California’s Tricky Airline Crew Rest Dispute

California’s Tricky Airline Crew Rest Dispute

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There’s a dispute that has been escalating for quite some time, which could impact airline pilots and flight attendants based in California. This lawsuit dates back roughly five years. With the Supreme Court having just denied cert (meaning the decision from the lower court stands), it seems likely that this is about to be implemented.

This is going to be very tricky for airlines to balance. I’ve written about this a couple of times before, but it seems that airlines realistically have no further avenues to try and get this overruled.

Who should regulate California-based airline crews?

In 2016, California-based Virgin America flight attendants sued the airline, arguing that California’s employment laws were being broken. Specifically, this revolved around the requirement that workers be free from all job duties for 10 minutes every four hours, and get a 30 minute meal break once every five hours, including during flights.

Even though Virgin America no longer exists (the airline was acquired by Alaska Airlines), this lawsuit has worked its way through the legal system since then. In 2021, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in favor of airline employees. The airline industry is heavily opposed to this law, and has been trying to get the Supreme Court to hear this case (though that won’t be happening now).

No one denies what the laws are in California, but what this boils down to is what organization should regulate airline crews. Generally speaking, rules around crew rest are set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The airline industry argues that ever since deregulation, the FAA’s authority pre-empts states’ efforts to oversee airlines.

California-based airline crews may be entitled to more rest

The two sides to this dispute

I think the stance of flight attendants is pretty obvious. Other people working in California (including ground-based airline employees) receive certain minimum breaks, so I can appreciate how flight attendants and pilots feel that they should as well. They make a sacrifice by being away from home, so why should they also sacrifice breaks?

But the industry’s stance also makes quite a bit of sense:

  • It sets quite a precedent if individual states all set their own rules for airline crew breaks, rather than them being federally mandated, since that would complicate operations significantly; 19 states have some sort of meal and rest break laws, so balancing all of those laws would be very, very complicated
  • It’s claimed that these changes could cost the industry between $3.5-8.5 billion per year, and would cause airlines to raise airfare (I don’t buy these numbers, personally, and think airlines will instead just get more creative with crewing)
  • In reality this would probably be bad for California-based employees, as airlines would likely reduce their bases in California, and crews based there would likely get different kinds of trips

What makes this so complicated is that the FAA requires a certain number of flight attendants and pilots to always be “on duty” for safety reasons. Airlines generally staff flights at minimum levels. The reality is that flight attendants and pilots aren’t “actively” working for many parts of the flight.

For example, flight attendants might do a beverage service, but then sit in their jumpseat for some amount of time. Those flight attendants aren’t technically on a break during that time, as they need to be able to respond to emergencies, etc.

By regulating breaks, airlines would potentially need to increase staffing on flights so that there are enough pilots and flight attendants for some crew members to be fully off duty for some amount of time. This would be costly, no matter how you slice it.

The reality is that if this policy is put into practice, it would probably primarily limit opportunities for California-based crews. Airlines would change how they roster these employees, and I can’t imagine this would incentivize airlines to hire California-based flight crews.

I know at least one major US airline is putting plans in place to radically change how crews would be rostered if this becomes law, and it wouldn’t be good news for California-based employees.

Three pilots would be needed for an LAX to JFK flight

The Supreme Court won’t hear this case

As mentioned above, airlines have been trying to escalate this case for a long time. Unfortunately there’s bad news for airlines on this front.

In a filing in late May, the Biden administration (including the US Solicitor General) stated that California’s laws are not pre-empted by the FAA’s authority to regulate airline safety. In other words, the same laws should apply to airline crews as to other workers in California.

With this, the Biden administration had asked the Supreme Court to deny the appeal of airlines, and also to deny this being sent back to a lower court for further consideration. It was argued that airlines haven’t sufficiently been able to show that this policy change would lead to an increase in airfare, and therefore impact consumers.

Yesterday the Supreme Court announced that it won’t be hearing this case, meaning that there aren’t many pathways left for airlines to protest this change. At this point it’s very likely that this becomes law.

