Flight attendants demand DOT implement rest-time increase

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Association of Flight Attendants-CWA president Sara Nelson testifying in Washington.
Association of Flight Attendants-CWA president Sara Nelson testifying in Washington. Source: AFA-CWA

Unions are calling on the DOT to comply with a congressional mandate that it increase the minimum amount of rest airlines must give flight attendants between scheduled shifts, to 10 hours from the current eight. 

"Flight attendants are safety professionals who take care of hundreds of thousands of passengers daily," Lori Bassani, national president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents American Airlines flight attendants, wrote in an April 25 letter to acting FAA administrator Dan Elwell. "They deserve to be prepared for long duty days, and travelers deserve flight attendants who are at their best should the worst occur."

Bassani penned her letter nearly six months after the deadline set by Congress in October's FAA reauthorization act for the DOT to write the longer minimum rest time into federal statute. President Donald Trump signed the 2018 reauthorization bill on Oct. 5, after it overwhelmingly passed the House and the Senate. It called for the change to be written into the federal code no more than 30 days after that.

Implementation of the longer rest-time requirement would put flight attendants on a par with pilots, whose minimum rest time was increased to 10 hours as part of a rule-making process the FAA completed in 2011. Airlines were then given two years to adjust pilot staffing and scheduling to the longer minimum. A germination period would also likely be afforded airlines should the DOT comply with the mandate related to flight attendant rest time. 

The DOT did not respond to emails asking for an explanation for the delay. 

Under current regulations, airlines can require a flight attendant to work a 14-hour shift, then return to work for another 14-hour shift after an eight-hour period. Per the rule, the rest time begins as soon as the flight attendant disembarks from the last flight of a shift, and it doesn't end until the attendant boards the first aircraft of the next shift, said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 U.S. flight attendants at 20 mainline and regional airlines. 

On the Record

Association of Flight Attendants-CWA president Sara Nelson talked about issues of interest to flight attendants that are sure to impact passengers. Read More

Unions have negotiated longer minimums at several airlines, Nelson said, but only United, Alaska and Hawaiian already have minimum flight attendant rest times as long as 10 hours. Alaska, she said, has the longest minimum, at 11 hours. United's 10-hour minimum includes an exception in the case of irregular operations. 

In an interview, Nelson said that Congress' inclusion of the extended rest-time minimum in the FAA bill last year followed a three-year public campaign by the union. Congress also required each airline to submit a fatigue risk-management plan to the FAA within 90 days of the bill's passage, which will be either accepted or rejected by the FAA by next October. 

Flight attendants, Nelson explained, are charged with evacuating airplanes during emergencies, handling in-flight medical emergencies and responding to security issues. On a daily basis, she added, they de-escalate conflicts. 

"When we're fatigued, we're less able to do that, we respond slower, and it also has an impact on our health," Nelson said. 

She blamed the DOT's delayed action to increase the rest-time minimum, in part, on the Trump administration's policy that two regulations be eliminated for every one that is added. In addition, she said that the DOT explicitly opposed the minimum rest-time extension ahead of its passage by Congress. 

In a letter last May to then-Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who at the time was the top Democrat on the Senate Transportation Committee, DOT deputy general counsel James Owens listed "inflexible rest periods for flight attendants" among the examples of what he called "unnecessary rule-makings."

Nelson, of the flight attendants union,  also contends that Delta, the only major U.S. airline that does not have unionized flight attendants, has been a primary driver in pushing the DOT and FAA to move so slowly on implementation. Delta, she said, has been arguing that it would have to hire 2,000 flight attendants to comply with the longer rest-time minimum. 

"We know this because we talk with people all over Washington, whether it's on the Hill or in agencies or in industry, who have all given us information that this is the line that Delta is putting out," Nelson said. "We know that they are the main driver, but we know that the rest of the industry is very happy to have them drive this."

Delta flatly disputes that assertion.

"Delta is not lobbying against implementation of the new rule," spokeswoman Ashton Kang wrote in an email last week. "We're preparing now for the change by hiring flight attendants and making adjustments to our scheduling technology so that we can be prepared to support it once it's implemented."

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