It's been a good couple of weeks for flight attendants at United Airlines.
There's a new law that says they must be allowed 10 hours of rest between flights--something they'd wanted for a long time. And it seems like they've recovered from the debacle of the so-called bonus lottery their airline tried to force on them earlier this year.
Unlike their counterparts at say, American Airlines, the flight attendants' relationship with their airline itself seemed to be improving.
Well, it was, until United announced a change this week that has some of its flight attendants and their union up in arms.
Here's what happened, the flight attendants' reaction, and why United admits this is "hard news" for a lot of flight attendants to hear.
"Eliminating the need."
The change could have been easy to miss, buried as it was at the end of the second paragraph in a five-paragraph message to flight attendants from United's senior vice president of inflight services, John Slater.
The message, complete with a smiling picture of Slater (.pdf link) at the top, talks about little changes the airline will be making in its Polaris business class, like plating passengers' food on the ground so it doesn't have to be done in the air.
That means greater efficiency, less work, and--in the 12-word phrase that sent shock waves through the United flight attendant community--it also means "eliminating the need for the mid-galley position on certain international widebody flights."
"Great job! Now, here's your punishment."
This isn't flying with the flight attendants union, which says the change is "outrageous" and "unacceptable," and claims the airline is removing positions and reducing costs to make Wall Street happy while hurting its flight attendants' bottom line.
"Despite the effort to deliver the message wrapped up in pride, growth and producing great results, there is no way to hide the misguided plan to reduce service and cut staffing," the union wrote in a message to members with the headline: "Great Job! Now Here's Your Punishment."
"Senior airline management has made a promise to Wall Street investors to keep costs low," the message to flight attendants continued, adding, "We are an airline, not a hedge fund."
"Hard news... but no one is losing their job."
A United spokesperson told me Friday the union is overreacting. United is actually hiring 2,000 flight attendants.
And he insisted customers won't even notice there's one fewer flight attendant on their plane.
"As bad as it sounds, and I know that it's bad news -- not bad news, hard news, for some flight attendants to hear -- but no one is losing their job. We are hiring more flight attendants. We keep growing. We care about the product. And this change will not affect the customer experience."
However, he concedes the change might affect some flight attendants' ultimate pay, in that they'll have one less long-haul premium cabin to bid on.
"I think that maybe when there's not that position to bid on, then that may put them in a space where they have to wait for another flight," he said. "So that could be an issue, yes."
"Align with our peers."
There's one more short phrase in the announcement to flight attendants that's worth looking at, and that appears to underlie the whole change.
It's where Slater writes United is making the change overall in order to "operate more efficiently and align with our peers." By this he means American Airlines and Delta Airlines manage to fly the same airplanes with one fewer flight attendant than United does currently.
And that, perhaps more than the individual effect on its flight attendants' paychecks or their ability to bid to work on more exciting and interesting international flights, seems to be what's driving the flight attendants union's opposition.
That's because "these comparisons [to other airlines result] in their never ending drive to the bottom... the lowest level of staffing we and our customer base will tolerate," the union said in its response. "What's the answer? We, the workers, must stand together in support of each other. What happens at one airline has an affect on the rest of us."