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160,000 people complained. Finally, Delta Air Lines did something about it

A victory for online organizing? Or something slightly more cynical?
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Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributor on
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Creating a better atmosphere?

Domenica Rohrborn contacted me a few weeks ago.

Did I realize, she asked, what's been going on?

I confess I don't always realize what's going on. Perhaps that's because I rely on Twitter to inform me at all times.

Rohrborn, however, wanted me to focus. She explained that something was going on in the airline world, something that had been going on for a long time. 

You see, when you get on a plane, expecting the flight attendant to smile at you, welcome you, and maybe even offer you a drink -- if you're munificent or flying on corporate dollars -- the flight attendant isn't being paid.

"I've started a petition," Rohborn, a former flight attendant explained.

A petition? Oh, that's going to work, I thought. How many times do people start petitions and nothing ever happens? (Most of the time.) But I clicked on the link and there were 120,000 people complaining about this situation, which hails back to the times of railroads.

Yes, flight attendant schedules mimicked railroad schedules. Hence, as Rohrborn explained: "We only get clocked for our flight times. When the pilots pull the breaks. Not when we have customers on board or delays or mechanicals. Even though we are required by the FAA to complete specific job-related safety procedures and interact with customers."

This may seem slightly ludicrous. It may also be something of which airlines took advantage for decades.

Which made a Delta Air Lines announcement last week so very strange. Suddenly, from the bright blue skies, Delta declared it would now pay flight attendants for boarding.

This isn't full pay, you understand. The airline will pay 50% of the standard hourly rate for boarding. Which is 50% more than the nothing they were paid before.

Naturally, I asked Rohrborn what she thought. Did I mention her petition now has more than 160,000 signatures?

She told me this was "an absolutely historic win."

However, she added: "The rules for this new boarding pay scale aren't completely ideal -- flight attendants still have unpaid time and have to be at the aircraft earlier. There's not much clarity about other incentives that they usually see. It doesn't cover mechanicals or delays or airport sits. Really, we should be paid 100% of our hourly rate for this time since we are 100% present and working, and are 100% able to be terminated."

And then there's the possibility that something will be taken from the flight attendants as a twisted balancing act.

I can sense you may be leaping up and down with joy. Perhaps flight attendants will now be even nicer on your next Delta flight.

I don't enjoy tempering your elation, but I'd like to offer a potential reason -- other than the official "aren't we wonderful?" -- for this move.

Delta is facing increasing attempts to unionize its flight attendants. Unlike those at many other airlines -- and, indeed, Delta's pilots -- the airline's flight attendants aren't in a union.

But looking at what's happening everywhere from Starbucks, Amazon to even Apple, many realize that this could be the apposite moment for unionization to occur. Which, naturally, fills Delta's management with indigestion.

It's much easier when you can hire and fire at will. Even if, many believe, Delta is one of the better employers in the airline business.

"Our time is valuable and worth fighting for," Rohrborn told me. That's a sentiment being heard from so many employees all over America.

Perhaps, then, the 160,000 who signed Rohrborn's petition made a difference. Or perhaps Delta saw this as an opportunity to blunt the unions and gain a little positive publicity.

It's definitely needed some of late.

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