Wonder Why Your United Airlines Flight Attendant Looks So Unhappy? Here's Why

Wonder Why Your United Airlines Flight Attendant Looks So Unhappy? Here's Why

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.

Their mouths say Hello, but their eyes say Get me out of here.

Their attempts at politeness feel jaded, while their movements are those of someone who’s been here once too often.

No, I’m not talking about the passengers on a United Airlines flight. 

I’m talking about the Flight Attendants.

For too many, there seems as much glee in their jobs as there are springs in their leaden step.

I think I may know why.

I have just fortuitously descended upon a petition at Change.org.

It’s addressed to United CEO Oscar Muñoz. 

And it’s entitled: “Stop The Gross Disparity Between United Flight Attendants.” 

I hear you wondering about this disparity.

Have some have been trained in hand-to-hand passenger combat and others have not?

How could you think such a thing?

Instead, this is all about an airline whose employees have never been, well, united.

I had a senior Flight Attendant explain it to me in layperson’s language. (The petition, you see, enjoys some industry jargon.)

The Complaint.

In essence, the Flight Attendants are divided into those who are under the old Continental Airlines stream and those who are under the United stream.

The two airlines merged eight years ago. The Flight Attendants are still not on the same scheduling computer system.

(I pause for your ululation.)

The result, the senior disgruntled Flight Attendant told me, is that most of the international flights are operated by the Continental half of the airline, while the United part stays at home and does the cleaning. As it were.

Enter the naturally suspicious nature of those supporting the petition. 

They believe that the Flight Attendants on international flights are more junior and therefore those flights cost the airline less to staff.

Essentially, this is a battle over status. 

Many flight attendants only have so-called reserve status. It’s the equivalent of being on-call. 

The more privileged, however, are called line holders. They’re able to bid for specific routes. 

My senior disgruntled Flight Attendant source told me of reserve status: “You are given a monthly guarantee. In our case it is 78 hours. It is how most new hire flight attendants start out. You have little flexibility with your schedule, and cannot pick up trips to make more than 78 hours.”

The problem, this senior disgruntled Flight Attendant explained to me, is that the international trips are longer and those on the Continental side of the business therefore manage to become line holders more quickly, leaving the United people left behind.

Quite literally, it seems.

Where Does It Hurt Most?

“The bases that are most affected are LAX and SFO,” the senior disgruntled Flight Attendant told me. “Those were hit the hardest in terms of sub-United losing much of their international flying and seeing flight attendants with over 10 years seniority being back on reserve, while on the sub-Continental side people with less than 5 years seniority are line holders.”

The Flight Attendant also claims that United is simply reducing the number of Flight Attendants on board.

“We’re staffed with FAA minimum staffing. So it’s not illegal, but there’s not proper staffing, considering these planes are being crammed with more seats. For example, when we flew 747s, we had a staffing level of 15 flight attendants on each plane. Since the 747 has been replaced with the 777, we have seen staffing decrease. We have 10 or 11 flight attendants on these aircraft,” said the senior disgruntled Flight Attendant.

I want to offer a glimmer of joy. The Flight Attendants signed a new contract in August 2016.

Oh, allow me to offer the words of my senior disgruntled Flight Attendant again: “We were told we would be fully merged by Spring 2018 at the very latest. That was the latest date they projected, even though they said they were anxious to have it done sooner. Now we have been told October 2018. Isn’t if funny that after the Dr. Dao incident they were able to develop and roll-out new technology to prevent an incident like that from happening again within a matter of months, yet they can’t get the flight attendants on one computer platform until 2 years and 2 months after signing a contract that was supposed to make that happen as quickly and painlessly as possible?”

Believing in painlessness in corporate life is unwise. 

The Defense.

Still, I asked United what it thought about these issues.

“We will continue to work directly with the Association of Flight Attendants to implement the joint agreement correctly and effectively,” an airline spokesman told me pithily.

So I had a chat with Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

She had some less than complimentary words for the previous management, specifically former United CEO Jeff Smisek. 

“There is no doubt that the first five and a half years of the merger under the direction and leadership of a CEO ousted in disgrace of criminal investigation nearly destroyed the airline. That CEO not only did nothing to complete the merger, he took every opportunity to pit employees against each other, hoping to break people for billions of dollars in concessions at a time when the airline was profiting through capacity cuts and a drop in fuel prices,” she said.

Ah. Oh.

United is currently being sued for allegedly not trying to retrieve any of the $28.6 million that Smisek received after he left the airline. The airline didn’t comment on Nelson’s characterization of the first years of the merger.

Nelson added, however, that current management had, in her view, done their best. She believes that Muñoz and his team do want to fully integrate the staff.

Meanwhile, the petition says, United-side Flight Attendants are losing money. 

The petitioners say: “It is more difficult to earn the incentive hours and other pay that comes with line holder status. In addition, reserve status impacts one’s quality of life due to the loss of flexibility with one’s schedule. This translates to financial losses, (i.e. increased child care/pet care costs) as well as missed school functions, birthdays, family events and holidays.”

These airline mergers, which are supposed to deliver efficiencies, don’t often seem to be handled with efficiency. 

“American Airlines had a merged Flight Attendant contract [after the U.S. Airways merger] in place by December 2014, almost two years earlier than United, and their efforts to complete implementation are no closer than United,” Nelson said.

The AFA doesn’t represent Flight Attendants at American. 

“Our integration is well underway and we’re on track to have all flight attendants on a single crew system this fall,” an American Airlines spokesman told me. “In the meantime, we’ve already implemented a lot of the provisions of the new contract — including pay increases of 36 percent since December 2014.”

So this fall might see both American and United Flight Attendants finally on one computer system?

“It’s been a really complicated process and we’ve been working on it for a while, but we owe it to our flight attendants to get it right,” the American spokesman told me.

But what of the petition, which has, at the time of writing, been signed by more than 2,000 people? (United employs approximately 22,000 Flight Attendants.)

The petitioners suggest that “adding one position to all aircraft at the affected bases would level the field whilst providing a better and safer flight experience for both passengers and crew.”

It’s a long time since I heard anyone use the word whilst.

Nelson agrees that adding staff would help. Well, she is the head of the union. 

Meanwhile, United and American are doing everything they can to increase the number of seats on planes. In order to increase the numbers on the line-item labeled Profit, you understand. 

And you, dear customer, must endure the discomfort of the plane and the disgruntlement of some of the Flight Attendants.

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