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One of the most powerful women in aviation joins Brian Kelly in conversation on this episode of Talking Points.
As the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants, Sara Nelson is the leader of the biggest flight attendant union. She has been a longtime advocate for flight attendants and equal rights in the workplace, since joining United Airlines in 1996. An outspoken voice in union negotiations and collective bargaining, her tenacity has turned her into a champion of the labor movement; she was called “the most powerful flight attendant in America” by the New York Times. Noting that the aviation industry still has large strides to make when it comes to gender equality, Nelson believes that flight attendants of all genders and sexual orientations continuing to exercise their rights will only contribute to the positive evolution and recognition of the profession.
Nelson shares stories from the start of her career as a flight attendant, to how she became heavily involved in her local chapter of AFA, and subsequently being elected AFA-CWA president in 2014.
Aviation safety is dependent on flight attendant rights, Nelson says, adding that not having an appointed FAA administrator matters for US travelers; it relates directly to the issues surrounding the 737 MAX. She also elaborates on how the AFA-CWA shaped the discourse around and aided in the release of Selene Roman, the DACA recipient and Mesa flight attendant, who was detained by ICE in March 2019.
Nelson also explains the security shifts she witnessed and helped push through as a flight attendant post 9/11, and the current negotiations surrounding fashion in the skies. Striking a balance between her work as both a flight attendant for United and as AFA-CWA International President does not come easy, but Nelson continues to fight for equality because she is committed to her fellow union members and loves welcoming and being a host to her passengers.
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Featured image by Natalie Roe / TPG
Brian Kelly: Did you know that TPG has official merch? That’s right. You know when you see me on Instagram and my “Jetlagged AF” sweatshirt? We actually made those. It’s super, super high quality. You can get a bunch of TPG approved stuff even for your dog or baby — shop thepointsguy.com and check it out. And last but never least: We’re going to Israel! Head over to youtube.com/briankelly to keep an eye on my vlog. We are currently knee-deep in my epic trip to Israel. Everything from a United Polaris 787-10 review, to coming in hot on a hot air balloon — we nearly flipped over, it was kind of scary but also really fun, and of course we got it all on camera. New episodes every Tuesday and Thursday.
Brian Kelly: Welcome to this week’s episode of Talking Points. I have a very special guest today. She has been dubbed The Most Powerful Flight Attendant in the World — also one of the most powerful union leaders in the world, Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants. Thank you so much for joining us.
Sara Nelson: Happy to be here.
Brian Kelly: So what is it like to be The Most Powerful Flight Attendant in the World?
Sara Nelson: Well, you know when that statement came out, I was actually a little taken aback by it, but as I really thought about it, I thought about how great that was because until recently, I don’t know that anyone would have put the word powerful with flight attendant. And so, I think it’s really, it’s really a sign of the times, first that women are gaining equality and gaining a real voice in the conversation in this country, and then that there’s a recognition that all these people who we thought didn’t have power actually have it. And flight attendants have been exercising that power and we’ve been on the move. We’ve made a lot of changes and we’ve been a part of the whole #metoo discussion, too, which is, I think, a part of raising our profile. I just think that it’s not so much about me, but it’s about the profession, and so that feels really good.
Brian Kelly: And thinking about #metoo and flight attendants, for years, have been at the front lines of harassment, sexual harassment. When did you become a flight attendant and was that clear to you day one on the job?
Sara Nelson: Oh for sure. So I became a flight attendant in 1996, and I’ll just give you a couple of anecdotes. So my first week on the job, there was a disagreement in the office between the purser of the flight where I was working and the supervisor, and so there was a contractual disagreement, and my flying partner won that. And then she pulled me aside because it was maybe a little tense for a little while, and she pulled me aside and she said, “Look, management thinks of us as their wives or their mistresses and in either case they hold us in contempt. Your only place of worth is with your fellow flying partners. And if you wear your union pin and we stick together, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.” And I have to say, that was a lot to take in as a 23-year-old fresh-faced recruit out of company training.
Sara Nelson: But I really learned, through the course of doing the job, what just exactly what that meant and really how much truth there kind of was there. And then I’ll give you another anecdote. In that first year of flying, at one point I was setting up the galley and all of a sudden I felt someone rubbing my hip and rear end, and whipped around and this guy was standing there and he said, “Oh, I was just checking to see if you had a girdle on, because I didn’t know how you’d look that good without a girdle.”
