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How AFA is Attempting to Block Positive Change at Frontier Airlines

A particularly low on-time performance (OTP) rating for 2023 is prompting Frontier Airlines to transform its operating model. But the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) isn’t happy about members losing their free hotel rooms.  


In January, aviation analytic experts at Cirium crowned Delta Air Lines as the most on-time airline in 2023, with 84.72% of flights taking off and arriving as scheduled. Alaska Airlines followed in second with 82.25% and American Airlines was third with 80.61%. 


Low-cost group Frontier Airlines received a much lower rating of 68.68%, just above JetBlue at 68.33%. In recognition of this poor performance, Frontier’s management promised a shake-up to company’s operations.   

Now Frontier is committing to implementing more out-and-back trips (flying between two cities) for their aircraft and crews, rather than planes constantly moving all over their circuit.  


The out-and-back model, inspired by European budget carriers, represents a bold shift from the typical operations of U.S. airlines, which normally fly multi-day trips with two or three overnight stays for cabin crews. 


The new model has a number of benefits. Whenever a plane breaks down (increasingly a cause for concern in the wake of Boeing’s ongoing safety crisis) or there is dangerous weather, the knock-on effects are localized rather than creating a chain of delays, cancellations, and other inconveniences for travelers across the country.  


Furthermore, in 90% of out-and-back flights, a plane will return to its operating base, which would be better for aircraft maintenance.  


The new model is also likely to reduce the price of a ticket for passengers and reduce operating costs for Frontier, as well as improving the airline’s operational performance.  


However, Frontier flight attendants, which are part of the AFA union, are now claiming that these key changes are not covered by their labor agreement and will “drastically upend” their lives.  


Rather than celebrating flight attendants being able to return to their homes each night and not have to spend weeks in a hotel, on Wednesday April 3, AFA President Sara Nelson complained to Frontier CEO Barry Biffle, writing:  

“The impact of the company change to its business model constitutes a major dispute under the Railway Labor Act. This letter is a separate Section 6 notice to resolve this dispute specifically over the impact and ramifications of the fundamental change to the business model in eliminating overnight trips. To be clear, this dispute is distinct from, and in addition to, the negotiation of a collective bargaining agreement and for this reason we have copied the National Mediation Board although their assistance would not be necessary if we can resolve these issues through direct negotiations.” 


Nelson even goes so far as to label Frontier’s new turnaround strategy “a gross example of corporate greed”- rather than an operational shakeup that delivers for customers.  

Sara Nelson has been International President of AFA since 2014.

 The shoe may be on the other foot, however, as travel expert Gary Leff argues. In an article for View From The wing he points out that Frontier flight attendants are afraid of losing their tax-free per diems for when they’re on the road, as well as the cost of potentially moving to Denver. 


“… the problem for flight attendants is they’re being asked to transition to a job that’s more like what most other people have – live in the city where they report to work, and commute each day,” Leff argues.  


So, what does this tell us about the actual goals of flight attendant unions – in particular AFA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 19 airlines? 


They are clearly not prepared to meet in the middle or accept change. Meanwhile, they seem to care little for customer experience and operational efficiency.  


Rather, their ends are political and self-interested.  


Yet, in the case of flight attendant unions, they are proving inefficient at making any ground in actually securing deals with airline management in tiresome and ongoing contract disputes. 


Instead, flight attendant unions are failing to deliver for their dues-paying members. Last month alone we saw increasingly waning support internally from American Airlines flight attendants for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) union, while Southwest Airlines flight attendants look set to reject the Transport Workers Union Local 556’s tentative agreement with the carrier for a second time. 


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