Startup Airlines Avelo and Breeze Face Union Pressure Early On
Two growing, year-old U.S. airlines face organizing efforts by labor unions intent on ensuring that commercial aviation remains among the country’s most highly unionized industry.
Last week the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) won an election at Houston-based Avelo Airlines, which began flying in April 2021. Only 14 votes were counted, and the AFA won 8-6. The carrier is contesting the election, largely because of the small number of voters: it has filed suit against the National Mediation Board (NMB). But AFA President Sara Nelson says the election was delayed, partially due to the airline’s efforts. This meant that the original bargaining unit diminished due to attrition.
Meanwhile, at Utah-based Breeze Airways, which began flying in May 2021, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) has filed to represent pilots. The NMB filing on April 7 said the union seeks to represent the carrier’s 69 pilots.
The airline industry is heavily unionized. At American Airlines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines, three of the four largest airlines, between 80-85 percent of the workforce is unionized. Startup carriers typically say they expect to avoid union organizing for a few years. AFA and ALPA have acted quickly, although it is likely to take years to secure a contract at either carrier.
In the case of Avelo, the election came six months after the union filed with the NMB. Nelson said the election was delayed first because Senate Republicans blocked President Joseph Biden’s NMB nominees (Today, the board has two members appointed by Biden and one by former President Donald Trump), and then because of “frivolous delay-tactic filings by Avelo.”
AFA filed for an election on Oct. 21, 2021. The election took place in March. Results were announced April 13. “When we filed, there were 32 flight attendants and 30 signed cards,” Nelson said. “But Avelo is a really difficult place to work, and the attrition was extraordinary. All through the election there was incredible fear and intimidation. There were some firings, but mostly flight attendants chose to leave.”
Avelo says the reason for the small number of votes is that the NMB wouldn’t enable more. “We never attempted to delay the election,” Avelo spokesman Jim Olson said. The airline filed suit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. on March 2, alleging that NMB kept some flight attendants from voting.
“Despite our efforts to give every Avelo flight attendant a vote in this election, the Association of Flight Attendants successfully fought against that, which resulted in only 14 of our Inflight crew members being eligible to vote,” Olson said. “Consequently, the eight flight attendants who voted for unionization have forced AFA representation on all 77 Avelo flight attendants.
“We continue to believe Avelo’s direct collaboration is the best way to build an airline our customers love to fly and our crewmembers are proud to be part of,” he said.
In the lawsuit, Avelo claimed the NMB of finding that a majority of the flight attendants in a proposed bargain unit were ineligible to vote.
Nelson estimated the carrier has paid Jones Day, an anti-union law firm, several hundred thousand dollars. She said CEO Andrew Levy has told workers “We are trying so hard; we are a little startup company that doesn’t have any extra money for anything.” She added, “I find it incredible that we are getting all these sob stories from the CEO that he would go out and spend all this money on these lawyers for the purpose of denying workers the right to collectively bargain.”
“It’s amazing when you look at Amazon and Starbucks, and they use the exact same tactics,” Nelson said.
Olson said the spending estimate was too high, but did not provide a number, and reiterated “The focus of our litigation (is) giving all Avelo flight attendants the opportunity to vote, something the AFA successfully fought against.”
In the case of Breeze, ALPA declined to comment. A Breeze spokesman said, “Breeze is aware of the petition filed by the Air Line Pilots Association seeking to represent Breeze pilots in a union. We believe that bringing in a third party to start union negotiations would be a mistake at a time when Breeze is just getting off the ground — and with so much opportunity ahead to bring the airline’s nice, new nonstop flights to customers across the country.”
On April 20, Breeze announced it will start eight new routes from Westchester County airport this year. Destinations include LAX daily starting Sept. 7, Las Vegas daily starting Sept. 8 and San Francisco daily starting Nov. 2. The carrier will also add twice-weekly Hartford to Las Vegas on Sept. 7 and twice-weekly New Orleans-Savannah starting Sept. 9.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the number of flight attendants and signed union cards. It was also updated to correct the estimate paid to Jones Day as several hundred thousands dollars.Subscribe Now to Airline Weekly