Brian Kelly: God, that’s insane.
Sara Nelson: And, and this is like, you know, this was normal stuff.
Brian Kelly: This is mid ’90s, this isn’t the 70s.
Sara Nelson: This is mid ’90s, yes. But this was also … this was the environment that was defined by all the marketing through the Jet Age, where they had ads. Like, “I’m Cheryl, fly me,” and had people wearing hot pants and go go boots. And it was all about selling sex, and the flight attendants were the symbol of that.
Brian Kelly: So when you think of Pan-Am in those days, you kind of shudder? Like, do you still have that aviation nostalgia like so many people do who don’t realize it was based on sexism or… ?
Sara Nelson: You know, no. Actually, flight attendants have a lot of pride in our contribution to aviation over the years, and I think when we look at that, we look at that as those were women on the job who were fighting behind the scenes. Maybe the public didn’t see it but they were fighting for flame-retardant uniforms and they were fighting for evacuation signals in the planes and they were coming together and making sure that when there was a death we were learning from it and had better safety regulations. And so, with a workforce that was 80% unionized, we were the driving force for safety in the cabin. And so, when I see that and I think all that they had to push through and all the discrimination that they had to push through to make those changes, I feel a lot of pride and I think other flight attendants do too.
Brian Kelly: One of the things I didn’t realize is how much flight attendants have pushed on equal opportunity. Can you just explain to people who don’t really realize that behind-the-scenes role that that flight attendants have played in kind of moving the needle forward in terms of rights in the workplace?
Sara Nelson: Sure. Well, we first organized in 1945 and by 1946, we had our first contract at United Airlines and we had a seniority list. So right off the bat we were saying that we’re not going to be in a position where we can trade sex for schedules and pit workers against each other because of their age. We had to fight back against the no marriage rule and the fact that you had to leave the profession if you were age 30 or 32, depending upon the airline. During a period of time, we weren’t even supposed to talk to the pilots, and we had to step on a weight scale until 1993.
Brian Kelly: Wow, ’93.
Sara Nelson: It was 1971 when we won the court suit that allowed men to have this job too. So we fought for men to have the same rights as women on the job as well. And all of that we pushed forward, and that led to a place actually where we were at the forefront of fighting for LGBTQ rights and we won contractual protections around domestic partner benefits. And then we participated in the hearings in San Francisco that led to the ordinance around domestic partner benefits that was on the road to marriage equality. So, we take a lot of pride in what we have done over the years to fight for equality. And that’s something that we take very seriously as flight attendants, both in terms of how we’ve built our career, but also the people that we have on our planes, recognizing that we have a little microcosm of society on every flight.
Brian Kelly: So how did 9/11 shift what it was like to be a flight attendant, especially on an airline that was impacted?
Sara Nelson: Yeah. I mean it changed everything. I was based in Boston and I had flown Flight 175 the week earlier. I remember over that summer and probably for the last six months, I remember people watching us as we were doing the service and going in and out of the cockpit. And you know, I lost nine really good friends.
Brian Kelly: I’m so sorry.
Sara Nelson: So it changed everything for me personally, but it changed everything for flight attendants across the country, and we actually got designated as being able to get benefits if we had PTSD. Normally you have to have a direct experience, but there was a recognition that because we know that workspace so well, it’s so unique — and we knew exactly where those flight attendants were — that we could be having our own flashbacks. This is something that every flight attendant across the country identified with and think about what happened the very next day. I mean, the very next day we were not only aviation’s first responders, responding to safety and health in the cabin, but we were now all of a sudden aviation’s last line of defense. And I went — after being in our crisis center and picking up the pieces and planning a big memorial for my friends and also dealing with the furloughs that ensued, 20% of our workforce furloughed overnight…
Brian Kelly: Wow.
Sara Nelson: But when I…
Brian Kelly: Did you think about quitting at that point?
Sara Nelson: Oh gosh, no, it never occurred to me actually, because there was so much to be done to take care of other people. And I remember I was in the back of a 757, and my flying partner who was sitting next to me on the jump seat said, “When we’ve been taking off, instead of being in the brace position, we’ve been putting our hands over our throats. And that way if anyone reaches around the corner with a knife to slit our throats, they’ll get our hands instead of our throat.”