Here’s what Airlines For America, an airline industry trade group, had to say about this ruling:

“We are disappointed the Court chose to pass on reviewing the Bernstein case at this time and continue to believe there are strong federal preemption arguments to support reversal in this case. The lack of a definitive answer from the Court does not resolve the conflict between state and federal law, or between circuits, and will result in a patchwork of costly and conflicting state regulations, as at least 19 states have some form of meal-and-rest-break laws. While the Court did not take this specific case, we expect that other cases involving state meal-and-rest-break laws will present the U.S. Supreme Court with similar legal questions to those in Bernstein, and it will be increasingly clear that these laws affect airlines prices, routes and services and should be preempted.”

The Supreme Court won’t be hearing this case

Bottom line

A court has ruled that California-based pilots and flight attendants should be entitled to more breaks, including a 10 minute break every four hours, and a 30 minute meal break every five hours. The Biden administration backed this ruling, and sided with labor groups. Now the Supreme Court has also revealed that it won’t hear this case.

While that seems reasonable on the surface, this will pose major challenges for airlines, if implemented. Either staffing would need to be increased for many flights operated by California-based crews, or airlines would just need to use crews not based in California for many flights.

Historically it has simply been the FAA that has regulated airline crew rest requirements, so the precedent this sets is alarming, as it sounds like individual states can now all regulate rules for airline crews.

Look, I consider myself to be pretty liberal, but this just seems silly. The practical implications here are simply that a lot of flying opportunities will be taken away from California-based crews, and they’ll instead be assigned to crews based elsewhere.

On top of all that, keep in mind we’re dealing with a major pilot shortage right now. So if airlines actually did simply adjust staffing for California-based pilots, this would further exacerbate the issue of flight delays and cancelations.

What do you make of this new rule for California-based pilots and flight attendants?

Conversations (37)
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  1. Jennifer Guest

    I am a former flight attendant and my husband is a current flight attendant based in California. This is the dumbest decision ever. Flight attendants have plenty of time during a flight to grab a bite to eat. Also, they get time between flights on layovers to take a break. If you can’t handle this job without a 30 minute break, you should not be working in this industry. The FAA needs to regulate this…...

    I am a former flight attendant and my husband is a current flight attendant based in California. This is the dumbest decision ever. Flight attendants have plenty of time during a flight to grab a bite to eat. Also, they get time between flights on layovers to take a break. If you can’t handle this job without a 30 minute break, you should not be working in this industry. The FAA needs to regulate this… NOT individual states. I foresee all airlines closing all California bases.

  2. Tom Guest

    Forgetting the merits of this individual law, showing that state law is allowed to apply to airlines is a very interesting (and good) precedent.

    California has the strongest privacy regulations in the country (CCPA). Airlines are refusing to comply with the provisions here, as they say state law doesn’t apply to them and the only body to regulate them is federal/FAA.

    I wonder if someone is willing to bring a case demanding compliance with...

    Forgetting the merits of this individual law, showing that state law is allowed to apply to airlines is a very interesting (and good) precedent.

    California has the strongest privacy regulations in the country (CCPA). Airlines are refusing to comply with the provisions here, as they say state law doesn’t apply to them and the only body to regulate them is federal/FAA.

    I wonder if someone is willing to bring a case demanding compliance with privacy regulations now in light of this.

    1. Kyle H Guest

      In what way exactly is your privacy currently compromised by the airlines? Are you willing to pay a higher fare to support the additional compliance staff that airlines will need to hire to continually analyze and comply with ridiculous California regulations?

      The problem that California’s leaders and some Californians fail to see is that businesses will continue to abandon California as the cost of doing business here exceeds the reward. The states that don’t see...

      In what way exactly is your privacy currently compromised by the airlines? Are you willing to pay a higher fare to support the additional compliance staff that airlines will need to hire to continually analyze and comply with ridiculous California regulations?

      The problem that California’s leaders and some Californians fail to see is that businesses will continue to abandon California as the cost of doing business here exceeds the reward. The states that don’t see the need to over-regulate business are absolutely thriving with all of the people and jobs coming from California.

