United Flight Attendants to Protest Latest Staffing Cuts

Nov 21, 2018

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Pick your battles — it’s an idiom many of us live by, almost every day. When it comes to unionized employees, that means saving big public gestures for the issues that matter most.

Well, this week, United’s flight attendant union has narrowed in on a notable target: an upcoming reduction in staffing levels, particularly in long-haul business-class cabins.

Earlier this month, the airline detailed plans to reduce staffing on some aircraft, including in the Polaris cabins on its 777-200s787-8 and -9 Dreamliners and 767-400ERs, and in economy on international 757-200 flights. The reason? Something along the lines of “we’re just matching what American and Delta do.” Flight attendants — and their union — are not pleased.

As a result, the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents United’s inflight crew, is calling for its members to join a “system-wide day of action” on December 13, 2018. The union isn’t asking flight attendants to strike just yet — instead, they’ll likely picket in local groups at hub airports, such as Newark (EWR) and San Francisco (SFO), and in front of United’s headquarters in Chicago.

The group outlines its demands, which, among others, include:

  • Increase, rather than cut, staffing
  • Secure flight attendant hotel rooms in anticipation of irregular operations
  • Stop “multi-day all-night flying” (i.e. back-to-back redeyes, including “long sits” instead of overnight hotel stays)

As the union explains, “We are taking this fight public because our fight affects the traveling public too and management should not only be answering to Wall Street. The people on planes are the ones who matter!” You can read the full letter here.

I reached out to United about the planned December 13 “day of action,” which the airline clarifies shouldn’t affect travel plans. The airline responded:

“We will continue to work closely with the AFA on issues that are important to our flight attendants. We don’t expect any impact on our customers.”

While the staffing cuts are frustrating on their own, perhaps more upsetting to crew members is a form email response that leaked on social media, making it clear that the airline is prepared to dismiss feedback flight attendants send directly to the SVP of inflight services, John Slater.

United's upcoming changes will impact staffing in some Polaris cabins. Photo by Zach Honig.
United’s upcoming changes will impact staffing in some Polaris cabins. Photo by Zach Honig.

In the stock message, which begins with the text “[Name],” Slater provides an unapologetically generic response:

“Thanks for your message. I appreciate your position and understand that any reduction in staffing can be an unpopular change. We came to this decision after a very thoughtful process, finding it to be a necessary move for us to effectively compete with our peers.”

The email continues by explaining that the airline will “continue to provide the high-quality experience [its] customers have come to expect on these aircraft, even without the mid-galley position.” Slater explains that the cuts, or “competitive staffing,” as he describes it, are “an important part of [United’s] growth strategy,” ending with a dismissive “thank you for supporting this transition.”

Equally frustrating to crew members is that these cuts are being implemented during a period in which United appears to be thriving. A flight attendant I spoke didn’t hesitate to speak out against the upcoming cuts:

“United is so quick to want to match what other airlines are doing, but you didn’t see them matching the $1,000 bonuses that were given out when the tax cuts were announced. At the end of the day, United can say their main concern is for customers and employees to be happy, but in reality the shareholders and Wall Street are their No. 1 concern.”

Other airlines, including American and Southwest, have celebrated recent success with $1,000 employee bonuses, which were notably absent at United. There are also concerns about the carrier under-funding its employee pension, while at the same time participating in stock buybacks and other initiatives with minimal positive impact for employees.

While some negative changes ultimately end up sticking, the airline does seem to be receptive to some feedback — from customers, at least. Employees are hoping this latest union action will have a similar impact.

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