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Flight attendants are feeling the heat of pent-up demand and a cancellation-filled summer

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A flight attendant walks through an airplane before the plane's descent into the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in November in Texas.

"You're not really fully compensated when a flight is diverted, you're taken off your schedule, and you get home 12, 24 hours later," says Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants. Anna Moneymaker via Getty Images

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Staffing difficulties at airports and airlines, on top of other pandemic-related disruptions, are contributing to thousands of flight delays and cancellations. The industrywide labor shortage is causing carriers across the world to ax flights at the peak of the summer air travel season.

One theme underlining many airlines’ staffing woes is ongoing labor discussions with union groups. SAS, the Scandinavian carrier, filed for bankruptcy protection after its pilots went on strike for better pay. Airport workers at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, meanwhile, reached a deal with employers after a strike led to the cancellation of more than 1 in 5 flights.

According to Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, a union that represents more than 50,000 workers across 17 airlines, flight attendants are feeling the effects of these recent cancellations.

“You’re not really fully compensated when a flight is diverted, you’re taken off your schedule, and you get home 12, 24 hours later,” Nelson said.

For today’s Economic Pulse, “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio talks with Nelson about how cancellations affect a flight attendants’ income, what’s driving staff shortages across the industry and how airlines could work with unions to ease the problem.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: All of this talk that we might already have been in recession, well, no way given the job numbers that we saw in June. But your members probably don’t see recession on those airplanes right now, right? Busy.

Sara Nelson: There’s incredible demand in the airline industry. Everybody wants to get out.

Brancaccio: Yeah, everyone wants to get out of the industry, it’s so busy.

Nelson: [Laughter] There’s that too.

Brancaccio: But it’s been a tough summer, because of all the late flights and the cancellations, and that, I hadn’t fully realized, can actually affect what flight attendants get paid.

Nelson: It can. So 80% of the industry is unionized. And it is only as a major carrier, Delta, as the holdout, that doesn’t have a union for flight attendants. In most cases, we have contracts that have pay protections. The difference, though, is that you may be spending more time away from home because your pay is mostly based on the number of flight hours that you’re working and formulas to get a certain number of flight hours for the time that you’re away from home. But you’re not really fully compensated when a flight is diverted, you’re taken off your schedule, and you get home 12, 24 hours later.

Brancaccio: If you have to pay to stay in some Hampton Inn because of the flight cancellation, does the airline reimburse the flight attendant?

Nelson: You bring up a really good point. So most flight attendants commute to work. There’s actually more flight attendants who commute by air to work than live where we’re based, because it’s incredibly expensive in the base cities, where airlines have these bases. And so many times when people finish their trip or when they’re trying to get to their trip to start it, they are commuting by air. And when our airplanes are so full, it’s harder to get on those flights. So flight attendants are spending more money just to get to and from work. Now in some cases, we have negotiated over the summer where the airlines are covering those rooms and taking into consideration the realities that people are having to spend more to come to work. And that may mean a decision of not picking up those extra overtime hours. And that is also part of what we’re seeing here is that the airlines were staffing at incredible overtime hours before COVID, [and] did some of their schedule planning based on expecting that kind of overtime hour coverage from all the workers who are still here. And people are just not able to do it. They’re not able to do it because they’re worn out, because they’re sick, because it’s more expensive to get to work. All of those things are having factors in compounding the staffing problems.

Brancaccio: Now some of these cancellations, you know, we get the text as a passenger that says, “You’re out of luck, the flight got canceled,” will either blame weather, but it may blame staff shortages. Now, you can’t speak for pilots or ground crew, but what’s it going to take to get the flight attendants that are needed?

Nelson: Well, what I will say is that we had an incredible program during COVID to have payroll supports to keep people in our jobs. There was a lapse in funding from Oct. 1 to the end of December. This is in 2020, so just three months. Flight attendants alone, to get everyone back on the job once the funding was reinstated, it took eight months to train people and get them back on the job. So you can imagine. We are certified safety professionals, but the training and the skills for a pilot take more time. When you bring the operation down and you put people out on unpaid leave, or there’s just not work for them, they’re not keeping their credentials up. And that training compounds because there is annual training that aviation workers are going through anyway. That takes up the training centers. If you have to bring people back, and you have extended periods of time to get them retrained, recertified, then there’s a backlog of slots for training. And it makes it very difficult to staff up the operation once you’re down.

Brancaccio: I mean, you’re making an argument for “keep people on.”

Nelson: Keep people on the job, yes! And that was our plan. That was our plan, and because there was a lapse, because Congress didn’t keep that in place, we’re still seeing ramifications of that. Some of these problems were created before COVID even started, when the airlines drove, like many other industries, to such high productivity and expected people to essentially do the work of two people, one person doing the work of two people as compared with staffing you might have seen before 9/11. And so coming out of this crisis, where you also have people getting sick at a higher rate, and you’ve got other complications, the COVID effect, it’s just not possible for people to be working at that same level that they were before.

Brancaccio: You’d think that these, what are comparatively high ticket prices that we’re seeing these days, would trickle down to you and your members to help solve the problem of getting the people the airlines need.

Nelson: We were scheduled to go into contract bargaining in 2020, practically across the entire industry, every airline and every craft working on or around that airplane. And those negotiations were held off. So there is an issue of attracting people to these jobs and making it something that people want to come do because the pay and benefits match the demand of people looking for good work. And so there needs to be an effort to get those contracts done, to not have people out on the picket lines and protesting the airlines at a time when we want to be showing people this great place to work. So they’d be better off reinvesting the profits that they’re finally getting back to right now into these contracts, settling those issues and working very hard on staffing up. Now, I want to be realistic, though, that does take time. But there are some things that the airlines can do right now to help. So there’s operational support, like people who pick up the phone at what we call the crew desk. In some cases, crews are waiting online one, two, three, four hours to get in touch with someone. And for every one person that’s added, you’re gonna have an additional support to about 500 people who are out in the field trying to staff your flight. So there are some immediate things that the airlines can do to help tell make sure that operation moves more smoothly, even as they’re working on the longer-term fix of fully staffing up.

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