By Gailen David
I went to work for American in 1987 and was a flight attendant for almost 25 years. It had been a dream of mine to work in the airline industry with a desire to be in the cabin on the hospitality side of the business. During my career, I was based in New York, Washington, San Francisco, and Miami.
2011 – American Airlines Bankruptcy
When American Airlines announced they were declaring bankruptcy and planning to present the bankruptcy judge with a plan to drastically cut pay and benefits of all employees including flight attendants, of course there was outrage. Executives at the company had been enjoying huge compensation packages as the airline’s financial condition deteriorated. Even when the company lost hundreds of millions of dollars, the executives still got their lavish bonuses.
The VP of Inflight released a statement outlining the cuts to flight attendant pay and benefits that would soon take effect. Her statement is what became the verbatim script for the first Aluminum Lady video which parodied management at American Airlines and their disregard for the workers.
Up until that time, I had been doing special projects for American for about 6 years which included playing a significant role in creating their annual Purser Conferences. I would write curriculum, speeches, and produce the videos and other audio visual presentations. I’d then spend months speaking for groups of flight attendants and other groups at bases. I had an amazing set up. Management was pleased with my creativity, allowed me to include as much comedy as I wished, and really supported me in any way I needed as I traveled around the system delivering the “Why I Fly” presentation. I was able to make my coworkers laugh while helping them get back in touch with what they loved most about their airline career. I reminded them to appreciate the emotional intelligence they each possessed and the powerful position they were in to make a difference in the lives of the people they encounter along the way. The company loved it because if employees are energized by the positive feedback they receive from customers, they’ll deliver consistently better service.
Once AA announced all of the ways employees would be taking the brunt of the bankruptcy filing, I turned down their offer to launch a new version of my workshops. I could not even imagine asking my coworkers to give any more than they were already giving while simultaneously losing so much. I resigned from my position on the Purser Advisory Board.
While on special assignment, I had been made part of a VIP recognition program which provided pursers at each base with the list of all Concierge Key members (high-value customers) who would be traveling that day. I was placed on a mailing list for these VIP lists and received the list for about 3 years. The list contained celebrities as well as executives including those at AA & AMR (which owned American at the time). Although I already had a blog, I never released information about VIPs or other confidential company information.
AA Executives Taking First Class Seats From Customers?
AA’s messaging had for years been all about “pulling together” and collectively tightening our belts to save the company. By now, my Aluminum Lady videos had hit major TV network news and employees began contacting me. One airport agent wrote me to share how a top AA executive had shown up to the departure gate with his family and demanded first class seats to a ski destination. Of course, as a senior executive, he and his family were entitled to positive-space, first class travel, but the flight was full. The agent was told to board the plane and either remove the full fare American Airlines customers from first class or bump them to economy. This was happening at the same time employees were being informed their pay would be cut and they should do whatever they have to do to save the company and provide the best customer service. How hypocritical!
I started reporting these occurrences on my blog. When I checked the VIP list — which American was still sending me — I discovered that AA executives and board members were traveling to lots of resort destinations in first class. At the same time, I was receiving random messages from outraged gate agents letting me know that full-fare passengers were being removed from first class to accommodate the “AA royalty”! This at a time when maintaining American’s high-fare customers was more important than ever for the survival of the company.
Billion Dollar Machine
Headquarters in DFW was in an uproar, my blog was blocked so workers couldn’t access it from company computers. American hired a spokesperson by the name of Bruce Hicks who began appearing on news stations to combat the negative coverage American was receiving due to my videos and blog. Mr. Hicks had previously worked for Frank Lorenzo at Texas-Air when he took Continental Airlines into bankruptcy to bust the unions and cut employee pay and benefits. Mr. Hicks began claiming to the media that I had gone into Sabre (AA’s computerized reservation system) and checked the travel records of AA execs and AMR board members. When customers watching Mr. Hicks on television wrote to the company to say that I’d been their flight attendant before and they felt I should not be disciplined or fired, the false claims about me were repeated to them through correspondence. Incidentally, I had purposely stopped using Sabre almost 6 months earlier for any reason. I didn’t need Sabre because AA execs were doing outlandish things in broad daylight.
Quick example: One exec cut thousands of airport agent jobs, retired from AA, took a CEO position with an outsourcing company, replaced all the agents that he had just laid off with employees from his new outsourcing company. He got richer, people lost their jobs AND new people weren’t being paid a living wage.
It Got Legal
Based on my Aluminum Lady videos, social media, blog, the damaging press coverage, and my refusal to provide the names of the employees who’d told me of executives bumping passengers — American Airlines terminated me. Almost immediately they filed a lawsuit against me for damaging their brand with my parody videos along with other allegations. They sued me in Texas to drain my finances as I would have to hire Texas lawyers and fly back and forth to Dallas for depositions, hearings, and other matters related to the case. Eventually, I was ordered to appear in court in Fort Worth for ‘contempt of court’ for posting an article when I’d been ordered not to post for 30 days by the judge. My post was something along the lines of “How I’d Run AA If I Were CEO”. It had all kinds of ways I would work to turn the company around and make AA a great airline once again. Of course, an article like this was embarrassing to AA management as they’d obviously made such a mess of the company.
An hour before I was to appear in the TX court, my attorneys and I met with American’s attorneys. They agreed to drop the case and I agreed not to release confidential information about American Airlines. That was easy for me. The only somewhat confidential information I’d ever released was involving executives that were bumping paying customers out of first class. I did not agree to stop writing about AA on my blog.
With the lawsuit dropped, I was still in the grievance process with the union working to get my job back. That process took about a year more. During that year I also consulted with my attorney about the false public statements American had made about me through their spokesperson, Bruce Hicks, as well as in letters an AA VP had sent to customers regarding my situation.
The day finally arrived for me to meet with the union’s attorney to prepare for my arbitration. At the arbitration, it would be decided whether I would get my job back — it would also set a precedent regarding employee social media use which involved workplace discussion and commiseration with other employees. My private attorney had advised me that AA would be liable for damaging my reputation — this legal opinion was shared with AA. We came to a settlement agreement that day. The only thing I agreed to was to never divulge the settlement amount.
A New Life — Mostly
So I was free! I started producing TV segments and eventually multiple national TV shows. Did I hold a grudge? No. I never stopped flying American Airlines as a paying passenger and was even Executive Platinum for three years in a row.
So why do I continue to write about employee issues at the airlines from time to time? Because it’s the right thing to do. When I hear from people who are being abused, often after being injured on the job or becoming ill, sometimes barely able to put food on the table as they are being attacked by billion dollar corporations — I have to help when I can.
It’s that simple.