Airport Booking Strategy Holiday Travel

American Pilot Shortage Could Cause Flight Cancellations During the Holidays

Travel over the Thanksgiving holiday period was robust, and predictions are for similarly strong demand for air travel during the period between Christmas and New Year’s. For most airlines, that’s good news. For American, however, it’s a potential nightmare.

As has been widely reported, a glitch in American’s scheduling software allowed the airline to approve vacation time for too many pilots between December 17 and the end of the year, resulting in too few pilots to operate American’s flights during that critical period. According to a New York Times report, around 15,000 flights could be affected.

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To plug the gap, American has offered pilots time-and-a-half pay to reschedule their vacations. But the Allied Pilots Association, the union which represents American’s pilots, called the extra-pay solution into question, warning that “neither APA nor the contract can guarantee the promised payment of the premium being offered.”

In the end, cooler heads are likely to prevail, avoiding widespread flight cancellations. Service disruptions are in the best interest of neither the company nor its pilots, to say nothing of the airline’s passengers.

Still, anyone planning to fly American during the affected period should pay close attention to any developments in the standoff, and be prepared to book a different carrier if the situation isn’t resolved.

Reader Reality Check

How does this affect your holiday travel plans?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


Airport Entertainment In-Flight Experience Passenger Rights

24 Things I Learned from a 24-Hour Flight Delay

It recently took me 24 hours to get from Washington, D.C. to Boston, and no, I didn’t drive. Or walk. While stuck in an airport for an entire day, I had plenty of time to think about what lessons a long flight delay had taught me. Here’s what you should know in case you ever get stuck in the same nightmare.


24 Things I Learned from a 24-Hour Flight Delay

1. Airlines don’t have to provide passengers with food, water, or vouchers for the same. I’ve been on flights on different airlines that have been delayed for just a few hours and been offered free snacks and bottles of water, so this surprised me.

2. If your flight keeps getting delayed, consider making alternative plans. The more a flight gets delayed, the less likely it is to actually take off. My 7:00 p.m. flight was first delayed at 6:00 p.m., and didn’t get canceled until 2:00 a.m. I wish I had just given up after the first few delays, rather than hanging in there.

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3. Airline employees may not have the correct information. At around 1:30 a.m., a JetBlue employee told the crowd at our gate that our plane had just taken off from a different airport and once it arrived, we would be taking off for sure. Half an hour later, our flight was canceled.

4. Pack warm clothes and make sure they are accessible, no matter how short your flight is. I was so glad I had packed a few layers even though I was traveling from one warm destination to another, because the airport was freezing. And it got even colder once all the crowds emptied out.

5. Stock up on food and water before the airport closes. Even in a major airport, all of the shops and cafes closed in my terminal before midnight.

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6. Only having carry-on luggage will allow you to jump between flights more easily, if yours gets delayed or canceled.

7. If lots of flights are getting delayed, and you are trying to move to an earlier flight, you may want to go on standby if there is a chance that that flight will also be delayed or canceled–that way, you don’t lose your seat on your original flight if it ends up taking off earlier.

8. Don’t spend your delay at the airport bar. I saw a few very inebriated passengers who were too confused to deal with unexpected flight cancellations get belligerent with the staff.

9. Remember that the staff is working late too and that the delays/cancellations are beyond their control. The staff that stayed with us until 3:00 a.m. was back at the airport before noon the next day, still dealing with angry customers. Be patient!

10. Sign up for flight alert notifications directly through your airline. You’ll be texted or emailed as soon as your flight is delayed or canceled, and you can (hopefully) beat the mad rush of other people trying to get on a new flight.

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11. If the line for customer service is long at the airport, try calling the airline while you are waiting in line, as you might get through sooner. Note that phone staff might not be able to help with some issues though, like going standby on a full flight.

