A Flight Attendant’s job 99.99% of the time is comprised of ensuring safety compliance, providing inflight service, functioning as aviation’s first responders during a medical situation or other inflight emergency, and training to prepare for the aforementioned tasks. The current working conditions that Flight Attendants are being subjected to is the other 0.01% (or maybe even the other 0.001%).
Times of national crisis
Aviation is classified as critical transportation infrastructure by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which is a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Airlines keep flying because it is in the best interest of national security to do so for both “public health and safety as well as community well-being.” Only a federally mandated shutdown, infrastructure collapse or bankruptcy would change that expectation of any individual air carrier.
Essential critical infrastructure workers
Flight Attendants (“air transportation employees”) are essential critical infrastructure workers within the Transportation and Logistics Sector. You can find more info about the critical infrastructure and essential critical infrastructure workers in the CISA’s “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce” document. Flight Attendant are indeed classified the same as police officers, hospital workers, etc. If you are working in areas with mandatory quarantines or shelter in place ordinances, feel free to print the “Essential Worker Access Authorization” letter (login required) that Alaska Airlines Corporate Security has provided. This letter is intended for use in conjunction with your Alaska Airlines Crew ID to assist you in traveling for work to, from and between airports, including commuter travel. The letter is not required, but your ID is essential.
Civil Reserve Air Fleet
Air carriers such as Alaska Airlines are members of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF). As such, Flight Attendant may be called upon to support the United States Department of Defense airlift requirements in emergencies when the need for airlift exceeds the capability of military aircraft. During Initial Training, we were taught how to don and doff the hazmat suit in case flying under CRAF requires the use of the suit. That was not just theoretical training. Granted, the COVID-19 crisis does not require CRAF mobilization at this time, but the point is that Flight Attendants are expected to do more than just our usual duties during times of national crisis–like now.
Disparate responses from local/state and federal
It is completely understandable that Flight Attendants are confused and extremely concerned by the disparate approaches in social distancing and travel restrictions implemented at the local/state versus federal level. The reality is that the federal government has been extremely slow to recognize and react to the COVID-19 crisis, so local governments have been forced to implement their own efforts to slow community transmission. Meanwhile, aviation is governed by federal authority, so the airlines have been operating under the guidance provided by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
CDC guidance provides a carve out for potential cabin crew exposure to the virus, which says that crews should simply self-monitor and continue working unless they subsequently become symptomatic. It is totally unacceptable that COVID-19 tests are not readily available for cabin crew–and for so many other deserving Americans. This is a glaring failure. The already bad situation is further exacerbated by the lack of coordination between the respective government agencies involved.
Aviation’s first responders
AFA has been extremely clear in all communications with airline management, legislators and government agencies that Flight Attendants are aviation’s first responders and should therefore be screened the same as any other healthcare worker. At the very least we should be screened the same as passengers. AFA has been moving the needle at individual carriers and internationally, but all the simultaneous urgent issues have somewhat drowned out those efforts. We have also been able to secure numerous increased protections for Flight Attendants, but more needs to be done.
Railway Labor Act
For US airlines, the Labor-management relationship is governed by the Railway Labor Act (RLA). The RLA is specifically designed to minimize the potential for disruption of interstate commerce. The unions cannot legally take any action to ground the airlines. Further, AFA Alaska cannot do so for Alaska Airlines pursuant to the “General Association: No Lock-Out Provision” in §27.C of the collective bargaining agreement. Even if the Master Executive Council (MEC) simply were to make a general statement calling upon Alaska Airlines management to ground the operation, would that really be the right thing to do for the long-term survival of the Company?
Potential financial impact of halting operations
Is it reasonable to ask Alaska Airlines management to ground operations without a federal mandate to ground all carriers? Is it reasonable to advocate for the Company to pay all employees during a time when no revenue is coming in? Meanwhile, other carriers would benefit from the decreased capacity over shared routes, and they would be potentially emboldened to exploit that temporary competitive advantage. Is it reasonable to expect there to be a financially solvent Company to return to after such a scenario?
AFA Alaska leadership has a responsibility to collectively look out for all 6000+ Alaska Airlines flight attendants, the approximately 23,000 direct employees of the airline and the numerous vendor employees who also rely on the Company for their livelihoods. It is a tough balance to strike between protecting the health of employees and their immediate families today versus ensuring a paycheck in the immediate future versus securing the greatest chance of having any paycheck at all from this Company in the long term. The reality is that this Company needs a sufficient number of Flight Attendants who are willing to fly in order keep the operation running, which will help maintain the Company’s relative financial advantage over other carriers. See Seeking Alpha’s “Southwest Airlines And Alaska Air: Built To Survive Coronavirus” article for more information.
If there is no Company, then there are no employees and no union advocates. The situation is really that dire. There are several US carriers that are expected to announce bankruptcy in the coming days or weeks. Even the bigger ones like Alaska Airlines will have to take very significant steps to stop the cash flow bleed if the government does not approve a financial aid package.
What can you do to help?
Please, please, please tell Congress to push through an aid package that puts workers first and protects our pay, our jobs and our healthcare. AFA and Alaska Airlines have provided their respective versions of a message to send to Congress, and they are both very easy to complete. Encourage your co-workers to do the same right now!
Alaska Airlines: https://p2a.co/kwRvayQ?p2asource=Alaska
AFA will continue fighting to protect our Flight Attendants as best we can given the tools at our disposal and within the practical limitations of our sphere of influence.
Your MEC – Jeffrey Peterson, Brian Palmer, Linda Christou, Matt Cook, Terry Taylor, Mario de’Medici, Melissa Osborne, Tim Green and Brice McGee