Union leader: Flight attendants under threat from unruly passengers

Sara Nelson is president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO.
By Michael R. Malone

Sara Nelson is president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO.

Union leader: Flight attendants under threat from unruly passengers

By Michael R. Malone
During a talk hosted by the Miami Herbert Business School, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, highlighted the role of collective action to safeguard workers’ rights and livelihoods.

In an online discussion with the dean of the University of Miami Patti and Allan Herbert Business School on Wednesday, Sara Nelson, currently in her second term as president of the flight attendant union representing some 50,000 industry workers across 20 airlines, shared behind-the-scenes efforts to protect airline industry workers rights and benefits as the pandemic took hold. 

The head of the Association of Flights Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, told Dean John A. Quelch during the “Herbert Half-Hour” session that the union is looking at ways to safeguard flight attendants against sexual harassment and the surge in unruly passenger behavior. 

“We’ve never seen anything like this on our planes,” said Nelson, referring to the increase in incidents with and between passengers. “In some cases, the people who are becoming agitated on the planes are angry with people who are not complying with the mask policies, they feel that they are putting them at risk.” 

Nelson said she met recently with leaders from the pilots’ and flight attendants’ unions seeking to address the situation. 

“Flight attendants are more eager than anyone to take those masks off—we’re flying 14-hour days,” she said. “But what we recognized in our conversation is that the masks are just a symbol, they are not the root of what’s going on.” Lack of understanding of the policies, an erosion of public trust in government, and mixed messages are fueling the surge in tensions, she added. 

“It’s very difficult, and flight attendants are deescalating or taking the brunt of the aggression from the public every day—it’s not the job that we recognize, so we’re hoping to get that tamped down,” Nelson said. 

Yet it is the work and efforts of collective action, of unions representing the best interests and livelihoods of their workers—made evident most recently during the pandemic—that motivates Nelson and that has earned her the moniker “America’s most powerful flight attendant.” A rocky takeoff in her own career marked that appreciation.

Following a friend’s suggestion and lured by the opportunity for pay, pension, and health care benefits offered by the airlines, Nelson explained how she left behind her first teaching job in St. Louis to become a flight attendant with United Airlines in 1996. 

When her first paychecks were delayed in payroll and her savings nearly exhausted from a cross-country move, a distraught Nelson wasn’t sure where to turn in her new career. Then “someone who looked a lot like me”—a flight attendant and union representative—stepped in, wrote her a check for immediate needs, and then helped to resolve the payroll snafu. 

“It was in that moment that I understood what unions are all about—that individual workers don’t have a voice and can’t fix things in business on their own,” Nelson recalled. “Through a union, I realized that I had a voice and knew that we were stronger working together.” 

The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and its impact on the airline industry “supercharged” her, she explained. When she was selected in 2014 to lead the flight attendants’ union, Nelson was the youngest union president ever elected at a national level. 

Asked if the leadership traits to head unions were distinct, Nelson highlighted the commitment to mission and engagement needed with those you lead. 

“You need to be constantly engaged with the people you represent and the process, and there can be no ego if you’re going to be successful,” she replied. “You’re never going to get anything done unless you have the full faith of those you represent—and the only way to stay close to that is to be constantly interacting and have your ear to the ground.” 

Heading into March 2020, the airline industry was cruising at top speed, with some leaders even suggesting that the industry would never lose money again, according to Nelson. Then, as the pandemic began to spread, it became clear that the coronavirus crisis would not be temporary. 

Together with other airline leaders, Nelson went to work to craft a plan to save the industry that focused on its workers—nearly 80 percent of the industry is unionized. 

“We knew that if we didn’t put forth a plan for labor up front that we would be an after-thought,” she said.

A phone call from the CEO of American Airlines alerted her to just that pending reality. The government’s proposed Payroll Support Package (PSP) included nothing for the airlines. 

Nelson contacted leading legislators and worked closely with them to have grants included for the airlines to cover payroll costs and prevent pay reductions and furloughs. She also helped address other demands to cap executive compensation and ban stock buybacks. 

“Our union called all the major players and urged them to hold the line—which they did—and that’s when the real negotiations happened,” Nelson said. “We were actually able to have some power in those negotiations at the table.” 

Nelson said that the airlines union is fully behind green initiatives for the industry. 

“The Green New Deal is an absolute necessity for the work we do,” she said. “The incidence of air turbulence is on the rise, and that’s a result of climate change—it’s a very serious occupational threat and safety hazard for us,” she added.

“We know that if we don’t tackle climate change, we’re not going to have jobs because the industry won’t be able to run,” Nelson pointed out. “We need to be out there promoting the solutions because we want to see good jobs on the other side of this and also want to see more government investment in research and development and scientific improvements that can move us away from the fossil fuel. We’re starting to see the airlines industry engage in that conversation as well.”