12. Gate agents can usually put you on a standby list, so try them if the line is shorter.

13. Know that you might not be able to go standby on a flight that’s more than one ahead of yours. For example, my new flight, at 3:00 p.m. the next day, was delayed, so I tried to go standby on a flight that was leaving at 1:00 p.m., but JetBlue’s policy wouldn’t allow me to swap to that flight, only to a 2:00 p.m. one (which was also severely delayed), even though my original flight was the night before.

14. Keep your toiletries. Sometimes at the end of a trip, I will toss travel-sized toiletries with just a tiny bit of product left in them to make a little more space in my suitcase for the flight home. I was glad that I didn’t on this trip, when I was grateful to have a little bit of toothpaste after 24 hours!

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15. If your flight is canceled, airlines may offer you a hotel room for the night. However, this may be far away from the airport (mine was 20 minutes away).

16. Try to be one of the first people from a canceled flight to get help–I was offered a hotel room, but they mentioned that there were only two left for the night, so I’m not sure what other people on my flight did.

17. If you are offered a taxi voucher by the airline to get to a hotel (or back home), know that it’s hard to find a taxi company that will accept them.

18. Turn to other airlines for help getting home. I ended up having to buy a ticket on another airline in order to get home, just because JetBlue was having so many cancellations.

19. If you have to cancel your ticket because your flight is canceled, the airline will refund your money. A last-minute, one-way ticket will be expensive, but after my refund, I only wound up paying about $60 out of pocket.

20. Look for other options–some passengers on my flight ended up renting a car or taking a train, and they still got back to Boston before I did.

21. Know your rights if your flight is canceled.

22. Be wary of booking a flight itinerary with connections on different airlines–I saw quite a few people who were anxious because they were going to miss an international connection due to the flight cancellations, and JetBlue wouldn’t help them at all with their onward leg.

23. If you complain and are offered compensation, it will likely be in the form of a travel credit from the airline, not cash.

24. Some airport bookstores have a program where you can buy a book, read it, and then return it to the same branch (or another in a different airport) for a half-price refund. Good to know if you’re bored and stuck in an airport!

What’s the longest flight delay you’ve ever had?

More from SmarterTravel:

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Booking Strategy Travel Trends

Pilots Vote ‘No Confidence’ in American Air’s CEO

Back in 2013, when Doug Parker, then US Airways’ chief, succeeded in what was in essence a hostile takeover of American Airlines, he was well regarded by American’s pilots union, whose support was crucial to his campaign. That was then.

This week, the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American’s 15,000 pilots, announced that its board of directors and national officers had voted in favor of a resolution expressing “no confidence” in Parker and his management team.

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The resolution includes a long list of charges against Parker. Among them:

  • “(S)ince the merger, Doug Parker has made questionable economic and strategic decisions and is squandering a rare period of record profits in the airline industry by failing to build a balance sheet that can withstand the inevitable downturns in this historically cyclical industry.”
  • “(D)espite the fact that American Airlines was the last major airline to exit bankruptcy, it has already accumulated 20 billion dollars of debt, which is more than all the other major network carriers combined largely because Doug Parker has championed $11 billion in stock buy-backs, representing over 80% of profits since emerging from bankruptcy.”
  • “Doug Parker has enriched himself and senior managers through substantial bonus plans while dismissing employee concerns and eroding the employee morale and motivational foundation needed for any customer service organization to succeed.”
  • “Doug Parker’s management team is responsible for declining customer satisfaction rankings due to a heavy-handed focus on internal performance metrics that treat our valued customers as numbers, rather than people, thus resulting in the erosion of the American Airlines reputation for quality which may have a long-term and lasting negative impact on future profitability.”

And the list of grievances goes on…

According to the union’s news release, the final straw was Parker’s failure to attend last week’s meeting between Donald Trump and U.S. airline chiefs. “His decision to disrespectfully not accept an invitation to meet with the President of the United States has left the APA leadership and many of our pilots amazed at the lack of judgment and leadership exhibited.” (In his own defense, Parker cited his previous commitment to address a meeting of American’s managers.)

The pilots aren’t the only American employee group expressing dissatisfaction with the company’s management. Yesterday, Valentine’s Day, flight attendants picketed at four American hub airports, citing compensation issues and unresolved problems with new rash-inducing uniforms.

