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Flight Attendant Contract Negotiations Roll On as Unions Fail to Deliver

Following independent discussions with American Airlines representatives and the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), this week the National Mediation Board (NMB) has told both parties to return to the bargaining table in April and redouble their efforts to reach agreement.  


The NMB’s decision comes after yet another unsuccessful attempt by APFA to be released from mediation into the 30-day cooling-off period necessary to enact a strike, as per the Railway Act. The first came in December. 

American Airlines' unionized flight attendants first voted in favour of strike action back in August 2023.

On March 13, APFA’s negotiators had the opportunity to present their case directly to the NMB for a second time. Joe Burns, APFA’s lead attorney, presented the union’s bargaining status and stressed their need for release from mediation, while recently re-elected APFA National President Julie Hedrick argued that American Airlines flight attendants need improvements now. 


The cohort’s argument had little effect in persuading the NMB to permit strike action, despite APFA claiming to have had “a productive conversation with the Board”. 


Subsequently, American Airlines representatives also met with the NMB to offer their own insight – one which APFA predictably assumes to be “the opposite of ours”. 


No set time frame was laid down by the NMB for their anticipated response. However, their swift reversion suggests it took little thought for federal mediators to agree that strike action was not the answer.  


The next set of negotiations are now scheduled for April 9-11, 2024. 


In the midst of struggles with unionized workforces, the US airline industry as a whole is facing an unprecedented challenge in the form of the ongoing Boeing crisis. 


Since the Alaska Airlines door blowout incident, the main aircraft manufacturer for US commercial airlines has come under increasing scrutiny. As a consequence, Boeing’s production has dramatically declined together with US airlines’ orders for the Boeing aircraft – particularly Boeing 737 MAX 10s. 


This has forced airlines to cut flights and pause hiring. Only last Tuesday, Southwest Airlines announced that it will have to trim its capacity plans and rethink its financial forecasts for 2024, citing Boeing delivery delays as the root cause. Boeing is Southwest Airlines’ sole supplier of airplanes.  

But even for American, Boeing makes up half the airline’s fleet. The looming threat of strike action for better contracts only adds flame to the fire, with capacity already stifled and profits looking unfavourable. 


But APFA is not the only flight attendants’ union stuck in a staelmate with an airline. In fact, it has become commonplace across the US’ commercial aviation industry – in a sort of ‘domino effect’. 


The first hint at any positive outcome in this industry-wide stand-off occurred on Wednesday, as Southwest flight attendant union TWU Local 556 reportedly reached a second tentative agreement with the carrier. However, no details of the deal were publicised and the union is yet to present the offer to its flight attendants to vote on. 


TWU Local 556 ratified an initial tentative agreement with Southwest back in December, which saw an immediate 20% pay raise for flight attendants along with 3% annual increases for four years after. Yet Southwest flight attendants wholeheartedly rejected this deal, unimpressed with the corporation’s offer and their own union’s efforts.  


Given the carrier’s ongoing decline in capacity and forecasted decline in growth, it is unlikely Southwest will be able to develop on their offer. Given TWU rejected the last offer, it seems doubly unlikely that Southwest flight attendants will get any improvement in their conditions. Thus, stalemate is destined to continue. 


Meanwhile, more flight attendants workgroups are beginning to unionize, even despite the struggles of APFA and TWU.  


On Saturday, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA) proudly announced that flight attendants at small carrier Breeze Airways had begun voting for union representation. Breeze Airways has only 600 cabin crew, compared to American’s 27,000 and Southwest’s 20,000.  


It’s unclear how this politicized change could actually benefit such a small group of flight attendants – especially looking to the examples set by APFA and TWU Local.  


By contrast, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the AFA seem to be making little progress in their ongoing efforts to unionize ground crew and flight attendants at Delta.  


The unions’ struggle might have something to do with the fact that Delta cabin crew – who are the only major airline staff not to be unionised – earn on average 5k more than flight attendants at other carriers. Moreover, in February, Delta flight attendants (among 100,000 other frontline staff) received a $1.4 billion pay-out in profit sharing, ammounting to over 10% of their annual salary.  


Meanwhile, flight attendants at American Airlines continue to grow frustrated at their union’s failure to reach a deal. This frustration seems to be turning to apathy, as evidenced by the shocking low turnout by AA staff for both APFA’s 2024 national officer elections and a recent Wall Street protest

Less than one percent of APFA's flight attendants protested on Wall Street during American's 2024 Investor Day.



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