Flight Attendants Union Seeks To Undo Court Victory That Allows California To Regulate Cabin Crew Breaks

This summer the Supreme Court let stand a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that said flight attendants based in California are subject to the state’s rest rules.

In Bernstein v. Virgin America the court found that California could require 30 minute meal breaks for flight attendants every 5 hours, and 10 minute rest breaks every four hours.

  • Alaska Airlines, which had acquired Virgin America, argued that flight attendants were covered by federal law, and that the Airline Deregulation Act pre-empted state regulation. Issues of price, routes, and service are covered by the act, seeking to avoid a ‘patchwork’ of 50 sets of rules for interstate travel.

  • The ruling applies to flight attendants based in California even when they’re traveling out of state (The former Virgin America flight attendants in this case worked only 31% of their time in California.)

  • The Supreme Court let the matter stand, rather than considering whether labor laws were trumped. Ironically, the flight attendants are covered by a union contract and are represented by the AFA-CWA which didn’t consider bargaining over these issues to be a priority in past contracts.

Now, Sara Nelson’s AFA-CWA – which supported the lawsuit – regrets the outcome which is that basing employees in California could become too costly to an airline operation. Flight attendants could be forced to move bases to maintain their employment.

However she sees an opportunity, and is pushing for legislation that would exempt airlines from the rules the lawsuit upheld provided the airline makes acceptable union contract concessions.

In a new state bill tabled by California Senator Dave Cortese, flight crew would be exempted from California’s rest and meal break rules – but only if they are covered by a collective bargaining agreement which has provisions that address meal and rest breaks

Acceptable provisions include guaranteed meal and rest periods, as well as providing compensation in lieu of meals or recognizing that it is acceptable that flight crew eat and drink while onboard the aircraft.

The lessons here are (1) be careful what you wish for, but (2) it’s all just leverage anyway. Of course, unless limited to California bases, would mean that California effectively regulates flight attendant pay and work rules for the entire country. And if airlines have a specific ‘budget’ for flight attendant compensation heavier work rule restrictions limit pay increases. That could be another ‘unintended consequence’ for flight attendants of Sara Nelson’s efforts.

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