The union that represents flight attendants at United Airlines has called on the carrier to curtail some of its onboard service so that crewmembers spend less time interacting with passengers. The demand from the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) came on the same day United’s chief executive Scott Kirby revealed that 3,000 employees were currently off sick after testing positive for COVID-19.
The Association of Flight Attendants also represents crewmembers at Alaska Airlines and the union managed to persuade the Seattle-based carrier’s management to cut back onboard service through the end of January.
The union says it wants United to follow the lead of rival Alaska Airlines which has scrapped meal services on medium-haul flights and limited in-flight service to just one beverage service in the main cabin on all flights.
AFA says it must “challenge” United’s decision to bring back service elements like pre-departure beverages and a pre-dinner drinks service “amidst one of the most severe COVID surges to date”.
“Perhaps a matter of bad timing, these decisions stand in stark contrast during a period when management has raised concern about increased sick leave calls,” a union memo noted.
“While we can all agree that increasing the level of service for our passengers needs to be a priority, priorities can and should be weighed against other external factors.”
United Airlines is said to actively reviewing the union’s request to curtail some service elements as part of a broader safety risk assessment surrounding the Omicron surge.
Kirby boasted on Tuesday that United’s vaccine mandate had prevented fully vaccinated employees from ending up in the hospital after a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis but around 4% of the airline’s workforce is currently off sick with Coronavirus.
Although the Omicron variant is believed to be less severe in fully vaccinated and boosted adults, the virus can still cause serious health issues, especially in people with comorbidities.
At the start of the pandemic, airlines around the world suspended normal inflight service routines to reduce the amount of time that flight attendants spent interacting with passengers because of infection fears.
U.S.-based airlines were some of the slowest to reintroduce service elements that were lost or heavily cut as a result of the pandemic. United Airlines has been attempting to ‘lead the pack’ with its reintroduction of inflight service and hopes to trial an expanded meal service in select markets next month.
Unlike rivals like Delta, however, United has decided not to reduce its 10-day isolation guidance for Covid-positive staff members in line with updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The AFA has become embroiled in a spat with Delta over its updated pandemic sickness policy after the union claimed the airline was calling on staff to return to work even if they were still testing positive for COVID-19.
Delta sent a cease and desist letter to the union last week but the union has so far refused to withdraw its claims.
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.