United Airlines is accused of favoring “young, white, blonde” flight attendants over older, non-white flight attendants when it comes to staffing charter flights. But does the lawsuit have legs?
How Does United Airlines’ Charter Flight Program Work?
A charter flight allows a team or group to gain exclusive use of an aircraft and insulate their personnel from the public. Beyond minimum safety requirements, service and catering onboard are tailored exclusively to the specifications of the charter organization. United Airlines contracts with the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), and NCAA football teams to provide charter services. Most NFL and NCAA teams (plus the Chicago White Sox) have dedicated crew lists, such that they fly with the same flight attendants for the duration of the season or in many cases, multiple seasons.
Live and Let’s Fly reviewed a document titled “Inflight Charter Program: Flight Attendant Guide” and dated April 2020. The 10-page document provides background on United’s charter flight operations and details how flight attendants are chosen for charter service.
Section 7.A.9 of United’s 2016-2021 Flight Attendant Joint Collective Bargaining Agreement (called JBCA for short) holds:
9 . Charters and Special Purpose Flights
a. Charters, extra sections and scenic flights assigned to a Base will be available for use in line construction or placed in open time, unless a particular Flight Attendant(s) has in open time, unless a particular Flight Attendant(s) has been requested by the charter organization.
Note the text in red. Although United’s flight attendant union (AFA) is strictly seniority-based in almost every respect, United’s collective bargaining agreement leaves open a loophole for charter customers to personally request flight attendants.
Pursuant to that clause, the Inflight Charter Program Flight Attendant Guide notes that charter clients can interview flight attendants for onboard positions:
As noted in JCBA section 7.A.9., charter clients can select their ICC and dedicated crewmembers (if applicable) for charter flights.
(ICC is the Inflight Charter Coordinator, in essence the purser onboard charter flights)
The qualifications for a dedicated crewmember or ICC are limited:
“The ICC and dedicated crewmember candidates must be dependable, ethical, professional and have at least three (3) years of service with the Company. In addition, both the ICC and dedicated crewmember must have no level of attendance or performance discipline on their record and be based in the base to which the Charter team is assigned.”
Interviews for charter dedicated crew positions are formally held every five years. Although teams can add or replace crew members at will, most are assigned for five years/seasons and must re-interview along with new applicants every five years.
If charter clients do not select their own crews, then flight attendants can bid on them based upon seniority, as they would other flights. Flight attendants can only serve on the dedicated crew list of one team per season.
Flight attendants are paid their normal wages while serving on charters, though often are recipients of extra benefits like preferred game tickets or VIP access to stadiums or afterparties. Crewmembers are instructed that asking for photographs or autographs is strictly prohibited.
Live and Let’s Fly has further learned that:
- The average age of flight attendants on sports team charters is 46 years old
- The average tenure of these flight attendants is 19+ years
- United has a higher percentage of Black flight attendants in its sports team charter program than in its overall flight attendant population
Lawsuit Claims United Airlines Only Assigns “Young, White, Blonde” Flight Attendants On Charter Flights
A lawsuit (.pdf) filed in San Mateo County of the California Superior Court by two United flight attendants alleges that United Airlines has impermissibly discriminated against flight attendants on the basis of age, race, ancestry, and gender in violation of California law.
One of the plaintiff flight attendants is named Kim Guillory. She started with Continental Airlines in 1992 and has been a flight attendant with Continental/United ever since. She is Black and over 39 years old. Sharon Tesler is the second plaintiff flight attendants. She is also over 39 years old and began flying with United in 1986. She is Jewish.
The heart of the lawsuit is how flight attendants are chosen for charter flights. The lawsuit alleges:
Teams are permitted to go with an “open time crew” or a “dedicated crew” model. For those teams using the “open time crew” model, which means that the positions are open to any flight attendant to obtain through the open market, the flight crews demonstrate higher diversity among age, race, and gender. However, the “open time crew” model is rare because instead, United encourages the majority of its customers to elect to hire a “dedicated crew” of flight attendants. For many of the customers – including but not limited to, the San Francisco 49ers, the Los Angeles Rams, the Kansas City Chiefs, and the New Orleans Saints – their “dedicated crews” have been young, white , female, and predominately blonde/blue-eyed for years.
