After months of unproductive discussions with American Airlines, members of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) are intending to strike, raising questions about whether the two parties are actually capable of reaching an agreement.
The road for the 26,000 attendants represented by APFA has been bumpy. Their contract became amendable in December 2019; negotiations that had begun in November 2018 terminated due to the pandemic, then resumed in August 2021.
Flight attendants employed by American Airlines have struggled to secure an improved contract through APFA. In the almost five years since APFA began talks, peers at other major carriers such as Southwest, Delta and United have been offered contracts that cover many of the demands made by APFA.
In recent months, frustration from both sides of the table has led to escalating threats. American Airlines and the union applied for federal mediation for their talks in March 2023. After several fruitless rounds of talks, APFA announced in July that a strike authorization vote would be held. Last month, 93% of all attendants participated in the vote, which saw 99.47% vote in favour of authorizing strikes.
“We’ve been negotiating for four years now, but flight attendants haven’t had a pay raise or cost of living raise since January 2019,” said veteran flight attendant and spokesperson for APFA, Paul Hartshorn Jr.
APFA continues to demand an immediate 35% pay increase, followed by 6% annual pay increases that would amount to a total 50% pay raise 4 years after date of signing. Additional clauses include the introduction of boarding pay, increased pay for working on international flights, and higher levels of reserve guarantee.
APFA has sought for four more calendar dates to be recognised as holiday, a move that would guarantee attendants working on those days would receive additional incentive pay. The union has also pushed for a large increase to attendant vacation leave, seeking to double some workers’ number of days off.
On September 13, American offered an immediate 11% pay increase, 2% annual pay increases in the following five years, and boarding pay. The offer was rejected.
American Airlines’ workers continue to work in understaffed conditions. Julie Hedrick, President of APFA, insists that “management took advantage of the pandemic and severely cut staffing. Forcing flight attendants to work understaffed places an undue burden on us and our passengers”.
Both sides continue to insist that a deal can be reached, despite more than 4 years of on-off negotiations failing to bear fruit. The trajectory of negotiations has been presented very differently by the two parties. An American Airlines spokesperson said that the airline was “proud of the progress we’ve made in negotiations with the APFA”, while Hedrick told reporters that the union was “in close contact with the White House […] they know we have a major dispute here”.
American is one of four large U.S. carriers whose attendants are trying to negotiate better salaries. After five of the six largest domestic airlines agreed improved contracts with their pilots earlier this year, Alaska, United, Southwest and American began talks with their attendants.
Whilst some major airlines continue to discuss contracts that their attendants’ unions will approve, Delta has led the way, first with their 34% increase in pilot pay, followed by the second 5% company-wide pay rise in two years.
Flight attendants at Delta have seen their pay increase by 10% since 2021. Amendments to their contract in June included additional clauses such as 8-10% additional compensation with boarding premium pay – an industry first – and profit sharing totalling 5.57% of individual earnings, compared with 3.36 at United and 1.3 at America.
Currently, first-year flight attendants at Delta receive $5,400 more than their peers at United and American. American’s September offer to its attendants contained a number of clauses similar to those in Delta’s contract, challenging the assumption that unions secure better deals for attendants.
The likelihood of American and APFA striking a mutually beneficial deal has been questioned. With the near-unanimous vote to authorize strikes in August, and talks as recently as September 19 leading to no breakthrough, disruptive action seems to be one of a small handful of options left for APFA to leverage American into a new contract for its attendants.
Under the Railway Labor Act 1993, unions cannot strike until the board concludes that talks have reached an impasse and releases both sides into a 30-day cooling-off period. With this authorization measure having been signed in late August, it is possible that strikes could take place beyond mid-October.
American Airlines is the largest airline in the world, according to the metrics of scheduled passengers carried and revenue passenger miles flown. As a result, disruptive action at the airline could have a seismic effect on the entire industry. It is within President Biden’s power to prevent an attendants strike from taking place, should APFA organise a strike involving a large portion of its 26,000 members.
American Airlines teetered on the verge of total crisis on November 18 1993, when almost 21,000 flight attendants held a strike. More than one million customers were impacted, with 200,000 travelers’ plans disrupted daily for five continuous days.
APFA has insisted that it will not advise a blanket strike to the attendants it represents. Travelers should, however, expect to see picketing, and possibly strategic strikes, during the winter holidays, especially as the 30th anniversary of the 1993 American attendants’ strike nears.