No, they can't do anything to increase your seat pitch, or increase the size of the tiny bathrooms. They can't change the weather. But they can dramatically improve the way you feel about your flight--largely with positive attitudes and efficiency. 

If you've had a cranky or dispirited flight attendant on American Airlines recently, there might be a reason that you'd never know about. Because while a flight attendant's job is hard, and doesn't always include great pay, it usually comes with an amazing perk: free air travel all around the world.

Now, a new lawsuit says some retired American Airlines flight attendants unfairly had that perk taken away from them. Judging by what I've heard recently from both current and retired American Airlines employees, it's a contentious issue--and one that nobody's really happy about.

A single letter...

The issue comes down really to a single letter of the alphabet, with far-reaching effects.

When airline employees fly standby for free, they do so with non-revenue passes that are coded by category: usually D1 or D2. (There are also D3 passes, that employees can give to friends and family.)

As you might expect, D1 has priority over D2; D2 has priority over D3.

Here, the American Airlines flight attendants say they took early retirement at the company's request, with the assurance that they'd be given unlimited D2 passes for life. But, they say that in 2014, the airline downgraded them--giving them a new, lower priority category of passes called D2R.

With D2R, they can only get free standby flights if there are no D1s or regular D2s ahead of them in line. Very often, especially flying through American hubs including JFK and LaGuardia, that means D2Rs aren't worth much, because D1s and D2s take all the unsold seats.

The wedge

You can see the problem. Airlines work hard now to sell every last seat, even as they pack more seats into smaller spaces. So unsold seats are a finite resource.

And, if American Airlines wants to maximize the perk that it gives to current employees--a/k/a, the ones who can still affect your inflight experiences by their positive attitudes and efficiency--it has to come at the expense of some of their retired employees.

Hence the new category, putting retireds behind actives in the quest for free flights. Only, according to this lawsuit filed in the federal court in Brooklyn (and another similar one in Chicago), American Airlines promised years ago never to do that.

The class action has two named plaintiffs: Suzette Janoff and Jenise Ruby, both of whom took early retirement from American Airlines in 1996, and who want their case to include everyone who retired from American under the same program they did.

A "minor dispute"

American Airlines declined to comment. Their attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the case, saying that it's about a "minor dispute" that the law says should be in front of something called a "board of adjustment," not a federal court.

We'll see what happens there. The other case in Chicago is a bit different, but it survived a motion to dismiss. Meantime however, both current and retired American Airlines employees told me via my Facebook page what they think about the whole thing. And nobody's really happy:

  • "This is shameful. My husband and I worked for AA for 50 years together, they changed this right after he left."--Inga Petursdottir, retired
  • "I worked for 30 years ... When I retired I was a D2, that was what I was 'promised.' ... American should have grandfathered us and started the D2R with any new retires."--Jim Flynn, retired
  • "32 years. Still active. NOT a fan of D2R."--Bob Norman, current
  • "It is nearly impossible to travel through hubs because of the amount of nonrevs. With each flight comes more D1's and D2's that go ahead of the D2R's. ... I have spent 2-3 days in a city trying to get out but because with each new flight comes more D2's."--Stacey Boyd, retired
  • "If the company changes policies, like they always do, then those who have retired are subject to those changes as if they never retired. Also for retirees you can fly anytime of the week. Most of us still on payroll have structured times we have to fly."--Jimmy Gardenhire, current
  • "Everyone has lost a little even active employees. D2R is a fair status."--Christopher John, current
  • "Current employees deserve a higher priority over retired employees."--Victor Torres, current
  • "I'm an AA retired pilot and feel that current employment should take precedence over us. We do have a bit more time on our hands."--Jim Anderson, retired
  • "I feel retirees should continue with the privilege of flying as D2.  Seems like a punishment to downgrade to D2R."--Malissa Brisbon, retired

How will it turn out? No idea. In the meantime, as for how to increase your odds of having a happy flight attendant? Maybe all you really need is a bag of candy.