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Why the Death of a Flight Attendant is Pushing American Airlines Staff to Strike

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

American Airlines (AA) flight attendants are growing increasingly discontent. Amidst fruitless contract talks, staff at the world’s largest airlines are outraged at the airline’s unsympathetic reaction to the mysterious death of one of its employees.

American's flight attendants ready to strike

On September 25, Philadelphia police said that the body of flight attendant Diana Ramos, 66, from Los Angeles was found “unresponsive with a cloth in her mouth” by the cleaning crew of Philadelphia Airport’s Marriot Hotel. The police determined that there were no signs of forced entry and that Ramos used various medications. However, on Saturday a police spokesperson said that the investigation is ongoing.

This week, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), which represents American’s 26,000 flight attendants, served the carrier’s Senior Vice President for inflight and premium guest services, Brady Byrnes, a vote of no confidence over his handling of the incident.

APFA accused Byrnes of acting indifferently and refusing to relocate concerned crew members who have felt unsafe following the tragic death of their co-worker. Last Wednesday a delegation of APFA officials, led by President Julie Hedrick presented Byrnes with a letter at his Fort Worth office.

American’s contracted security for the office in Forth Worth issued instruction to officers to “be on the lookout for flight attendants in red APFA shirts and/or red lanyards.” A few hours later the notice was already rescinded in the wake of multiple angry posts and reactions on social media.

American's aircraft at Charlotte base

At the same time, AA’s flight attendants have been failing to renegotiate a contract which became amendable in December 2019. “Patience with negotiations has definitely run out,” remarked Hedrick in an interview on Friday, whilst “critical negotiations” are set to take place next week in Dallas.

In the same interview, Hedrick, who is a 41-year flight attendant, explained that AA’s management team is only concerned with discipline and reliability at the cost of anything else. “Flight attendants are human and have real life situations and none of that matters. I have tried my hardest to talk to this company, to get them to understand the lack of support, and they haven’t listened,” she explained.

Hedrick also observed that AA and Byrnes had done little-to-nothing to address the concerns of other flight attendants following the death of Diana Ross.

“A big part of this is that there are procedures when a flight attendant does not report, and the company failed to follow the procedures,” explained Hedrick. Instead, she said, the airline should have asked the hotel to check on Ramos, yet no one did until the cleaners arrived.

Immediately after Ramos’ death, APFA requested for American flight attendants to be moved out of the hotel until they felt safe; they were told no. Following this, Hedrick said their next request was for a flight service manager to meet attendants who were laying over at the Marriot and talk with them, help them, and make sure they got to their rooms safely. “We were told no,” said Hedrick again.

On Wednesday September 26, the board of APFA wrote to AA CEO Robert Isom, expressing their “profound dissatisfaction” with Byrnes. The gulf between the flight attendant union and AA seems only to have widened as the situation has worsened. The letter pointed out that Byrnes had not only acted dismissively over the death of Ramos, but also assigned disciplinary coding for flight attendants when they arrive late for flights or for late notification of sick leave. This has “erased the personal relationship between flight attendants and their managers,” claimed the letter, which Hedrick personally gave to Byrnes.

A spokesman for AA refused to comment on the letter.

Following the tragic death of Ramos, AA said in a statement, “Our thoughts are with the family and colleagues, and we’re doing everything we can to ensure all affected have the support they need during this difficult time.”

Hedrick also said that flight attendants were told las week by the airline that they could not wear APFA shirts – even when training or deadheading.

Contract language formulated by AA forbids t-shirts with slogans, even though the APFA logo is not a slogan. The union therefore filed a grievance.

Paul Hartshorn, APFA spokesman, said, “With the approach American Airlines is taking, more grievances are being filed, with no signs of letting up.”

Scott Hazlewood, the president of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, observed that the number of contract disputes there has doubled in the past year, which he called“unprecedented.” American airlines operate the majority of Charlotte base’s flights.

The row over Ramos’ death is only the latest in a series of disagreements between American Airlines staff and flight attendants, despite APFA’s best efforts to intervene. Hazlewood said that 170 grievances have been filed in Charlotte already this year. Total grievances came to 170 in 2022, which itself tripled the 2021 amount.

A strike authorization vote concerning contract negotiations received a 99% backing at the end of August. The union’s main request was a salary in line with colleagues at United Airlines and Delta, the latter of which does not have union representation for flight attendants.

APFA striking after vote of authorization

Hedrick mentioned that negotiators have only made provisional approvals on less than half of the contract. American is expected to respond in the coming week to APFA’s more recent proposal, which seeks to rectify the remaining majority (21 sections), including demands for a 50% wage increase over four years.

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