Flight attendants at United Airlines are resisting the carrier’s decision to bring back pre-departure beverage service for premium passengers on all mainline flights starting November 23 but the union that represents crew at the Chicago-based airline insist it’s got nothing to do with flight attendants being lazy.
In a widely shared internal memo, it was revealed earlier this week that United planned to restore a slew of additional pre-pandemic service elements, including proper glassware and pre-departure beverages.
For the time being at least, United plans to restrict the pre-departure beverage service to pre-poured water or sparkling wine but the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) is concerned that with Covid cases already surging in Europe and infections starting to creep up across the United States, the airline has mistimed the rollback of pandemic protections.
At the start of the pandemic, airlines slashed inflight service so that flight attendants could have as little interaction with passengers as possible. Based on what we knew at the time about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, encouraging social distancing and reducing inflight service was widely encouraged by health authorities.
But U.S.-based airlines have been much slower than many other carriers to restore pre-pandemic service elements despite universal masking, widespread vaccination and access to new and sophisticated treatments for COVID-19 that dramatically reduce hospitalization and death rates.
While many of United’s international rivals have been offering pre-departure beverages for months, United is amongst the first U.S. carriers to recommit to the once familiar welcome beverage.
The flight attendant union’s argument against pre-departure beverages, though, is an interesting one. Following trials conducted in August, AFA objected to the reintroduction of pre-departure beverages for two main reasons.
The first reason was the obvious degradation of social distancing because flight attendants have to get close to passengers during the service, while weaving amongst customers boarding the plane.
The second reason, though, was more interesting. Customers, who are required by law to wear a face mask, are boarding aircraft and being immediately confronted by rows of maskless premium passengers sipping their welcome beverages.
“This “visual” created stands in stark contradiction to the messages to which passengers have been exposed prior to boarding about the need to keep your nose and mouth covered with a mask due to federal regulations,” the union wrote in a message to its members on Friday.
“We have expressed concern that this will only present additional challenges for Flight Attendants seeking to gain compliance with the Federal Mask Mandate,” the memo continued.
Last week, a woman was charged with assaulting a United Airlines flight attendant onboard a flight from Anchorage to San Francisco because he asked another passenger to adjust his face mask so that it was covering both his mouth and nose.
The Association of Flight Attendants has been a big proponent of President Biden’s federal face mask and have called for the mandate to be extended. it is currently due to remain in force through February 2022 at the earliest.
“Lest our objection to the return of this service become mischaracterized, we want to say upfront, this is not about Flight Attendants not wanting to offer this service to passengers on the aircraft,” the union insisted on Friday.
“None of the employees of United Airlines more than Flight Attendants wants to return to a sense of normal on the aircraft, sooner rather than late”.
And AFA says many of United’s customers will agree with them that now is not the time to bring back pre-departure beverage service. AFA points to record customer satisfaction scores as evidence that pandemic-related protective measures are something that customers appreciate.
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.