Updated with comments from Alonzo Andrew; Jack A. Davis, former Air Line Pilots Association president
Air service was good in 2012. It wasn’t so good in 2013 and 2010. Airline services must pick up, or they will become a service issue, as airlines continue losing market share to competitors.
Tom Chambers, president of United Airlines Flight Attendants Association, and Alonzo Andrew, a flight attendant with a well-known local chapter, joined us at the Washingtonian Tech Ticker to talk about the changing face of air travel. They’re both New York-based flight attendants with about 35 years’ service between them, and both are well-known in Washington for their work with the Aerotropolis organization. Chambers is also the former president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers and the former president of the Air Line Pilots Association, which was settled following last year’s lengthy contract talks.
Both agree that the biggest challenges facing current flight attendants come from two distinct but related areas: technology and wages. Andrew says flight attendants currently spend about 14 hours a day tending to passengers’ needs. He calls that “golden” time. “This shouldn’t be for the purpose of collecting a paycheck,” he said. Chambers explains, “We’re not trained to care about our passengers.”
On other issues, Andrew cited the rapidly increasing use of mobile phones in air travel. “Phones are not turned off,” he said. “Phones make problems.”
He cited a push from Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to have U.S. airlines voluntarily protect cellphone conversations to passengers. “It’s really too bad that he had to do that to get U.S. airlines to provide that seat option,” Andrew said. “We need to be responsible as Americans for our own needs and our own needs are first.”
The two agreed that they were surprised by the final budget that President Obama signed last week. Obama included $15 billion in new or expanded airport improvements and a new $300-million fund for airport modernization.
“I don’t think it will benefit air travel and travel,” said Andrew. “If you look at the budget, it takes a lot of money for one goal. We’re looking at $2.7 billion for maintenance. Some of those numbers just don’t pencil out.”
Airline service needs to be adapted to best serve modern attitudes, Andrew said. “The airplane is not the message, the person is the message,” he said. “Change is a constant, but adapt to change.”
Both agree that the Federal Aviation Administration should take immediate steps to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system. “We need urgent FAA action,” Andrew said. “This is something that the president should be signing executive orders. We’re behind the ninth-most sophisticated system in the world. The director of the FAA needs to be a local guy,” he said.
Chambers said he expected greater turbulence for the industry this year as job security becomes an increasingly important factor. “Wages go down when jobs go up,” he said.
As for airlines, Chambers doesn’t think the same free market dynamics that have made airlines so successful will endure. “They will see that this is a better business now,” he said.
At the end of our conversation, Jeff Hughes, a military pilot and one of our guests, asked both Chambers and Andrew for their opinions on the recent comments by AirTran management suggesting that it’s time to start comparing carrier loyalty programs. “The best loyalty programs are organized by code partners,” said Andrews. “I don’t see code partners diminishing the importance of their loyalty programs,” he added. “They should also keep this program up to date.”
We didn’t ask either of them whether AA is losing a lot of money in DC or eventually must offer service from Reagan National Airport to other destinations other than Washington.