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« A Flight Attendant Representation Inflection Point? »

There is no questioning the importance of a flight attendant to commercial carriers, whether as the onboard safety professional or as an extension of an airline’s marketing department.  As they themselves are quick to point out, of all airline employees it is flight attendants who spend the most time with customers, a role they say should have more value in their compensation. 

This blog has often been critical of pilots and the leadership at the major pilot unions for being unrealistic in their contract demands, particularly in an industry struggling economically. Today I look at the flight service unions and wonder if there is a fundamental change in direction afoot.

One has to look no further than the combined work forces at Delta, where the non-union Delta flight attendants and their unionized counterparts at Northwest recently voted against union representation.  Delta, where only the pilots are unionized, has flexibility and productivity built into its operation so that the airline can quickly adjust to market conditions rather than be hamstrung by contractual restraints. In return, Delta has long offered relatively high industry pay and a culture employees value.  That’s one reason that when Delta announced plans last year to hire 1,000 new flight attendants, more than 100,000 hopefuls applied. By all outward signs, Delta flight attendants are largely satisfied with their jobs, and tens of thousands of applicants would evidently love to join them. So perhaps it is no surprise that flight attendants at the “new Delta” rejected old-style union representation.

My question is whether contract negotiations elsewhere in the U.S. airline industry will challenge the status quo as defined by old-line labor agreements negotiated by the Association of Flight Attendants – CWA (AFA) and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) to promote the level of productivity and flexibility today’s airline industry demands.

At American, for example, the mantra coming from management in its negotiations with flight attendants has been increased productivity in return for increased pay.  That formula works at Southwest and Continental and Delta – where high productivity has lead to higher pay.  The conundrum for the APFA at American is that their current contract pays flight attendants at or near the top of the industry but puts productivity near the bottom as compared to other carriers.

To be clear, “productivity” in this context does not measure how hard an employee works but, rather, is dictated by the work rules outlined in a collective bargaining agreement. Too often, these work rules limit the number of hours an employee can work as one way of forcing a company to hire more employees.

 In many old-line agreements, aircraft technology (flying longer and faster) is the driver behind the work rules.  This technology – more advanced aircraft that could fly more passengers faster and farther --created a false perception that employee productivity was increasing. Today there is little to no technology effect on flight crew productivity. And it’s high time that contract agreements reflect that reality.

From my perspective, the APFA is neither willing to acknowledge nor accept that fact. Rather than agree to increased productivity – even to a point that is at par with flight attendants at other carriers --  the union is insisting on pay increases without offering anything in return. Absent that, the union has threatened the sides have reached “impasse” and the union should be allowed to call a strike.

At this point, there’s no predicting the end game. Last week, the union reported that the National Mediation Board will not now act on its request for a “release” to strike and has scheduled no additional meetings, a story reported by Terry Maxon of the Dallas Morning News in a thoughtful recap of the difficult negotiations at American. The union, not surprisingly, blamed the company: “APFA Negotiators did everything they possibly could to achieve a deal,” the union said in a hotline message to members, “But the company is still unwilling to recognize the value Flight Attendants bring to this company."

Maxon then updated his blog post to include this statement from the company:  "We [American] are disappointed not to have additional dates. After more than seven months since our last negotiating session, the company team looked forward to meeting with APFA in early January in Nashville. During the week, we presented APFA with several proposals to move the process forward on items we know would affect all our flight attendants. Unfortunately, APFA did not respond to the company's most recent proposals or offer any proposals of their own. We believe this lack of movement contributed to the NMB's decision not to schedule additional dates.”

Clamoring for a strike in this environment is old school, chest thumping, red meat stuff that will probably ensure only that member flight attendants will wait longer than necessary to get a new contract. And it’s my guess that the NMB realized this in calling a time out, recognizing that the union’s failure to negotiate is not the same as negotiating in good faith and failing to come to an agreement.  That’s the definition of real impasse. What the APFA is doing is posturing rather than putting in the hard work of good faith negotiations as envisioned by the Dunlop Commission in its recommendations to improve airline labor-management relations.

Like it or Not, It’s Still About the Economics

Unless I have missed something, American was the only network legacy carrier to lose money in 2010 and is forecast to be break even at best in 2011.  And one trend that no one is missing is the price of oil that has settled for the moment around $90 per barrel.  Add to that the trend line in the crack spread, which has jumped from $10-15 per barrel in the last six months of 2010 to about $25 per barrel now.  So for airlines, the true cost of “in the wing” oil can top $100 per barrel depending on where they buy their fuel.

