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Arbitrator Says United’s Flight Attendants Aren’t Entitled to Sit in Premium Plus Seats

Arbitrator Says United’s Flight Attendants Aren’t Entitled to Sit in Premium Plus Seats

Flight attendants at United Airlines have lost a challenge to be allowed to sit in United’s Premium Plus cabin when ‘deadheading’ or ‘positioning’ on duty.  Instead, the minimum level of service that deadheading flight attendants should expect is United’s Economy Plus, which is, at the very least, one step up from the airline’s entry-level basic Economy seats.

The flight attendant union had challenged managers after the Chicago-based airline introduced its version of Premium Economy which is known as Premium Plus.  The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) believed flight attendants should have been booked in this new class of service as a minimum but United disagreed.

The airline only wanted to put flight attendants in its Economy Plus cabin which are standard Economy class seat but with a few inches of additional legroom.  This is the lowest possible cabin that flight attendants can be booked in when they are on duty but ‘deadheading’.

Deadheading normally happens when an airline needs to get crew to a new destination but they are surplus to requirements and don’t need to work on the flight that they are a passenger.  The term ‘positioning’ is sometimes used because the airline is positioning the crew to where they need to be.

For example, in the case of recent bad weather, airlines have found themselves with crew out of position and must deadhead them to where they need to be.  Deadheading can also be used when a flight attendant injures themselves or if there’s an aircraft swap that needs more or less crew.

The Association of Flight Attendants had negotiated a deal with United that would see deadheading flight attendants saved from the full horror of flying in Economy with a minimum upgrade to premium economy but the contract was written long before United thought of introducing a new version of premium economy.

Not only does Premium Plus offer a completely different type of seat which is akin to domestic First Class but United also rolled out a new service concept when it officially launched the product in 2019.

The union claimed Premium Plus was also premium economy and an upgrade for deadheading flight attendants was in order.

Unfortunately, an independent arbitrator who is assigned to have the final say on disagreements over the flight attendant contract didn’t agree.  The arbitrator came to the conclusion that neither the airline or union envisioned Premium Plus existing when the contract was negotiated which left a gap between the two sides.

The union has told flight attendants that it attempted to secure the best available seats for its members but there was never any understanding that anything other than Economy Plus was up for offer.

Therefore, United will not be required to offer Premium Plus.

That’s not to say that deadheading flight attendant won’t be upgraded to Premium Plus or even Business Class should there be seats available.  This is generally permitted once upgrades have cleared and there are still spare seats.

However, if Economy Plus is fully booked, then the contract ensures that passengers must first be downgraded in order to accommodate deadheading flight attendants.

View Comments (3)
  • I have stopped flying Alaska because I was downgraded from full fare first class to premium economy due to a deadheading pilot. The whole seat assignment change was poorly handled! And the jump seat in the cockpit was empty!!

    • if you were ‘downgraded’ for the reason and in the manner you state, that’s a surefire way to lose business.

  • Premium Plus has nice seats but the service is terrible. Maybe that’s just United as a whole. 9.5 hour day time flight from Zurich to Dulles. No beverages other than during the two meal services. FAs disappeared for over 4 hours at one stretch. They would hustle through the section like we were lepers when they were around. I can’t imagine spending $1800 to upgrade to that type of service.

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