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Mesa flight attendants turn up heat with strike vote
Flight attendants at United Express operator Mesa vote in favor by big margin
Source: Houston Chronicle
Author: Andrea Rumbaugh
Flight attendants at Mesa Airlines, which operates United Express flights in Houston, moved one step closer to a strike with 99.56 percent of voting members favoring the picket line should negotiations continue to stall, their union announced Wednesday.
That's the highest "yes" vote for authorizing a strike that the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA has seen in more than 20 years.
"I hope this would show the company that they need to do better," Heather Stevenson, union president for Mesa, said Wednesday. "We don't want it to come to a strike. We just want what's fair. We just want what's right. We want a livable wage."
Mesa flight attendants typically make between $13,000 and $36,000 a year, she said, with most salaries on the lower end of that range. They're paid 15 to 20 percent less than flight attendants at other regional airlines, she added.
Negotiations, overseen by the National Mediation Board, are scheduled to continue next Wednesday, and flight attendants can't walk off the job unless the mediation board releases them.
If released, there will be a 30-day cooling-off period in which the union and company can continue negotiations. Flight attendants can go on strike at the end of that period if no agreement is reached.
"There's a whole slew of things that can happen going forward," said Michael Boyd, president of aviation consulting firm Boyd Group International. "But one of them, in the near term, is not a strike."
Boyd said authorizing a strike is part of the hardball process, but it's unlikely that flight attendants will walk off the job.
Jonathan Ornstein, chairman and CEO of Mesa, also doesn't expect the negotiations to culminate with a strike.
"We're going to continue to negotiate on good faith and come to an agreement that the company can afford," he said.
He cited two primary reasons for not meeting the union demands earlier. First, he said, are the fixed-rate contracts Mesa signed with United Airlines and American Airlines. He said the profit margin is less than 5 percent, and there isn't a provision allowing Mesa to pass the cost of pay raises to its partners.
Ornstein also cited recent legislation that boosted the flying time pilots are required to have before they can be hired in commercial aviation. Increasing the minimum to 1,500 hours has put a plug in the hiring pipeline, and Mesa's excess money has gone to recruiting new pilots.
While the pay for flight attendants at Mesa may not be the most attractive, he said the airline has other benefits: It's a fast-growing company with opportunities to quickly advance through seniority, new flight attendants spend shorter stints on reserve than they would at larger airlines, and Mesa has never furloughed a flight attendant.
Mesa also tries to provide more money to its employees whenever possible, he said, in terms of bonuses and other initiatives. If flight attendants share a hotel room, for instance, they get to keep the money that saves the company.
Reaching a contract agreement, he said, "takes reasonableness on both parties."
Phoenix-based Mesa Airlines operates as American Eagle from hubs in Phoenix and Dallas-Fort Worth and as United Express from Washington Dulles and Houston. It has more than 1,100 flight attendants, and about 440 of those are in Houston, its largest base.
United Airlines, whose flight attendants ratified a new contract last year, said it was monitoring the situation.
Stevenson, with the union, expects authorizing a strike will add pressure to negotiations.
"Hopefully, when we meet next week in Washington, D.C., on April 5, the company will take our position more seriously," she said.
In addition to increased pay, Stevenson said the flight attendants want better insurance coverage at a more reasonable price. They also want more flexibility. She said flight attendants don't have options that their counterparts at other airlines get to guarantee they won't be disciplined if they miss work for a family emergency.
If flight attendants ultimately do strike, it would not be a traditional one. The union instead implements CHAOS, Create Havoc Around Our System, where a strike could affect the entire system or a single flight. The union decides when, where and how to strike without notice to management or passengers.
"We're out of options," Stevenson said. "Five years of 'Please' and 'Thank you' and 'Could you do better?' hasn't done anything."
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