Brian Kelly: Oh my God.
Sara Nelson: So that’s how we took off in those initial days before we had all the security provisions in place, we had the new TSA, new security, the reinforced cockpit doors, all of the things that happened.
Brian Kelly: Was there a moment where you finally felt somewhat secure when flying again?
Sara Nelson: You know, I think that we felt that there was an immediate change with the TSA workforce, which was out on the job very, very quickly and there was so much more scrutiny over security at that time. The other thing that happened, frankly, right after 9/11 was that every single passenger came on board, was watching us for instructions, let us know that they were with us, thanked us, and our flights were pretty empty. So there was a real heightened sense of awareness. But we take that with us every single day. So this is something that we think about that the public doesn’t have to, but as we’re boarding planes, we know very clearly that the best way to avoid a problem in the air is to keep it on the ground. And so we’re watching during that time.
Sara Nelson: And one of the things that happened right after 9/11, obviously, was not only did security change, but our way of life changed because we went into all those bankruptcies, we faced 30 to 40% cuts in pay, we had continual furloughs. Remember we also had the SARS epidemic right after that, we had the Iraq war. So all of those things led to decreased bookings and fewer jobs. And one of the things that the airlines did to cut costs was they cut staffing back to FAA minimums across the board domestically and cut way back internationally as well. And that is something that has not rebounded. We’ve negotiated and regained some of the money, some of the flexibility, some of the retirement security.
Brian Kelly: Can you still retire at 50 now or? What’s the new normal?
Sara Nelson: No, the new normal is 65.
Brian Kelly: Yeah.
Sara Nelson: And there’s a whole host of people who got caught up in this bankruptcy who had pensions terminated where it was too late to make up for it. And so they’re working, you know, into their 70s and later. And that’s the new reality. That’s what was created there.
Brian Kelly: So it was 2013, you got elected to this position. How did that come about? Was it a part of your plan before that or …
Sara Nelson: Well, so, as a United Airlines flight attendant, I was elected to a national position to do all of our communications after 9/11. I had been a local officer in Boston but then I took this national position.
Sara Nelson: And so I was there day in and day out for 38 months during the United Airlines bankruptcy, doing all of our internal and external communications. That meant being in the union office from 7 in the morning til 1 at night, pretty much seven days a week.
Sara Nelson: So I got an extraordinary education. Luckily, I was young and I could do it.
Brian Kelly: What is the education to become a master negotiator? You know, I guess you could say flight attendants have to have negotiation skills to do their job.
Sara Nelson: Well, so one of the things that was such a benefit for me during that time, even though it was so challenging at the time. I was only focused on trying to save as much as we could throughout that bankruptcy, was that I got to work with professionals, directly with professionals. I got to work directly with media relations professionals, with our general counsel and other attorneys, outside counsel and economists. All the experts who helped us try to save as much as we could during that bankruptcy. Because everything was moving so quickly, I was really working right alongside these professionals who had 20, 30, 40 years experience in the business. I mean, it was like a crash course in aviation and also union negotiations.
Brian Kelly: When do you know that you’ve got the best that you can get? Are there signals that you see or maybe you don’t want to share them.
Sara Nelson: Well, I mean, okay. There’s a couple things. There’s a practical process of doing the costing and recognizing what the airline can afford or willing to afford, frankly with the pressures of Wall Street too, right?
Brian Kelly: Yeah.
Sara Nelson: You can really push that.
Brian Kelly: Do you roughly know where you’re going to land, when everything is all said and done, knowing those factors?
Sara Nelson: Well, we certainly know what is unacceptable.
Brian Kelly: Yeah.
Sara Nelson: In many cases, negotiations don’t move until management actually wants to reach an agreement. You sort of negotiate around the edges and on the non-cost items, try to get some momentum going but sometimes it takes getting out on the picket line and taking a strike vote and having them have to do a risk assessment of what’s going to cost them more, doing the deal or not doing the deal?
Brian Kelly: When was the last big strike in the US?
Sara Nelson: The last big strike that was allowed was the Spirit Airline strike, pilots, in 2010.
Brian Kelly: Wow.
Sara Nelson: But there have been plenty of strike votes taken and strikes threatened. The process for negotiations goes through the National Mediation Board which is the government agency that oversees those negotiations.
