If there was ever a single moment that redefined the aviation industry for Sara Nelson, it was 9/11. “Every day since the planes again began to fly, we go to work with the knowledge that we are not only aviation’s first responders, we are also aviation’s last line of defense.”
Nelson, a flight attendant for United Airlines since 1996, has been international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO since June 2014. Prior to that, she served as international vice-president of the union.
“The tragedy defined who we are, how we approach every single flight and the overall priorities of aviation. We lost our friends and the grief is unspeakable,” she says. “But we fought back in spite of massive job cuts, economic sacrifices and fewer flight attendants to manage fuller than ever aircraft cabins.”
Even so, Nelson loves her job and the people she works with. “Flying is always re-energizing because of the people I fly with and because I love welcoming people to our planes. People are interesting and there’s never a dull moment.”
Hardly a day goes by without seeing unruly passenger incidents appear on social media. Videos of passengers shouting down fellow passengers, refusing to follow directions, or being overtly threatening have become familiar. But Nelson says that despite IATA statistics confirming an overall rise in disruptive passengers, the number of incidents in the US has dropped. She attributes this to stiff fines – raised from $1100 up to $25,000 – and media coverage that helps to “leverage the consequences as a deterrent”.
“Social media is certainly bringing the disruptive cabin incidents further into public consciousness,” notes Nelson. “But we caution the public that videotaping the crew is against most airline policies and these actions can inflate tensions on board.”
Flight attendants are trained to de-escalate tensions and to communicate with fellow crew members to ensure a coordinated safety and security-focused response. “We are also trained in how to instruct other passengers to help when necessary,” she says.
Nelson has been actively involved in union activities from the start of her career and understands the need to achieve goals through collective action.
The union has endorsed US President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the TPP and called for action on global aviation agreements. “We worked with a coalition of unions and community parties to defeat TPP for five years,” says Nelson. “TPP was defeated before the President’s actions, but we appreciate the follow through on his campaign promise. Central to this promise was enforcement of trade deals and protecting American workers.”
A major concern right now for the union is the arrival of Norwegian Air International (NAI) into US markets. “The chief complaint with NAI is that they are attempting to change the rules to outsource aviation jobs to countries with the lowest or no labor standards. It’s an attack on our jobs, our industry as a whole and has terrible implications for our safety and security,” suggests Nelson.
She believes NAI, an Irish-flagged subsidiary of low-cost carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle (trading as Norwegian), is an effort to confuse or mislead consumers. “It’s an attempt to set up a ‘flag of convenience’ model for aviation to match the industry practice for shipping.”
Nelson explains that when it became possible for the shipping corporations to locate outside of the United States, it led to nearly the loss of 100,000 ‘good American union jobs’. And she says she doesn’t want the same thing to happen to US aviation jobs. “We simply want NAI to play by the established rules and operate on a level playing field as intended by the US-EU agreement.”
For its part, Norwegian has said it is committed to using European pilots for the NAI operation. “Our opponents have been very loud with the allegation that we would use Thai crew just because we have a Bangkok base – one of our four long-haul crew bases. But it is not true. In fact, NAI doesn’t actually have a single Asian-based crew member, so it’s a very malicious allegation they’re making,” Norwegian director of communications Anders Lindstrom told RGN in May of last year.
Furthermore, NAI believes American travelers welcome the option of a low-cost carrier rather than legacy carriers that have dominated the US transatlantic markets. “Of course they are trying by all means to stop Norwegian, but our American travelers are very happy to be able to travel to Europe for the first time,” added Norwegian chief communications officer Anne-Sissel Skånvik at the time.
Norwegian’s NAI unit is now prepping to begin low-fares service from the UK and Ireland to secondary airports in the US Northeast with Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.
For its part, the AFA has signed onto a lawsuit with the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) to protest the US DOT’s decision, under then President Obama, to permit NAI to fly to and from the US. “Despite our urgent calls to ‘deny NAI’, which outlined exactly how this airline undermines US jobs and sets a precedent for others to follow, the Obama administration has opened the door for foreign companies with an anti-labor scheme to jeopardize our jobs and the US International Industry,” ALPA said in a prepared statement announcing the legal action in January.
Nelson says the AFA was supportive of the flight attendants at Norwegian Air Shuttle last year when they successfully formed the Norwegian Cabin Crew Association (NCAA). “I never imagined I would be a flight attendant or a union leader,” she says. “I knew very little about it when I was in college.” But she says she gained a keen awareness of promoting equal opportunity, understanding economic disparity and roadblocks to social and economic justice.
“My role as union communications chairperson during the United Airlines bankruptcy would not have been possible without the education I received as both an English and Education major,” says Nelson. “I had the foundational tools necessary to begin a whole new education ‘on the job’ as I handled all internal and external communications during the 38-month bankruptcy and the years leading up to the mergers.”
In an effort to better serve AFA members and their concerns, Nelson launched a nationwide listening tour in February. “The strongest and most effective unions are the ones where union members feel identification with the union and feel ownership of it,” she says. “The listening tours are a component of that – and it demonstrates for members and the leaders of our union why we even exist.”