In most cases, the airlines are doing what they can on the costs they can control. They are keeping capacity increases in check. They have successfully implemented fees to bring in much-needed revenue.  And perhaps the profits we saw in 2010 are the return on this discipline and new pricing strategies. But one year of profits does not define a trend. And in the long term, it is not enough to compensate for labor’s outsized asks at the negotiating table or the expectation labor leaders create when they tell union members that they should “get back” the concessions negotiated during the industry’s restructuring period. 

Back to Flight Attendants

Which brings us back to flight attendants and the labor struggles at play throughout the industry. Consider the case at US Airways where five years after the merger with America West, the AFA represented flight attendants from each airline are still working under the agreements negotiated prior to the merger.

And that case merely sets the stage for what’s to come at United–Continental Holdings, where the old line AFA has petitioned the NMB to declare the merged company a single carrier in order call an election that would bring the Continental flight attendants, now represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), under the AFA wing.  That would be a different direction for Continental’s inflight service, whose contract with the IAMAW emphasizes productivity and flexibility that has served the airline and its employees well in recent years.  So as with the decision at Delta, that election will go a long way in determining the direction of labor in the airline industry.

This industry has only begun a long overdue and ultimately necessary transformation that could bring sustained profitability, but only if that transformation is allowed to go forward. That will require the constructive participation of organized labor which, like the airlines themselves, must transform the way it conducts business.

United has that opportunity in negotiating a joint collective bargaining agreement for employees of the merged carriers. There, it is up to leadership to demonstrate the stark difference between one contract that produces high productivity and high compensation, and the other that produces low productivity and lower compensation, and work to convince flight attendants what is in their long-term best interest

And I believe that, ultimately, the AirTran flight attendants represented by AFA will come to embrace the highly productive, highly compensated terms of the Southwest flight attendant agreement negotiated by the TWU

American, for its part, does not have battling unions contend with – only a battle between expectations and reality.  The unions have so far been unwilling to reconsider contract language and provisions not even relevant to today’s industry. There are no more magic bullets like the jet airplane coming along to artificially inflate employee productivity.  The only way to get there is to rethink dated notions of productivity and job protections.  And that’s a real opportunity, for labor and for management.

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Reader Comments (24)

As a IATA mouthpiece I guess you need to be anti-union. If you were so concerned about Airline economics, you'd mention the unbelievable salaries, bonuses, stock options and perks that airline managers enjoy, even in poor economic times. Airline unions have been "giving back" ever since deregulation but management still has no problem fattening up while flight attendants try to stay stutus quo. Sure they'll get a little more money if they change work rules, but this would me that they will have no life. Working long hours for 20 days a month isn't a life. Maybe to you.

01.26.2011 | Unregistered CommenterBob Young

Great article, couldn't agree more. Airline unions need to go the way of the 8-track tape, steam engine, vacuum tube, etc. They were usefull items once but now belong in a trash heap or a museum. The sooner the better.

01.26.2011 | Unregistered CommenterJimmy Dubois

Change is a 2 way street...flight crews have been working with decreased staffing and decreased pay for years. While management has been getting increased pay. No matter the economic times....we should not be expected to pay for a pay increase with more hours at work...fair is fair

01.26.2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Edwards

Perhaps Mr. Swelbar isn't aware that f/a productivity (at least here at United) HAS increased. Our planes are now flying with fewer flight attendants per passenger. He refers to "work rules" but I honestly don't think he knows just how much latitude that company has in that area. Does he think that a minimum of 9 hours off between shifts is excessive---non-productive? Again, it's like the 9 to 5er being back at their desk at 4am. Does he find a 14-1/2 hour day on the job (20+ hours on international flights) to be a lazy man's workday? Does he think that an additional 6 hours (12 hours for international) over a standard workday is not productive enough?

Quite frankly, I think he's just another typical "industry expert" who hasn't taken the time to learn the facts.

You state "the union is insisting on pay increases without offering anything in return" as if that is out of line. Your implication that the labor force needs to give something up to receive pay increases astounds me. What was your position when when labor was giving up all of their retirement, up to half of their pay rates, and massive hits on work rules over the past 10 years? What was management giving up in return? Nothing. Or at best, a token pay cut off their multi million dollar wages. Some flight attendants are currently working at 1994 wage rates. Some pilots are working at late 90s pay rates as well. What did management give up?