Describing the history of labor law surrounding flight attendants, the lawsuit charges United with continuing to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, and age:
By statute and as a result of decades of jurisprudence, United is prohibited from using age, race, and gender to make employment decisions. It is prohibited from using age, race, and gender to offer special assignments, promotions, training, and workplace benefits. The unlawful use of these factors to determine he Inflight Charter Coordinators and the flight attendants serving charter flights is merely the latest in United’s unceasing and recidivist efforts to lure its customers with the sexualized image of young, white, female flight attendants.
The lawsuit details how Guillory and Tesler tried to book charter trips in United’s online flight attendant flight bidding system but were blocked and later told by supervisors that such trips were reserved for a “preferred list of flight attendants.”
Guillory complained and was told that “the teams themselves were providing lists identifying individuals flight attendants to United which they selected, and there was just nothing United could do except comply with the customer’s request and provide the selected flight attendants.”
Tesler complained and was told by United’s charter supervisor at the time, Jason Hammontree, that “seniority had no bearing whatsoever on whether a flight attendant would be selected for participation in the charter program and that it was based solely on ‘likability’ of a particular flight attendant.”
In May 2019, Ms. Tesler wrote to Colleen Roth, her local HR contact, about the continuing practices. Ms. Tesler asked how a team would know her name if she was not able to apply for the opportunity to work with them. Ms. Roth responded and informed Ms. Tesler that the lists had been built “based on the team’s preferences.”
In summary, the lawsuit claims United favors young, white, blonde haired, blue-eyed flight attendants over more senior, Black, and Jewish employees. No exhibits of evidence were attached to the complaint.
United’s Response To Charter Discrimination Lawsuit
I asked United Airlines about the case and a spokesperson sent me the following statement:
“United Airlines is proud of our track record on diversity, equity and inclusion. While we cannot comment on this ongoing litigation, the flight attendants included in our sports team charter program are largely representative of our overall flight attendant population in regards to age and race.
“Importantly, flight attendant eligibility to work a charter flight is based solely on performance and attendance and has nothing to do with age, race or gender.”
I followed up with a request for more detail on what “performance” means and how flight attendants are specifically chosen (are physical looks taken into account?), but United declined to comment further.
Do The Flight Attendants Have A Case?
The plaintiffs are suing under California’s non-discrimination law. It prohibits an employer from discriminating on the basis of the age, race, or gender. Plaintiffs cannot claim a contractual violation because of section 7.A.9 of their contract I noted above.
I have one key factual question which influences my one key legal question.
If interviews are not open to all flight attendants, how do teams know which flight attendants to choose? Does United provide pictures of every flight attendant, perhaps something like a staff directory? I’ve reached out to a number of sports teams to ask that very question.
How United provides personnel information to its charter clients may directly influence any legal analysis of the case. If the allegations in the complaint are true, it does appear that it is the sports teams, not United, that are discriminating. But not exclusively so if United is aiding in that effort by providing these organizations with the means to do so.
There’s a certain unspoken reality in this situation that also explains why glamorous “Singapore Girls” are a still around in 2020. However, we don’t need to debate the motives for discrimination as much as we need to examine whether United runs afoul of California law by allegedly allowing charter clients to choose flight attendants on the basis of physical appearance.
I do want to add that my initial research reveals that charter flights are not predominantly staffed by young, white flight attendants. Indeed, here’s a picture from a Cleveland Indians charts for the 2017 MLB Playoffs Division Series:
Here’s one from a Marie Claire charter:
The figures I cite above also come from a reliable source.
I’ve scoured Instagram looking for pictures of United charter flights with predominantly young, blonde, white females and have not been able to find any.
Below, you can watch an interesting NBC piece taking a behind-the-scenes look at United’s NFL charter operation. Notice the flight attendant isn’t exactly blonde…
Do I think the case is a loser? Too early to tell. But if my initial research is correct, the case is quite thin.
For the record, all of my research was independently conducted.
United Airlines is responding to the lawsuit by denying any wrongdoing. The circumstances surrounding United’s charter flights do seem to suggest that clients have great leeway in discriminating in their choice of flight attendant. Wether such discrimination on the part of the charter clients implicates United remains to be seen.
I know many United flight attendants read Live and Let’s Fly. I’ve spoken to many of you already. If you have any insight or feedback, please share it below. My object is to find out exactly how flight attendants are chosen for charter duty. How do teams know who is available in order to make their “dedicated crew” selections?