Brian Kelly: And that’s a part of the Labor Department or …
Sara Nelson: They operate under DOL, under the Department of Labor, but they’re their own agency that oversees negotiations and contract enforcement in railroad and the airlines. And, It’s a separate federal law that governs our labor rights in the airlines.
Sara Nelson: The thing that is the most different than other industries in the United States is that our contracts don’t expire, they become amendable and the reason for that or the reason behind that under the law is that there was supposed to be a protection of interstate commerce and that business would continue and all efforts would be exhausted before you would get to that strike deadline, so you wouldn’t just have an abrupt cancellation of those contracts and stopping of flights.
Sara Nelson: So, they want to continue, they want to try to continue, that’s not necessarily to the advantage of the employees, but that’s why also a lot of times you’ll see informational picketing in US aviation because it’s the best way to bring those fights public and try to put some pressure on management to get serious at the table.
Brian Kelly: Without having to go all out, yeah.
Sara Nelson: I’ll tell you. Different management have different ideas about this and some of them want to get the deal done because they don’t want to have any bad focus on the airline and we’ve taken advantage of it when we’ve seen that that’s the case.
Sara Nelson: In other cases, it’s taken an incredible beating to get them to act fairly.
Brian Kelly: Right now, comes to mind with the American Airlines and the mechanics and management going head to head. Do you always stand in solidarity with the other unions in the industry or do you sometimes back off and say, “This is your fight and we’ve got our own fights to do.”
Sara Nelson: Our view of it is that anyone’s fight anywhere, whether it’s in the airline industry or anywhere else is also our fight because if any worker is allowed to be treated unfairly or management is able to get something over on them, it’s very likely going to happen to us too. We’ve seen that through history.
Sara Nelson: We saw that with the PATCO strikers and the air traffic controllers. There’s a lot of reasons that maybe people didn’t come to fight with them. They didn’t have a lot of public support behind them. We really view that as a mistake and that we should’ve taken up that fight because we’ve all been taken a beating ever since then because what Reagan did was he signaled to everyone that it’s okay to trample these labor rights.
Sara Nelson: But I’ll tell you one thing I’m really proud of is that in 1985, just four years later, when the pilots at United Airlines went out on strike, the flight attendants voted to strike too and we struck in solidarity with the pilots. I would say that that was part of learning that lesson from PATCO and saying that someone else’s fight is our fight too and that’s the best way to approach it.
Brian Kelly: So you’re used to negotiating with airline execs, but this year it was the government with the government shutdown, and arguably, I mean, the flight attendants union you, like you guys, helped end the government shutdown. Can you explain a little bit what was going on behind the scenes, and how flight attendants really helped bring it to a stop?
Sara Nelson: The government shutdown … we’re always opposed to government shutdowns. Let me just go on the record saying that, because it does interfere with safety and security. Now, we have so many redundancies that the first day of a government shut down is probably not as unsafe as, say, the 18th or the 20th day. But we opposed it right from the beginning, and we were with the rest of the industry on that. If you go back and look, we encouraged the industry to come together and talk about the effects of the shutdown and try to have people focused on the fact that we were diminishing safety and security in one place with the argument that we wanted to increase security at our southern border. It was absurd. And we were putting 2 million people in the middle of the fight who had nothing to do with it.
Sara Nelson: So all these government employees or government contractors were out of work. In the private sector, we would have had 60 days notice to be out of work. No one would go to work without a paycheck. And so we were very concerned about the practice that was being set here, that we could actually treat workers in this country that way. But what was most concerning for us is that 9/11, other catastrophic accidents where we have lost our friends… I’ve been in many places, debriefings, where people are distraught over the fact that we had this horrific accident or incident. And everyone says if there’s anything that they could do, they would do it to save those lives. I mean, there are people who wondered why they were alive instead of their friend.
Sara Nelson: And so, as we saw safety and security steadily diminishing, we started to not only feel like this was wrong and we needed to oppose the shutdown, but we needed to take drastic action to alert the American public. And we also started to recognize that we actually had some power to make a difference here, because in the political spectrum it seemed that there was no end in sight.
Brian Kelly: It was loggerheads. Yeah, they were so dug in.
Sara Nelson: That’s right.
