The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), the union that represents flight attendants at around 20 airlines including United, has reached a compromise agreement with United bosses over the closure of three foreign crew bases. While AFA wasn’t able to convince United to put the closures on ice, or even stop flight attendants being made redundant, there is still some hope for the staffers hit by decision to close the bases.
In September, United confirmed plans to close bases in Frankfurt, Hong Kong, and Tokyo after the flight attendants union lost a challenge overseen by an independent adjudicator. The closures affected around 840 flight attendants, many of whom couldn’t transfer to a base in the United States because they don’t have the legal right to live and work in the U.S.
The union had hoped that some of those flight attendants could be transferred to the only remaining foreign crew base at London Heathrow where obtaining working visas would be easier – especially for Frankfurt-based crew.
But with 13,000 employees furloughed in the U.S. alone, United wasn’t prepared to open up positions in London. After all, the fact that London-based flight attendants are already picking up more trips than many of their U.S.-based colleagues has been contentious enough without allegations that United was ‘off shoring’ jobs.
Instead, the two sides have managed to reach a compromise. Foreign flight attendants who lost their jobs will now be given the preferential right of reemployment should positions open at the London base between now and March 31, 2023.
The chance of any positions opening up is, of course, highly reliant on how well the airline industry recovers from the Corona crisis. Talk of some promising COVID-19 vaccine candidates being granted emergency use approval by the end of 2020 could lead to a mass rollout at some point in the first quarter of next year.
Many airlines, however, fear the road to recovery will be long and full of bumps. This winter is proving to be even more difficult than even the most pessimistic of airline executives feared, and schedules are being slashed to match a slump in demand for travel.
Even when a vaccine is approved, or mass testing allows increased freedom of movement, the jury is still out on whether the all-important market for business travel will return.
Should foreign-based flight attendants go down the route of getting permission to live and work in the United States, then they’ll also be covered by the compromise agreement with United giving crew until 2023 to secure the necessary visas.
This agreement, though, might end up being academic if Congress passes a CARES Act extension with federal payroll support attached. If that’s the case, United has already promised to recall all of its furloughed employees and that would also be extended to the foreign-based crew (even if their crew bases have been shuttered).
Despite some gains in passenger numbers over recent weeks, travel demand remains at less than 40 per cent of pre-COVID levels. United confirmed on Tuesday that it would push ahead with a pre-flight rapid testing trial in an attempt to convince governments to lift travel bans and ease quarantine restrictions – both of which have crippled the airline industry.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.