Flight attendants brace for job cuts and seek additional income

United flight attendant Jennifer Ritter.

Source: Jennifer Ritter

The coronavirus pandemic has been so devastating to the airline industry that even flight attendants with decades of experience have been told their jobs are in jeopardy.

Jennifer Ritter is one of them.

“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” said Ritter, 50, who joined United Airlines as a flight attendant in 1998. Ritter, who is also a union branch officer of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, suffered trauma in the industry including the 9/11 attacks, bankruptcy, the financial crisis and a merger.

United Flight Attendant Jennifer Ritter with her husband, an American Airlines pilot.

Source: Jennifer Ritter

Then based in Boston, Ritter said she believed at the time that the 9/11 attacks were “probably the worst thing that could happen to the industry.”

Flights were canceled for three days, airlines quickly laid off thousands of employees and went through years of bankruptcies and a wave of mergers which consolidated American industry.

Executives said the impact of the pandemic on demand had been more severe than anything they’ve ever seen.

Chicago-based United warned last month 36,000 employees, including Ritter, about potential time off this fall. Flight attendants, typically the largest of airline task forces, are the most affected: more than 15,000 – 60% of United’s cabin crew – have been told they could be put on leave. American Airlines said it could cut up to 25,000 jobs, including 9,950 flight attendants or 37% of the group employed by the Fort Worth, Texas-based airline. Concessions and voluntary measures such as buyouts help offset some of the time off, the airlines said.

Carriers have shrunk to better meet weak demand, operating at a fraction of their normal capacity to reduce costs, requiring fewer employees.

Immediate job cuts were avoided as terms of $ 25 billion in federal wage assistance prohibit layoffs until Oct. 1. The Association of Flight Attendants and other unions have urged lawmakers to extend this help to preserve jobs until the end of next March. CEOs of airlines, including those of United, American and Southwest, have supported the initiative, speaking with lawmakers recently about it.

Political support has grown to expand this aid, but talks in Washington for a national coronavirus relief plan have not resulted in a deal.

A San Francisco-based flight attendant said he preferred there not to be additional help from the airlines to avoid the uncertainty.

“We all need to know what we do next,” said the flight attendant, who declined to give her name because he feared jeopardizing her job and is currently looking for administrative work in the area. technology.

Some flight attendants seek the support of union advisers and co-workers.

“Everyone’s on pins and needles,” said Heather Healy, two-decade director of the Employee Assistance Program for the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents cabin crews at airlines such as United, Spirit and Alaska. Pilot unions have similar programs, such as Project Wingman at the Allied Pilots Association, which represents approximately 15,000 American Airlines aviators.

The AFA program was so inundated with calls from flight attendants worried about the health and job security crisis that it launched group support sessions to welcome everyone.

Stress for flight attendants has built up due to issues such as changing safety standards for passengers and crew and flights within and outside cities with different restrictions for manage Covid-19.

“They had to be flexible and quite adaptive. Now we come to a [issue for which] there are no guidelines from the CDC and that is the economic impact of Covid, ”Healy said.

Flight attendants have unique jobs and those who are still employed but don’t fly often, if at all, can face social isolation, a shocking change for people in a career that usually involves constant interaction with the flight attendant. the others, Healy added. And for those in the workforce, flight attendant skills to manage people might not be in demand at a time when companies have increased physical distance.

Airlines executives have urged employees to take unpaid or partially paid time off, early retirement, buybacks that include extended medical benefits and cash severance pay, and other options to help minimize cuts forced. Thousands of people accepted the offers. TO Southwest Airlines, nearly 30% of the staff at the Dallas-based airline have volunteered, and CEO Gary Kelly said the airline do not expect to have to make unintentional cuts this year.

Airlines first put the most junior employees on leave, but those potential cuts were so big that United flight attendants would have had to start by November 1996 to be safe, according to a staff memo earlier this summer. . But United had enough flight attendants signing up for voluntary time off, the union said on Friday evening, so the cutoff now affects cabin crew members that began in 1999, meaning Ritter is safe from involuntary leave in October.

But the work will be different. These coveted trips to Tokyo, Frankfurt and dozens of other cities around the world are in doubt. International travel, a mainstay of major airlines like United, has been sharply curtailed and may take longer to rebound than shorter domestic US travel, in part due to a host of travel restrictions.

American Airlines told flight attendants last month – urging them to take voluntary leave or retire early – to expect more domestic travel because “international flights will be drastically reduced until the end of this season. At least 2021 ”. Staff will also be reduced for international and international flights.

“While you study the details of these [voluntary leave and retirement] programs, I also want to make sure that you fully understand the new reality of what your schedule and flights can look like, ”wrote Jill Surdek, senior vice president of flight attendant services at American , July 24. “The reality is that our business is going to change, move forward, and for the long haul.”

United’s Ritter applied for a corporate program that would allow her to keep her job if she shares her schedule with another flight attendant.

She said she would hate to lose the job that sent her repeatedly to Germany, where she was a student and then acted as a tour guide for some of the younger flight attendants during layovers, but she explored alternatives this summer.

“I am currently in the process of applying to New York State to be a contract tracer” for Covid-19, she said. Flight attendants are “very used to talking to people, defusing and understanding things. I’m a numbers person too.”

United Flight Attendant Susannah Carr (R) with colleagues.

Source: Susannah Carr

In the meantime, she’s doing her own cost cutting.

“We are cutting back where we can,” Ritter said. She and her husband, an American Airlines pilot, who is immune to the risk of time off, have canceled their cable service and are avoiding restaurants and travel this summer.

“We’re squatting,” said Ritter, who is based in Newark but lives with her husband and two school-aged children in Poughkeepsie, New York. She is considering lowering contributions to her pension fund.

This is a difficult situation for many as unemployment remains high, increasing competition for jobs. The industry is faltering across the board, so the chances of landing a job with another carrier are slim.

Salary varies widely for flight attendants. A 22-year-old flight attendant on reserve duty, for 78 hours per month, is paid $ 5,093 gross at United, while the gross monthly salary for a flight attendant with five years of experience with the carrier is 2 $ 925, according to the union. The salary can go up if they take additional flights, speak multiple languages ​​and receive daily allowances.

Susannah Carr, another Newark-based United flight attendant who joined the airline in 2015, said she reactivated her account on the Wag app to earn money walking dogs when she wasn’t flying this spring.

“The rent in so many places where we have bases is extremely high and it’s high at the best of times,” said Carr, 29. “Losing your job is astronomical.”

“That eats up about my entire first paycheck,” Carr said of her $ 1,500 share of the rent from the apartment she shares with another flight attendant near her Newark base. .

Carr, who worked as a nanny in college and says her monthly student loan payments are manageable, previously worked as a wedding planner and account manager for a translation company.

She is now circulating her resume on job sites.

“Obviously there are a lot of people looking for jobs and there could be a lot more in the near future,” she said. “I definitely realize that maybe I won’t necessarily get the job I want now. I’m going to get the job I need now.”

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