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Friday, June 9, 2023

United’s flight attendants are not entitled to sit in Premium Plus seats, according to an arbitrator

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When ‘deadheading’ or ‘positioning’ on duty, United Airlines flight attendants lost a challenge to be allowed to sit in United’s Premium Plus cabin.

Instead, deadheading flight attendants should expect United’s Economy Plus service, which is at least one notch beyond the airline’s entry-level basic Economy seats.

After the Chicago-based airline introduced its Premium Plus version of Premium Economy, the flight attendant union filed a complaint with management. Flight attendants should have been scheduled in this new class of service as a bare minimum, according to the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), but United disagreed.

The airline only wants to place flight attendants in its Economy Plus cabin, which is just a conventional Economy class seat with a few inches more legroom. When flight attendants are on duty but ‘deadheading,’ this is the lowest cabin they can be booked in.

Deadheading occurs when an airline needs to transport crew to a new destination yet they are no longer required to work on the flight on which they are a passenger. Because the airline is positioning the personnel to where they need to be, the term ‘positioning’ is occasionally employed.

Airlines, for example, have found themselves with crews out of position due to recent inclement weather and have had to deadhead them to where they need to be. When a flight attendant is injured or there is an aircraft swap that requires more or less crew, deadheading can be used.

The Association of Flight Attendants had negotiated a deal with United in which deadheading flight attendants would be spared the horrors of flying in the economy by receiving a minimum upgrade to premium economy, but the contract was written long before United thought of introducing a new version of premium economy.

When United formally debuted Premium Plus in 2019, it not only introduced a new seat class that is similar to domestic First Class, but it also introduced a new service concept.

Premium Plus, the union maintained, was also the premium economy, and thus deadheading flight attendants deserved an upgrade.

Unfortunately, an independent arbitrator who was supposed to have the last say in contract disputes with flight attendants did not agree.

The arbitrator concluded that neither the airline nor the union anticipated the existence of Premium Plus when the contract was drafted, leaving a breach between the two parties.

The union has reminded flight attendants that it tried to get the finest possible seats for its members, but that there was never any expectation that anything other than Economy Plus would be available.

As a result, United will not be obligated to provide Premium Plus.

That’s not to suggest that, if seats are available, a deadheading flight attendant won’t be upgraded to Premium Plus or even Business Class. Once renovations have been completed and there are still available seats, this is usually approved.

If Economy Plus is fully filled, passengers must be degraded first to allow deadheading flight attendants, according to the contract.


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