  3. Jkjkjk Guest

    What’s the purpose of supreme court and judicial branch if they’re doing what the executive tells it to?

    1. Chuck Guest

      In light of recent events.... You're kidding, right?

  4. Scott Guest

    As a California based pilot this is just ridiculous. I am worried my airline will now close the crew base and I will be forced to move. Hopefully a solution can be found because I highly doubt my airline will go along with this.

  5. DEE Guest

    Kyle H You are right on... correct with calif politics as they arerunning it into the ground!!! or Ocean.

    1. Kyle H Guest

      This state does literally everything it can to drive away business. California will be in continuous decline for as long as it remains a one-party state.

  6. Mike New Member

    As Ben said above, a lot of states have mandatory worker rest rules, not just California. A airline like United has most of there with pilot bases in states that do: SFO, LAX, DEN, ORD, and GUM. It’s true that IAD, ERW, and IAH are in sates that do not, TX, NJ and VA respectively, but it would be prohibited expensive to make everyone based in just those three bases. Having trips that start and...

    As Ben said above, a lot of states have mandatory worker rest rules, not just California. A airline like United has most of there with pilot bases in states that do: SFO, LAX, DEN, ORD, and GUM. It’s true that IAD, ERW, and IAH are in sates that do not, TX, NJ and VA respectively, but it would be prohibited expensive to make everyone based in just those three bases. Having trips that start and end with deadheads (DH) just to get around this rules would be hugely expensive. Also, trips that have augmented crews (I believe flights over 9 hours) wouldn’t need to change too much as you could have the pilot in crew rest be fully off duty.

  7. Bill Guest

    The airlines will do some economic analysis. If it makes sense to limit the number of Cali flight crews they will do that. It might make sense to run long haul routes for say America to HNL out of DFW of PHX and any Cali passengers would have to connect thru those hubs. Short haul routes should be less of an issue for them so I'm wondering if they reconfigure to limit long hauls out...

    The airlines will do some economic analysis. If it makes sense to limit the number of Cali flight crews they will do that. It might make sense to run long haul routes for say America to HNL out of DFW of PHX and any Cali passengers would have to connect thru those hubs. Short haul routes should be less of an issue for them so I'm wondering if they reconfigure to limit long hauls out of Cali as much as possible. Who knows. I do know Cali sure is losing a lot of businesses to TX and NV and they seem awfully antibusiness.

    1. Kyle H Guest

      If this California law ends up being applied to flight crews as it currently stands, then it will only apply to crewmembers who are based in California, not crews based elsewhere who happen to be working a flight to/from California. In other words, an airline could close the LAX base and still operate LAX-HNL with a crew based in PHX. The crew’s trip would look something like: PHX-LAX-HNL, layover, HNL-LAX-PHX.

      On-time reliability of the LAX...

      If this California law ends up being applied to flight crews as it currently stands, then it will only apply to crewmembers who are based in California, not crews based elsewhere who happen to be working a flight to/from California. In other words, an airline could close the LAX base and still operate LAX-HNL with a crew based in PHX. The crew’s trip would look something like: PHX-LAX-HNL, layover, HNL-LAX-PHX.

      On-time reliability of the LAX to HNL flights would be impacted as there would no longer be any reserves in LAX to cover any last-minute crew replacements.

      That being said, the California law was designed for office and shift workers, not flight crews. A 30-minute rest break in flight does absolutely nothing to mitigate fatigue for me as a pilot. When I’m about to operate a 6-hour transcon, I evaluate whether I’ve had enough rest to safely operate the flight as FAA rest rules require. If the answer is no, I remove myself from the flight (with pay) by calling in fatigued. I’ve never been in a situation where the go/no-go decision could be impacted by the ability to take a mere 30-minute break mid-flight, during which meaningful sleep would be impossible.

      As an LAX-based pilot, I have yet to meet a co-worker who supports this California law being applied to us. Base closures and displacements are the likely outcome if a reasonable alternative agreement is not reached.

