Close to 360 flight attendants who work for an American Airlines regional carrier are heading into the last days of a strike vote this week over frustrations with low pay and stalled contract negotiations, union officials said.
About 200 of the Piedmont Airlines flight attendants are based out of Philadelphia International Airport. The carrier is an American Airlines subsidiary that flies under the American Eagle brand. In addition to its PHL base, it operates a second one in Charlotte, N.C., and flies to more than 50 locations on the East Coast.
Between 2019 and 2020, Piedmont flew about 9% of all passengers boarding at PHL.
Contract talks between Piedmont and the flight attendants’ union have stretched out for three years. Strike ballots went out to union members in late September, and the votes will be tallied Thursday.
“We’ve worked the front lines of the pandemic, and we can no longer afford to work at Piedmont,” said Keturah Johnson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA Local 61. “And this is the thanks we get — to continue to stall our negotiations.”
New hires making about $19 an hour, for 72 guaranteed hours per month, earn an average base pay of nearly $16,500, according to the union. Flight attendants in their fifth year have an average base of $24,287. That doesn’t include other factors that can boost pay, like flying additional trips.
“Piedmont values the work that our more than 350 flight attendants do to take care of our customers and each other every day,” a company spokesperson said. “We are actively engaged in contract conversations with the AFA to ensure that our team members feel supported and valued and look forward to continuing our negotiations with the AFA in November.”
According to the airline, a “joint decision was made to pause contract negotiations” in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, and talks resumed in June.
American Airlines did not provide additional comment.
Johnson said wages are such a problem that the union set up food banks in crew rooms at PHL and Charlotte.
“It’s other flight attendants putting food inside to help each other out,” she said.
Along with higher pay, the union is pressing the company not to increase health-care costs. It’s also trying to win provisions for lodging the night before a trip. These commuter-room benefits would help flight attendants, for instance, who live further away from the airport and need to report for work in the early morning.
Flight attendants have sometimes had to sleep in their cars so they can report for duty on time, and because they can’t afford another option, the union said.
A strike wouldn’t take place right away. The union would discuss the results with the company, and, ultimately, the National Mediation Board — a federal agency that mediates labor-management disputes for airlines and railways — would have to allow the strike to go forward.
Permission from the NMB to strike still comes with a 30-day cooling-off period, and the agency’s website says passenger service is rarely disrupted in the cases it mediates.
A decade ago, both pilots and flight attendants at regional carriers tended to earn low salaries, said airline industry analyst Bob Mann. But a pilot shortage in the 2010s helped drive up wages for that workgroup.
“On the pilot side, the market has kind of gone crazy,” said Mann, pointing to recruiting materials on Piedmont’s website, advertising bonuses of $187,500 for new captains.
“Now, on the flight attendant side, they’re seeing none of this,” Mann said. “So you can imagine the frustration of that. It’s not just this one offer. It’s a decade of seeing wage rates in the cockpit not being extended to them in the cabin.”
The AFA plans to announce the strike vote results Thursday during a picket at PHL, by the Terminal F departures section.
Johnson said her colleagues want to see change and “are very open and willing and ready to take the first step.”