It all started last summer for our purposes, after American Airlines rolled out a new attendance policy. The flight attendants objected quite loudly, calling it things like,"cruel," "disastrous," "unacceptable," "ridiculous," and "inhumane."
Now, their union is finally getting its day in court, so to speak, with a three-day arbitration hearing in Dallas.
"This means a lot to flight attendants," union president Lori Bassani told me just before the first day of the hearing. "The attendance policy is probably the one most punitive thing that everybody can rally around and say, okay, we've had enough."
Here's the policy, the history, the hearing, and why American Airlines flight attendants say it's so important to them.
10 points to termination
At its heart, the policy lays out what happens to flight attendants if they take a significant number of late, personal or sick days. They're assigned points for things like:
- taking more than 2 personal days
- showing up late for work
- being reported as a no-show on a flight
- calling in sick during "critical periods," including busy travel seasons like 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).
Flight attendants who amass four points in a year get a performance review. Those who wind up with eight points get a final warning.
And a flight attendant who winds up with 10 points in 12 months can be fired.
The flight attendants' main complaints are that the policy doesn't provide enough flexibility for unusual situations, and that it treats the predominantly female flight attendants differently than the predominantly male pilots and other employees.
In fact, the union filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over the policy earlier this year.
'They're unhappy. They're tired.'
I wrote about this last summer, but I have to admit I didn't know about the timing of the arbitration hearing until Bassani and I were discussing the American Airlines shareholder meeting yesterday.
In fact, I'm surprised there hasn't been a settlement reached, or that the arbitration didn't happen earlier. Regardless, Bassani suggested the policy plays a direct role in how flight attendants act on the job, and possibly even the level of customer service passengers receive.
"Yeah. Let me tell you why. It certainly does because people are working sick instead [of] getting that all-dreaded 'point' where they could be terminated," she said. "So they're working sick. Of course, they're unhappy. They're tired."
My inbox was flooded last year with American Airlines flight attendants complaining about the policy -- talking about things like "transporting upwards of 600 people a day in a flying Petri dish with recycled air" and getting sick after "deal[ing] with sick people in a confined tube. Poor air quality, toxic fumes, jet leg, three or four flights a day."
Yesterday, the union provided me with statements from still more long-term flight attendants calling the attendance policy "shocking," and "a betrayal."
I asked American Airlines if it had further comment on the policy and the arbitration, and the airline provided this statement:
"The new policy provides flight attendants with latitude to manage their time away from work while also encouraging attendance accountability.
This ensures we're appropriately staffed to provide our customers with the great service they expect and deserve when flying American."
Both sides gave opening statements in the hearing Wednesday, the union said afterward, and some of its flight attendants are being called as witnesses. Bassani said she expects a decision on the attendance policy afterward, in another 90 days or so.