Brian Kelly: So really it was air travel and it was also the … at LaGuardia, the air traffic controllers that called out, and created…
Sara Nelson: Absolutely. So let me just put this in perspective, too, because a lot of people give our union credit with ending this. And let me just say that we provided some leadership there, sure, and we were very clear about what we were willing to do. But the federal unions had been fighting from day one for their members, and they often represent people who are out of sight from the American public and often seen as nameless, faceless bureaucrats. And what they had to do was tell their stories in those workplaces, in those agencies. In many cases they were getting memos from the White House saying that if they were asked about how they were doing during the shutdown that they were supposed to say, “Oh, I’m doing fine, everything is fine.” And because those unions were there, they were able to push back and tell the stories of ordinary people who make all these things happen in our government and interface in aviation so completely with private industry that if they can’t do their jobs, we can’t do ours.
Sara Nelson: And there were actions at airports all across the country. But the other thing that those federal unions were up against was that not only could their members lose their jobs if they struck, but they could be sent to jail, they could be indicted and sent to jail. So they had to tell these people, “No, you can’t call in sick, you can’t walk off the job. You have to go to work.” And we also recognize, too, that there was a real attempt to prioritize all of these functions. And if they had walked off the job, all that would do was accrue…
Brian Kelly: “.This is the reason why we need to do it.”
Sara Nelson: Exactly. So you know, I really want to just shout out to the air traffic controllers and the transportation security officers and all of the other federal workers who continued to go to work in the face of that. Because I think that they also saved these programs for our future.
Brian Kelly: We’ve currently been without an FAA administrator for what, a year and a half? There’s currently a nominee. How would you describe to the traveling public, like, why this has to change. And why hasn’t it been urgent on the government’s agenda, do you think?
Sara Nelson: Well, there’s all kinds of positions, leadership positions that have not been filled. But the FAA is one of them and that’s concerning, especially as you look at the challenges that the FAA has had to face this year. This is not a slap against Administrator Elwell who I think did as well as he could — the acting administrator — in these circumstances. But then you have the 737 Max issue. And one of the things that we said as a union was, yeah, we may not be in a technical position to determine whether or not the Max is safe to fly, but it does matter to us that the US continues to lead aviation around the world.
Brian Kelly: We were among the last to ground them.
Sara Nelson: We were among the last to ground them and we took a real hit.
Brian Kelly: Do you think that’s because Boeing has too much power in the government?
Sara Nelson: Well, I think we’re finding that out — that Boeing was a very arrogant company that really was allowed to call the shots all the time. And I will tell you that just in my conversations with them, I’m hearing a real different tone from them now. A much more chastened tone, but it’s something that we need to look at. We can’t allow this sort of dynamic to continue to exist.
Brian Kelly: I just remember the narrative being, “Oh, the Ethiopian pilot. Oh, you know, it’s an African airline.” Yeah, there’s coincidence and I just… I mean, it’s crazy to think that China banned them and every … what ,eight other countries, before we finally came around, it was really embarrassing.
Sara Nelson: It’s really, it’s not just embarrassing,
Brian Kelly: I banned our employees from flying them, I think, a week before the FAA did.
Sara Nelson: Yeah. It’s not just embarrassing. It’s actually very concerning.
Brian Kelly: It’s sad.
Sara Nelson: Because one of the reasons that US airlines are able to fly to almost every country around this planet and have such a rich network — and that matters for our jobs too, and the connection for the rest of Americans, to the rest of the world — is because of the status of the FAA. That is a big part of it — as a leading regulator in the world for safety. And so, if that is questioned, that also can have an impact on our ability to have that kind of reach. And so we have a very direct concern with not having a confirmed FAA administrator who has the full authority to do what he needs to do.
Brian Kelly: So say the FAA tomorrow re-certifies the 737 Max. Oscar Munoz says he’ll be the first one on the flight, and Elaine Chao had been flying it up until the first last days. Will you fly, as a United Flight Attendant, on the first re-certified flight?
Sara Nelson: So that’s a sort of complicated question and answer. And let me just say that sitting here today if tomorrow were that first flight I can tell you definitively no. The process that they have talked with me about taking the very deliberative process for certifying that plane if they take all of those steps, then yes, I’d be willing to get on that flight.
Brian Kelly: Do you think the 737 Max will be flying in 2019?
