American’s Flight Attendants Just Gave Money Back to the Airline

The vote by more than 16,000 flight attendants at American Airlines on a new contract with the merged airline came down to just 16 votes this weekend. The narrow rejection of a five-year deal by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants means an arbitrator will decide the terms of a contract to cover American and US Airways flight attendants.

“Like many of you, I was devastated by the results,” APFA President Laura Glading wrote in a memo to flight attendants on Sunday. The merged airline has about 24,000 flight attendants in total. “It is extremely disappointing to see the improvements our membership was set to receive rejected by such a narrow margin.”

As part of a deal flight attendants reached with US Airways’ management, the contract imposed from binding arbitration will offer salary and benefits at the same level as the average of their peers’ at Delta, United, and Continental. (United, meanwhile, has failed to reach a single contract with its flight attendants four years after its merger.)

The APFA says it expects the average to be about $111 million per year—$82 million less than the flight attendants stood to gain from the tentative agreement they rejected. American had negotiated an end to profit-sharing payments in the deal, an element that many flight attendants did not like. “While we cannot reach the value of the tentative agreement in binding arbitration, no Flight Attendant will be harmed by the arbitrated contract,” Glading wrote in the memo.

A spokesman for American, Paul Flaningan, said the airline was “disappointed” by the vote. “This tentative agreement included industry-leading pay and benefits, and would have provided considerably more economic value and much better work rules than the contract that will be determined by arbitration,” he said in an e-mail.

It stands to reason that one issue for arbitration will be the length of the new contract: The union is likely to press for a shorter duration, given the money its members left behind as part of the narrow rejection. Last week, APFA negotiators wrote flight attendants to remind them that a rejection would not lead to further negotiations and that the proposal on the table was the best the union would be able to do. “Our team squeezed every possible dollar from this company, compromised only when absolutely necessary, and achieved the best contract possible,” the 14-member committee wrote.

The contract received greater support among US Airways attendants than those at American, which rejected the agreement by a 52.2 percent margin. Flight attendants at American’s largest hub, Dallas-Fort Worth, supported the measure, as did American employees in Chicago and at two US Airways hubs, in Phoenix and Philadelphia. Flight attendants at the largest US Airways hub, Charlotte, rejected the proposal, along with American flight attendants in Boston, Miami, New York, and San Francisco.

“Maybe some emotion got into the vote that shouldn’t have,” says Anthony DeMaio, a spokesman and lobbyist for the union. Arbitration is set to begin on Dec. 3.

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