‘Devastated’: American Airlines to abruptly close SFO flight attendant base

American Airlines longest-serving flight attendant, Bette Nash, checks the passenger seats in December 2017.

American Airlines longest-serving flight attendant, Bette Nash, checks the passenger seats in December 2017.

ERIC BARADAT/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, 403 American Airline flight attendants working out of SFO received the sudden news that their home base would close by the end of January 2023.?

Over the next four months, hundreds of Bay Area flight attendants will begin competing for new hubs and uprooting their lives, all while their employer gingerly releases crucial information about next steps. These flight attendants have a few options to consider: early retirement, plan a laborious new commute that entails flying to another city to start a shift or move away from their Bay Area homes to hold onto their jobs.?

American Airline flight attendants, both active and retired, explained to SFGATE how this news was devastating, abrupt and the cause of much ire.?

In a letter to the 403 affected workers, American Airlines said it could not relocate the base to LAX due to “a lengthy waiting list,” and instructed employees?to wait as important information about their future trickles down from the top.

Ramona Snyder was an American Airlines flight attendant for 22 years, with 16 years at SFO. She’s now retired and told SFGATE how her active SFO colleagues were expressing devastation over the news.?

“Over 400 flight attendants are now pit against each other,” she said. “The company is saying to make a major life decision in the next few months. I feel their pain. A lot of them have been flying for 20 or 30 years, and now they have to make a quick decision.”

An American Airlines jet plane takes off from SFO in August 2006.

An American Airlines jet plane takes off from SFO in August 2006.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A spokesperson for American Airlines told SFGATE how the company’s decision to close the SFO base was due to a shift in its network strategy.?

“There are no plans to grow SFO and no future flying prospects based on our current network strategy,” said spokesperson Lindsey Martin.

Pressed on elaborating on this abrupt announcement, Martin added that, “Over the past ten years or so, our SFO flight attendant base has become less and less efficient, especially when it comes to the supportability of our network and schedule.”

Martin added that American Airlines will maintain its current level of flying at SFO.

Snyder and a representative from the flight attendant’s union explained how American Airlines flight attendants were well aware for years that their SFO base could close, but the announcement last week felt rushed, causing avoidable anguish.?

“There were rumors that they would close the flight attendant base,” Snyder said. “Years ago, they closed the pilot base, and we thought we’d be next on the chopping block. But it’s still a shock for how abruptly they did it. American could have said that in a year from now, they’re going to close, so they could give more of a heads-up than just a few months.”

A petition to keep the flight attendants at SFO?was created on Change.org by Christian Torres, the son of an affected flight attendant. It’s garnered more than 2,800 signatures so far.?

The petition states, “flight attendants need to make the difficult choice by September 26th, a day before the company is supposed to address crew members on the transfer they have so little time to decide on. At the time of writing, flight attendants based at SFO are being forced to transfer 'voluntarily,' meaning the company isn't required to pay them moving expenses, like they should, despite them being kicked out of SFO involuntarily.”

An American Airlines promotional poster designed by Dong Kingman in 1970.

An American Airlines promotional poster designed by Dong Kingman in 1970.

Potter and Potter Auctions/Gado/Gado via Getty Images

American Airlines operates out of ten hubs — including Phoenix Sky Harbor, Chicago O’Hare and LAX — with Dallas/Fort Worth as its largest base. The airline has gradually downshifted its presence in the Bay Area over the last few decades. It discontinued its San Jose hub in the 1990s and closed its pilot base at SFO?in 2011.?

Paul Hartshorn Jr., the national communications chair for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, said that the union represents a large number of American Airline flight attendants at SFO who are longtime employees. He said a “huge demographic” was hired before 1985.

“They made their homes here,” he said. “Now they’re devastated and nervous. They don’t have information for where they’re going to be based. To not have LA is a big kick in the gut. Phoenix is an option, but not for everyone. They need some clarity so they can make a big life decision. Children are starting school.”

Snyder added that many of her former colleagues have expressed how upset they are on social media, and noted how the communication from the airline was lackluster.?

“When they announced it, they still didn’t have a full plan,” Snyder said. “If you are thinking about it for years, then you should have had a concrete plan.”

Martin clarified that American Airlines will ensure that every SFO-based flight attendant who wants to continue working will have a spot at another base.

“We shared this news four months in advance to ensure as smooth a transition as possible,” she said. “Within days of announcing, we shared with our SFO-based flight attendants more information on the transfer process, including the opportunity to bid for their new base, and will continue supporting them throughout this process.”
Hartshorn said that the union is actively working through scenarios for its members. He said the union learned of the base’s closure around the same time the employees were notified, and that the airline should have collaborated earlier to avoid confusion.

“American could have worked through some things with the union, and we could have had a lot more information beforehand,” he said. “We feel that the human factor was lacking with this announcement. Uprooting your staff after what they’ve been through these last two years — to do this now — does not seem like the direction to go if you say that you care for your employees. It defies any kind of logic.”
The abrupt closure of the flight attendant base at SFO has sparked speculation about the underlying cause. Some have questioned if it stems from a recent Supreme Court ruling that clarified California’s rest break laws to include flight attendants. Others suggested that San Francisco’s recent population decrease is the reason for the airline to choose other skies.?

However, Hartshorn?isn’t convinced by the airline’s explanation that SFO cannot support future flying prospects.

“It’s perplexing,” he said. “The flying at SFO has been pretty much the same for the past ten years. If they were downsizing at SFO or moving away from serving the city, we could make a case for this happening. But the level of flights are remaining the same. American’s reasoning feels hollow to us.”