should have the final say of who works what flights.

    Some of what you written above sounded like the US Airways/America West merger. Trying to merge seniority lists, one side not being happy, one side having the advantage simply because they outnumber the other.

    The unions have, in many cases, really done damage to everyone (their own members, customers, etc.). I’m sympathetic to the need to support the employees and prevent some really poor decisions by management but I see equally poor decisions by unions.

    Overall, it is just a nasty part of the airline industry.

  2. I believe the IAM filed interference charges, so this will probably drag out for a long time (much like the saga over at Delta).

  3. Regarding merging flights attendants, there is only one fair way to do it: date of hire. While I understand CO flight attendants that fly internationally not wanting to get more junior routes, but the fact remains that they joined the merged company later chronologically. That is really the overriding issue. Period.

  4. As a husband of a CO flight attendant I can say this union vote will greatly affect the service level on the airplanes. If the AFA does staight DOH the CO FAs will be unhappy and it will show inflight.
    CO employee’s goodwill with management is rapidly eroding as Smisek has done away with or crapped on the policies that made the employees love to work at CO. It’s a shame.

  5. @Sean – not being hostile. I honestly want to know…if you don’t use DOH how would you integrate the FAs? And, after you explain your method please explain why it is more fair that simply DOH. Thanks.

  6. @Mark- Fair depends on what side of the fence you are on. It’s a crappy situation for all involved. There is an issue between the two companies DOH. UA’s DOH started when they began training and CO’s began when they finished training. UA is top heavy with very “senior” FA’s partially due to their bankruptcy throughout the 2000’s and the loss of their pensions with limited hiring while CO did a good amount of hiring during that time. I think a weighted integration is the way to go but then I’m biased.

  7. @Mark

    Not being hostile. I honestly want to know…if you think Sean is wrong, and you feel DOH is best, how would you integrate the FAs? And, after you explain your method, please explain why it is more fair than looking at other important factors, such as performance evals, punctuality, and other criteria.

    It’s a lazy intellect indeed that asks your opponent to defend his case when you’ve made no attempt to *present* yours.

    Look forward to your logical, methodical presentation. Thanks.

  8. @Sean – How long is training? I can’t imagine that would sway things materially.

    I have no vested interest in either side (i.e., I don’t think I am biased) but I think DOH is the best way to integrate. I understand all sides (DOH, weighted DOH, meshed lists where you take #1 UAL, #1 CO, #2 CO, #2 UAL, #3 UAL, #3 CO, etc.) but I think straight DOH is the most fair and most logical.

  9. Sean, “As the husband of a [UA] flight attendant,” I find your comment “as the husband of a CO flight attendant” interesting. What I hear is not how Smisek is doing away with beloved CO policies to merge with United, but how Smisek is abolishing long-standing UA procedures and flight patterns to conform to and favor Continental’s ways (and how some of UA’s most high-mileage flyers to/from Europe are now threatening to bolt to European airlines as a result). There may be some truth to both perspectives. But, as someone who has gone through 3 non-airline mergers and takeovers in his career, I personally suspect it’s largely due to employees and customers natural tendency to fear change and not want to lose what is known and comfortable.

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