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Flight attendants’ union president: ‘We are all united’ against airline stock buybacks

President of the Association of Flight Attendants CWA Sara Nelson joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the August jobs report and how it affects the airline industry, grappling with labor shortages, travel demand, flight delays and cancellations.

Video Transcript

- Welcome back, everyone. A busy weekend ahead for travel as the airline industry continues to grapple with labor shortages and contract negotiations, leading to thousands of delayed flights on what feels like a weekly basis. Let's bring in, though, Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants CWA. Great to have you here with us this morning.

You have a direct pulse in to how so many of the labor force that is making this operation run on a daily basis, how they're feeling right now. What is the tenor? What is the pulse that they're carrying going into this holiday weekend, given everything that's taking place over the course of this year?

SARA NELSON: Well, look, there was massive picketing across the country yesterday, with pilots standing together. All airline employees are in contract negotiations. And most of those were delayed through COVID.

So while we had a relief package that was workers first, kept us in our jobs, kept the industry intact through COVID, there were issues prior to COVID. The entire operation was really stretched very thin. Staffing were to minimums. And we were expected to go into contract negotiations in 2020, which would have given us an opportunity to solve problems, improve conditions, increase pay.

That was all put on delay. And so here we are working after a very difficult time, being on the front lines of this pandemic, dealing with all of the operational disruptions, the overpromising by the airlines at the beginning of the summer that led to major meltdowns. And it's very difficult for the people on the front lines, who really just want to do our jobs well and safely and efficiently and take care of the people on our planes. But when we're not given the tools or when there's an operational meltdown, people become very stressed. And that brings conflict to our workplace as well.

So it's been very difficult. And we are talking right now about a campaign, nostockbuybacks.com, because in the airline industry, it's the only industry where CEO and executive pay did not increase. There wasn't a growing inequality in the airline industry because we had controls on what management can do. No stock buybacks or dividends, that ends September 30 of this year, and a cap on executive compensation, which runs through March of next year.

We're saying, don't send any cash to Wall Street until you fix the operational issues and conclude contract negotiations, because we need to maintain the people who are here today. And we need to attract new talent so that we can staff properly and serve the demand of the American people.

- Sara, if airline executives go back past September 30 and they're out there announcing new buyback plans and hiking dividends, giving themselves bonuses, do you expect pilots to strike? And then we have grounded flights.

SARA NELSON: Well, look, we are united across the industry, all workgroups saying no stock buybacks, because there is a real need to invest in the operation. And that means both in the infrastructure of the airline industry and also the people on the front lines. It would be a real slap in the face after all that we have been through, the extra time that we have picked up to make the operations work to try to pull things together, to send cash to Wall Street before they would settle those contracts that were supposed to be improved two years ago.

So I think that you're going to see a major disruption if we don't see the airline CEOs focusing on the operation and the people on the front lines to make sure that we can provide the service. And then move on with the other tools that you have in terms of addressing the shareholders. But we're not saying no to dividends. We're saying no to stock buybacks specifically.

- Additionally here, Sara, when we think about the demand that many of the airline CEOs have cited as a reason to pass through price increases to customers, because of that demand they felt confidence in, regardless of some of the energy expenses or fuel expenses that they're paying, to keep some of the prices elevated, which adds them-- gives them a little bit more liquidity and free cash flow to push through into other quarters, where the scenario might not be as clear. But if we also think about what cut of that additional demand and the price increases that flight attendants, pilots also see come your way, what is the bargaining that you're looking to get done with these airlines?

SARA NELSON: Look, if you actually look at airline prices-- and this is a very turbulent time that we're coming out of. Airline prices are on par with what they were when airlines were deregulated in the late 1970s. And so the prices are not necessarily that high. But what needs to happen is customers should expect that the airlines are using that money to invest in an operation that is efficient, that is reliable, and also that gives the front-line people the ability to do our jobs.

And so what we're saying is as we're starting to make a profit-- and, of course, we want the airlines to make a profit. We need them to be able to charge the price that it actually costs to run that airline and be able to invest and make it better. But we have seen prices drop, actually, as the demand and the capacity has been more normalized.

The airlines have done some work over the summer to not overpromise, leave people stranded. And then they pulled back. And for a while we saw a real spike in prices of airline tickets. But that has actually come back down. And so it's more to normal levels of what we were seeing pre-COVID.

- Sara, have the employees, the recent wave employees, let's say the past six months in the airline industry, have they received the training, the proper training they need? Because there's now stories surfacing that delayed luggage or you can't find your luggage is because of a lack of training.

SARA NELSON: Well, look, when you have people leave-- and there were a significant number of people who left, decided to retire and leave. And as the airlines are hiring, and they're doing that to try to staff up, some of the training that happens, of course, is on the job. There's a particular dance that you do with the other workers at the airport. You learn the shortcuts to be able to make ends meet.

And we haven't had that kind of experience with this slam back of demand. So as people are learning what are the flights that we're serving every single day, and they have not had that on-the-job training. And as you're bringing new employees on board, it does take time to train up and get them in place to be able to do these jobs.

So of course you're going to see a little bit of a lag there, because you don't have the kind of experience, rote memory about how each season works and how these flights work day in and day out, what's coming in and out. It has been very chaotic. And we have not necessarily had a consistent schedule that airline employees can count on. That makes it much more difficult to do our jobs.

- Just very briefly, Sara, while we have you, are airline workers-- are is the labor force that's part of this daily operation, are they able to make ends meet right now? I mean, the cost of living has gone up considerably. And until some of these negotiations net out, that also impacts their ability to have a livable wage as well.

SARA NELSON: Thank you so much. And actually one of the issues is that flight attendants can't afford to live where we work. So in these big, expensive cities, we actually have to commute by air in order to have a style of life that can take care of our families. And so when aircraft, when the flights are being pulled down and when aircraft are full, what you're seeing is that many of the crew are not able to get to work.

Some of the airlines have addressed this by providing positive space for crews to get to work. And that's important. And that should continue, because that will ensure reliability so that people can staff these flights.

But to your point, no, we can't make ends meet. And when it's more expensive to come to work than to stay home, that is a problem. And that is what we're seeing in some cases. And that's what we're trying to address at the bargaining table.

- It is, indeed, a problem. Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants, good to see you. Have a good rest of the weekend.

SARA NELSON: Thank you so much. Happy Labor Day.