The airline industry is making record profits. The industry is no longer in a concessionary environment, yet most airline employees are still operating under concessionary contracts. Management has taken taken taken for the past decade without offering anything in return. It's time for the front line employees, who make these operations work, to receive something for their efforts. There is no more room to give.

No one expects to receive a 60% bump in pay in a single contract cycle to return to their inflation adjusted wages of a couple decades ago. But to suggest the "unions" need to offer up something to receive pay raises in the current environment is unconscionable.

01.26.2011 | Unregistered CommenterM. Miller

Flight Attendants spend more time with customers than anyone else? I can't remember the last time I got more than two minutes attention from a FA on a flight, regardless of the flight duration.

I think that booking and customer service agents spend the most time with the customers. Reservations, Customer Service, and Travel Agents

01.26.2011 | Unregistered CommenterZD

I don't think this has much to do with being "pro-" or "anti-" union. But any credible analysis of the situation has to look at the fact that the APFA has used work rules to create a culture that shuns productivity. As has already been pointed out, Southwest's flight attendants work far more hours than AA's do, and their pay is about the same.

So with an NMB release unlikely in the near future, where do they go from here? I don't see much progress unless the union drops the demands for huge raises, since that's just not realistic in this operating environment. The flight attendants have already been offered gains, and responded with a strike authorization vote. If they want progress they are going to have to moderate their position and start to work with AA's managers.

01.26.2011 | Unregistered CommenterSavvy Traveler

Hey Swelbar!

Get it right..... the pilots AND DISPATCHERS are union at Delta! Not just the pilots!!! The DISPATCHERS are UNION (PAFCA)....Man, if you can't even get the number of unions at a carrier right, how in the world can we trust ANYTHING you say?
C'mon, reply to me, Oh pundit who can't be bothered to do his homework?!!!!

01.26.2011 | Unregistered CommenterGregH

As a former flight attendant, I know that the writer of this article knows what he/she is talking about.

The AFA members I know at United definately have an attitude that the company owes them something. They always have. Screw the company, screw the passengers just PAY ME MORE!

They never tell you that those senior international flight attendants get over 20 days off per month and stilil rake in all that money. They won't tell you that if their flight cancels odds are that they will be paid for the whole multi-day flight rotation and then just be sent home. They don't tell you that they make more than many college educated professionals working 60+ hours a week in a salaried office position.

These flight attendants at the legacy airlines need to quit their whining and get to WORK!!
There are plenty of unemployed people that would love to have your ever so difficult job.

01.26.2011 | Unregistered CommenterFormerFlyer

to ZD with regards to not having received more than 2 minutes of attention from a flight attendant. My response to you is that you haven't flown with me.

01.27.2011 | Unregistered Commentermb

To get more than 2 minutes you have to be on a flight that is at least 100 min. long. If you would like 3min it needs to be 150. There is an FAA min. that the company can fly with if you want more attention sit up front. Like going to a dinner party with one server for 50 and then wanting them to bartend,babysit, provide therapy, water for your pill, fix your movie, give you a blanket, etc. Here is the great news..... that flight crew that does not spend 2 minutes with you can get everyone off in 90 seconds when you are on FIRE! Your 2 min are up please deposit more $$.

01.27.2011 | Unregistered Commenterwalkin on air

American flight attendants are a bunch of prima donas. They do not live in the real world. They are the highest paid for the least amount of work. And attitude...don't even go there.

01.27.2011 | Unregistered CommenterJB

As a former Flight Attendant for a regional carrier and also American Airlines, I see the arguments from both sides of the table. However some union leaders and Flight Attendants are a bit out of touch with reality.

You're complaining that you only have 10 or 11 days off a month? Wake up folks, most people only have 8 or 9.

At United where some Flight Attendants barely fly but yet receive all the benefits just because they are senior and can drop their trips? That's not productive. Employees are expected to work to receive their benefits. Why should the company offer you benefits for you to stay at home, travel the world on passes or work at your own business?

The long days that some Flight Attendants and Pilots complain about are their own doing because they commute. No one forced anyone to live in Miami and work in SFO. Yes, I know base closures have forced people to fly else where, then move or quit and find a job where you want to live like the rest of the world.

