- American Airlines is closing its San Francisco base, potentially replacing 400 flight attendants.
- Two-thirds have worked at the airline for 13 years or more, according to union estimates.
- 10 flight attendants told Insider that numerous factors make it difficult to leave the Bay Area.
The mass e-mail landed in the mailboxes of some flight attendants during the flight.
“It is with great regret that I inform you today of our decision to close the SFO flight attendant base,” American Airlines CEO Brady Byrnes said in a September memo obtained by Insider.
By closing its San Francisco base, citing economic factors and changing customer demand, American presented its 400 flight attendants with a choice many said was impossible: leave the airline or leave the state.
The base is home to some of the carrier’s highest-ranking flight attendants, two-thirds of whom have been with the airline for 13 years or more, according to the union that represents American Airlines flight attendants. By Jan. 31, they must select an airport from the airline’s list of hubs outside of California to operate from. For those who can’t or won’t, the only options are to take early retirement (if eligible) or resign, the union told Insider.
In interviews, 10 flight attendants based at SFO told Insider that a myriad of factors make it difficult to leave the Bay Area. (Some asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs, but Insider confirmed their identities and jobs.) Some are single moms, some struggle with health issues, and some have children with special needs. Others have divorced spouses with joint custody of their children, elderly parents, or partners unable to uproot their careers.
“This is home,” said flight attendant Marcia Brown, who has lived in San Francisco for 38 years.
An American Airlines spokeswoman said the airline made the decision to no longer have flight attendants in San Francisco based on logistical factors such as changing size, changing customer demand and fleet changes.
“As we look to the future of our network, we expect San Francisco to maintain today’s flight levels, but there are no future flight prospects based on plans to grow San Francisco and our current network strategy,” they said. he said.
According to aviation analytics firm Cirium, most SFO-based routes rank poorly in terms of profitability compared to other routes on American’s network. Cirium told Insider that this year, the carrier has cut the number of flights from San Francisco by about a third.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled that a state law requiring workers to take breaks every few hours actually applied to California-based airline workers.
Some SFO-based flight attendants suspect they won’t be able to relocate to Los Angeles, a larger American hub, because the airline may abandon California altogether.
American may have a “good business case” for doing so, especially given the airline’s $37 billion in debt, said John Masslon, a senior litigator at the Washington Legal Foundation.
“There may be situations where the plane can’t take off because you have to wait for a rest or meal break,” he said. “Planes will not be able to land and this will have a cascading effect on delayed flights and will disrupt the entire system.”
At 64, Brown plans to retire early, although he wants to continue working.
“It’s very painful that I gave them 38 years of my life and I’m leaving like this,” he said. “I hate to leave feeling angry and bitter. I wanted to leave feeling sad because it was a great career.”
Flight attendants who can’t retire early or relocate will have to commute, which means flying on standby to get to and from their new base in an airline job.
The closest bases to SFO are Phoenix and Dallas, 2-hour and 3.5-hour flights, respectively, and not all of the 400 flight attendants affected will get their first choice. Lower-ranking employees can be stuck commuting across the country, adding dozens of unpaid hours to their schedules.
Cynthia Duarte, a 38-year-old veteran, worries that the extra time she will spend commuting will make it impossible to care for her husband, who has terminal brain cancer.
“Right now, I’m only going twice a week for one day, and he can barely handle it. You add a three-hour commute to that and it triples the amount of time I’m away,” Duarte said. “At our age, I never thought we would face a disease that made every moment count. We don’t know how many are left.”
Many of his colleagues are in the same predicament.
A single mother and flight attendant of more than 20 years, she does not know how to attend to her young child, who needs to change her insulin pump every three days, and how to provide additional childcare. The 30-year veteran, who is battling a life-threatening illness, said the company can’t afford to lose his health insurance, so he plans to commute three hours to Dallas and back for each shift.
Flight attendant Anthony Cataldo, 33, said he plans to travel to America’s base in New York City – for the 5.5-hour flight, where he will compete with other flight attendants for a waiting seat. He estimates that in such a situation, it would cost him $700 a month to commute between hotel rooms and parking lots, which are not provided by the company.
If a flight attendant misses a shift due to lack of standby, only three shifts are allowed per year. After that, each missed commuter turn results in two attendance “points”. According to America’s attendance policy, employees who score 11 points are fired.
A flight attendant, a single mother who has worked in America for more than 20 years, said she was looking for a new job to avoid having to move or go out of state. “I don’t have anybody anywhere else. This is where my family is. This is my support system.”
A dream denied
In an industry where seniority determines the schedule and pay, it brings flight attendants closer to international flights every year, with a higher wage of $68.25 an hour and more schedule flexibility and customization. For many, it’s an end goal that can make the low starting salary, night shifts, and grueling backup hours worth it.
One flight attendant told Insider that decades of experience in achieving this lifestyle are now effectively lost.
“I’ve spent over 20 years and now they’re telling me I can’t serve the rest of my years,” he said. “My plan was to retire in America.”
At a Sept. 27 town hall meeting, company representatives told the SFO-based flight attendants that after several calculations, the carrier determined that operating a base outside of San Francisco simply wasn’t financially viable. source.
Some employees expressed confusion about why they needed to leave San Francisco if the carrier still needed the SFO flights. American specifically expressed plans to keep flights at their current level, meaning the airline would have to fly flight attendants based at other airports.
Given that the airline will continue to hire new flight attendants, several crew members said they felt the airline wanted to replace the veteran crew with new workers who were paid less.
Louis Rangel, who started working in America, said, “We have a 17-year-old daughter who graduated from high school this year and an 11-year-old daughter. It doesn’t make sense for me to want my family to move.” It was said that he grew up in the Gulf region in 1988.
“I don’t know how to start again,” he said. “For most of us, it’s hard to think of being devoted to someone for 30-plus years, and then, no, it’s: Take it or leave it.”
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