Sara Nelson: Um, I think that, I wouldn’t place a bet on it!
Sara Nelson: I think there’s a lot to be done.
Brian Kelly: Yeah, there’s a lot to be done, especially now with the autopilot stuff coming around.
Brian Kelly: Let’s switch to a happy — well a sad but happy ending story. So we at The Points Guy, remember I was in this office in March, and we had received an email from a man whose wife was a Mesa flight attendant, a DACA recipient, and had been told by Mesa to fly the Mexico City route, and upon return to Houston was jailed. And I remember sitting in my office being like, “This sounds like crazy,” but something about it, we receive a lot of emails, but my news team, we immediately ran with it, vetted it, talked with the lawyer and then we posted about it and it went super viral. You know, within I think four hours you had tweeted about it, by that afternoon, Hillary Clinton, Pelosi. And for those who don’t know, Selene was released from that border facility — which she had been in for weeks with zero pathway out — due to the pressure that we all collaboratively caused. So when you first heard about it, what happened behind the scenes?
Sara Nelson: So first of all, I want to thank you so much for breaking this story, because they didn’t know where to turn. Your organization is actually how I found out about it. And so the second that I found out about it — it was actually late at night and we launched a petition right away and started using all of the resources of our union to reach out everywhere to try to get pressure to get her released. And the tweet that you saw from Hillary Clinton was also that we were behind the scenes working on that. So a lot of the publicity that took place after that, we were fanning the flames on what you helped to provide the platform for. And then we were also using our connections in government to raise this issue. I started working directly with the CEO of Mesa, who also, astoundingly, did not know until the almost the exact same time that I found out, so we were working hand-in-hand and we were directly calling to our contacts in government and then using our staff as well, both Democrats and Republicans, to apply as much pressure as we could.
Brian Kelly: These ICE facilities are sort of lawless in a sense, like unclear guidelines.
Sara Nelson: Well, think about this. She went to work with her flight attendant uniform on, pulling her roller board with an overnight bag, and when she flew her quick turn to Monterrey, Mexico and back, she was held by CBP at Houston and then after a few hours turned over to ICE. And her family was very concerned, because of her status, about making a big deal out of this, and was working with an immigration lawyer who also thought through regular procedures they’d be able to get her out, and they didn’t want to make this a big public issue. But when they found out that her DACA status was going to be rescinded or that the government was going to try to rescind it, that’s when they decided that they just needed to go public.
Sara Nelson: She was stuck in this place after going on her flight attendant trip. She came to this country when she was three years old, she’s a graduate from Texas A&M….
Brian Kelly: Pays her taxes.
Sara Nelson: If you saw a picture of her, you couldn’t … I mean, she is your quintessential flight attendant, right? And here she was put in a jumpsuit. She was threatened and could only see her husband through a couple inches of glass once a week, and…
Brian Kelly: When I read that in that email that it was Valentine’s Day and he couldn’t even touch his wife. And it was just heartbreaking.
Sara Nelson: It’s heartbreaking, but it’s also a real lesson to us. Our members were absolutely astounded that there was a flight attendant who was flying and was a DACA recipient, that really opened a lot of people’s eyes to what this immigration issue is all about and who’s being affected. She absolutely had the right to fly out of the country until the executive order to end DACA. And when the court reinstated it, they did not reinstate that one little provision about being able to fly out of the country. So here she was, a brand new flight attendant on probation, told her supervisor that she wasn’t sure she could do it, and the supervisor reassured her “No, you can,” and sure enough then she got caught up in the system.
Brian Kelly: Okay. Let’s take a quick pause right now and hear from our sponsors.
Brian Kelly: Your union represents what percentage of flight attendants in the US?
Sara Nelson: About half.
Brian Kelly: About half.
Sara Nelson: We represent 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines.
Brian Kelly: And so, notoriously, Delta is not a union airline, although there are votes ongoing with that?
Sara Nelson: Well, Delta’s pilots are union, and their dispatchers, and the rest of Delta’s property is non-union. And that is very rare. That does not happen to any other major airlines.
Brian Kelly: And Delta is a great airline, by a lot of statistics — on-time arrivals. And some people will say, “Oh, Delta’s flight attendants are nicer because they’re non-union.” I’ve actually heard that being said before. How would you respond to that?
