If the flight attendants on your plane seem a little bit happier today, this might be the reason why. 

Analysts are still busy unpacking all the big changes contained in the  draft FAA reauthorization bill that dropped at 2:52 a.m. Saturday, and that is likely to be passed by Congress before a September 30 deadline.

In fact, there are at least 17 or 18 big changes to commercial aviation, both big and small, slated to come out of the 1,200-page bill. 

But the one change that would have the biggest effect on the lives and health of flight attendants is quite simple: a provision requiring airlines to allocate at least 10 hours of rest between shifts for flight attendants, which is the same amount of rest time currently mandated for pilots.

As important as the extra time off is, it's also a measure of respect that many flight attendants have wanted for years.    

Current federal regulations require flight attendants to get eight hours minimum rest on their schedules. And flight attendants say it's simply not enough, when you factor in things like going back and forth to a hotel, checking in, trying to fall asleep in a strange room, and getting ready again in the morning. 

In fact, many flight attendants say they wind up getting far too little sleep to be able to function comfortably; many say they wind up getting only four or five hours of sleep.

"Congressional fatigue studies have confirmed this is a safety issue, and with an affirmative vote by lawmakers next week we can close this safety loophole," the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA said in a press statement Monday. "It's about safety, health, and equality as we harmonize minimum rest with our flight deck counterparts."

This is more than just a small change in an employment regulation. It really goes to one of the core questions that flight attendants have sought--and fought--to answer: Are their jobs primarily safety related, or are they there simply to serve drinks (among other comfort-related tasks).

Flight attendants almost universally point to the former description, and can cite many examples of flight attendants acting as first-responders: responding to patient medical issues, leading passengers through emergencies, and even security.

I hear about them often. For example, American Airlines has been giving Real American Hero awards to flight attendants (among other employees) who've saved passengers' lives.

The most recent of the 200 so-honored: three flight attendants--Casey Ewald, Deanna Vasquez, and Derius Caravallo--who saved a passenger's life by performing CPR on him during a July flight from Washington to Chicago.

Or think of the Southwest flight attendants who had to handle a belligerent, trained martial arts instructor on a flight recently, or the Delta flight attendant who was head-butted by a passenger the other day.

And of course, the names of the heroes who perished aboard the flights on 9/11 include many flight attendants. Some of the flight attendants aboard United 93 were able to contact United's maintenance facility and inform them of the hijacking before the plane was crashed.

This change is truly something flight attendants have been trying to get for at least 24 years, since the last time Congress changed the rules regarding cabin crew rest periods.

Specifically, the bill provides that flight attendants who are scheduled for 14 hours or less on duty have to be "given a scheduled rest period of at least 10 consecutive hours; and the rest period is not reduced under any circumstances."

The biggest news for passengers out of the bill is probably a combination of what they're likely getting (a requirement that the FAA look at minimum seat width and pitch, which could have an impact on ever-shrinking airline seats), and what they aren't getting (any kind of regulation of soaring baggage fees and change fees).

But for flight attendants, this extra two hours of rest between flights was the big win. It's a matter of not only getting enough rest, but getting a little more respect.

Published on: Sep 24, 2018
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