If American can’t get its labor-management relations in order, flyers will eventually feel the effects of the festering ill will. At which point they’ll cast a no-confidence vote with their wallets. No one wants to travel on an airline bedeviled by strikes, slowdowns, and a depressed and demotivated workforce.

Reader Reality Check

Have you noticed any degradation in American’s customer service in recent months?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


Airport Booking Strategy

Lufthansa Pilots Strike (Again), Could Cause Headaches

Lufthansa pilots are striking for the 14th time since 2014 in their attempt to extract better wages from the carrier.

According to USA Today,”Lufthansa has grounded more than 1,700 flights on Tuesday [the 29th] and Wednesday [the 30th],” with Tuesday’s cancellations mostly impacting routes within Germany. Many of the 890 flights cancelled for Wednesday are expected to include intra-Europe and transatlantic flights as well. Roughly 180,000 passengers will be affected in total.

Lufthansa pilots went on strike last week as well, for four days. It’s unclear if this latest strike will last as long.

Travelers affected by the strike–or, in some cases, who may be affected–can rebook flights free of charge.

Each day the pilots strike costs Lufthansa about $10.6 million. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Lufthansa has suffered a series of pilot and cabin-crew strikes in recent years as it seeks to cut costs to compete more effectively with lower-cost rivals.”

The pilots’ union, for its part, “wants its members to receive retroactive raises of 3.66% a year going back 5½ years,” reports USA Today. “Lufthansa offered to boost pilot pay by 4.4% by mid-2018 in addition to offering a one-time payment equal to 1.8 monthly salaries.” The sides do not appear close to an agreement, meaning there might be additional strikes on the horizon.

Readers, have you ever had a flight canceled due to an airline strike?

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Booking Strategy In-Flight Experience Travel Trends

One Day, 2 New Airline Presidents, 1 Mystery

Yesterday, two of the world’s largest airlines got new presidents. What’s less clear is how, and why.

First up, United:

United Continental Holdings, Inc. (UAL) today announced that Scott Kirby has been named president of United Airlines. In this newly created role, Kirby will assume responsibility for United’s operations, marketing, sales, alliances, network planning and revenue management. Kirby’s appointment is effective immediately and he will report to Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO. Kirby joins United from American Airlines, where he held the title of president since the merger of American and US Airways in 2013.

So, United poached a top executive from arch-rival American. An apparent coup for United’s new CEO, Oscar Munoz, who has made bolstering the ranks of his airline’s management team a priority.

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American, in announcing Kirby’s successor, Robert Isom, put a very different spin on Kirby’s departure:

Today’s management changes are the result of the Company’s Board of Directors’ ongoing succession planning process. As part of that process, and subsequent conversations regarding career expectations and the marketability of its executives, the Company concluded it would not be able to retain its existing executive team in their current roles for an extended period. As a result, the Board chose to act proactively to establish a team and structure that will best serve American for the longer-term future.

The implication is that Kirby’s move was less a matter of his choice to join United than it was American’s decision to oust him.

Whichever of the competing narratives is true, American and United today have new presidents, Isom at American and Kirby at United. Of the two moves, Kirby’s to United is the more impactful. He is both capable and a company outsider, giving him the potential to be a real difference-maker at an airline that sorely needs to improve in just about every respect.

Isom, on the other hand, has been American’s COO since 2013 and isn’t likely to make any significant changes to the airline’s overall direction as its new president.

Advantage, United.

Reader Reality Check

What do you expect to see at American or United as a result of the personnel changes?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


Booking Strategy In-Flight Experience Travel Trends

Southwest Pilots to the Airline’s CEO: ‘You’re Fired!’

It wasn’t that long ago that Southwest’s self-proclaimed identity as the Love Airline was a credible bit of branding, reflecting a virtuous circle of contentment among the airline’s customers, employees, and shareholders. For now, however, the love fest appears to be over.

