There is a dispute that has been going on for quite some time and it could affect airline pilots and flight attendants in California. The lawsuit has been going on for five years and is getting closer and closer to the policy being enforced. I wrote about this in March, but with the Biden administration now chiming in, it looks like we could see rule changes imminently.

Who should regulate California-based airline crews?

The flight attendants of Virgin America sued the airline, arguing that California's employment laws were not being followed. Workers need to be free from all job duties for 10 minutes every four hours and get a 30 minute meal break once every five hours, including during flights.

Even though Virgin America no longer exists, this lawsuit has continued through the legal system. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in favor of airline employees. The airline industry is trying to get the Supreme Court to hear the case.

What organization should regulate airline crews is what the laws are in California. The FAA sets rules around crew rest. The airline industry believes that the FAA pre-empts state efforts to regulate airlines.

California-based airline crews may be entitled to more rest

The two sides to this dispute

The stance of flight attendants is obvious. Minimum breaks are given to other people working in California, so I can appreciate how flight attendants and pilots feel that they should as well. They sacrifice breaks because they are away from home.

The industry's stance makes sense.

  • It sets quite a precedent if individual states all set their own rules for airline crew breaks, rather than them being federally mandated, since that would complicate operations significantly
  • It’s estimated that these changes could cost the industry between $3.5-8.5 billion per year, and would cause airlines to raise airfare
  • In reality this would probably be bad for California-based employees, as airlines would likely reduce their bases in California, and crews based there would likely get different kinds of trips

Let's think about the implications of this. California-based pilots will work a nonstop Los Angeles to New York trip with a one day stop in New York. Since the flight takes more than five hours in each direction, they need a third pilot to give each pilot a 10 minute break and 30 minute meal break.

If done this way, it would increase operating costs because they would have to block off extra seats for crew rest on many flights. It would be the same for flight attendants.

This would probably limit opportunities for California-based crews. I can't imagine airlines would hire California-based flight crews if they kept these employees on flights under four hours, or flights long enough where a crew rest is required anyway.

Three pilots would be needed for an LAX to JFK flight

Biden administration sides with labor groups

Airlines have been trying to escalate the case and have it overturned, but that seems less likely now.

The FAA's authority to regulate airline safety is not pre-empted by California's laws, according to a new filing by the Biden administration. The same laws should apply to airline crews as to other workers in California.

The Biden administration has asked the Supreme Court to deny the appeal of airlines, and also to deny this being sent back to a lower court for further consideration. Airlines haven't been able to show that this policy change will lead to an increase in airfare and impact consumers.

If the court system listens, that's what the Biden administration is asking for.

The Biden administration is siding with labor groups

Bottom line

A court ruled that California-based pilots and flight attendants should be entitled to more breaks, including a 10 minute break every four hours and a 30 minute meal break every five hours. The Biden administration is siding with labor groups.

This will pose major challenges for airlines if implemented. Two pilots would no longer be able to operate flights of over four hours without a relief pilot, and this would be a challenge for flight attendant staffing. The airline industry has been trying to escalate this, but it seems unlikely that much progress will be made there.

The FAA has regulated airline crew rest requirements, so making this a state issue complicates matters.

I think I'm pretty liberal, but this seems silly. A lot of flying opportunities will be taken away from California-based crews, and they will be assigned to crews based elsewhere. California-based crews can look forward to shuttling up and down the coast all day instead of flying to New York.

We are dealing with a major pilot shortage right now. If airlines simply adjusted staffing for California-based pilots, this would cause more flight delays and cancelations.

What do you think about the new rule for California pilots and flight attendants?