  8. AC Guest

    While I respect flight attendants and are sympathetic to what they have to deal with this shouldn’t be an issue. I mean why doesn’t the time they sit in the jump seat or congregate in the gallery talking count as a “break”? They aren’t performing any duties at that time it shouldn’t be a problem for them to rotate the breaks so it doesn’t interfere with passenger service. Similarly for meal break on longer flights-...

    While I respect flight attendants and are sympathetic to what they have to deal with this shouldn’t be an issue. I mean why doesn’t the time they sit in the jump seat or congregate in the gallery talking count as a “break”? They aren’t performing any duties at that time it shouldn’t be a problem for them to rotate the breaks so it doesn’t interfere with passenger service. Similarly for meal break on longer flights- alternative a 30 minute meal break. It isn’t like they are typically busy the entire flight

    Other option is airlines move all flight attendant bases out of CA and require anyone that wants to live in CA and dead head to sign a waiver. Trust me it can be worked around

    1. Amy Guest

      Perhaps because we have no where to go to reasonably take a break. Jumpseats are often in front of the lav doors meaning we constantly have to get up and pick up our food. Passengers continually come into the galley to ask for things. We aren’t allowed to use electronic devices in working areas.

      Flights that currently have a rest period have a crew rest area or a blocked seat. We need a seat...

      Perhaps because we have no where to go to reasonably take a break. Jumpseats are often in front of the lav doors meaning we constantly have to get up and pick up our food. Passengers continually come into the galley to ask for things. We aren’t allowed to use electronic devices in working areas.

      Flights that currently have a rest period have a crew rest area or a blocked seat. We need a seat blocked for the rest period,
      Or we are not actually getting any break at all while you see us “congregating in the galley”

    2. Chuck Guest

      So what is the solution? You can't 'step out' for a moment.

    3. Amy Guest

      Blocking a seat for a rest break. It’s pretty simple actually. We already have crew seats blocked on trans-oceanic flights for crew break, as well as on some aircraft for turbulence. It would just be adding this for long-haul domestic.

  9. Gabe Z Guest

    For the folks arguing against this, what is your point? That there shouldn’t be real rest breaks for crew, or that California shouldn’t get to set its own rules?

    Think carefully and critically here. If you think California shouldn’t get to set its own rules, but rather all rules should be set federally, what are the implications for that position? Are you sure you’d like that outcome?

    And if you think rest breaks are unnecessary,...

    For the folks arguing against this, what is your point? That there shouldn’t be real rest breaks for crew, or that California shouldn’t get to set its own rules?

    Think carefully and critically here. If you think California shouldn’t get to set its own rules, but rather all rules should be set federally, what are the implications for that position? Are you sure you’d like that outcome?

    And if you think rest breaks are unnecessary, why do you believe that when there is incontrovertible evidence from accident histories that rest is important?

    Are you just mad at California for doing the job of the federal government, who should have made rest rules more thoughtfully? How have you felt about the FAAs approach to pilot rest rules until now? Are they doing a stellar job?

    You can’t have it both ways: states rights and federal preemption. Pick a lane. And understand that if one or the other entity refuses to regulate, you can expect the other to pick up the slack.

    Side note: airlines would have loved to move CA bases out of state even before this ruling due to cost of living constraints. But they cannot easily because of the market’s size and logistical demands. And I’m not sure in the current employment environment, and with all the majors about to melt down due to self-inflicted employee shortages, any anti-staff moves are prudent.

    Which airline is going to be the first to trash their ops in CA out of protest? 40m people, several top yielding routes, LAX/SFO-NYC the most important contracts in the system etc….

    You all just aren’t thinking clearly here.

    1. Kyle H Guest

      There are certain industries that are not very conducive to state and local regulation, and aviation is one of them. Aviation rules and regulations are standardized at the national level, and on a broader basis internationally via ICAO.

      As a pilot, I fly to/from/over numerous jurisdictions every day at work. It would be impossible to keep up with unique laws in each jurisdiction if aviation were state/locally regulated. Fortunately our rules and regulations are based...

      There are certain industries that are not very conducive to state and local regulation, and aviation is one of them. Aviation rules and regulations are standardized at the national level, and on a broader basis internationally via ICAO.