Last week, the directors of the Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association, which represents the airline’s 8,300 pilots, passed by 20-0 a no-confidence vote in the airline’s top two managers, CEO Gary Kelly and COO Mike Van de Ven. According to the Association’s news release, “SWAPA believes it is time for new leadership in order to propel this company forward.”

No love lost there.

A similar no-confidence vote was taken by the union representing Southwest’s mechanics.

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The pilots accuse the airline of abandoning Southwest’s customer-focused culture under pressure from Wall Street to boost financial performance. “Senior executives at Southwest Airlines have prioritized short-term stock performance at the expense of long-term investment in people and infrastructure, resulting in the highest level of labor strife and dissatisfaction among frontline employees in the history of Southwest Airlines.”

As evidence of the airline’s failure to invest in infrastructure, the pilots cited a series of systems meltdowns, including last month’s computer failure that resulted in several days’ worth of delayed and cancelled flights, affecting thousands of flyers.

Southwest has dismissed the pilots’ complaints as a bargaining ploy to secure better working conditions and compensation in contract negotiations that have been ongoing for four years.

Whatever the pilots’ motivation, this very public dispute between the airline’s management and two of its key labor groups is a sign that Southwest’s long history of cordial labor relations is over, at least for now. To the extent that the airline’s happy, motivated employees have been key to Southwest’s popularity with its customers, travelers should be worried.

Reader Reality Check

Have you noticed a recent change in attitude among Southwest’s employees?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


In-Flight Experience Passenger Rights Travel Trends

Pilots Union Calls Out American Air’s Safety

When American Airlines merged with US Airways, American’s disgruntled unions were unanimous in their support for what amounted to a hostile takeover of the much-larger American by Doug Parker and his mid-sized US Airways.

American’s union troubles haven’t been ameliorated by the merger and change in management. American’s pilots, in particular, have been unrelenting in their criticism of Parker, US Airways’ former chief and now American’s. In a March letter to Parker, the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American pilots, complained bitterly about the company’s new business strategy and practices. “Candidly, the new American Airlines product is outright embarrassing and we’re tired of apologizing to our passengers. We hear from many valuable corporate clients and premier status passengers that the product is not what they’ve come to expect from American Airlines.”

Since then, the relationship between pilots and American management has disintegrated even further, epitomized by this week’s accusations that the airline has been pressuring workers to operate unsafely.

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In a letter to American pilots reprinted in the Star-Telegram, APA president Dan Carey outlined a series of management mandates and actions that he warns have the potential to compromise safety. Among them:

  • Increase airspeeds “nearing aircraft limitations,” even through areas of turbulence
  • Decrease taxi times “using paths and speeds deviating from what would normally be considered rational”
  • Routing flights “in conflict with known/commonly expected ATC routing”
  • Pressuring flight crews to work overtime

Carey lays the blame for the unsafe measures on management’s failure to provide adequate staffing for what is now the world’s largest airline, and signs off with a dire warning.

American Airlines’ operations are clearly over-scheduled, and management is now resorting to improvisation. Don’t let management’s schedule-planning mistakes become your next crisis… Nearly every incident begins with a seemingly innocuous event or action that, left unchecked, is followed by another and another.

Were it not for its safety aspect, this story might be marginalized as just another labor-management dust-up. As it is, it’s a chilling reminder of the extent to which travelers’ very lives depend on the mostly invisible machinations that ultimately determine the balance between safety, on the one hand, and operational expediency and profitability, on the other.

Reader Reality Check

What’s more important to you: getting there on time, or getting there safely?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


Family Travel Theme Park

Bernie Sanders Compares Disneyland to Wal-Mart

Is “The Happiest Place on Earth” rightly so-called? One prominent politician thinks not.

Bernie Sanders, would-be presidential candidate and self-described critic of the “rigged economy,” likened Disney’s employment practices to those of Wal-Mart, the iconic discounter that has come in for widespread criticism for compensating its workers with such meager salary and benefits that many are forced to resort to food stamps and other government relief.

