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American Airlines flight attendants prepare strike over pay that’s so low, they fight for airplane meals

American Airlines recently offered to raise flight attendant pay by 17%, but workers say that won’t be enough to stop the first airline strike in 15 years.

As the airline and its attendants negotiate, U.S. CEO Robert Isom this week sent a video message offering a 17% pay increase, enough to push new flight attendants in Boston and Miami past eligibility for food stamps.

The airline said the pay increase would take effect immediately and stated that it is not “asking for anything from the union in return,” an unusual move, Isom said in the video message, which was confirmed by an American Airlines spokesperson. “But these are unusual times.”

Still, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) rejected the offer, calling it a “public relations measure” ahead of strike negotiations taking place between American Airlines and the union next week.

Inflation soars, wages remain stable

APFA and American Airlines have been in negotiations about a new contract on and off since the previous one expired in 2019, APFA President Julie Hedrick said. Fortune.

“We’re behind on everything,” Hedrick said. He cited low wages and food expenses on trips as the most pressing problems. When flight attendants travel domestically, they receive an additional $2.20 per hour for food expenses; for international flights, they receive $2.50. These figures are “far behind” what food actually costs today, Hendrick said.

Since 2014, when the previous contract was negotiated, flight attendants have been left with paltry starting salaries even as inflation has soared 33%, Hedrick said. According to an employment verification letter from American, which circulated on Reddit a few weeks ago, an entry A senior-level flight attendant can expect to earn $27,315 a year, before taxes. (Like many airlines, American pays its attendants only for the time the plane is in the air. Boarding passengers, waiting between flights, and traveling to and from the airport mean that flight attendants typically work around of two hours for each “hour of flight” they make are paid.)

With the 17% increase proposed by American, the starting salary jumps to $31,959 per year, or $35.5 per flight hour. That rate pushes young flight attendants who live alone above the level needed to qualify for food stamps in states like Massachusetts or Florida.

Most new flight attendants hired must live in cities like Dallas, Miami and New York, which have high costs of living they can’t afford, Hedrick said.

American flight attendants sleep in their cars, he said. Some of them fight to travel just for the opportunity to eat airplane meals, if the pilots don’t eat first.

“Our new hired flight attendants are having a tough time,” Hendrick said, adding that new employees more strongly rejected the 17% raise.

For these attendees, the pay delay is adding insult to injury when seen in the context of the post-pandemic years, which exacerbated long-standing problems in the industry, including staff shortages, long work hours and unruly passengers, some of whom attack airline staff.

This is causing record exhaustion among attendees.

18 months of picketing

“We’ve been picketing for a year and a half and we’ve done at least 11 pickets,” Hedrick said. “Our flight attendants have demonstrated our determination and our solidarity to get a contract, an industry meeting contract that we deserve and will accept no less.”

The APFA is proposing a 33% increase – in line with the rise in inflation since 2014 – capped at $91 per hour for the first year of a new contract, with pay increases for each year thereafter.

An American Airlines spokesperson said Fortune that the video message “represents the latest from American.” They did not respond to questions about the proposal or upcoming negotiations.

Of the 39 separate issues on the table, such as sick leave or crew rest, APFA and American have reached a “tentative agreement” on 25. The other 14 are associated with compensation, expenses, vacations and others. terms of the agreement.

A 100-year-old law could paralyze the strike

Union leaders face an uphill battle as they head to Washington next week to negotiate. Airline strikes are extremely rare: the last one occurred in 2010, when Spirit Airlines pilots went on strike for five days.

That’s because railroad and airline workers cannot strike unless they receive the green light from federal mediation groups, through the Railroad Labor Act of 1926. One of those groups, the National Mediation Board, will oversee negotiations. with American Airlines and may allow a strike to occur if it finds that the groups are deadlocked. Still, the federal government can also block a strike, as happened in December 2022, when President Joe Biden signed a measure passed by Congress to impose a contract between railroad companies and workers that many workers had rejected.

Biden, who has called himself “the most pro-union president” in history, enforced the deal to avoid an “economic catastrophe” over the holidays, he said at the time. With several major railway companies threatened with an industry-wide strike, the stakes were high to reach an agreement; $2 billion could have been lost for each day of strike.

The stakes of a possible attack on American are less serious, since other major airlines would not be affected.

But American aides aren’t the only ones calling for pay increases. United Airlines is still negotiating a new contract with its flight attendants. Southwest Airlines approved a contract in April that includes pay increases totaling more than 33% over four years. The union representing Southwest flight attendants, the Transportation Workers Union, said it provided record earnings for flight attendants and sets an industry standard.

Likewise, the APFA is calling for a 33% increase, with increases of 5%, 4% and 4% for the remaining years of a four-year agreement.

The union has also stated that it will not accept any agreement without back pay. Last year, American Airlines gave pilots $230 million in back pay after negotiations with its pilots union.

Hendrick’s message regarding the 17% increase seems to be: we want the whole package, not piecemeal increases.

“Our flight attendants don’t want anything to do with this,” he said. “They, overwhelmingly, said yesterday: ‘No, we want a contract. We have been in negotiations for quite some time and it is time to close this deal.’”

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