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Labor History and Passenger Outrage in the U.S. Airline Industry

During the Spring of 2017, the U.S. airline industry became the target of widespread public outrage. The unrest began at Chicago O’Hare on April 10th, when United Airlines attempted to remove Dr. David Dao from a flight to Louisville in order to make room for pilots headed to their next flight. When he refused to disembark, police violently dragged Dao from the aircraft, bloodying his face and knocking out his teeth. Passengers seated near Dao recorded the assault, and as the video went viral, scores of other travellers posted their own accounts of abuse at the hands of airline officials. By the end of the week, two decades of public discontent over smaller seats, less legroom, crowded terminals, food and beverage cutbacks, and invasive security checks boiled over. But despite calls for new legal protections for passengers, and regardless of a media environment so hostile that Delta cancelled its annual press relations day, airline policy reforms are not forthcoming. To initiate such changes, aggrieved travelers must build alliances with airline employees, whose unions have long played a key role in making air travel safer and more convenient, but who face ongoing setbacks amid three decades of fierce corporate mobilization against the labor movement.

The argument that organized labor has defended passenger interests may at first seem counterintuitive. Prior to the 1980s, the airline industry had been the site of militant union activism. Leftist Michael Quill’s Transport Workers Union, for example, took a combative approach on ground workers’ behalf at American and Pan Am, and Machinists’ union strongmen Guy Cook and Charlie Bryan drove a hard bargain that spawned long strikes at Northwest and Eastern. Although direct action tactics left individual passengers stranded in many cases, a strong labor movement benefitted passengers collectively because it provided a check on corporate power that forced airlines to be accountable to their stakeholders.

The affinity between airline unions and the flying public was particularly evident in the context of flight attendants. Before 1970, most major carriers had hired young, single, conventionally attractive white women to provide service aloft. Arguing that future husbands would meet these women’s long-term economic needs, managers denied flight attendants access to lifetime employment that pilots, mechanics, and ground crews were guaranteed, and locked them out of the most lucrative pension benefits. In an era when the cultural ideals of the traditional male breadwinner and the family wage reserved high wage jobs for men, flight attendants at some carriers made 20% less than men in comparably skilled trades. To counteract that disparity, flight attendant activists built alliances with the women’s, gay, and lesbian liberation movements of the 1960s. While the new wave of activism helped flight attendants to narrow the gender wage gap and to overturn overtly sexist age and marriage restrictions, it also allowed activists to transform their day-to-day workspace in a manner that benefitted passengers. In 1977, for example, American Airlines flight attendants threatened to strike in an effort to force the company add an additional crewmember to assist travelers on the company’s large fleet of Boeing 727s. Two years later, flight attendants came within hours of a work stoppage at Pan Am as part of a campaign to increase staffing on intercontinental flights. By the end of the decade, flight attendant unions had won the right to provide formal input on the configuration of airplanes’ galleys, aisles, and seating, securing more space and more resources for crews and passengers alike.

Things changed drastically in the airline industry after 1980, when a new wave of pro-business activism elevated the political power of large corporations. Business leaders argued that while students, environmentalists, feminists, and anti-racist activists had surged ahead in the 1960s and 1970s, traditional, hard-working American families had fallen behind. To create what they claimed would be new opportunities for ordinary families, corporations rolled back the gains that flight attendants and other dissident activists had made. Airline executives made this cultural argument explicit as they mobilized against their flight attendants. In 1986, for example, TWA CEO Carl Icahn told flight attendant union leaders that he could get “19 year old girls off the street” to do their jobs, and that flight attendants deserved to take a 40% pay cut because women workers “are not breadwinners.” Similarly, when employees walked out on strike to protest wage reductions at Continental Airlines in 1983, CEO Frank Lorenzo negotiated a settlement agreement with the mostly-male pilot group but fired all flight attendants who participated in the action. Although the ideal of the traditional family allowed managers to justify particularly harsh treatment for flight attendants, corporations extracted deep economic concessions from all unionized workers and not just those with feminist leaders. Wages tumbled as workers at Continental, TWA, Eastern, and other airlines staged long and unsuccessful strikes in the 1980s to protest the corporate pushback against unions.

After these setbacks, and with the wider labor movement in jeopardy, flight attendant unions have been less willing to risk their members’ jobs in the direct action protests that benefitted passengers and crews in the past. Absent a militant check on corporate power, airline managers have been free to redesign the travel experience on their own terms. The consequences of such changes are now familiar to all travelers. When Delta Airlines renovated its Airbus A320 jets beginning in 2015, for example, it wedged both economy class lavatories into the space that one lavatory had previously occupied. American Airlines is now in the process of removing one row of first class from its Boeing 737s, and of shoehorning fourteen more economy class seats into the freed up space. All major airlines are fitting their aircraft with “slimline” seats, which eliminate half the padding found in traditional coach seating. The thinner profile allows carriers to push rows closer together, thus squeezing more people aboard each aircraft.

Although the challenges for labor are daunting in the twenty-first century, the airline industry remains heavily unionized, and workplace activism continues to deliver political and economic gains. After six years of arduous negotiations, members of the Association of Flight Attendants at United Airlines finally ratified a new contract in August 2016. The accord brought top pay of nearly $70,000 dollars per year, which is an impressive figure in a service economy where the vast majority of customer-facing workers do not earn a living wage. Thus far, much of the online outrage about the airlines has rendered workers invisible, making them cogs in a bureaucracy that wrongs ordinary people. Public officials and consumer activists should instead recognize that the airline policies that have angered passengers have also left ticket agents, baggage handlers, airplane cleaners, and flight attendants working longer days for far less money. If passenger advocates built a new coalition with airline unions who are demanding better working conditions, they would bolster their demands for a more comfortable, reliable, and accountable experience from the airlines.

Ryan Patrick Murphy is Assistant Professor of History at Earlham College and the author of Deregulating Desire: Flight Attendant Activism, Family Politics, and Workplace Justice (Temple University Press, 2016). Murphy has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Minnesota, and was previously a flight attendant for United Airlines and elected representative of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.