It's hard to make everyone happy. But 27,000-plus American Airlines flight attendants are "at war" with their employer, according to a new report.

The issue: A brand new rule that goes into effect on American Airlines, which will make it much harder for American Airlines flight attendants to take unscheduled time off. In fact, it could lead to some flight attendants losing their jobs.

The rule was announced late Thursday and goes into effect Oct. 1. And flight attendants reportedly reacted immediately.

Update #1: After this article was published American Airlines provided a statement. It's included in its entirety below.

Update #2: Also after publication: More American Airlines flight attendants told me what they think of the new policy.

'Cruel and unusual'

The policy "is punitive, offers no human factor, and is being received by flight attendants as cruel and unusual," said an American Airlines flight attendant who was quoted by Lewis Lazare of The Chicago Business Journal, who broke the story.

The unnamed flight attendant wrote to American Airlines Vice President of Flight Service Jill Surdek, who had announced the new rules:

"If a pipe bursts in our house, a tire goes flat or some other Act of God occurs, it's not easy to jump on a plane for three days and forget that you are going to come home to a catastrophe."

And, the union that represents American flight attendants objected formally as well, with its president, Lori Bassani writing to American Airlines:

"It is our position that the company ... has no right to make these unreasonable changes, which will be disastrous to our flight attendants and to the company's operations."

10 points to termination

Here's how the new policy would work. Flight attendants would be tagged with points for attendance issues such as:

  • taking more than 2 personal days
  • being late for work
  • being reported as a no-show for a flight
  • calling in sick during "critical periods," which include three of the busiest travel times of the year: the Fourth of July (July 1 to 7), Thanksgiving (from the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to the Sunday after), and Christmas/New Year's Day (Dec. 22 to Jan. 3).

The consequences for amassing too many points within a 12-month rolling period would be potentially severe:

  • 4 to 6 points: performance review
  • 8 points: final warning
  • 10 points: termination

The Israeli Day Care Experiment?

I've reached out to both American Airlines and the union representing its flight attendants for further comment both by email and phone; so far I have not had a reply.

(Update: American Airlines has now replied. Their response is at the end of this article.)

But two conclusions leap to mind.

First, it's interesting that American Airlines has blamed all kinds of things lately for its poor on-time performance this summer--including the fact that its fleet has lots of old planes, that the weather has been rough, and perhaps most strangely: the fact that there was an incident on another airline entirely last April.

But nowhere in those excuses is there anything about flight attendants being late or absent.

And second, if the goal here is to cut down on tardiness and absenteeism, it's possible it will have the opposite effect entirely. The potential reason is the lesson from what's sometimes called Israeli Day Care Experiment, in which a day care started fining parents for being late to pick up their kids.

Result? The rate of late pickups actually increased, since it turned out parents decided the fine was reasonable--and had established the value of a little bit of extra daycare time at the end of the day.

So, suppose you're an American Airlines flight attendant, and you've decided that it's really important for you to take Christmas Day off every year. If this new policy goes into effect, you'll now know exactly what the price is, in points, for simply calling in sick every Dec. 25 until retirement.

As long as you're willing to take those negative points and not do anything else to put yourself over the limit, it seems like American might be setting up a new system where you could actually get away with it.

Update: here's American Airlines reply:

"We're on track to integrate our legacy US Airways and legacy American flight attendant teams into a single crew system on October 1. That's also when we'll align our attendance and performance policies for flight attendant team members.

The new policy recognizes that life happens and provides flight attendants with latitude to manage their time away from work. At the same time, it encourages attendance accountability which ensures we're appropriately staffed to provide our customers with the great service they expect and deserve when flying American."