2023 saw a surge in industrial action at US airlines, with multiple unions engaged in protracted contract negotiations and even threatening strike action. These tensions between labor unions and airlines, which often come at the expense of both staff and passengers, have now rolled into 2024, begging the question of whether unions are in fact serving the best interests of their members.
Meanwhile Delta Air Lines, whose flight attendants are not unionized and have received two pay rises in the past two years, may provide a different model for managing the relationship between airlines and their employees.
2023: A Year of Waiting
Perhaps the most high profile dispute between unions and airlines last year was the fall out between American Airlines (AA) and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA). APFA, which represents 28,000 AA flight attendants, has been in fruitless negotiations with the carrier for five years, seeing no pay rise for its members since 2019. In August, AA’s flight attendants voted 99.47% in favor of strike authorization. Come November, flight attendants were picketing again.
APFA then sent a direct request to the National Mediation Board (NMB) for release into the 30-day cooling off period necessary before striking, as per The Railway Labor Act. The NMB rejected the request. APFA and AA management later met in federal mediation in December and again in Dallas Fort Worth from January 9 to 11 2024. APFA claimed that AA did not attempt to resolve the issue. The union will approach the NMB again this week to request release into the 30-day cooling off period to strike. There is no end in sight.
Meanwhile, Southwest flight attendants are engaged in similarly frustrating contract negotiations. The Transport Workers Union (TWU), which represents 19,000 of Southwest’s flight attendants, reached a ‘tentative agreement’ with the carrier in early December. However, 64% of unionized Southwest flight attendants voted to reject the agreement, signaling no end to the dispute. Their previous contract came up for renewal in 2018.
Likewise, flight attendants at United Airlines, who are represented by the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), have taken to the streets to voice their disapproval with how contract negotiations are going. On December 14 United Airlines flight attendants demonstrated at 19 airports nationwide, after two years of failed contract negotiations and filing for federal mediation on December 5. Once again, there seems to be no resolution going into the new year.
Pilots have arguably had an easier time, with most major carriers agreeing deals with their unions in 2023. However, these battles have been hard fought by unions, taking a toll on the industry. In May last year, Southwest airlines pilots voted to strike for the first time in the carrier’s history, under the direction of their union, the Southwest Airlines Pilot Association (SWAPA). Southwest and its pilots have been in tiresome negotiations for more than three years and in federal mediation since September 2022. Their last contract had ended in 2020 and so far only a tentative agreement has been reached.
In September, United Airlines became the last of the three major US carriers to reach a deal with its pilots during an ongoing industry shortage. The deal received an 82% majority vote in favor, according to the Air Lines Pilot Association (ALPA). However, negotiations had been ongoing for far too long, having been derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
By stark contrast, Delta Air Lines led the way in negotiations with ALPA, ensuring a swift resolution to pilot contract negotiations back in March last year – the first of the major US carriers to reach this milestone. American Airlines even commented at the time that the Delta deal “profoundly changes the economics for the entire industry and that’s great news for American’s pilots.” However, it still took American almost half a year to ratify their own unionized dispute with their pilots; not agreeing a deal between carrier and pilot union until late August, well past the busy heights of the summer travel season.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Delta pilots got a similarly good deal as the carrier managed to avoid involuntarily furloughing a single pilot. Meanwhile, American Airlines swiftly laid off over 17,000 staff, including 1,600 pilots and 8,100 flight attendants. Delta pilots are represented by the same union as those at United and American Airlines, suggesting it is the carrier, not the union, which is the real deciding factor in securing a fair deal for airline workers.
A Different Path
Contract negotiations have become a herculean task for both carriers and unions, especially when it comes to flight attendants. The only major US carrier whose flight attendants are not unionized is Delta Air Lines. Coincidently, Delta flight attendants are the best paid in the US. Delta’s flight attendants are manifestly aware of this fact, having rejected multiple attempts by AFA to unionize their collective workforce. AFA attempted this three times in the previous decade; Delta flight attendants said no in 2002, 2008, and again in 2010.
In November, a coalition of unions led by AFA and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters announced attempts to form a union for more than 45,000 workers at Delta, including flight attendants and technicians. However there has been no progress announced since then, with Delta staff apparently
valuing their direct relationship with management and unenvious of the state of negotiations at other major carriers.
2023 only saw tensions rise and grate further in the US aviation industry’s unionized disputes. Despite numerous carriers agreeing new pilot contracts, there remains a union-orchestrated pilot shortage coming into 2024. Meanwhile, unionized flight attendants at most carriers remain dissatisfied, as contract negotiations remain unresolved and past form indicates that the situation is unlikely to change any time soon.