American will reduce staffing on flights to cut costs
If you take a long-haul flight with American Airlines after Oct. 1, there will be fewer flight attendants on-hand to respond to your call button.
In a memo to the airline's employees distributed on Wednesday, Jill Surdek, American's senior vice president of flight service said that the airline is expecting to have significantly more staff on the payroll than it needs to support its planned schedule this fall.
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"We expect to have an overage of between 7,000 and 8,000 flight attendants this fall," she wrote. Overall the airline expects to be "overstaffed" by about 20,000 people by later this year.
Surdek added that the airline won't necessarily furlough thousands of flight attendants, but she said American is looking for other ways to reduce its staffing.
Related: American tries to avoid the ‘old airline playbook’ on furloughs even as it shrinks.
One effort such involves cutting the number of flight attendants on widebody aircraft and A321T-operated services.
Doing so, she said, will make the airline more cost-effective as demand for international flights remains low. The exact plans are outlined below.
According to American, the changes to flight staffing are allowed by the current cabin crew contracts.
The Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), which represents American's cabin crews, said it opposes the new policy nevertheless.
“We’re not obviously in support of the reduction," Paul Hartshorn, Jr., an APFA spokesman, said in an interview with TPG.
“The staffing that we have today is what we’re trying to preserve and it’s not even as good as it was 15 years ago," he added. “From a safety perspective alone, we’re not interested in eroding staffing.”
Hartshorn said APFA and a number of other unions are pushing for the payroll protection provisions of the CARES Act to be extended so jobs can be protected and flight attendants can remain on airlines' payrolls (and off unemployment) so they're ready to serve again when ticket sales rebound.
Related: Health officials criticize American Airlines for not blocking middle seats.
While the flight crew reduction may sound like a bad thing for passenger service as well, it may ultimately not be as noticeable as it may seem on paper, at least not in the immediate future if travel demand stays suppressed.
“Most long-haul flights are not fully booked," said Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research, a travel industry analysis firm. "Between the cutbacks in what American is doing on the planes in meal and beverage service and the lighter than average passenger loads, I don’t think the passenger experience will suffer that dramatically.”
Harteveldt added that passengers in the pointy end of the plane are the most likely to notice changes, but he said no one should expect inflight service today or in the near future to mirror what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic.
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“This is definitely not the time to fly if you’re expecting a lavish, highly-attentive onboard experience in long-haul first class or business class because it’s just not something that can be safely provided," he said.
While the changes may be disappointing to passengers, Harteveldt added that they make good business sense in the current environment.
Read more: American removes capacity caps, increases health safety measures.
“It doesn’t make any sense for any airline to put 10 flight attendants on a long-haul widebody flight" at a time when many of them are only flying around 50% full. “Logically, I understand this,” he added. “American, as a business, wants to reduce losses and if possible break even or make a profit in a very challenging business environment.”
Related: Airline complaints soared 1,500% in April as flyers vented about refunds.
American is hardly the only airline preparing for staffing changes either. In June, Delta warned that it may furlough up to 2,500 pilots. Across the industry, airlines are getting leaner as demand for travel remains suppressed and the road to recovery looks uncertain.
Editor's note: This story was originally published on July 2, 2020. It has been updated to include comments from the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.