Seniority is Everything

We are at a cross roads in the aviation industry. Here we are…another crisis has crippled the airlines, thus bringing about another round of upcoming furloughs. But something is different this time. Change is in the air.

Before I go any further, I’d like to set a scenario for you. A large corporate office suddenly experiences a financial hardship and the company has to make the tough decision to downsize its staff since it can no longer afford to keep all of the employees on the payroll. Every executive is told they will have to lay off one member of their team.

One exec has narrowed his choice down to two people. There’s Janice, a woman who has been with the company for over 30 years, but her performance level has declined over the years. She is sometimes late, often surly and has been resistant to changes in technology and workflow procedures. She is content with doing the bare minimum that her job requires and is quick to catch an attitude when others ask her to help out with a task. But because of the amount of time she has been with the company, she commands a high salary thanks to annual increases. Then there is Rebecca, who has only been with the firm for 2 years. This is her first job out of college and she doesn’t make nearly as much money as Janice. However, even though she has the same title and job description as Janice, her entry level salary does not bother her. Rebecca is always on time, energetic and ready to work. She is happy to help others.

The choice is pretty obvious on who to keep, right? Alas, Rebecca is the one who gets the pink slip. The exec chose to keep Janice because even with her high salary, bad attitude and bare minimum performance, Janice has been with the company for a longer period of time and the exec felt she deserved to stay because of that reason alone. It didn’t matter that Rebecca was more efficient, helpful and commanded a lower salary (which also makes for an easier choice when it comes to lowering payroll costs). The exec thought Janice’s seniority was all that mattered when it came time to make the call, so Rebecca, the low (wo)man on the totem pole gets sent on her way.

I know you are probably wondering what kind of bizarre universe does that kind of illogical thought-process make any sense. However, that is exactly how unionized flight attendant contracts work. As my flying peers at all the U.S. airlines and I prepare for the October 1st furlough, we are now discovering the downside of being unionized. It doesn’t matter how hard you have worked, how available you have made yourself for your employer. No thought is given to those logistics. It’s all about cutting staff from the bottom up. Flight attendants who have put in their years and are above the furlough cut-off line are safe, regardless of their work performance. As one flight attendant eloquently told me on Twitter, “Seniority is everything.”

Now before my peers get their panties all in a bunch, I will say there are also junior and mid-level flight attendants who possess bad attitudes and are not very efficient at their jobs. So this is not a senior vs. junior hit piece. This is simply an examination at something that may have worked many years ago, but now seems to be broken and archaic.

Last week one particular flight attendant union struck up a deal with one of the majors in an attempt to save some of the mid-level FAs who would have been up for furlough. These people are not super senior, but they are not exactly junior. They kind of fall in that mid-tier level—kind of like purgatory between heaven and hell. The union accomplished this deal through a side letter, which is an amendment to an existing contract that alters the contract to a degree. The details can be read about here, but the bottom line is that as a result of this action, they were able to save many flight attendants from being involuntarily furloughed (many of whom serve as officers within the union). In doing so it left the bottom, more junior flight attendants out in the cold. No side letter can save them. Come October 1st, it’s lights out.

The furloughs are going to happen regardless (unless there is that 11th hour save with the PSP extension). The point is that the actions of the elected officials of that union, and the way they orchestrated the ratification of the side letter without prior notice to their members have left many flight attendants with a bad taste in their mouths.

Kim Cattrall / Sex and the City

There is one airline that doesn’t have to deal with this foolishness…Delta. The flight attendants there do not have union representation, despite many efforts to make that happen. They seem to enjoy higher salaries and bigger profit sharing checks than those of us who are unionized. Of course, they also have a CEO who seems more in tune with keeping employees paid and happy.

Bottom line is flight attendants at many airlines have enjoyed the benefits that come from unionization; however, there are also downsides to this membership. Performance issues with flight attendants that would normally lead to termination at “at-will” employment organizations become mired in arbitration and usually lead to little disciplinary action from the company because of interference caused by the unions. Then of course, there is the issue of who goes first when it comes to furloughing workers.

Just because something has been in place for decades doesn’t mean it should remain that way. Times change, and when they do sometimes infrastructures have to change as well. Hollywood studios used to have actors signed to long-term contracts and those studios outright owned their talent. That is no longer the case. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until some actors finally struck back to take control of their careers that the studio contract system began to crumble.

Hopefully, this is the last hoo-rah for the aging infrastructure of the seniority-based flight attendant industry. Airlines are looking at the bottom line. They have to honor the contracts in place. But they know deep down inside, if they were making cuts based solely on performance, their payroll ledger wouldn’t be so top-heavy. Senior flight attendants who are at top pay scale are given way too much leeway because “seniority rules.” I’m not speaking about all of them; however, the ones who are given multiple attempts during annual requalification training at passing all the simulated evacuations and CPR drills, would not have a jumpseat to sit in if the system weren’t rigged in their favor.

In closing, I’d like to add that I’ve shared my thoughts in the hopes of encouraging dialogue and allowing people to look past the curtain and see things from a different perspective. Don’t think of me as an anti-union propagandist. Think of me as a disruptor.

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