If the APFA and AFA thinks that AA and UA are asking for too much, then they should try running their own airline. Let's see how fast they crash and burn when they give themselves pay raises for less work. I would love to make more money and work less.

I would love for the unions to go on strike and maybe the airlines might even go belly up. Then what? Well, management and non union folks will probably get another job while all the Flight Attendants and Pilots, if they are lucky, will find the same job at another carrier making less money with no seniority at all.

01.27.2011 | Unregistered CommenterTN

The bottom line is, the airlines are making money. The employees have made great sacrifices, including pay cuts, a diminshing of work rules, and a freezing of their pension. Why must this be such a battle. All we are asking for is a small increase in pay. We know that snapping back to 2001 wages isn't realistic. We've paid for the sins of the terrorists. Are we asking too much to get even a nominal increase in pay. Living on 1997 pay rates...

Are you kidding me? Most Flight Attendants took up to 40% paycuts in pay and concessions after 9/11. WE are the ones who spend the most time with passengers. I agree with "walkin on air". If you want attention fly up front in First Class. MY passengers get a lot more than two or three minutes as most of the crews I fly with are constantly in the ailses picking up and answering call lights. On our long haul domestic flights in main cabin we do an initial service and then do a second service before landing. That's on an East coast/West coast/East coast flight.

As for our pay, why is it that we, the frontline employees are always the ones taking the paycuts while the top officers are getting bonuses for getting us to take paycuts? There is just something very WRONG about that. If they want more productivity share the wealth. Most Flight Attendants I know are flying any where from 100 to 160 hours a month just to make up for the paycuts and make ends meet. And, the airlines are content to let us do that. Now that the airlines are making money again how about a little good will toward the frontline employees who are bringing the customers back. In response to "FormerFlyer" us "senior" Flight Attendants are not getting those 20 days off that you are touting. We're all too busy picking up trips!

01.27.2011 | Unregistered Commenterluriod

"I would love for the unions to go on strike and maybe the airlines might even go belly up. "Then what? Well, management and non union folks will probably get another job while all the Flight Attendants and Pilots, if they are lucky, will find the same job at another carrier making less money with no seniority at all."

This is why I along with other front line employees are at a crossroad. Management knows our experience has become almost worthless in this market (U.S.). But what's the value of an employee who's loyal and goes the extra mile? Ask Southwest how that works. Especially with the pilots.

The productivity comparison between SWA and AA or UAL will never be relevant because of the slack required in the mega-hubs to make all the connections happen. Thirty minute turns for a wide body? In addition, SWA seems to have a good formula for only letting their "mini-hubs" get so big while maintaining an efficient operation.

Should I have to take less pay or work more to, in effect, subsidize the larger, less efficient operation?

Plus, eight different regional carriers, each with their own maintenance trucks running into each other, separate crew lounges, different work rules, different supervisors, different management, COMPETING against and wishing ill-will on each other while having the same major airlines paint scheme on the plane.

Should I have to take less pay and work more while the airline continues to make decisions that raise consolidated CASM and adds unnecessary complexity to the overall operation?

Also, regional airline workers comprise a substantial portion of the overall "airline" and are only compensated for their input based on a commodity-type valuation of their services and, aside from keeping their jobs, do not share in the overall financial success of the enterprise. This, fundamentally, is unjust and unsustainable over the long term.

And dont forget what they told mainline employees years ago . . .

"Regional jets will allow us to inrease feed to the hubs from smaller cities and develop new markets resulting in mainline growth."


01.27.2011 | Unregistered CommenterAM

Clearly you have very little knowledge of what unions do for flight attendants or what flight attendants have given to the airlines. We gave up over 30% of our pay to SAVE the airline while United planned over $700 million in BONUSES to MANAGEMENT during the bankruptcy at United. It was AFA that stopped the $700 million in bonuses and got it reduced to approximately $120 million. Flight attendants also gave up their pensions to SAVE the airline while our CEO was raking in over $40 million a year. It is Flight Attendants and Pilots who have EARNED a raise in this economy. United posted a $210 million dollar profit for 2010 which probably could have been remarkably more if the bonuses showered on management were cut. It's true, we may never have a new contract, we may never make more money but bottom line is, do you really think that's ok? Would you expect your work force to be happier, kinder, more flexible, willing to work longer hours, less sleep, more time away from home, would you expect more and more from them and never give them a raise? But in fact CUT their pay? You, my friend, are the archaic and unrealistic one, not us.

