Airline Unions Worry About Fatigue

The nation's flight attendants are tired, union leaders say, and that fatigue is damaging airline customer service and could jeopardize in-flight safety.

Leaders of six major flight attendants unions are gathering this week in Fort Worth for a summit on attendant fatigue. The meeting is being held at the headquarters of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents attendants at Fort Worth-based American Airlines.

"The other night I was on a flight and I could tell as soon as I boarded that the flight crew was exhausted," said Tommie Hutto-Blake, APFA president. "And that makes a real difference to the passengers on that flight."

At American, attendants are guaranteed eight hours between flights, Hutto-Blake said. That rest time was reduced under the contract that was approved in 2003.

But in practice, attendants flying back-to-back shifts usually get just four or five hours of actual sleep between flights, she said. "The down time includes time to get out of the airport, travel time to the hotel, time to eat a meal," she said.

Union leaders note that in addition to serving food and drinks, attendants are designated as safety officers during flights and have security-related responsibilities.

"Since 9-11, we have a lot more responsibility for the safety and security of the aircraft," said Thom McDaniel, president of the Transport Workers Union chapter that represents attendants at Dallas-based Southwest Airlines.

Union leaders hope to craft a plan to tighten federal requirements that would give attendants additional rest time. They plan to discuss the issue with lawmakers in May, when union leaders will be in Washington, D.C.

Hutto-Blake said she hopes airline executives will work with the unions to improve rest.

"Ultimately it's hard to provide good customer service when you're tired, hungry and grumpy," she said. "We feel like it's in everyone's best interest."