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Explainer: Why Are American Airlines Flight Attendants Threatening to Strike?

American Airlines' flight attendants have voted to authorize a strike if the carrier refuses to agree to “reasonable” contract terms, said the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) on August 29.

99.47% of flight attendants represented by the union voted to authorize a strike, according to APFA, which represents more than 26,000 flight attendants at American Airlines.

What are American flight attendants striking for?

APFA is demanding an immediate 35% pay increase, with 6% annual pay increases in subsequent years, meaning that wages would be raised over 50% by the next 4 years.

This table shows current rates of pay for American Airlines flight attendants vs what APFA are asking for.

APFA is also demanding the introduction of boarding pay, increased pay for working international flights, higher levels of reserve guarantee, and more.

Additionally, the union is calling for four more calendar dates to be marked as a holiday - meaning that flight attendants must receive incentive pay for working on those days- and significant increases to the amount of vacation leave, demanding over double the previous amount of vacation days for some workers.

Why is such drastic action being considered?

The union has been unable to attain a new contract for their members despite almost five years of negotiations. American’s flight attendants are not being compensated for their labour due to the industry acknowledged ‘weakness’ of AFPA.

Negotiations were started with the carrier in November 2018. Since this date, union members have consistently paid dues for APFA to promise them a contract has still not been delivered.

AFPA’s failure to represent its members exists as a larger trend in the aviation industry, with Southwest’s flight attendants' union leadership voting down the agreement reached between TWU Local 556 and Southwest management earlier this year, while AFA and United have only reached one tentative agreement after 21 months.

Contrastingly, Delta’s flight attendants, who do not have a union, were granted a raise just before the pandemic, and have received another raise a few months ago.

Delta Flight attendants have acquired a special profit-sharing scheme earlier this year, in which Delta flight attendants each receive 5% of their individual earnings, in addition to thousands of dollars of further pay.

These contrasting operations call the effectiveness of union representation into question and cast doubt as to whether flight attendants should continue paying dues to ‘weak’ unions.

Striking increases the negotiating power of AFPA and could perhaps be the way for the union to finally get a new contract. However, American’s flight attendants will be put at a financial risk if they do choose to strike just to attain a contract change that industry peers at Southwest, Delta, and United received without such drastic action.

What other factors are contributing to a strike?

American’s flight attendants received their last pay rise in January 2019, however the nature of the job has changed considerably since that date. The pandemic saw a number of new challenges for flight attendants, including a rise in in-flight violence that has not subsided since travel restrictions were lifted. From January to July this year, airlines have reported 1,123 incidents of unruly passengers according to FAA, that’s nearly the same number of incidents reported for 2017 and 2018 combined.

APFA National President Julie Hedrick told reporters that since contracts became amenable in 2019, “American’s Flight Attendants have not received cost-of-living increases or any other quality-of-life improvements, even as they played an essential part in keeping American in the skies both during and after the pandemic.”

American’s issues with staffing during and after the pandemic have been a major point of contention for flight attendants, with 19,000 workers being furloughed against their will, resulting in American’s attendants having to work in challenging conditions without equivalent compensation to accommodate for this shortage. The issue of American’s poor management has undoubtedly been exacerbated by industry peers such as Delta and Southwest not furloughing any of their attendants during this period, demonstrating that it was possible for the airline to protect staff during the pandemic.

APFA National President Julie Hedrick at a picket, “We will do everything in our power to get a contract that we deserve. If it means going on strike, we will do what we must to be sure we get what we want” .

The union has announced that American's flight attendants are still understaffed, and Hedrick has told press that American’s “management took advantage of the pandemic [to] severely cut staffing. Forcing flight attendants to work understaffed places an undue burden on us and our passengers.”

American’s flight attendants are anxious to amend these issues and while the carrier continues to be resistant to their demands, a strike might be a necessary negotiation strategy.

What an AA strike would look like for the industry?

A unionised flight attendant strike is not unique in the history of American Airlines. On November 18, 1993, nearly 21,000 flight attendants stayed grounded in protest for a fairer contract, disrupting travel plans for 200,000 people for each of the 5 days.

Striking American Airlines flight attendants in 1993, the walkout ended after President Clinton took the unusual step of brokering an agreement between the union and the airline to submit the labor dispute to binding arbitration.

However, AFPA is proposing a different approach for their 26,000+ members. A strike in which all attendants walk off the job is currently improbable; instead, we’re more likely to see specific flights targeted on specific days. This means most flight attendants are working for the majority of the time; therefore attendants don’t have to sacrifice pay in order to gain leverage.

This approach creates uncertainty for the carrier, meaning that passengers might choose not to book with American, while also minimising financial harm for AFPA’s members.

Will a Strike Happen?

The recent outcome of the strike action vote does not mean that a strike is imminent or even probable.

US Federal law makes it very hard for airline unions to hold legal strikes. If both parties can negotiate a strike cannot be conducted under the Railway Labor Act.

A strike can only occur if the National Mediation Board declares that negotiations are at an impasse, something which the board is highly reluctant to do.

If an impasse is declared, there’s a 30-day cooling-off period for parties to reach an agreement one last time. By the end of 30 days, without an agreement, airline unions can then be authorized to strike, and companies can lock out employees.

However, President Biden can also bar a strike from happening and demand that negotiations are resumed.

Therefore, a strike at the world’s largest airline still seems a long way off.

American is the largest airline in the world when measured by scheduled passengers carried and revenue passenger mile, disruptive action at American has the potential to globally impact all companies in the aviation sector.

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