      As a pilot, I fly to/from/over numerous jurisdictions every day at work. It would be impossible to keep up with unique laws in each jurisdiction if aviation were state/locally regulated. Fortunately our rules and regulations are based on federal and company standards.

      The root of the problem is that this California law was designed for typical office and shift work. It was never intended to be applied to flight crews. Flight crews are already subject to a fairly extensive set of rest rules by the FAA. The federal rules aren’t perfect and can’t cover every possible situation, thus we’re given the ability at my airline (and most others) to call in fatigued and be removed from a flight with pay when necessary.

      I’ve never encountered a fatiguing situation as a pilot that would be remedied by a 30-minute break mid-flight. Every time I’ve called in fatigued at work, it has been due to an excessively long duty day (i.e. 14+ hours), interruptions in rest at hotels, diversions, etc. None of those situations could have been prevented by a 30-minute rest break on the plane, and all of them required being removed from the next flight and replaced by a new rested crew.

      California’s law does absolutely nothing to help us pilots and FAs, nor was it ever designed for us. More than likely an alternate agreement will be reached. Without that, yes, California bases could start closing. And yes, those coveted LAX-NYC flights that you speak of can be operated by crews from DFW or MIA (and often already are). From the customer’s perspective, closing California crew bases would impact on-time reliability for those routes and not much else.

    2. DeAnn Guest

      Because I am not going to fly to PHX and sit for 3 hours unpaid on sit time. There is a reason long haul and high time efficient turns and trips go senior and low tome trips with sit time goes junior.

      This doesn't work for anyone who actually flies and I have yet to meet a single crew member who thinks this is a good idea. I am based in LAX.

  10. Dempseyzdad Gold

    A these bs postings about California...how about the FAA flex and do their job of actually regulating? Oh right, because republicans are attempting to dismantle the federal government. " 'State's Rights' and all that s**t...unless we dont like what the state is doing."

  11. Watson Gold

    Classic case of a well-intentioned CA law that's going to spectacularly backfire

    1. LLinNH New Member

      It was not well intentioned; it was intended to reward workers and penalize business. No "win-win" in the Peoples Republik of California.

  12. Donna Diamond

    Back when US Airways was around, a pilot told me that 85% of their Philadelphia based crews lived out of state and commuted. Not a huge problem for the airlines to maneuver around.

    1. Kyle H Guest

      I am LAX-based for a major airline and would estimate that about 35% of our pilots live out of state and commute. This number varies by base (NYC is upwards of 75%). While it is relatively easy for airlines to open and close bases, this will create significant challenges for all of the major airlines. Certain routes such as California to Hawaii will be challenging to staff, particularly when last-minute staffing coverage is needed.

    2. Bob Guest

      One reason was that Philadelphia had a 6% personal income tax

  13. George Romey Guest

    Corporations have brought this silliness onto themselves. A plane can't just pull off for 30 minutes so the crew can have a rest. So if this prevails airlines will need to either close down any CA base or fly with additional crew. And employees living in CA may be forced now to either commute to another state or pick up and move on their own dime.

    1. Kyle H Guest

      As a California-based airline pilot, I have to ask you, how exactly are corporations the ones creating this silliness? This is another example of the inept California Democrat party driving as many jobs out of the state as they possibly can.

  14. Never In Doubt Guest

    I’d expect that CA based crews will be reduced to only what’s needed for <4 hour flights, and that airlines will figure out how to have non-CA based crews fly long haul flights for the most part.

  15. Doug Guest

    This is just another example of how lawmakers pass stupid laws without thinking through the effects. This law will hurt the airlines, customers (via higher prices), and ultimately the very workers it was designed to help (when the airline reduces or eliminates CA-based crew). FAs and pilots already have the ability to negotiate for schedules that work best for them. Nobody is helped by nanny-state legislators in Sacramento screwing everything up.

  16. Jance Guest

    You know, California isn't the only state that implements labor laws (though it's often is the first to do so). And others will likely follow, with a wide variety of outcomes.

