SALISBURY — Unless negotiations are resolved this winter, Piedmont Airlines flight attendants say they are drawing a line in the sand and willing to strike for a better contract.
Headquartered in Salisbury, Piedmont Airlines is a subsidiary of US Airways and conducts roughly 440 daily departures to 55 cities. It is the only carrier at the Salisbury-Ocean City-Wicomico Regional Airport to offer daily services. If a new contract isn’t forthcoming in the immediate future, flight attendants are promising to literally “create havoc” with the airline’s flight schedule.
“It’s not your traditional strike where everybody goes out all at once and you stay out,” said Local Council President for the Piedmont flight attendants Anita Jwanoukos. “We just pick and choose certain flights, and we’re creating havoc around the system.”
The strategy even has its own acronym, CHAOS, which stands for “Create Havoc Around Our System.” CHAOS, explained attendant Paula Donalds, is an accurate term since the strike will be completely random and designed to be impossible to plan around.
“It could be the whole system for an hour or it could be just a flight here or there intermittently, very sporadic, very element of surprise,” she said.
CHAOS could also mean striking for the entire day everywhere or only specific locations, such as the Salisbury-Ocean City-Wicomico Regional Airport, added Jwanoukos. The point is to cause as much disruption as possible until Piedmont decides that the loss of customers is more expensive than a new contract. According to Donalds, interfering with customer’s flights and travel plans is not something the attendants do lightly, but is the only thing they feel will get Piedmont to pay attention.
As for their actual demands, Jwanoukos said that there isn’t an extraordinary difference between their current contract and what they hope to negotiate with the airline.
“A cost of living raise is the big thing to bring us up to where we can at least get some of our flight attendants off food stamps,” Donalds said. “Get them to where they can go ahead and make a decent wage to support a family. That’s basically what we’re looking at and asking for.”
The problem is bad for veteran employees, said Donalds, but can be even worse for new attendants, such as Matt Lauren.
“Between student loans and stuff, it’s tough,” he said. “You know the first couple of years you can pay your bills and that’s it.”
Lauren also alleged that sometimes attendants are working 12-13-hour days while only being paid for roughly half of that. Donalds echoed him and said that people don’t realize all of the “behind the scenes” work that the attendants do pre- and post-flight.
Even if a cost of living pay increase is agreed on, Donalds said that she worries the airline will demand attendants pay a greater share of their benefits, which could leave pay checks smaller than they were prior to any raise.
“Health insurance is another issue the company has with us. We like our health insurance the way it is,” she said. “They want to try to raise it further.”
Scheduling is also a problem right now, said attendant Megan Quigley.
“It seems like feast or famine. You’re either working eight flights a day or two,” she said.
According to Jwanoukos, the attendants have been struggling to get a new contract since 2009, which was itself an extended contract from earlier in the decade.
“We got the contract in 2001; it was a three-year contract,” she said. “But then they had the bankruptcy in 2003 so then they extended it to 2009. So that’s not normally how long they are. It’s usually three to five years.”
Management has not been flexible in negotiations since both sides began mediation in August 2011, claimed Jwanoukos.
“Dodge, divert, delay, excuses — you name it and they’ve come up with it,” she said.
US Airways Media Spokesperson Andrew Christie, however, said that the airline continues to negotiate in good faith and hopes for a resolution without any loss of service to customers.
“This is a normal course of action during negotiations and is not indicative of any potential work stoppage,” he said in an emailed statement. “Piedmont Airlines and the AFA (Association of Flight Attendants) continue to be in negotiations with the assistance of the National Mediation Board. We value our flight attendants’ professionalism and dedication and look forward to continued negotiations with AFA.”
All involved are now waiting to see if the National Mediation Board (NMB) will allow the attendants to strike. Because of the Railroad Labor Act, which also governs airlines, the attendants have to wait until the board releases them into a 30-day “cooling off period” before they are legally permitted to strike. If the NMB does release them and no contract is settled during the “cooling-off period”, then the attendants are free to engage in CHAOS as they see fit. According to a statement from the AFA, release by the board could happen at any time.