Airport and airline workers staged demonstrations at airports across the U.S. and abroad Tuesday, protesting what they described as disorganized operations that have not built back up since staffing levels were cut at the beginning of the pandemic, forcing them to work too hard for too little pay.
The protests — which included restaurant and lounge workers as well as flight attendants from United Airlines Holdings Inc.
and Southwest Airlines Co.
— spanned dozens of outlets at San Francisco International Airport, as well as large U.S. airports such as those in Atlanta and Los Angeles, and overseas in London and Guam.
Food-service workers in San Francisco told MarketWatch they were striking to demand higher pay and to preserve their current healthcare benefits, as inflation chews away at workers’ incomes. Picketing flight attendants from Southwest and United Airlines demanded expanded compensation and changes to what they say are grueling scheduling policies.
Outside a terminal entrance in San Francisco, flight attendants marched together with the airport workers, some carrying signs that said “One job should be enough.”
“Everything is up but our wages,” said Frank Wang, 70, who has been a bartender at the airport’s United Club lounge for 16 years. He said margaritas now cost $22, hamburgers are $20 and beer is over $10. He makes $16.99 an hour.
“It’s ridiculous,” Wang said, adding that he knows of bartenders outside the airport who make at least $10 an hour more. “The owners are not giving an inch. They should give back to the employees.”
The actions, which the two airlines said hadn’t disrupted flight service, follow rising costs that have outpaced wages and short-staffing and other service hiccups that have caused thousands of flight delays and cancellations this year. And they come after demonstrations by pilots from American Airlines Group Inc.
Delta Air Lines Inc.
and Southwest; the threat of a rail-worker strike, averted for now; and more vocal unionization efforts from household-name companies like Amazon.com Inc.
and Starbucks Corp.
“We’re extremely tired of having to tell our Southwest customers that we’re sorry when we do have those service disruptions,” said Lyn Montgomery, the president of Southwest’s flight attendants union and a 27-year flight attendant.
Montgomery’s union, TWA Local 556, planned to picket at 10 airports, with the demonstrations set to end later in the day, she said. They’d planned to demonstrate in Orlando as well, but didn’t as the region braces for Hurricane Ian, she said. The Association of Flight Attendants, which represents the flight attendants at United, planned to picket at 15 airports, including London and Guam.
Both restaurants and airlines cut back at the beginning of the pandemic, with airlines steering many employees toward buyouts even as billions in government payroll support rolled in. But as travel demand roared back, airlines and airports have found themselves understaffed, and at times facing unruly passengers. Some airline union members have suspected the airlines of overscheduling flights, even amid the understaffing.
When flights resumed during the pandemic, airlines brought back flight attendants but not enough schedulers, said Kristie Rivera, local executive council president for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA Council 11. Schedulers help make sure flights are properly crewed.
She was at the San Francisco airport with protesting United Airlines flight attendants whom she said are being negatively affected by internal process issues. She said there are now fewer than half of the 200 schedulers who were available before the pandemic.
That means that some flight attendants wait for “five to six hours on hold after their 14-hour days” to get their schedules, she said. “That contributes to flight delays and cancellations.”
Susannah Carr, a United flight attendant and a representative for AFA-CWA who attended the demonstration at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, said scheduling issues can pile up quickly. She said if a flight gets canceled, flight attendants often call crew scheduling to find out if they’re reassigned. But time spent on hold leads to more frustration.
She added that when passengers get delayed, flight attendants get delayed too, and that those attendants are repeatedly tasked with working out flight-related hitches.
“Whether that’s because it was a snafu with catering, or there weren’t blankets put on because we can’t source them because of pandemic resource problems, it’s constantly falling on the flight attendants to find solutions to problems,” she said.
Montgomery, president of Southwest flight attendants’ union, said demonstrators were demanding an end to the three-to-four-day shifts during which some flight attendants sit on reserve for 24 hours a day. She said attendants working those shifts can be called to work early in the morning or later in the evening, upending sleeping patterns and leaving workers anxious and exhausted.
She also said the union was demanding compensation for times worked outside of their original schedules, and better access to meals while on- and off-duty. Jets have dedicated storage to keep crews’ meals cold, but she said the ice in those spaces tends to melt and get into the food. Flight attendants sometimes board flights having packed up to six days’ worth of food, given time spent on flights, tight schedules and inconsistent hotel service.
“We have to pack all of our food,” she said. “We’re not able to get off the plane during the day to get food because there isn’t time between flights. And then when we do get to a hotel, many times, that hotel has already shut down its restaurant operations for the night.”
A Southwest representative said the airline not not expect any disruption in service. United did not respond directly to a question on whether the demonstrations might alter negotiations with staff.
“We’ve worked hard to reduce wait times for flight attendants to talk to a crew scheduler, including more hiring and adding digital options for some items,” a United representative said in a brief statement. In a follow-up, the representative added: “This has not impacted today’s operation.”
A day earlier, 1,000 cooks, bartenders, lounge workers and other workers from at least 84 food and drink outlets and 30 contractors went on strike at San Francisco International Airport to demand higher pay. Those strikes continued into Tuesday.
Lines outside those outlets are longer. Stores that are open are being staffed by managers. Travelers should plan to bring their own food, Unite Here Local 2, the union representing those workers, said Monday.
The union said most food-service workers at the airport made $17.05 per hour, and hadn’t had a pay increase in three years. Their employers are proposing that workers contribute pay to the cost of healthcare, something the employers already do. Anand Singh, the union’s president, said nine months of negotiations with employers had failed.
Some of those workers are employed directly by the outlets, while others are run by larger companies such as Compass Group PLC
and Flix. A representative for those employers did not immediately return a request for comment. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Tuesday called a special hearing at San Francisco City Hall to talk about working conditions, wages and benefits at the airport.
Diana Gomez, 30, said she has had a full-time restaurant job at SFO since 2013, and a part-time job at another restaurant there since 2018. She makes $17.35 and $18 an hour at each job, respectively.
She said a lot of airport food workers do double shifts, like her. They’re fighting not just for higher wages and to preserve their healthcare benefits but also for better staffing levels, she said, adding that the restaurants haven’t staffed up adequately since they cut back at the beginning of the pandemic. Sometimes the eateries have just two workers the entire shift, according to Gomez — so they’re cooking and having to work the register for eight hours.
Gomez, the breadwinner for her family that includes her husband and two kids, said she is willing to strike for as long as it takes.
“We have to,” she said. “I would hope the public would support us. I hope the restaurants come around.”