This comes as American Airlines has hugely reduced their schedule (including canceling 75% of international flights, with more cancelations to come), meaning they have way more employees than they need at the moment.
What American Airlines is offering flight attendants
A couple of days ago I wrote about American Airlines’ rather generous offer to pilots, as the company is looking for employees to voluntarily take a leave of absence. Pilots have been offered the following three options:
- Voluntary Extended Leave of Absence — pilots can take an unpaid leave of absence that can last up to 12 months; pilots will still accrue length of service and receive benefits, but won’t accrue sick leave or vacation time
- Voluntary Short-Term Leave of Absence — pilots can take advantage of one month, three month, or six month options, during which they’ll be paid for 55 hours per month of flying; pilots will still accrue sick leave, vacation time, and seniority
- Voluntary Permanent Leave of Absence — pilots who are 62 or older can choose to essentially retire early, and they’ll be paid for 50 hours of flying per month until the mandatory retirement age of 65
Meanwhile American Airlines flight attendants are being offered the following two options for taking a leave of absence:
- Flight attendants can take an unpaid six, nine, or 12 month leave of absence; flight attendants still get medical and travel benefits during this time
- While the company wants to offer an early out for flight attendants, the company and the union haven’t agreed n terms, because they are too far apart
As you can see, American Airlines flight attendants don’t have any sort of option to get partial pay while taking a leave of absence or retiring early, while pilots can get 60-70% of their normal pay while retiring early or taking a leave of absence.
American Airlines flight attendants are offended
The letter says that the union is “highly offended” that the company has offered paid leave to pilots, but not to flight attendants:
We are highly offended that the company offered the pilot group financial benefits for two of the pilot options and would not consider the same for our group. This is a slap in the face for our members who are keeping this airline in the air — and it severely underestimates our relevance during this or any crisis.
American Airlines putting flight attendants at risk
The union’s issue isn’t just that they’re not being offered paid leave, but also involves the risks employees are facing at this time.
Flight attendants’ jobs are inherently at higher risk, due to the nature of what they do, working in closed environments with hundreds of people. In other words, they’re unable to social distance. The union wants the company to recognize flight attendants for their true worth.
On top of that:
- With American Airlines constantly cramming more seats into planes, passenger seats are encroaching on jumpseats, and galley space is more limited than ever before, with nowhere for passengers to wait to use the lavatories
- Many flight attendants are in the high-risk age category because pensions were stripped or frozen during the last crisis, and they can’t afford to retire
The union is pushing the government to include front line workers in the airline bailouts, to ensure money flows to members. Specifically, the union is seeking:
- Reduced services on flights to minimize close interaction with passengers
- Hazard pay for those who cannot take leaves and must fly to pay their bills
- Sufficient precautionary supplies for flight attendants
- Expanded protection for members who test positive for COVID-19 or are quarantined
My take on the union’s demands
I know people will say the following in the comments section, so let’s get out ahead of it:
- “How novel that flight attendants want to do less work”
- “Well flight attendants can be replaced more easily than pilots”
Regarding the first point, I think the union is totally justified in wanting reduced service, and in expressing concern about the safety of crews. Flight attendants are putting themselves at incredibly high risk of getting coronavirus.
With so many businesses having been closed down, I can’t think of many professions where frontline employees are being put at such high risk. I think these demands are perfectly reasonable, and heck, for now, maybe inflight service should largely be suspended.
As far as paid leave options go, this is a challenging situation, and I suspect that like everything else related to coronavirus and aviation, things will be changing rapidly here:
- Up until now, no US airline has announced any involuntary furloughs/leaves of absence
- American and United have both made generous offers to pilots, but no offers to other employees
I guess the merit of the complaint depends on how we see this playing out, which comes down to whether we assume the downturn in demand will be long term or not — will demand recover within a few months, or are we looking at a long-term economic downturn.
I hate to say it, but I don’t think we can rule out the possibility of large scale involuntary furloughs at US airlines. If that weren’t the case, then I think flight attendants definitely have a case. At the same time, if involuntary furloughs are coming across the board, then it’s a different story…
If airlines are only going to operate ~20% of their capacity, they’ll have a very hard time staying in business while paying all frontline employees ~60-70% of their salaries. That absolutely sucks for frontline employees, and I’m enraged by the corporate greed that got us to this point (and by “this point” I mean such limited cash reserves, because companies would rather spend money on stock buybacks rather than reserves or reducing debt), though it may just become a reality…
There is one thing that seems reasonable, at a minimum — senior flight attendants are paid way more than junior flight attendants, so it does seem like there’s some merit to offering senior flight attendants partial pay for a leave of absence, since they could still come out ahead that way (paying a junior flight attendant plus partially paying a senior flight attendant may be cheaper than just paying a senior flight attendant).
That’s especially true when you consider that if furloughs were to happen, chances are that it would be done based on seniority, with the most highly paid flight attendants keeping their jobs.
Why pilots are “special”
There is one important point that can’t be overlooked when it comes to furloughing pilots vs. flight attendants. No, this isn’t about which work group is more “skilled,” but rather it’s a function of retraining costs. Pilots are typically only certified on one aircraft type (or in some cases a couple, if the cockpits are common).
If American had to involuntarily furlough pilots, it would be a disaster. Presumably they’d have to furlough based on seniority, but the most senior pilots are flying wide bodies, for which there’s no demand.
If they were to furlough pilots based on seniority:
- They’d be furloughing the most junior pilots, who are most likely flying narrow body planes
- Then the most senior pilots, who are most likely flying wide body planes, would need to be certified once again on smaller planes
- This would be extremely time consuming and costly
This issue doesn’t exist among flight attendants, who are certified on all mainline aircraft types.
What do you make of the complaints of American’s flight attendant union?