01.28.2011 | Unregistered CommenterFlight Attendant

Articles like this are very misleading. Is very clear that you are anti-union. Nowhere do you mention that stocks, raises, etc that manangment has awarded themselves based on what they could extract from the Flight Attendants. Working 16hours days up to 18 hours is not healthy. You mention that productivity is the norm these days, well have you sit down to think that maybe what unions are trying to protect with work rules is the health of those flight attendants?

01.28.2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos

A CEO is paid for his or her experience. I cannot compare my pay to senior management's because I do not have the responsibility that they do. Nor should any other employee compare their pay to others. If people are so unhappy about how much management makes then they should apply for those jobs and earn the pay. The reality is they are not qualified and skilled to do the job or they don't want to deal with mess that some employees create.

It's easy to point and blame others, but before we start tossing stones at the neighbors, make sure your glass house won't shatter in the process.

I hear so much about how management is messing up and corrupt. But what about union leaders? Unions never take responsibility for their shortcomings and will always take credit for what is good. They're quick to jump in front of the camera to take credit but yet will hide and blame management for anything that is broken.

How many union members really know and understand their union leader's salary and perks? At UA, union reps get positive space when they commute, union dues pay for their crash pads and rental cars. Why?

01.28.2011 | Unregistered CommenterTN

In 2003, Delta Airlines was the LEAST unionized airline in the industry.
In 2003, Southwest Airlines was and still is the MOST unionized airline in the industry.

Please reconcile for us the quantitative and qualitative fact at work in this dynamic.

You want us to believe that "unionization" = poor productivity.

Yet with all that "productivity" DELTA "still" went bankrupt.

A most interesting dilemma for you.

01.29.2011 | Unregistered CommenterRichard Rasch

10% unemployment in the US with a large portion of that hitting the younger generations aged 18-30.

I'll bet they would be more than willing to take a job as an FA and fly around the world for $30k/yr. Sure it would be some pain for 6 weeks while they train everyone, but I'll bet those TWA FAs wouldnt mind helping dish out some payback to the APFA...

Most don't realize that 90 percent of safety equipment in the aircraft itself came from Unions pushing the companies to install it. TCAS, GPWS, Autopilot and Gear Warning Horns etc... They are all there because of Unions. The companies didn't just voluntarily install these items.

Unions aren't the "answer all" however I believe a necessary evil. Your Union is only as good as your MEC. My Union does NOT pay for crashpads and only positive spaces for company business.

I agree with Richard, SWA is some of the highest paid employees and heavily unionized and yet they consistantly post record profits. Maybe it has something to do with their respect towards their employees. Meanwhile Delta historically is very slow to turn it's rudder and change it's course. Song was proof of that...

02.2.2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Kimball

Mr Rasch's comments are right on target. Organized Labor (Union) is really the only way for a labor intensive business like an airline to function smoothly. I have 50 years of association with the industry and have worked for a number of different management enities because of mergers etc. Different management types have different relationships with their employees. Some very good and some pretty bad. It's a culture. Almost genitic. Using Delta/Southwest as a yardstick is appropriate. Why are the Delta pilots unionized? Because the "good ole boy" culture at Delta management refused to pay them a industry standard wage. Because experienced pilots are hard to find in large numbers Delta management had to actually MANAGE ! Delta is now headed up by the former CEO of Northwest Airlines. Whoa ! Were they not the airline with the worst employee management record in the world? You bet. All you people that voted against representation will rue the day as the NWA culture infects DAL like the vile virus that it is. It will take time and many will have wasted their best years employed by an airline that uses union negotiated contracts to adjust the wages and benefits just so as not to have to deal with the union "rabble". It's a shame that most workers really have no knowledge of what it was that brought Organized Labor into being in the first place.

Here you go all you anti union people...United CEO Tilton 4 Million per year 2009 basic comp, DELTA CEO Anderson 8.5 Million basic compensation, , American CEO Arpey 5.6 Million..Southwest CEO Kelly 1.5 million for 2009...You know why SWA unions get along fine with management??..cause their management doesn't steal the food out of labor's mouth. Take a look at the non-union DAL and form your own conclusion. Then go outside and take the Bush-Cheney sticker off your back bumper..

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