Speaking at a political rally near Anaheim, home of Disneyland, Sanders called out Disney for engaging in similar employment practices:

Let me just start off and be very blunt. We’re here in Anaheim. Everybody knows the major economic force here in Anaheim is the Disney corporation. Anybody here work for Disney? Anybody here making a living wage from Disney?

According to Politico’s coverage of the event, the audience response to the living wage question was a resounding “No!”

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Sanders went on to contrast the $44.9 million salary of Disney’s CEO, Robert Iger, with wages paid to Disneyland workers “that are so low that many of them are forced to live in motels because they can’t afford a decent place to live.”

All is not well, apparently, behind Goofy’s grin and Mickey’s merrymaking.

Predictably, Disney’s Iger took issue with Sanders’ criticisms, responding on Facebook as follows:

To Bernie Sanders: We created 11,000 new jobs at Disneyland in the past decade, and our company has created 18,000 in the US in the last five years. How many jobs have you created? What have you contributed to the US economy?

While job creation is of course a good thing, it misses Sanders’ essential point: Some Disney workers aren’t being paid a living wage.

In its simplest form, there are three interrelated variables in play here: the compensation of Disney workers, Disney’s profits, and the price of tickets to Disney parks. If employees are to be better compensated, Disney must be willing to accept lower profits or park visitors must be willing to pay more for tickets.

Something has to give. With admission prices already hovering around $100, it may be time for Disney to lower its profit expectations a bit. That’s a small price to pay to keep “The Happiest Place on Earth” from degenerating from a heartfelt promise into an ironic tagline.

Reader Reality Check

Do Disney’s employment practices affect your interest in visiting the company’s parks?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.


Airport Miscellany

American’s Pilots Decry ‘Embarrassing’ Product, ‘Toxic’ Culture

When an airline’s own pilots call its service “outright embarrassing,” and deride the company’s corporate culture as “toxic,” you can safely say that airline has a problem.

American Airlines, the world’s largest airline, has a problem.

In a letter sent last week to American’s chairman and CEO, Doug Parker, the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American’s pilots, pulled no punches in excoriating the company’s management policies and practices.

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Among the APA’s grievances and demands:

The merger of American Airlines and US Airways happened in large measure because of labor’s support. We believed in your promise of real cultural change. Unfortunately, your management team is now failing to deliver on that promise.

We’re seeing (in your words) the “old school playbook” with “rules-based management” and “cut-throat and heartless” operating methods.

Candidly, the new American Airlines product is outright embarrassing and we’re tired of apologizing to our passengers. We hear from many valuable corporate clients and premier status passengers that the product is not what they’ve come to expect from American Airlines.

We must see meaningful and immediate culture change. Without it, American Airlines will never be restored to a position of industry leadership and our legacy will be one of opportunity lost.

The clock is ticking and the time for inspiring words has passed.

The harsh words follow years of strained relations between American and its unions, and their eventual support for what amounted to a hostile takeover of American by Parker and US Airways.

Parker’s relationship with labor during his US Airways tenure fell well short of lovey-dovey, so it’s unclear whether he has the will or the skill to defuse what has become an increasingly adversarial relationship with American’s unions. In the meantime, the airline’s already middling customer-service levels are further threatened by a disgruntled workforce.

The clock is ticking.

Reader Reality Check

Have you noticed heightened levels of edginess and frustration in your recent dealings with American employees?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

Perspective: The Real Life of a Flight Attendant

If you’re a fan of travel, you have surely wondered what it’s like to live the life of a flight attendant. After all, how many jobs pay you to fly hither and yon? Put you up in nice hotels between workdays? And throw in even more travel, for free, as a leisure-time perk?

Here’s an unflinching glimpse of the nitty-gritty of the job submitted by one of our readers, who happens to be the significant other of a working flight attendant. It will probably cure you of any aspirations you harbor to join the ranks of the airlines’ beleaguered flight attendants. And even if you’ve never aspired to the high life, it’s a perspective worth having as your travels inevitably bring you into contact with the crewmembers whose job it is to make your trip safe and pleasant.

