They formed long lines behind the various airline ticketing counters. Outside, another long line had emerged. But unlike the ones inside the terminal, this line comprised United Airlines pilots, flight attendants and airport service workers who gathered to picket. They marched holding yellow signs criticizing United management, calling for a new contract and criticizing "corporate greed."
“We are here today to reach out to United Airlines management and let them know that we want a contract. Our current contract has been expired for a while, and we've been at the negotiating table for over two years,” said Peter Coenen, a United Airlines flight attendant and union representative with the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.
Coenen, who has been a flight attendant for more than 30 years, said that he and his colleagues are fed up with receiving low wages while United Airlines is reporting record-setting earnings. According to the airline’s financial reports, it raked in $1.5 billion in quarter three of this year. Internationally, profits were at record highs in both the Atlantic and Pacific regions.
Although the airline’s flight attendants have yet to see a wage increase, United Airlines pilots claimed a bigger piece of the pie earlier this year.
In September, United Airlines pilots represented by Air Line Pilots Association, International, voted in favor of a new comprehensive working agreement. It included an “industry-leading increase in pay raises over the life of the contract, as well as quality of work-life and work rule improvements, sick leave and vacation improvements, and an increase to retirement benefits for United’s 16,000 pilots,” according to ALPA.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby previously has said "the flight attendant negotiations did not really start until after the pilots got their deal done (in September).”
Yet the airline's flight attendants fighting for higher wages in their contract has been an ongoing issue since at least 2012, when United and Continental Airlines merged. After three years of negotiations, AFA filed for federal mediation under the jurisdiction of the National Mediation Board in 2015.
“Management needs to position United to compete with any airline in the world. That starts with negotiating fairly with the women and men who breathe life into the Friendly Skies," Sara Nelson, international president of AFA, said at the time.
This year, AFA again filed for federal mediation. If that fails and a contract cannot be reached soon, Coenen and AFA said they would consider calling for a strike.
“Flight Attendants kept United in the air during the biggest crisis our industry has ever faced,” Ken Diaz, president of the AFA United Master Executive Council, said in a statement. “We served our passengers through extreme challenges — the pandemic, a rash of unruly passenger behavior and operational meltdowns. It’s time for United to stop playing games and negotiate a fair contract that recognizes our contribution to this airline’s record success.”
‘We definitely don’t feel any equality here’United flight attendants aren’t the only ones feeling the strain of failed contract negotiations.
In August, American Airlines flight attendants voted to authorize union leaders to call for a strike, citing a four-year contract stalemate with the airline. In December, the National Mediation Board denied the request and sent the union back to the bargaining table.
AFA is demanding raises of 35%, followed by two yearly increases of 6%. American has countered with an immediate raise of 11% upfront followed by annual increases of 2%.
“Every day that goes by, the situation for flight attendants gets more dire. We have new-hire flight attendants moving to high-cost cities like Boston, New York and Miami who cannot afford to pay their rent and buy food. American Airlines reports record profits while our full-time flight attendants qualify for public assistance,” Julie Hedrick, national president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, said in a statement.
While the flight attendants were calling for a strike in August, American Airlines pilots ratified a contract that will raise their average salary by more than 40% over four years.
“We definitely don’t feel any equality here,” Erik Harris, treasurer of the flight attendants’ union, told the Associated Press in November. “How come the pilots have gotten their deal and we haven’t?”
Flight attendants for Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines also have hinted at impending strikes in the coming months.
The last strike by a U.S. airline union, involving pilots at Spirit Airlines, took place in 2010.