When Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines merged in 2008, two different business models and cultures had to coalesce—down to trash bag size and whether flight attendants should pour drinks directly into cups or hand cans to passengers. They had to consolidate computer systems and get new printers that would print agreed-upon boarding pass sizes. The merger also resulted in at least 613 workers being laid off.
Mergers are messy. Messier still when they involve a hostile takeover, such as the current one aimed at Spirit Airlines by JetBlue, staged as a reaction to a possible merger between Spirit and Frontier, two low-cost airlines, which would threaten to leave JetBlue competitively behind other consolidated giants like Delta and American. Such a merger would force flight attendants to conform to new business models and change their entire routines; potentially move to different routes or geographical bases, with hours that don’t serve their family needs; and likely place many of their jobs at risk, causing undue stress for years into a merger.
To complicate matters, the two airlines are represented by two different unions. But one union leader is adamant that employees do have the leverage to secure job protections before any deal is done.
A hostile takeover is when a company wants to acquire another company against that company’s wishes. It’s a legal process in which the potential acquirer goes directly to shareholders, usually by offering them a premium price per share (known as a tender offer) to buy enough shareholders out so that the acquirer can have a say in the company’s management. (A friendly takeover, in contrast, is when a company agrees to merge or to be acquired by another.)
Hostile or not, mergers are worrisome from a labor standpoint, especially when the consolidation doesn’t make a lot of sense for either business. In this case, the two airlines have various overlapping routes and different business models: JetBlue is a premium leisure airline, with complimentary food and suites available; Spirit is a no-frills budget carrier, with booking via a call center. This raises concerns about flight attendants being rerouted—or laid off.
“You don’t need two of everything,” says John Budd, professor of work and organizations at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “That’s Mergers 101, regardless of what industry we’re talking about.”
Budd says that in the airline industry more than others, seniority plays a defining role in most aspects of attendants’ work: It’s often the basis for their pay, routes, and the number of flights on their schedules. A senior attendant at one airline could be much more junior at another.
“You get merged in, and you’re cascading down the list quite significantly,” he says. But seniority may also be protective, says John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union (TWU), the union representing JetBlue’s attendant workforce. Because seniority is so baked into the union contract, he says any new management actions, like route changes or layoffs, would be “based on seniority, not based on the whim of JetBlue.”
Samuelsen is also clear that JetBlue has a model he simply thinks should not be extended. “JetBlue twice as big would be twice as bad,” he says. He cites sky-high cancelations and delays, which accounted for 8% and 40% of its total flights in April, respectively. “This has wreaked havoc on our flight attendants,” he says. “The majority of them are family people, they’re caretakers.”
He also claims the company has changed schedules without enough notice, and been overly aggressive in discipline, which he says goes against the union contract. In an open letter to JetBlue president Joanna Geraghty, Samuelsen complained that “punishment, fear, and intimidation have become the go-to quick fix, and it’s not working.” The letter refers to a lack of adequate rest between flights, causing widespread burnout.
In an email, Doug McGraw, JetBlue’s chief communications officer, says that TWU has sought pay and benefit increases “specifically in exchange for their public support of the acquisition,” adding that “using their endorsement of our proposed acquisition as leverage is disingenuous.”
McGraw also suggests that Spirit’s attendants “will benefit from the higher pay and better benefits that JetBlue offers as compared to Frontier.” And, responding to Samuelsen’s complaints, he notes JetBlue’s announced plan to reduce summer flying by 10%, which “should help address many of the issues crew members have raised, helping our crew members achieve greater predictability and balance.”
With two flight attendant unions involved, worker logistics post-merger become even more complicated. JetBlue is represented by TWU, and Spirit by the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA). Samuelsen notes that there would ultimately have to be an election to determine which union represents the single workforce of a merged company, and that TWU would pursue that role.
“It’s a reality that everybody needs to look at, and it directly impacts the workers’ representation,” he says. Budd says that single representation is typical, explaining that an election would likely be supervised by the National Mediation Board, a government agency. That all takes time, possibly keeping unions separate for a while into the merger, which could raise conflicts among worker groups.
Sara Nelson, international president of AFA, which represents Spirit, says it’s too early—irresponsibly so—to consider post-merger control, and that signs of division play into the hands of management. “We have to remove all of the things that we have traditionally seen corporate entities use to divide workers and diminish us of our power,” she says.
The AFA has not yet weighed in on this merger, remaining neutral. “We don’t take a position on a merger until or unless we determine whether it will work for flight attendants,” Nelson says.
She adds that the most important thing is to consider how flight attendants can use their leverage now to lock in job protections, such as to keep them on their favored routes or geographies, and to guarantee a path to a collective bargaining agreement that would include benefits. While not commenting on this specific merger, she says there are points of leverage in mergers generally: Airline management often does want the buy-in of employees to make the transition smoother.
Leverage may also come from the fact that only unions can be the ones to file for single carrier status with the National Mediation Board, essentially asking to unify the union into one, which is one of the regulatory hurdles for bringing these groups together. “The company can’t do that,” Nelson says.
What’s more, the Department of Justice has to approve all mergers, which is likely to be an obstacle for JetBlue. The Biden administration has a particularly tough antitrust stance, and could view the merger with Spirit, with many similar routes, as cornering a market and driving up prices for customers. Nelson views this as another point of leverage for employees.
Budd’s analysis is slightly less optimistic. He agrees that workers in solidarity can picket, publicize, and point out regulatory issues to oversight bodies, and he admits that, following small recent wins in “grassroots union organizing” at Starbucks cafes and Amazon depots, the current climate may be more favorable for workers.
But ultimately the decision to merge isn’t in workers’ hands. And while buy-in of employees is common sense, the hostile nature of the merger is also a signal that management may not be so interested. “They should be,” he says, “but they typically aren’t.”
The alternative merger between Spirit and Frontier is much more palatable for the unions. The AFA, which represents both Spirit and Frontier attendants, fully supports it, and announced a transition agreement to guarantee “job, seniority, and contract protections” for both workforces. Spirit will hold a shareholders meeting to vote on that merger on June 10. Samuelsen admits the Frontier merger would be easier, “but I’m not cheering for any of it.” Still, the wider interest in the deal is what sent a nervous JetBlue into hostile territory.
In the case of the JetBlue and Spirit merger, Nelson is less worried about attendants having to adapt if and when integration occurs—that is, if they’re able to secure protections beforehand.
“Flight attendants are flight attendants,” she says. She mentions another merger, between Alaska Airlines and Virgin America, which she says went relatively smoothly and included pay raises and improved conditions for flight attendants (though the AFA already represented both groups.) “If we buy into any of the culture wars that are created by management and divide people,” she says, “then we’re not doing our jobs as labor leaders.”