    What's the legal definition of a crew "base" for this purpose? Is there one? I can imagine all airlines will eventually "base" their crews in China or some other workers' paradise...

  17. 305 Guest

    Beyond short-sighted by the VA FAs. They already spend half their flight time “resting”. Now they get legal “breaks” but at the cost of losing their jobs. Can’t wait for the crew bases to pack up and move to other states. You reap what you sew

  18. david Guest

    D3kingg: You don't even need that, just have robots fly the plane. Problem solved.

    In all seriousness, this is another example of overreach by anti business California. What I don't understand is shouldn't this law only be in force when the aircraft is in California airspace? Once the plane is over Nevada, California should have nothing to say about this

    1. Kevin Guest

      California doesn't own the airspace above 199ft AGL, that's FAA territory. I would agree with your theory, except instead of in California Airspace, it should only be in effect while the aircraft is sitting on the ground in California.

  19. CHRIS Guest

    Simple. Just close all California bases. Happy now AFA?

  20. D3kingg Guest

    If you think about it Only one pilot is needed for an LAX JFK flight.

    1. NKPilot Guest

      Oh you're one of those? One pilot needed?

      You're D3shitster if anything. Get your facts straight. Go learn some stuff before you write stupid things on the internet.

    2. FrequentFlyer22200 Guest

      Soon enough we won’t need any pilots and just run robotically. One pilot is a problem since they can crash the plane.
      0 is the end goal. Higher margins, better safety and less power hungry pilots defending inexcusable crew behavior.

    3. D3kingg Guest

      @NKpilot

      How about presenting some facts or evidence which you have none of. Thank you for validating my one pilot argument.

      How often to pilots deliberately crash planes ? One out of every 25.5 million flights ? Planes will be fully automated but not in our lifetime. Back in the 1970s and 1980s there were four pilots in the cockpits.

      So again. We only need one pilot. And by the way there are plenty of first officers in Moscow looking for work.

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Kyle H Guest

There are certain industries that are not very conducive to state and local regulation, and aviation is one of them. Aviation rules and regulations are standardized at the national level, and on a broader basis internationally via ICAO. As a pilot, I fly to/from/over numerous jurisdictions every day at work. It would be impossible to keep up with unique laws in each jurisdiction if aviation were state/locally regulated. Fortunately our rules and regulations are based on federal and company standards. The root of the problem is that this California law was designed for typical office and shift work. It was never intended to be applied to flight crews. Flight crews are already subject to a fairly extensive set of rest rules by the FAA. The federal rules aren’t perfect and can’t cover every possible situation, thus we’re given the ability at my airline (and most others) to call in fatigued and be removed from a flight with pay when necessary. I’ve never encountered a fatiguing situation as a pilot that would be remedied by a 30-minute break mid-flight. Every time I’ve called in fatigued at work, it has been due to an excessively long duty day (i.e. 14+ hours), interruptions in rest at hotels, diversions, etc. None of those situations could have been prevented by a 30-minute rest break on the plane, and all of them required being removed from the next flight and replaced by a new rested crew. California’s law does absolutely nothing to help us pilots and FAs, nor was it ever designed for us. More than likely an alternate agreement will be reached. Without that, yes, California bases could start closing. And yes, those coveted LAX-NYC flights that you speak of can be operated by crews from DFW or MIA (and often already are). From the customer’s perspective, closing California crew bases would impact on-time reliability for those routes and not much else.

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Doug Guest

This is just another example of how lawmakers pass stupid laws without thinking through the effects. This law will hurt the airlines, customers (via higher prices), and ultimately the very workers it was designed to help (when the airline reduces or eliminates CA-based crew). FAs and pilots already have the ability to negotiate for schedules that work best for them. Nobody is helped by nanny-state legislators in Sacramento screwing everything up.

3
david Guest

D3kingg: You don't even need that, just have robots fly the plane. Problem solved. In all seriousness, this is another example of overreach by anti business California. What I don't understand is shouldn't this law only be in force when the aircraft is in California airspace? Once the plane is over Nevada, California should have nothing to say about this

3
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