American Airlines is closing its San Francisco base, potentially displacing 400 flight attendants.
Two-thirds have worked for the airline for 13 years or more, according to union calculations.
10 flight attendants told Insider a myriad of factors make it difficult to leave the Bay Area.
The mass email hit some flight attendants’ inboxes mid-flight.
“Today it’s with great regret that I let you know about our decision to close the SFO flight attendant base,” American Airlines executive Brady Byrnes said in the September memo obtained by Insider.
In closing its San Francisco base, citing economic factors and shifting customer demand, American presented 400 flight attendants with a choice that many said felt impossible to make: leave the airline or leave the state.
The base is home to some of the carrier’s most senior flight attendants, two-thirds of whom have been at the airline for 13 years or more, according to the union representing American Airlines flight attendants. By January 31, they must select an airport from a list of the airline’s hubs outside of California to work out of. For those who can’t or won’t, the only options are to retire early (if eligible) or resign, the union told Insider.
In interviews, 10 SFO-based flight attendants told Insider that a myriad of factors make it difficult to leave the Bay Area. (Some have asked to remain anonymous in fear of losing their jobs, but Insider verified their identities and employment.) Some are single moms, some are battling health issues, some have children with special needs. Others have divorced spouses with joint custody of their children, elderly parents, or partners who can’t uproot their careers.
“This is home,” said Marcia Brown, a flight attendant who has been based in San Francisco for 38 years.
An American Airlines spokesperson said it decided to no longer have flight attendants based in San Francisco based on logistical factors including the airline’s changing size, shifting customer demand, and fleet changes.
“As we look at the future of our network, we expect that San Francisco will maintain the same level of flying it does today, but there are no plans to grow San Francisco and no future flying prospects based on our current network strategy,” they said.
Most SFO-based routes rank poorly for profitability compared to other routes across American’s network, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium. This year, the carrier cut the volume of flights out of San Francisco by approximately one-third, Cirium told Insider.
In June, the Supreme Court ruled that a state law requiring workers get a break every few hours does in fact apply to California-based airline employees.
Some SFO-based flight attendants suspect they don’t have the option to transfer to Los Angeles — a larger American hub — because the airline could exit California altogether.
American would have a “good business reason” to do so, John Masslon, a senior litigator at the Washington Legal Foundation, told Insider, especially when considering the airline’s $37 billion debt.
“You might have situations where the plane is unable to take off because of having to wait for a rest or meal break,” he said. “Planes will be unable to land and it will have a cascading effect on delayed flights and mess up the entire system.”
A bitter ending
At 64-years-old, Brown plans to retire early, despite wanting to continue working.
“It’s hurtful that I’ve given them 38 years of my life and this is how I go out,” she said. “I hate leaving feeling angry and bitter. I wanted to leave feeling sad because it’s been a great career.”
Flight attendants who can’t retire early or move will have to commute, which in the airline business means flying standby to get to and from their new base.
The closest bases to SFO are Phoenix and Dallas, 2-hour and 3.5-hour flights respectively, and not all 400 of the affected flight attendants will receive their first choice. Less-senior employees may be stuck commuting across the country, adding dozens of unpaid hours to their schedules.
Cynthia Duarte, a 38-year veteran, worries that the extra time she’d have to spend commuting would make it impossible to care for her husband, who has terminal brain cancer.
“Right now I’m only gone for one day, two times a week and he can barely handle that. You add a three-hour commute on to that and my time away triples,” Duarte said. “I never thought at our age we would be dealing with an illness that makes every moment count. We don’t know how many we have left.”
Many of her colleagues are in similarly tough situations.
A single mom and flight attendant of over 20 years doesn’t know how she’d commute and secure extra childcare for her young child, who needs an insulin pump changed every three days. A 30-year veteran battling a life-threatening illness said she can’t afford to lose the company’s health insurance, so she plans on flying the three hours to Dallas and back for each shift.
Anthony Cataldo, a flight attendant of 33 years, said he plans on commuting to American’s New York City base— a 5.5-hour flight for which he’ll compete with other flight attendants for a standby seat. He estimates commuting will cost him up to $700 a month between hotel rooms, which aren’t provided by the company in a situation like this, and parking.
If a flight attendant misses a shift due to a lack of standby space, only three missed shifts per year are allowed. After that, each missed commuter shift results in two attendance “points.” Employees with 11 points are subject to termination, according to American’s attendance policy.
One flight attendant, a single mother who has worked for American for over 20 years, said she’s looking for a new job to avoid needing to move or commute out-of-state. “I have no one anywhere else. This is where my family is. This is where my support system is.”
A dream denied
In an industry where seniority determines scheduling and pay, every year brings flight attendants closer to working international flights, top wages of $68.25 per hour, and more schedule flexibility and customization. For many, it’s an end goal that can make the low starting pay, night shifts, and grueling reserve hours all worth it.
The decades of experience with the goal of achieving that lifestyle are now effectively lost, one flight attendant told Insider.
“I put in over 20 years, and now they’re telling me that I may not be able to put in the rest of my years,” she said. “My plan was to retire at American.”
In a town hall meeting on September 27, company representatives told SFO-based flight attendants that after several calculations, the carrier determined that operating a base out of San Francisco was simply not financially viable, according to an audio recording shared with Insider by a verified source.
Some employees expressed confusion on why they need to leave San Francisco if the carrier will still need to staff SFO flights. American specifically expressed plans to keep flights at the same level as today, meaning the airline will have to fly in flight attendants based at other airports.
Considering the airline also said it will continue to hire new flight attendants, several crew members said it feels as though the airline wants to replace its veteran staff with new employees who are paid much less.
“We have a 17-year-old daughter who’s graduating high school this year, and an 11-year-old daughter. It doesn’t make sense for me to ask my family to move,” Louis Rangel, who started working for American in 1988 and grew up in the Bay area, said.
“I don’t know how to start over,” he continued. “It’s hard for many of us, to think that someone you’ve been dedicated to for 30 plus years, and then just, nope, this is it: Take it or leave it.”
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