Sara Nelson: Well, I think that’s absurd, first of all. I think we should remember that the entire industry has been through consolidation. So there is a percentage of the Delta flight attendants who were former Northwest flight attendants who had a contract for 60 years. And then, there’s a very large percentage of Delta flight attendants who have wanted to gain a union for many, many years. What we have found, through all of those organizing campaigns, is that the reason that you think that it’s a shiny happy place is because the only voice that’s coming out of Delta is management’s voice. And so flight attendants don’t have the ability to raise up those issues and speak out. So Delta really gets to create the message and that’s not really what’s happening inside. I mean, there’s a lot of complaints. There’s complaints about toxic uniforms right now that’s not being addressed, and…
Brian Kelly: Can we talk about that? I’ve heard so many … we’ve written about these fancy new designer outfits, on almost, a lot of the carriers. So what is it? Are they just making these really cheap uniforms?
Sara Nelson: Well, we have a whole … If anybody wants to go check it out, our YouTube channel…
Brian Kelly: Plug away.
Sara Nelson: AOACWA, we have a uniform video that’s about six minutes long that can give you all the information on this. But basically, what’s happened is that the manufacturing in the United States — essentially since the time that NAFTA was originally passed and we allowed China to enter the WTO — the garment industry moved outside of the US, and so that we could no longer have the single sourcing. And you have garments that are made from places all over the world, and if you don’t have a controlled process where you can test each one of those pieces of the uniform, you have the ability to have chemicals that are added that can be toxic to people. And this is happening even in our stores. So if you go into Nordstrom’s or you go to J. Crew or whatever, you could be someone who is sensitized to some of these products. But as an individual consumer, you get to return that product because it didn’t work for you.
Sara Nelson: Now a uniform, where you have 25,000 people who are suddenly jammed into this thing, you find out pretty quickly that 15 to 20% of the population is sensitive to these chemicals and has a reaction. And now they’re forced to wear it in their workspace.
Brian Kelly: Are the airline’s pretty quick to resolve it or… ?
Sara Nelson: Uhhh, well, so we have actually defined it as an occupational hazard. Alaska Airlines is the first place where this happened, and initially the airline was resistant to resolving it. But through our testing and science that we were able to present to them, we were able to show this is a real problem. And I have to say that now Alaska did a really good job of putting the flight attendants in a temporary uniform that was nontoxic and then moving to a new vendor that is world-renowned for its process and creating these uniforms.
Sara Nelson: American allowed for alternative pieces for flight attendants, but didn’t put flight attendants in a transitional uniform. And so, there’s sort of ongoing issues there. And Delta is in a place where they’re not even really recognizing that this problem exists yet, although there is some success by some flight attendants being able to get into alternative pieces. But without a union there’s no consistency there, see?
Brian Kelly: Interesting. All right, so you actually are still a flight attendant. Do you still do regular United flights?
Sara Nelson: So, my status as international president of the Association of Flight Attendants is that I’m actually paid by the union. I am still on the United seniority list on a union leave under my contract, and I keep up on my qualifications every year and then occasionally will go out and work a flight as a flight attendant. And when…
Brian Kelly: Do you miss it?
Sara Nelson: I love flying. I do this job. You know, I feel like I got caught up in this thing because I just happened … I feel like I’m Forrest Gump, kind of, like I happen to be…
Brian Kelly: But you keep your seniority, right? What is your base nowadays?
Sara Nelson: I keep my seniority, but I happen to be in a place where all of a sudden I got involved because of 9/11 and everything that happened after that. But I am a fairly junior flight attendant at United Airlines. I’m 23 years. I miss it a lot. And I do this job because I love it so much. I love the fact that I can go to work, that I depend on the people who are working with me. And I used to say that, you know, I took a lot of pride in saving a lot of marriages, because people would come from a bad business meeting or just had a difficult time getting to the plane that day or whatever. And we could say, “Sit back, relax and you’re going to feel a lot better.” And so I loved doing all of that and having the opportunity to really host people.
Sara Nelson: But I would say that, you know, some of that fun has been taken out of the job because what I’m describing is also a time when we had 25 to 50% more staffing and the ability to do that…
Brian Kelly: It’s cut to the bone now, right?
Sara Nelson: It’s just cut back to the bone.
