After More Than 50 Years, American Airlines Just Made a Difficult Decision, and Flight Attendants Aren’t Happy

After More Than 50 Years, American Airlines Just Made a Difficult Decision, and Flight Attendants Aren’t Happy

It’s always been hard to get a job as an American Airlines flight attendant. Since the pandemic, it’s become harder to do that job — and maybe even harder to keep it.

But now, it’s going to become literally impossible, at least for American Airlines flight attendants who hope to keep working from San Francisco.

That’s because American Airlines announced this week that after more than half a century, it will cease allowing its flight attendants to be based out of the city, a decision that affects about 403 employees according to the flight attendants’ union.

“There are are people that had been based there for 20, 30, even 45 years who are not ready to retire,” Paul Hartshorn, Jr., national communications chair for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants told me Friday. “So imagine: You’re going to have to uproot your life, the life of your family, figure out a new city, or else try to get yourself back and forth from San Francisco to your new city of assignment every week on your own.”

Now, I come here neither to praise American Airlines nor to bury it over this decision. There’s a defensible business reason for the change. 

In short, American Airlines tells me it just doesn’t see San Francisco growing as a hub or a destination. (The airline’s full statement is at the end of this article.) 

Perhaps that’s not surprising given that San Francisco itself  lost 6.7 percent of its population during the first year of the pandemic, compared to 3.8% for New York and 2.8% for Washington, D.C. It’s also the smallest American Airlines flight attendant base.

But, it is disappointing, and the kind of difficult decision — affecting many different types of stakeholders — that will probably resonate with business leaders in many industries.

I’m reminded a classic example: How Warren Buffett spent decades trying to keep unprofitable textile mills running in Massachusetts, simply because they employed so many people. 

After 20 years of struggle, he wound them down, telling shareholders that he was willing to keep barely profitable businesses going for the sake of workers, but that it was “inappropriate” to keep running at a loss indefinitely.

“Adam Smith would disagree with my first proposition, and Karl Marx would disagree with my second; the middle ground is the only position that leaves me comfortable,” Buffett wrote at the time.

I think it’s a sobering reminder that the choices you make as a business leader can uproot people’s lives, even when you legitimately find them necessary for your company’s health. It’s also why I say it’s worth watching the airlines almost no matter what industry you’re in. 

As I write in my free ebook, Flying Business Class: 12 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines, the industry is like a never-ending experiment in which the four big players simultaneously confront the same challenges, all while a battalion of analysts, investors, and journalists tries to dissect their every move.

Just remember, as I know you do, that the people’s lives and livelihoods depend on your decisions. 

“It’s been a challenging two-and-and-a-half to three years,” Hartshorn told me. “We’re trying to get back to some sense of normalcy, but sequences aren’t the same, duty days are longer, trips are more difficult. It’s definitely not the same job as pre-Covid.”

Here’s the official statement American Airlines about the change:

Over the past few years, American’s network and schedule have evolved based on a number of factors, including our size, shifting customer demand and changes to our fleet. 

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. 

Because of that, we’ve made the difficult decision to close our San Francisco flight attendant base. Importantly, any SFO-based flight attendant who wants one will have a spot at another base. 

This isn’t a decision we take lightly and we’re committed to working with the SFO team to ensure a smooth transition to another base if they choose to continue flying.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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