Flight attendants are “highly offended” at American Airlines over disparities in treatment between themselves and pilots as well as about their working conditions and options for leave.
In an open letter written by Lori L. Bassani, National President of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), Bassani tears into American Airlines, arguing that the airline has put flight attendants at risk and treated them poorly.
“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.”
Let me start with a plea. Let’s remember that flight attendants are human beings, often with families to support, and facing a dire situation. I know (well) there are bad apples; those who provide poor service and have no business serving in customer-facing role. But One Mile at Time covered this story as well and one comment after another seemed to delight in the calamity and suggested flight attendants are getting what they deserve. Let’s remember that this situation is far beyond the control of front-line workers but impacts them hardest.
As to the offense expressed by Bassani above, there are two elements to consider. First, it is true that flight attendants are keeping American Airlines in the air during this time. If FAs refused to come to work, citing reasonable safety concerns and social distancing recommendations, flights would be grounded. Second, however, is that flight attendants and pilots are very different roles.
Rather than saying flight attendants are expendable and pilots are not (because we are all expendable to some degree), I’d simply point out that pilots are trained and certified for one (or sometimes two) aircraft types. This is extensive training and more senior pilots tend to fly larger aircraft. Now imagine if AA determined it needed to furlough pilots and had to do so based upon seniority. You’d have a bunch of 777, A330, and 787 captains sitting idle (since those aircraft are largely grounded) and have to retrain them to fly the 737s and A319s that are sill in the air. That’s just not at all practical. Meanwhile, flight attendants can fly all mainline aircraft.
American Airlines Endangering Flight Attendants?
“During this global pandemic, our members’ jobs are inherently at higher risk. The nature of our jobs is to work in closed environments with hundreds of people, all in close proximity of each other. To exacerbate that situation, our company designed the interiors of our aircraft by stuffing in as many seats as possible, with passenger seats encroaching on our jump seat areas, airplane aisles more narrow than ever, and severely reducing space in galley areas, bathrooms, and spaces for passengers to wait in line for restrooms.”
American Airlines, in particular among legacy carriers, has crammed more seats into airplanes and reduced the size of lavatories, galleys, and aisles. However with low load factors this becomes less of an issue. Instead, the issue is still that flight attendants are exposed to passengers, and therefore also potentially COVID-19, much more so than pilots are.
“Many of our flight attendants are in the high-risk age category, flying at an older age than ever before because their pensions were stripped or frozen during the last crisis and they cannot afford to retire. It is time that we are recognized for our full worth.”
I agree, in the sense that flight attendants did sacrifice so much during the last round of bankruptcies and many cannot afford to retire. I’m not sure what an airline is to do, though, when its planes are flying empty and new travel restrictions are being levied each day.
What American Airlines Flight Attendants Want
Bassani outlines four flight attendant demands:
- Reduced services on our 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
I’d say reduced service, sufficient supplies, and expanded protection are all reasonable. But hazard pay? Won’t that simply reward the few (who are not coincidentally in the highest risk age category) at the top of the pyramid who will retain their jobs if most are furloughed?
That’s the tension, isn’t it? Any furlough would leave the most highly-paid and most at-risk flight attendants still on the job. That alone should probably prompt American to offer something more generous to convince more senior FAs to step aside, hopefully just on a temporary basis.
I feel so bad for flight attendants right now, even as workers across the economy face dire prospects. But FAs are being asked to come to work each day, put themselves at risk, and live in fear that their jobs may soon evaporate. Talk about a toxic combination…
Rather than celebrate that the bad apples may finally be plucked, we should mourn that the many wonderful flight attendants who fly for American (and other airlines) may soon find themselves out of a job with families still depending upon them for support.
image: Brandon Wade / American Airlines