Flight attendants are accusing United Airlines of circumventing new federal minimum rest rules through the use of short overnight layovers classified as extended breaks.
The recently passed Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Bill includes a provision that grants flight attendants the same minimum rest granted to pilots: 10 hours between duty days. But several United flight attendants have independently written to me about the increasing use of “long sit” layovers in order to effectively avoid these rules.
A “long sit” most often manifests itself as a short overnight layover. When flight attendants bid for trips, domestic travel is generally not chosen on a flight basis, but in blocks offered by United’s crew scheduling software. Not every flight combination is a “goldilocks” schedule: some are too long and some are too short for ideal working time blocks. In order compensate for this, crew schedule planners use “long sits” to avoid longer rest periods for flights attendants working certain shorter duty trips.
For example, say a Chicago-based flight attendant is assigned a three-leg domestic trip from Chicago to Philadelphia to Houston to Chicago. Chicago to Philadelphia might depart at 9:08 P.M. and arrive at 11:59 P.M. With no immediate connections available, FAs are assigned a 6:00 A.M. departure the next morning, leaving six hours in Philadelphia. Trips with sit times longer than four hours require a hotel room. Under the FAA bill (FAs call this a loophole), this rest period constitutes a break in a single work day and therefore avoids the 10-hour rule between duty days.
But this 6-7 hours of rest is deceptive. The “rest” time starts when the plane arrives at the gate. But FAs must wait for passengers to disembark then leave the airport and take a shuttle to the hotel. After a brief nap, FAs must wake up, get ready, and return to the airport early. Suddenly that “six hour” rest period is not nearly as long.
And isn’t it true that a long nap often leaves you feeling more exhausted than no nap at all? Take 90 minutes on each end and essentially flights attendants are offered a nap between flights.
One flight attendant told me, “In the long run, these trips will cause fatigue for flight attendants and impact customer service, and more importantly safety on the plane. The company’s core4 program that they made such a big deal about seems to be rotten to its core.”
United: This is Permissible and Only Impacts a Small Percentage of Trips
I asked United about this and was told that these sorts of “long sits” impacted less than 1% of flight attendant schedules this month.
Our flight attendant schedules comply with the terms of their contract and all Federal Aviation Regulations. We work closely with the Association of Flight Attendants in the review of flight attendant schedules to address quality of life issues and adhere to their contract.
I also asked United if this type of crew scheduling has always been rare but present or is a byproduct of the new FA contract, but received no answer.
I am sympathetic to both sides of the argument. On the one hand, I understand the position of many FAs that these “long sits” violate the spirit of the new FAA minimum rest mandates. I also understand that a FA will be groggy and likely not able to provide the highest level of service when working such unwelcome hours. At the same time, nurses, doctors, firefighters, and police officers all must work graveyard shifts when they are lower on the totem pole. If United is correct that these “long sits” impact less than 1% of all FA flight schedules, we are really talking about a minor issue that seniority quickly ameliorates. Even so, I still wonder whether these “long sits” are necessary. In other words, are they an absolute necessity in very limited circumstances or merely smoke and mirrors to save a few cents?
I’m not being even-handed just for the sake of being even-handed. If further research reveals that these “long sits” are not due to necessity, I’ll stand firmly against them. If these “long sits” do indeed compromise safety, I am against them. But part of me also looks at the alternatives and wonders if this is not the best of a host of negative options. One FA actually defended long sits, stating she would rather have a shorter layover in order to get her trip done quicker and get back home. That’s not a bad argument either…