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Flight crew scheduling crisis looms over airlines as Washington dithers

For the airline industry, the complex process of developing October flight schedules is supposed to begin next week. Flight planners would come first, then crew planners. Then, during the first week of September, flight attendants and pilots would bid for October trips. For each day in October, American Airlines

AAL
alone would set up around 4,000 flights.

But right now, US airlines and others can’t plan.

Instead, they are awaiting congressional action on an economic stimulus bill that they plan to include about $25 billion to keep airline workers on the payroll through March 30. Without the funding, around 76,000 airline workers could be laid off on October 1 – possibly all on the same day.

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At American, 25,000 employees have received layoff warnings. American offers voluntary leave and early departure programs, but without knowing whether the fate of payroll protection, it’s hard to know whether to take one. Last week, American extended the application window to 11:59 p.m. on Monday, August 17.

“We are now at a tipping point – this can’t wait any longer,” Julie Hedrick, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, said Friday. “Our schedules are drawn up a month in advance. There is a lot to do in a short time. »

To avoid chaos, Hedrick said, “Congress needs to come back to the table and negotiate. We reached out, telling them how important it is. But for the moment, no discussion is planned in Washington.

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Leave warning notices were sent to 9,500 of the 27,000 U.S. flight attendants represented by the APFA. Without the stimulus bill, Hedrick said, “There could be massive furloughs at our 13 flight attendant bases.”

Working to build a flight schedule is hard work, US spokesman Matt Miller said.

For October schedules, he said, “the process starts at the end of August. Those who choose to volunteer [layoff and leave] programs must be removed from the list of available crew members. There is an obvious challenge if you don’t know which flight attendants would be available.

The same procedure applies in the case of the 15,000 American pilots, of whom 2,500 have received leave warnings.

Hedrick assumed the presidency of the APFA on April 1 after winning the February elections. Based in Los Angeles, she began her career as an Air Cal reservations agent, becoming a flight attendant in 1982. At APFA, she served on the bargaining committee and also worked on the committee that brought together the groups of air hostesses following the 2013 American agreement. /US Airways merger.

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For the past four and a half months, it’s been largely the whole coronavirus crisis all the time.

On April 1, Hedrick recalls: “Our head office was closed; everything was stopped. We had to start remotely, working from home. We had video calls with (about 100 union leaders) every day for the first five weeks. After that it was three days a week for the next month. These calls now take place weekly.

Additionally, Hedrick and other union leaders meet every two weeks with CEO Doug Parker and President Robert Isom. “It’s an opportunity for all of us to speak our minds,” she said. At other times, she contacts executives directly. In July, APFA negotiated the early departure and voluntary leave packages that members are currently considering.

In March, the APFA joined the historic labor effort to secure protection for airline wages, as part of the $2 trillion financial stimulus approved by Congress. As the unions seek a second package, the APFA alone has generated around 50,000 emails. “We know we have bipartisan support; we have 16 Republican senators who have signed on, but we need the bill to come to fruition,” Hedrick said.

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It’s been a tough time for flight attendants who interact with passengers daily, try to avoid getting sick and often find themselves in the middle of the culture war over face masks.

“It’s not an easy task today,” Hedrick said. “In the first month, we pressed the company to require face coverings not only for flight attendants, but also for passengers and others at the airport.

“We were able to achieve this (but) we were disappointed with the lack of leadership” on masks by the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration, she said, noting that “airlines had to do it by themselves”.

American pilots, members of the Allied Pilots Association, are in the same situation as flight attendants.

“We’re looking to October and people are seeing a looming layoff crisis,” APA spokesman Dennis Tajer said. “Having the kind of uncertainty that we have right now is like flying without radar – you just hope things work out.

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“You can’t fly that way,” Tajer said.