How to fly union


Even as overall private sector union representation declined to 6.1% in 2021, union density has been increasing at most major U.S. airlines. American Airlines, the largest U.S. airline by market share, jumped from 84% to 86% union in 2021. United Airlines increased from 84% to 85%. Alaska Airlines stayed at a steady 86%.

Of course, being highly unionized doesn’t mean the employer is easier to negotiate with. On Nov. 15, American Airlines’ 22,000 flight attendants—represented by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA)—held nationwide pickets to protest the company’s latest contract proposal. They haven’t had raises since 2019, and APFA says they’re facing longer workdays, tight staffing and burnout. Meanwhile, the company reported record revenue of $13.5 billion in the third quarter of 2022—13% higher than third quarter 2019.

Delta remains the only one of the biggest four airlines without union representation for flight attendants, which is why just 20% of its employees are union members. Delta flight attendants launched a campaign to join AFA-CWA in November 2019, and the union effort gained steam during the pandemic, but the campaign hasn’t reached the election stage yet. 

Delta used to be tied with JetBlue as the least union major carrier, but that has changed. JetBlue pilots unionized with Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) in 2014; they ratified their first contract in 2018. About 5,000 inflight crew members at JetBlue also unionized, with Transport Workers Union (TWU), and ratified their first contract in 2021. Being union-represented became even more important for JetBlue workers this fall, when JetBlue and Spirit Airlines shareholders voted to merge the two companies. TWU secured provisions in its contract that will protect members in the event of a merger/acquisition.


  1. Thanks for this article, Colin. NWLP readers may be interested to know that the SEC 10-K reports do not reflect the many workers who do essential labor for the airlines but are employed by outsourced service contractors. These can include aircraft fuelers and cabin cleaners, ramp agents and baggage handlers, wheelchair assistants, airline catering, security officers, and others. Often these workers have no union and/or are paid much lower wages and benefits than airline employees. At PDX, Sea-Tac, and airports around the country, workers have renewed organizing efforts in recent years with SEIU, UNITE HERE, Teamsters, and other unions. In many cases, workers have won significant improvements, some of which NWLP has reported on in the past.


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