There’s been so much conversation about how lousy the airlines are these days, I thought I might offer some comments on one side of the issue that I’ve learned over the past 15 months: How flight attendants (FAs) are viewed and (mis-) treated. Not so much by us passengers, but by their employers.

You see, I met my (now) fiancee in 2014 who has flown for a well-known “Ultra Low-cost” airline for over 11 years. Have my eyes been opened! I can’t believe how they are compensated, treated, and viewed by the company.

Compensation: They are required to check in one hour prior to their flight, and are not dismissed about 15-20 minutes after the passengers debark. However, they are ONLY paid while the doors on the aircraft are closed! (This is called “Block Time”). If there’s a mechanical or other issue that prevents them from closing the doors on time, they are not getting paid, even though they are responsible for, and attending to a plane full of passengers! (They do get a little ‘extra’ pay on days when they have to de-ice, or get delayed in the air.)

Scheduling: she’s often gone for over 70 hours and paid for 20, or 48 and paid for 16. This includes a redeye or two, and is away from home for 2-3 nights. —a little hard on family life! Then there are days where she commutes 65 miles to DEN for one round-trip flight, and may be paid for as much as 5 hours. Oh, and the schedule changes every month. So she never knows what she’ll be doing a month from now.

Her airline no longer employs (at DEN and most airports) “rampers” (luggage loaders), gate agents, or cleaning crews (except at the end of the day); those are all contract labor (which means they have no vested interest in PR or how the airline is doing). The FAs are now responsible for cleaning the plane in-between flights. (You may have heard a few extra pleas to “put your trash in the bag the FA will bring by, look in the seat-back pocket, and leave anything else on the seat when you leave.”

Layovers: minimum ‘on the ground’ time of 8 hours (FAA). However, if the plane’s late getting there, the next flight out is not delayed (which means less sleep). Not sure how this is legal. Oh, and then realize that’s from the gate, … wait for the hotel van,…check in at the hotel,… and finally get to the room. Reverse this process in the morning, and there’s no way these FAs are getting 8 hours of sleep!

To save as much money as possible, the airline often finds a barely decent hotel in some cities. Quite often, no refrigerators in the rooms so you can’t believe what FAs have learned to subsist on! Carrying their “lunch” in a small soft-sided cooler, they’ve even learned to make (and I’m not kidding!) grilled cheese sandwiches with a clothing iron!

So why does she, or the other FA’s do it? “Livin’ the Dream, Baby,” as they say. Free travel? Well, kinda. Always on Standby, FA’s are never senior to pilots or airline executives. And with the increasing load factors (especially summer) the planes are often full and/or over-sold. Would you want to leave home 3 hours prior to departure to find out you don’t get to go? And, often there’s only one flight per day to the desired destination; you end up just chucking it and going home. (Last week, in order to get home from St. Louis, she had to take a different airline to Dallas (Love Field), get a cab across town to DFW, and finally a flight back to Denver!)

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still good when it all works and you (and a family member) can grab a flight! It’s just that it’s becoming much less glamorous than the old days.

Treatment: So why does her company treat their employees like they are dispensable? Well, this carrier (and several others) is owned by an “investment company.” (They are gearing up for an IPO, so it’s all about the bottom line!!!) And if my FA doesn’t like it, well they’d rather she quit so that they can hire a newbie at a lower hourly rate. Her Union? Well they’ve proven to be of little help with anything except making sure you pay your dues on time…

Jump ship (like to Southwest)? She’d lose all seniority and start over on “Reserve” (on-call, never knowing when you’ll get notified to be at the airport within 2 hours). —not a very attractive option.

Okay, Enough ranting. I just feel so frustrated at the way she’s treated by her company (and too many passengers). FA’s deserve better!! (And unfortunately, passengers are also getting the short end of the stick with tired, under-appreciated, grumpy flight attendants!)

PS – Don’t get me started on the menagerie of “comfort animals” she’s had on flights, or the story about the woman breast-feeding a cat!