Brian Kelly: Why are they cutting back to the bone with record profits, it’s just Wall Street?
Sara Nelson: Well, it’s outrageous. And so, what has happened is, most recently, United Airlines announced a cut on its international staffing, because domestic has been cut to the bone on every carrier for over 10 years now, and has not returned. Right? It’s an area where they had total control. It wasn’t something that we bargained over because the airlines would traditionally staff over the minimums and so it never became an issue that we needed to take to the bargaining table. Now, United Airlines was the last to cut back, most recently, on this latest staffing cut internationally, matching Delta and American. And the reason is because as the executives were going to Wall Street and saying, “Hey, we’re going to work on United’s route structure and we’re going to really be investing in the airline and do a better job of returning the airline to the status that it should be in.”
Sara Nelson: Obviously they’re doing very well at that now, right? But in doing so, there was so much pushback from Wall Street because it would mean not as much revenue was free for stock buybacks. And so, the investors put a lot of pressure on those executives to keep labor costs flat and they ultimately made that promise. And when you have contracts that have raises each year, obviously labor costs are going to rise. So where are they going to make the cuts? They made the cuts in the bodies, which means we have fewer people to do the work on the planes for safety and security, but also for passenger service.
Brian Kelly: So what do you recommend to passengers — to complain or to voice…?
Sara Nelson: Yes. I mean passengers should join us in this, because these cuts, we feel it on the job, but you feel it in your experience on the plane.
Brian Kelly: In the service.
Sara Nelson: That’s right.
Brian Kelly: The aviation world, politics — you’re working in extremely male-dominated industries. What is that like and what have you learned being a powerful woman at the bargaining table with … in a male dominated world?,
Sara Nelson: Oh well I have learned that women who are willing to get in there and mix it up can actually get a lot done because it is something different and the men don’t always know how to respond to it. And if you really are clear on what you’re trying to accomplish and you don’t take no for an answer, a lot of times you can actually get more done. But I’m not going to say it’s easy and I’m not going to say that we don’t have a long way to go to make this a lot better and make sure that we’re creating an environment where everyone has equal ability to speak up.
Brian Kelly: All right. Your favorite destination when you want to go and get away from it all, where do you totally unwind?
Sara Nelson: So — this is crazy. I love Waikiki.
Brian Kelly: Oh, no that’s a good one. I thought you were going to say, “I love my job and being an …” I was like, “Come on.”
Sara Nelson: No, no, no, no. I mean, if I really want to relax..
Brian Kelly: I mean, Hawaii’s amazing…
Sara Nelson: I tell my staff all the time, “If I get too crazy ever, you put me … bound me up and just send me to Hawaii.”
Brian Kelly: You should try Tahiti.
Sara Nelson: Oh, I should try Tahiti.
Brian Kelly: I just did the new 787 service from San Francisco, it was….
Sara Nelson: So let me give Boeing a little plug here on the 787. Yes, the 787 is a totally different experience because you don’t have bleed air coming off the engines. You don’t have potentially toxic air. You also have a higher percentage of humidity and you’re going to feel better when you get off the flight.
Brian Kelly: We are spoiled with the new planes.
Brian Kelly: Thank you so much for coming in. I could go on for hours and hours and hours, but it’s been a real pleasure. And thank you for doing everything you do, not just for flight attendants but for the traveling public.
Sara Nelson: Well, thank you — and thank you for the focus on aviation. You know, at the end of the day it’s still magical and it’s really a symbol of freedom and a symbol of great American ingenuity and I love what you’re building here at The Points Guy. I think it’s really important.
Brian Kelly: Well, when you’re back to being a flight attendant, let me know and I will be, I promise, a very good passenger on your flight.
Sara Nelson: You know what?
Brian Kelly: Keep doing what you’re doing.
Sara Nelson: Let’s go on a flight together.
Brian Kelly: Let’s do it!
Sara Nelson: I’m going to pick up a trip, let’s do it!
Brian Kelly: Let’s do it.
Brian Kelly: That’s it for this episode of Talking Points. I’m your host, Brian Kelly, and a huge thank you to Sara Nelson for making time to speak with us today. I could have gone all day. And a huge thanks to the best podcast team in the biz, Margaret Kelley and Caroline Schagrin, and also my amazing assistant, Christie Matsui. That’s it for this episode. Safe travels.
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