Flight attendant advocate Sara Nelson fights to protect their jobs

Payroll support program for airline workers expires Sept. 30

Sara Nelson, head of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, speaks at a Sept. 9 rally outside the Capitol calling on Congress to renew the aid program that keeps airline employees on the payroll during the pandemic. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Sara Nelson, head of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, speaks at a Sept. 9 rally outside the Capitol calling on Congress to renew the aid program that keeps airline employees on the payroll during the pandemic. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 17, 2020 at 7:00am

When Sara Nelson goes online to exhort the 50,000 members of the Association of Flight Attendants to urge lawmakers to extend aid for airline workers clobbered by the economic impact of COVID-19, she does so in front of a tidy bookshelf in her suburban Maryland home. 

On one shelf behind her, smiling warmly, is a framed photo of Paul Frishkorn, a friend and fellow flight attendant who died of the coronavirus in late March — just before President Donald Trump signed a $2 trillion law that included a provision flight attendants fought for, effectively barring airlines from laying off workers during the crisis.

Frishkorn, the gregarious benefits chairman for the union, spent his days off in the weeks before his death answering questions for flight attendants. He knew benefits, Nelson said, better than airline management did. Then he did a trip. 

“Five days later, he was gone,” she said.

It was the worst kind of dichotomy; a moment of relief — passage of the aid for airline workers — coupled with one of profound grief. And it was one Nelson, 47, the head of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, has become familiar with. 

As the head of the union representing flight attendants from 19 airlines, Nelson is the face of an aggressive effort to protect members’ jobs. Over the past few months she has successfully argued to keep idled employees on the payroll, and she’s been one of the most vocal advocates for requiring masks and other protective gear in airplanes. 

Nelson, said House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, D-Ore., was “especially critical” to ensuring some $32 billion in payroll support for airlines in the March law. “I’m pleased to call Sara a friend,” he said.

Now, Nelson, a Corvallis, Ore., native who had never planned to be a flight attendant, is back in the mix again: The $32 billion in support expires Sept. 30, and airlines are still struggling to draw passengers. Her new focus is extending the aid through March of next year. 

“All you can do is fight to make it not as bad,” she said.

For Nelson, who has served as president of the union since 2014, the pandemic brought back memories of Sept. 11 and the days after, when United, the airline she flies for, went bankrupt. 

Then a Boston-based flight attendant, Nelson knew the entire crew that died in the attack on the south tower of the World Trade Center as well as two customer service representatives who were flying to Los Angeles for a vacation on that day. 

But in the aftermath of the attacks, she had to balance her sadness with her work for the union. She became United’s national Association of Flight Attendants communications director in 2002. That December, the airline declared bankruptcy. 

That experience — heartache coupled with a need to work nose-to-the-grindstone through the crisis —  “taught me everything,”  Nelson says 18 years later. 

When the pandemic hit, she said, the union was ready.

Their request — for grant money for payroll, with restrictions barring executives from benefiting — was unlike anything asked for before. But the program has for the most part been successful, spurring 223 House members in July to write a letter supporting its extension.

[Trump considers orders to keep airline workers on job]

And even the problems — in late July, DeFazio and two other lawmakers launched an investigation into contractors who took the grants but laid off thousands nonetheless — are visible, Nelson said, because of a provision requiring transparency in how the money was spent. “Money is reported out to the penny,” she said. 

This crisis, she said, “is not even comparable” to 9/11 — the pandemic is so much bigger, the human toll is so much larger and the crisis has not yet abated — but her prior experience taught her to find a focus in chaos. 

Her role is one she never envisioned.

She’d gone to Principia College in Illinois to become a teacher, but after graduating in 1995, she found herself drowning in student loan debt, working four jobs and struggling to make ends meet.

In August 1996, a friend from college who had signed up to become a United flight attendant called her one day from a beach in Miami. “We joked about this job, but it’s no joke,” her friend told her, telling her about the flexibility, the union protections, the pension and the early retirement.

The next day Nelson got in the car and drove 300 miles to Chicago to try out to become a flight attendant. 

Weeks later, she was still waiting to be paid. Nelson was down to her last few dollars, and the airline told her her first paycheck was coming, but no one said when. She took a jump seat flight from Boston to Chicago and back just so she could eat the airline food. 

When she landed in Boston, she asked again about her paycheck. And again, she couldn’t get a straight answer.

“It was the first time in life I knew what it felt like to be a number,” she said. At her wit’s end, she began to cry. 

That’s when a stranger tapped her on the shoulder and unwittingly set her on a new path. It was a fellow flight attendant, who wrote her a check for $800, told her to take care of herself and gave her the number of the union. 

Before long, Nelson was doing union work, rising from local officer positions in Boston to international vice president in January 2011 and president in 2014.

At the helm of the Association of Flight Attendants, she fought to enact a law barring knives on planes. And her union — and her threats of a strike — helped contribute to the end of a 35-day government shutdown in 2019.

Despite that, her path to navigating through the pandemic was set in the months after Sept. 11, during grueling months of sorrow and grit.

It came to a head in 2003, six months after United filed for bankruptcy. The SARS epidemic was breaking out. The Iraq War was starting and flights to Asia ground to a halt. United was poised to furlough another 2,500 flight attendants.

Nelson, who had been working around the clock for six months, was exhausted. I just need a minute, she said, and excused herself.

Then she dried her tears, steeled herself, and got back to work. 

“It was not the time for crying,” she said. “We’ve got to fight to hang on to as much as we can, so we can live to fight another day for what we’re worth.”