Breast-feeding cats? That’s a story I’d like to hear. But as far as the FA job goes, I’ve heard more than enough. Enough to know it’s not for me. And enough to have considerably more sympathy for the next harried attendant reminding me to buckle up for landing.

Reader Reality Check

Is this a job you would want? Is it a job you’d encourage your kid to apply for?

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This article originally appeared on

Ralph Nader Calls Out United Chief

United Airlines chief Jeff Smisek has taken more than his fair share of criticism from disgruntled flyers, unhappy investors, and alienated workers. The piling on continues this week with a letter from consumer advocate Ralph Nader, taking Smisek to task for United’s outsourcing of union jobs and for using profits to buy back shares instead of investing in the company.

The criticisms are very much of a piece with complaints about United’s management practices coming from other groups.

Nader suggests that stock buybacks are a self-serving tool to enrich top managers: “Stock buybacks—really a poor use of productive capital—are favored by executive suites as a way to elevate executive compensation compared to cash dividends.”

He knocks the jobs outsourcing for being miserly and for its corrosive effects on customer service. And, more generally, he calls out Smisek’s narrow focus on cutting rather than building: “Squeezing appears to be your corporate policy tool for your passengers as well—for example squeezing their leg room, squeezing them by innumerable fees and penalties and squeezing their time by delays on the phone in responding to their questions.”

Nader, famous for his damning critique of Chevy’s Corvair, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” and infamous for splitting the Democratic vote in the 2000 election, giving George W. Bush the edge over Al Gore, stops short of calling for Smisek to resign, as some have done. But his open letter to Smisek, published in the Eurasia Review, does contain a threat of sorts:

Consider this advice: drop the risky outsourcing; treat your employees as Southwest does; and stop ratcheting up the fees for baggage, changes of reservations, etc. Unless, that is, you believe that customer backlash, investigations by media and lawmakers and lower job gratification are not anywhere on your horizon.

If anything, Nader is perhaps underplaying the scope and intensity of Smisek’s critics. The backlash, media scrutiny, and worker disengagement that he warns may be in the future and already very much part of Smisek’s present.

Reader Reality Check

Does Smisek have a future with United?

This article originally appeared on

Layoffs and Labor Disputes Add to Airline Struggles

Labor strife took center stage in the ongoing airline melodrama this week. On July 16, US Airways pilots alleged in a newspaper ad that they are being pressured by airline management to cut the amount of fuel they are carrying, thereby lightening the weight of the plane and increasing its fuel efficiency. Eight senior pilots and the pilots’ union have filed complaints with the FAA (which was also in the news earlier this week) saying that US Airways urged them to carry less fuel than they thought was safe. In a full-page ad in USA Today on July 16, the pilots’ union accused the airline of “a program of intimidation to pressure your captain to reduce fuel loads.” The airline, of course, denies this.

Elsewhere, American revealed it will cut roughly 1,300 mechanic positions as it grounds planes in the hopes of offsetting high fuel costs. This follows news of the airline’s severe losses for the second quarter, and CEO Gerald Arpey’s admission that “We believe the airline industry cannot continue, in its current form, at today’s record fuel prices.”

As you can probably guess, labor issues such as these certainly don’t improve the industry’s precarious position, let alone a given airline’s image. But while you can excuse the airlines to a point, considering the cost of oil (“The increase in fuel prices has been nothing short of breathtaking,” said Tom Horton, CFO of American’s parent, AMR), the fact is that the airlines’ desperate attempts to cope with unprecedented fuel prices are hurting the people they need most: its customers.

It’s frustrating enough that we’re charged a fee for seemingly every aspect of flying, but as layoffs and labor tensions continue to accumulate, one has to assume the level of service we receive will decline accordingly. When a group of pilots accuses its employer of intimidation, you know you’re dealing with some unhappy people. And, of course, there is the issue of safety. Do you want your pilot preoccupied by the nagging fear that he doesn’t have as much fuel as he’d like? The easiest thing for a customer to do is say “enough is enough” and stop flying, and indeed many travelers can’t even afford to fly if they wanted to. But the sad fact is the airlines need us if they want to survive.

