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AA Flight Attendants Struggle for Deal after Shocking Letter

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), which represents over 27,000 American Airlines flight attendants, concluded three weeks of federal mediation last week in Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW).  


Talks ended with the National Mediation Board (NMB) directing both parties to resume bargaining at their federal offices in Washington D.C. around the upcoming Memorial Day Weekend. 


After months of picket lines and protesting, APFA gladly welcomed the development, claiming their struggle had now gained national attention.  


However, there are still difficult weeks ahead, with distance remaining between the union and AA on key economic issues.   


The situation was made more tense last week when a so-called ‘poverty verification’ letter issued by American Airlines to its new flight attendants began circulating on Reddit. The letter highlights the new employees’ shockingly low wages and is intended to be used by flight attendants to apply for financial relief.  


The letter states that a new American Airlines flight attendant will have a “projected annual salary [of] $27,315 per year before incentives and taxes” and concludes, “Any courtesy you can provide would be appreciated.”  


APFA verified the authenticity of the letter, which is given to potential landlords or used in other situations where flight attendants need to verify their employment and income.  


This starting salary is above the federal poverty line of $15,060 for a single-person household. However, that’s a national level which does not account for regional price differences, including in major urban areas, where most flight attendants live and the cost of living is often significantly higher.  


APFA argues that flight attendants’ low salaries in comparison to airline executives is a prime example of “corporate greed.” American CEO Robert Isom took home a pay package worth $31.4 million in 2023 – that's 1,162 times more than that of a new hire flight attendant.  


Meanwhile, the effects of long-term inflation have caused further difficulties for American Airlines flight attendants, who haven’t seen a raise since 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. 


The chance of a new contract was delayed first by the pandemic. The process of then actually negotiating the myriad details is arduous, with the current agreement running over 325 pages. Furthermore, union politics can obstruct its own objective – such as waiting for incumbent officers to be re-elected – while this year low voter turnouts for union elections even indicated a growing lack of faith from American Airlines flight attendants in APFA.  


Tensions have continued to rise since August 2023, when American Airlines flight attendants voted overwhelmingly in favor of strike authorization. Since then, APFA has failed to reach an agreement with airline management, despite several rounds of mediated negotiations. 


This has pushed the union to send two requests to the NMB to be released from federal mediation – first in November 2023 and again in January this year. Both attempts were rejected.  


Federal law prevents flight attendants from going on strike without government permission. Under the Railway Labor Act, airline union members are forced to remain in work until federal mediators have definitively declared an impasse in negotiations. The threat of strike action, therefore, is a difficult bargaining chip for flight attendant unions to successfully levy.  


This limits flight attendants to only protesting on specific days. APFA’s next “Worldwide Day of Action” is scheduled for June 13.  

According to Paul Hartshorn, APFA’s communications director, “American Airlines is not going to come to the table with an economic proposal that meets our needs unless they have the threat of a strike.”  


“Management needs the threat of a strike to move in the direction we need them to,” he continued.  


APFA, along with other unions, are calling on President Biden and congressional leaders to urge the NMB to permit the union to pursue a potential strike.  


Last Tuesday, this motion was backed by a group of 168 bipartisan lawmakers in a letter to the NMB, led by Democratic Representative Melanie Stansbury. 


Stansbury urged the board "to use all of the tools at its disposal to encourage the resolution of these negotiations." 


Both airlines and the NMB declined to comment or immediately respond to requests for comment on the letter. 


"Basically they're [flight attendants] stuck," claimed Stansbury. "Nobody wants to see a strike in the airline industry, which would affect our economy but without the ability of our workers to collectively bargain, basically they are being taken advantage of and exploited by the airline industry." 


It is difficult to see how the stalemate between union and carrier over the past 10 months will find any quick resolution, not least in consideration of the arduous nature of enacting strike action through the Railway Labor Act.  


APFA will no doubt continue to push for deals equivalent to the industry leading salaries of flight attendants at Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines. Delta has given its flight attendants three significant pay rises over the past two years and industry leading profit-sharing packages, while Southwest flight attendants became the first unionized group to secure a new landmark deal with their carrier last month.  

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