Association of Flight Attendants Sara Nelson on the aircraft-cabin environment

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Ensuring that the DOT complies with a congressional mandate to extend the minimum time between flight attendant shifts from eight hours to 10 hours is one priority of U.S. flight attendant unions. But there's plenty more on their plates, including ongoing and upcoming negotiations. Airlines editor Robert Silk spoke recently with Association of Flight Attendants-CWA president Sara Nelson about issues of interest to flight attendants that are sure to impact passengers.

Q: Last October's FAA reauthorization bill gave the agency a year to set minimum standards for aircraft seat widths as well as the pitch, or space between rows, but with an eye toward safety rather than comfort. Does the union have a view on whether interior densifications are causing safety concerns?

Sara Nelson
Sara Nelson

A: The FAA bill has two different provisions dealing with cabin conditions. One is just a straight-up effort for the FAA to address seat pitch. We believe that doing that is a concern, actually, if the other provision is not done first. That other provision is a study of evacuation standards and certification standards of aircraft. And what that will do is take into consideration seat pitch and width and other conditions in the cabin: the densification, the body mass of people today, the fact that people have all their devices plugged in and open and can become projectiles. There has not been a certification done in several decades that really takes into consideration the realities of the cabin environment today. We believe that study must be done before the FAA can make the determination on the minimum seat pitch.

Q: Aside from safety, how else has densification impacted flight attendants?

A: There's two things that are most critical here. One is that at the same time densification has gone on, flight attendant staffing has been reduced. There's more passengers that we are managing and fewer of us to do it. That leads to a lot of problems, because the second issue is that when you simply jam more people together there is more likelihood that this is going to create conflict. So we are spending a lot more time using our de-escalation skills and reducing those conflicts. And it also brings up ancillary problems. Everybody wants to bring their luggage on board, for example.

When there's more people closer together, there's less overhead bin space, and somebody's going to have to end up checking that luggage. And that's often a high source of frustration and conflict during the boarding process.

So the densification in the aircraft cabin, coupled with the fact that at the same time these corporations have been squeezing more and more work out of us, with fewer of us, has a huge impact on our job and can result in safety and security issues.

Q: It's true that staffing has gone down over time and cabins have gotten denser, but conversely, it's also true that airlines got rid of main-cabin meal service after 9/11. Doesn't that balance things out?

A: After 9/11 there were staffing cuts across the board and by 2006 they had cut down to [regulatory] minimums on flight attendant staffing domestically. They're continuing to cut today on the long-haul international routes. But you're right, at the same time they took the food off the plane and reduced the amount of service. And yes, anytime there's less duties for us to perform that means we can refocus our time and attention on our other responsibilities.

But what has happened since then is the food has come back onboard. We're now serving more complimentary meals, or we're selling food. And sometimes selling food is more difficult than just handing out food. So the service has rebounded, and our staffing levels have not.

Q: Are the problems as significant as you're saying? Or are you also positioning yourselves ahead of upcoming negotiations?

A: These are issues that we have been identifying for 30 years. We have been focused on safety and security. If you look at the mission statement of our union, safety and security and the cabin environment is right in there, next to negotiating for better wages, benefits and working conditions.

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