June 16, 2024


Modern air travel is often terrible. Cramped seats, tiny luggage compartments — the list goes on. Yet, most of us in those cramped seats actually have it far better than the folks strolling the aisles, who — at least on American Airlines flights — earn barely over $27,000 per year while forced to live in major metro areas, often sleeping in their cars to make up the cost difference.

Fortune spoke with representatives from the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the union currently negotiating salaries with American — and preparing for a strike if those salaries don’t climb enough. The feeling on the union’s side of the fight seems to be one of having little left to lose:

APFA and American Airlines have been in negotiations over a new contract on and off since the previous one expired in 2019, APFA president Julie Hedrick told Fortune.

With American’s proposed 17% increase, the starting wage jumps to $31,959 per year, or $35.5 per flight hour. That rate pushes junior flight attendants who live alone above the level for qualifying for food stamps in states like Massachusetts or Florida.

Most new flight attendant hires are required to live in cities like Dallas, Miami, and New York, which have high costs of living that they cannot afford, Hedrick noted.

American flight attendants are sleeping in their cars, she said. Some of them fight for trips just for the chance to eat the plane meals, if the pilots don’t take their meals first.

“Our new hire flight attendants are struggling,” Hedrick said, adding that new hires most strongly rejected the 17% hike.

American has previously issued new flight attendants a “courtesy” letter, like a sort of doctor’s note for late-stage capitalism. In it, the company says that flight attendants only earn $27,315, and asks the reader to provide courtesy where they can. Having dealt with landlords, I’m sure they’ll all accept this piece of paper in lieu of rent.

The best hope for American Airlines flight attendants lies in a strike, but that may not be an option. The Biden administration has previously signaled a willingness to stick workers with untenable contracts to preserve the flow of commerce, and it’s conceivable it would do the same thing here — Fortune even states it as a genuine risk to the union’s plans:

That’s because railway and airline workers are not allowed to strike unless given the green light by federal mediator groups, via the 1926 Railway Labor Act. One such group, the National Mediation Board, will oversee the American Airlines negotiations, and can allow a strike to occur if it finds that the groups are at an impasse. Still, the federal government can also block a strike—as happened in December 2022, when President Joe Biden signed a measure passed by Congress to impose a contract between rail companies and workers that many workers had rejected.

The workers at American Airlines need this power, but it can only be granted through governmental action — a government that’s all too willing to side with the corporations in disputes. Perhaps that’s why salaries are so low to begin with.

A version of this article originally appeared on Jalopnik.



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