When Steven Pryor finds himself alone in a cockpit in an unfamiliar place, he often runs into fellow American Airlines flight attendants.
For six months, he has been fighting with the airline over what he says is an escalating workload and lack of time off. The 34-year-old man, who is black, flies on regional jets — the bigger planes that often get packed during peak travel times, resulting in bumpy flights.
Pryor’s struggle is one of thousands as higher fuel prices and more packed flights have strained airlines to boost profit. At the same time, workers are angry about deep cuts in their pay and benefits, and their ranks have been thinned as more employees accept employment with low-cost airlines.
A union representing flight attendants, flight dispatchers and mechanics organized a public boycott over the weekend of Southwest, one of the nation’s best-known and most profitable airlines.
The drive is also bringing a familiar image to public attention: the bare-chested flight attendant who once chained herself to a wheel arch aboard a Southwest flight to protest sexual harassment by a male co-worker.
Pryor’s union, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, has been raising a heated outcry over what it says is a lack of job security and support for the roughly 11,000 workers it represents. The union is launching new classes to retrain workers on some of the new safety procedures for the increased use of technology and is pushing for a second round of pay increases.
“I’m just trying to make it where I’m able to retire in comfort, and it’s taking forever,” said Pryor, who became a flight attendant two years ago. He said American had threatened to replace him and his colleagues with former pilots after they push back and retire.
The flight attendants are complaining that the airline is forcing them to do more with less.
“The workload is not commensurate with the pay,” said Vincent Coy, an APFA instructor who teaches safety and communication courses. “The threat is, if you don’t do this and do this, we’re going to get somebody who’s going to do this and do that.”
A spokeswoman for American, Meghan Glynn, said employees were being paid more and many were going on training.
The carrier has started experimenting with shorter flights on regional jets from larger planes — the sort of small planes for which there is less reason to have more workers, Coy said. That would mean fewer available seats on those planes, with a higher average price per flight.
The new salary structure means flight attendants will get $15,000 in training to learn how to use a more sophisticated computer system than what the traditional pilots of the bigger planes are allowed to use, Coy said.
The last time flight attendants went on strike, in 2014, they canceled flights that led to the cancellation of about 400 flights.
Alan Kelly, an aviation analyst at the consultancy CAPA, said American Airlines saw relatively little risk of a mass boycott.
“This particular protest is starting too late to have an impact on business,” Kelly said. “On the other hand, if they were paying employees $25,000, they’d have a lot of sympathy.”