United’s crackdown on flight attendant behavior comes at a particularly bad time

When going to the bathroom on a plane, one will often come across a flight attendant sitting in the jump seat while scrolling through a phone, partially because improved in-flight Wi-Fi access has allowed some of the flight crew to check their notifications during slow moments on the job.

While some airlines do not have a problem with some members of the flight crew doing this when they’re not needed in the cabin (pilots are a no-go for the obvious reason), others are instead choosing to take a hard stand on any device use while passengers are on the plane.

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“Use of a personal electronic device and/or accessories is not permitted while customers are on board the aircraft, with the exception of crew rest,” United Airlines  (UAL) – Get Free Report said in an internal memo sent out to its 26,000 flight attendants that was first reported by airline website View From The Wing.

The airline further said that those found in repeated violation of the newly-communicated policy will be “subject to performance discipline up to and including termination.”

Flight attendants say that many misconceptions and outdated views about their profession still proliferate.

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‘Customers look to flight attendants for great service…’

According to United’s higher-ups, this is meant to project a professional image and leave customers feeling that they can come to any uniformed flight attendant they see aboard their flight.

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“Customers look to flight attendants for great service,” the memo reportedly reads. “How comfortable would you be asking someone for help if they were engrossed in their cell phone? What impression would that give you? Even in public, you should always remain approachable in uniform and display courtesy to customers and other employees.”

While the new policy comes at a time when many travelers are complaining about what they perceive as a decline in service amid the rush of post-pandemic travel, airlines have also been struggling to attract workers and keep current ones working for them amid multiple job action movements.

Airlines struggle to fill staffing needs as many flight attendants walk out

In May 2023, United promised to hire 15,000 new workers by the end of 2023 and fill a total of 50,000 roles by 2026. United flight attendants held a “day of action” at all of the airline’s bases in December amid stalled negotiations around salary increases and better work conditions. The negotiations have been going on for the last 26 months but the sides are yet to reach an agreement.

“We believe the industry capacity aspirations for 2023 and beyond are simply unachievable,” United CEO Scott Kirby said of staffing goals during a January 2023 earnings call. “That means the system simply can’t handle the volume today, much less the anticipated growth.”

Over the last year, multiple flight attendants have also walked out and published viral social media videos in which they describe the problems that ultimately pushed them to quit.

“It’s aviation, nothing is guaranteed,” former Australian flight attendant Ashlee Jane says in her TikTok video. “Your shift for that day is not even guaranteed. Whatever you have tomorrow it is not guaranteed. You might just be going in for a day shift, next minute you might be away for four days.”

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