Could airline workers at American Airlines and Southwest strike during holidays?

AAA predicts nearly 4.7 million Thanksgiving travelers will fly to be with loved ones this year. At airports nationwide, passengers watch for delays and cancellations ahead of the holiday travel rush.

Meanwhile, flight attendants at American Airlines keep a close eye on a new contract.

“We’ve been in negotiations for almost five years now,” National President of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, Julie Hedrick, said.

“We have given American Airlines plenty of time to come to an agreement for the flight attendants at American. And we actually gave them a deadline of last week to come and bring significant improvements so that we could avoid taking the next step. They did not do that.”

On Monday, the APFA asked the National Mediation Board to strike.

“They work under the National Labor Relations Act. The airline industry is governed by the Railway Labor Act, and the Railway Labor Act was written so as not to not to disrupt interstate commerce,” William Swelbar said. Swelbar is an aviation industry analyst at Swelbar-Zhong Consultancy.

“There have to be a number of things that play out before there could be a strike by the pilots at Southwest or by the flight attendants at American. And neither of those thresholds have been met.”

The National Mediation Board could give the union the green light to strike but only after 30 days.

“It’s a ‘cooling off period’,” Swelbar said. “But the National Mediation Board hasn’t declared, you know, a cooling off period yet. So, the clock hasn’t started to run on those 30 days.”

According to Hedrick, the negotiations with American Airlines are about much more than compensation.

“After 911, we went through bankruptcies, and we lost sick and vacation,” Hedrick said.  “We lost our pensions at that same time.”

Hedrick said the emphasis is on restoring benefits faced over time.

“We’re still trying to restore that from way back when. We are also trying we lost our pensions at that same time.

“We are trying to improve our retirement so that our fight attendants can retire with dignity. Our 401k is woefully behind the industry and that is also part of these negotiations,” Hedrick said. “We also need better flexibility. We lost some of our flexibility during COVID, and we are trying to get that flexibility back and improve on it so our flight attendants can live, have a good work life balance.”

Across the aisle, American Airlines said they wanted to reach an agreement with flight attendants.

“APFA’s assertion that we’ve reached an impasse is inaccurate. Since resuming negotiations in 2021, the company has routinely met with APFA and presented proposals that maintain our commitment to paying our team members well and competitively,” a spokesperson for American Airlines said in a statement. “For months now, we’ve had an industry-leading economic proposal on the table, and we continue to make progress on other items, including as recently as last week. We stand ready to continue working with APFA and with the support of the National Mediation Board to reach an agreement that our flight attendants have earned.”

Just last week, flight attendants for American Airlines picketed outside the company’s headquarters in Dallas.

“We have almost 7000 flight attendants based in Dallas,” Hedrick said. “So, it’s our largest base for American Airlines.”

However, American Airlines is not the only aviation company experiencing turbulence.

“We have set up our regional strike center in Dallas,” Michael Santoro said. Santoro is the vice president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association or SWAPA.

SWAPA is requesting a new contract that includes increased wages and improved technology.

“We’re behind the industry in every area you can think of in our contract. So we’re asking for quite a bit. Obviously, wages, retirement, disability. One of the big pillars that other airlines didn’t have a huge issue with, but we do, is our scheduling system,” Santoro said.

Santoro said pilots want to avoid another meltdown that stranded thousands of Southwest Airlines passengers.

“We’ve asked them to adjust how they do their scheduling. And that’s one of the major sticking points still today,” Santoro said.

According to Santoro, adjustments to help with winter weather have been implemented.

“But as far as the tech side of the house goes, it’s a slow process. They’re trying. But it again, tech is a slow process,” Santoro said. “And one thing they can fix quickly is making us more efficient. And so that’s what we’re aiming to make them do.”

In a statement, Southwest Airlines said, “Our negotiations continue, and we’ll keep working, with the assistance of the National Mediation Board, to reach an agreement that rewards our Pilots and places them competitively in the industry. For 52 years, we’ve maintained a legendary Southwest Culture that honors our valued Employees, and we look forward to continuing that tradition.”

“Our asks are not crazy. They’re not astronomical. They’re affordable,” Santoro said.

“I think the frustrating part for them is they know what the market rates of pay are because they’ve been set by American, Delta, and United, but they just haven’t been able to get there with the Southwest management team,” Swelbar said.

Both unions said they hope to be able to prevent going on strike as they care about their customers.

“Our passengers are very important to us, and we are always here for them. I will say, as far as these negotiations are concerned and an upcoming strike that the ball’s in the company’s court,” Hedrick said. “They need to come to the table with a contract that our flight attendants would approve. And that is what we’ve been asking for them from them for quite a while now.”

For now, aviation experts said passengers can sit back, relax, and enjoy their flights during this year’s holiday season.

“I would tell them that their travel plans are safe, certainly for Thanksgiving,” Swelbar said. “They’re going to be thinking about the consumer and so on. I think everybody’s safe in their holiday travel.”

Swelbar encourages passengers to be patient as airline employees do their best to navigate the busy holiday season.

“Be kind to those people on the airplane,” Swelbar said. “They’re there for your safety, and they get you from A to B. And I think we just need to have a kinder and gentler holiday season on both sides, because it’s a hard job for them. And it’s not a fun time to be a consumer dealing with crowds either.”

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