The industry made its own bed, and now it has to sleep in it. Does that mean we have to sleep in it, too?

Midwest to lay off 40 percent of workforce

Midwest Airlines will lay off nearly half its workforce—40 percent, to be exact, or roughly 1,200 people. The airline will begin notifying affected employees immediately.

Midwest isn’t the only airline to lay off employees this year, but none have come close to the drastic 40 percent cut Midwest is making. Continental recently announced it will eliminate 3,000 jobs, twice what Midwest will jettison, but that represents only 6.5 percent of Continental’s workforce.

As Midwest scrambles to avoid Chapter 11 bankruptcy, staffing cuts of this magnitude will only serve to underscore the apparent likelihood of exactly that. Back on July 2, the airline had roughly 30 days’ worth of cash left, and now even the carrier’s pilots’ union chief seems pretty certain that Chapter 11 is coming. Still, severe layoffs may be the airline’s last hope to avoid bankruptcy, or as Midwest CEO Timothy Hoeksema told Reuters, “In order to successfully restructure, there is no way to avoid deep and painful reductions to our current work force.”

The good news for loyal Midwest flyers is that, despite predictions of the its demise, the airline is still flying, and could continue flying even if it enters Chapter 11 protection. Whether or not these cuts will be enough to stave off Chapter 11, or will just be another “painful” step in the airline’s march toward bankruptcy, is anyone’s guess.

Judge denies Northwest flight attendants’ right to strike

On August 25, Judge Victor Marrero of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York temporarily barred Northwest’s flight attendants from striking, promising to issue a final ruling after further consideration.

While the judge contemplated the competing arguments—basically the right of Northwest employees to strike versus the interests of the U.S. air transportation system, which could be adversely affected if Northwest were grounded by a strike—customers holding Northwest tickets were left to worry whether future flights would be disrupted. And potential Northwest customers had good reason to give their business to airlines with no potential disruptions clouding their futures.

On Friday, Judge Marrero finally made good on his promise, ruling that a flight attendant walk-out would destabilize travel to an unacceptable degree and therefore had to be prohibited.

The judge, quoted in a article, opined as follows: “Congress has gone to extraordinary lengths to legislate its view of the vital role that these carriers play for the economy, national security, movement of goods and people, and general well-being of the United States.”

It’s a defensible position, as is the alternative. But this is a case where justice needed to be swift, not just sure. It wasn’t. For three weeks, both the traveling public and Northwest Airlines were left to suffer while the court mulled.

Justice withheld, justice denied.

How many airline employees does it take to screw in a light bulb?

On Labor Day, which marks the end of both the summer travel stampede and one of the year’s busiest travel weekends, one’s thoughts naturally turn to the labor situation in the airline industry. Or at least mine do.

In a service-intensive business like commercial aviation, the quantity, competence, and state of mind of flight attendants, reservations agents, check-in personnel, and other front-line workers have a lot to do with the quality of the travel experience.

In an extended piece on the state of the industry post-9/11, Associated Press business writer Brad Foss pulled together a number of telling stats comparing the airline business of today with its previous incarnation five years ago.

Labor-wise, here’s the money quote: “There are 155,000 fewer full-time employees industrywide today, compared with August 2001—a decrease of almost 30 percent. And over the past five years, the nation’s six largest airlines took 816 planes out of service—a 23 percent reduction.”

Let’s factor another labor-related variable into the equation: compensation.

I don’t have figures for the average salary and benefits packages earned by today’s airline workers, but we know that the compensation trend line dipped precipitously over the past few years. Salary reductions, after all, have been the centerpiece of the aggressive cost-cutting regimens embraced by the largest airlines.

So, there are fewer employees doing more work while receiving less compensation and fewer benefits.

It’s no wonder that today’s version of “Coffee, tea or me?” is “Tap water, take it or leave it.”

Happy Labor Day!