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Southwest, United flight attendants picket in Chicago; expert says they have a lot of leverage

Flight attendants picket at O'Hare, Midway, call for better contracts
Flight attendants picket at O'Hare, Midway, call for better contracts 02:49

CHICAGO (CBS) -- It has been a brutal pandemic for the airline industry and this summer — wasn't much better — with massive cancelations and weather issues.

It has all left those manning the cabins of America's airlines picketing for better contracts. As CBS 2's Chris Tye reported, three weeks ago it was the freight train workers of America threatening to strike - and they got a late deal done. Now, flight attendants are airing concerns.

One big difference between railroad workers and flight attendants two is that federal law makes it nearly impossible for airline unions to conduct legal strikes, Meanwhile, the airline industry has had had over 130,000 flights canceled so far this year.

Flight attendants began an informational picket in front of Midway and O'Hare international airports on Tuesday. Southwest Airlines flight attendants held their picket at Midway, their United Airlines counterparts did the same at O'Hare.

"It's coming to a head here, but the flight attendants have a lot of leverage," said transportation expert Joe Schwieterman of DePaul University, who has studied air travel for decades.

While travelers felt delays and cancellations - and the intensity over COVID masking rules — the flight attendants couldn't escape it and were often viewed as the bad guys.

Just last week on a flight San José del Cabo, Mexico to Los Angeles, the assault of a flight attendant was caught on camera.

"A very difficult onboard experience they had this summer, and they just want a change in the way they can approach their job," Schwieterman said.

The flight attendants are picketing — not striking — for:

  • Better pay;
  • More safety on the job;
  • Policy changes to improve the quality of life.

On the other side of the table is an airline industry in flux.

On the positive side of the ledger, airlines are paying far less for oil. Demand for airline tickets also remains sky high - leaving fares for business and pleasure travel way up.

But recession talk has left the airlines with deep uncertainty for 2023 - this as they're just getting over COVID slowdowns.

The railroad workers avoided a last-minute strike earlier this month. Are flight attendants taking their cue from their rail counterparts?

"It's a whole new phenomenon – during negotiations to be out there picketing to let the public know that they want a better deal," Schwieterman said.

The deal is we don't know if the pickets will lead to more cancellations. But for an industry that had a brutal summer and felt the pandemic as hard as any, the pressure is on to keep flight attendants happy.

"There's real fears that just when they get all those planes back flying, demand could unravel," Schwieterman said.

Southwest's flight attendants have been working under an old contract since 2018. United flight attendants say it's operational failures — from scheduling to staffing — that are eating away at quality of life.

In a statement, United said:  We've worked hard to reduce wait times for flight attendants to talk to a crew scheduler, including more hiring and adding digital options for some items."

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