Flight Attendants Don’t Have to Play Sisyphus

     CHICAGO (CN) – American Eagle Airlines must submit to arbitration over complaints that it ignored seniority when reassigning flight attendants away from preferred routes, a federal judge ruled, rejecting the company’s attempt to convene a new panel in an ongoing dispute.



     The collective bargaining agreement between the Association of Flight Attendants and American Eagle Airlines stipulates that flight attendants may bid on their preferred route assignment based on seniority. It also says that the airline may not reassign attendants to new routes, unless their weather or delay has changed their preferred route.
     In July 2007, the union filed a grievance claiming that American Eagle was violating the agreement by reassigning flight attendants when the route remained unchanged. Both parties referred to this grievance as a “new flying when no flying is lost” dispute.
     In June 2009, an arbitration board headed by Margaret Brogan sided with the union. Brogan ordered American Eagle to “cease and desist from said conduct going forward,” and retained jurisdiction in the even parties could not agree “with respect to issues of remedy.”
     As the association continued to receive new “new flying when no flying is lost” complaints from flight attendants, however, it invoked the arbitration board’s ongoing jurisdiction in 2010 to request that the board hear these new grievances. American Eagle maintained that the board lacked jurisdiction over the new disputes, and that a new arbitration panel must be selected.
     The association then filed a complaint seeking an order enforcing Brogan’s final arbitration award, and American Eagle filed for summary judgment.
     U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman denied American Eagle’s motion last week.
     “In a logic-defying leap, defendant argues that this court must dismiss the action because that issue should be resolved through arbitration, but at the same time insists that no one – not his court, not an adjustment board – consider whether the Brogan Board has jurisdiction over that issue,” he wrote.
     American Eagle had also argued that the association sought to avoid arbitration by “turning the Brogan Board into a standing referee,” but Gettleman turned this argument back around on the airline. “The purpose of plaintiff’s requested injunction is to order the defendant to submit to arbitration, not to avoid arbitration. In fact, defendant’s motion seeks to avoid arbitration,” he wrote.
     “The plaintiff simply asks the court to return the parties to arbitration before a board that claims it has jurisdiction,” according to the six-page decision. “The defendant’s motion, not plaintiff’s complaint, asks the court to ‘prejudge the issues.'”
     Quoting precedent, Gettleman noted that “the grievance procedures were never intended to force a grievant into the role of a modern Sisyphus,” and therefore, each and every grievance is not required to begin the arbitration process anew.
     The parties must submit the new disputes to the Brogan arbitration board, which will determine whether it has jurisdiction over these matters.

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