American Airlines flight attendants took to picket lines once again last Thursday, signalling no end to the ongoing dispute between the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) union, which represents over 25,000 of American’s flight attendants, and the world’s largest airline.
At Fort Worth, protesting flight attendants came face-to-face with executives at American Airlines’ HQ. Frustrated workers brandished signs reading “We Are Ready to Strike!” and “You Make Billions. I Can’t Pay Rent!”, whilst chanting for an end to corporate greed. They were only a handful of the thousands who took to picket lines across the U.S. at 11 major airports on 16 November, just days before Thanksgiving: the country’s busiest week for air traffic, and the start of the holiday season.
“Thankfulness and gratitude are not sentiments that our executives seem to understand when it comes to their front-line workforce,” said Julie Hedrick, National President of APFA, in APFA’s statement on 14 November.
“We are ready to back our words with action; we are ready to strike,” she further announced.
The scenes from Fort Worth were replicated at Charlotte Douglas Airport, American’s second major hub, with over 100 AA Flight Attendants picketing there on Thursday. Charlotte Douglas is expecting its busiest Thanksgiving travel season to date, with over 900,000 travellers intending to depart out of the North Carolina airport between 17 and 27 November - a 9% increase over the 2019 pre-pandemic numbers and 14% above last year’s.
Since Thursday’s protests, matters have only worsened. On Monday at noon, after no sufficient response from American Airlines, APFA sent a letter to the National Mediation Board (NMB), which oversees contract disputes for workers bound by the Railway Act, asking for permission to strike. Back in September, APFA union members voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike authorization.
“Time’s up, we have waited long enough. We are not going to wait any longer, so we’ve taken this important step today,” said Hedrick on the letter.
APFA had given the carrier a deadline of last Friday to come up with a contract to settle this dispute, however no resolution was made. If the NMB grant APFA a release from mediation, the union would theoretically be in a position to strike during the nation’s key holiday season.
“We came to negotiate last week; the company did not. And so we are done,” reflected Hedrick.
It now seems very possible that these strikes could take place over the Christmas holidays. However, American Airlines released a statement on Monday afternoon insisting that there are still several steps which the union has to take before striking, which will take until at least the end of 2023.
So, how did we end up here?
APFA have been in fruitless contract negotiations with American Airlines since early 2019. For nearly five years now, union and corporation have been unable to reach common ground.
American’s “flight attendants haven’t had a pay raise or cost of living raise since January 2019,” said veteran flight attendant and spokesperson for APFA, Paul Hartshorn Jr.
Compared to other major U.S. carriers, American Airline’s hourly wage for flight attendants starting out is slightly above average ($30.35), according to data last updated in August 2023 from Flight Attendant.Pro. This figure sits some way behind Delta Air Lines ($32.20), which leads the pack. After 12 years of service, this scales up to $68.25 and $72.38 respectively (this calculation is based on minimum hours).
On average, it turns out that flight attendants at Delta are currently paid $5,400 more per annum more than their peers at both American and United Airlines. Furthermore, Delta’s flight attendants have had their wages raised twice over the past year-and-a-half, first in May 2022, then a further 5% increase in April 2023.
Meanwhile, American Airlines flight attendants remain in a worsening dispute with their airline, despite union representation. Delta are the only major U.S. carrier whose flight attendants don’t pay dues to any union.
American Airlines flight attendants, meanwhile, continue to insist on better pay and better treatment. Tensions approached breaking point following the tragic death of American Airlines flight attendant Diana Ross under mysterious circumstances. AFPA criticised the carrier for failing to relocate flight attendants staying in the same hotel as Ramos or allow them compassionate leave. The union later handed Brady Byrnes, vice president for inflight and premium guest services, a vote of no confidence over his handling of the incident.
As the threat of strike action looms ever larger, thousands of Americans who are hoping to visit their families across the country this Thanksgiving and Christmas are waiting in nervous anticipation to see if the NMB gives AA flight attendants the green light. Many will no doubt begin to wonder why both airline and union have allowed this to rumble on so long.