What got me here?
Although I currently host and produce a television show, I will always have a special connection and a very deep respect for the workers of the US and more specifically those I enjoyed working with for 25 years as a flight attendant for American Airlines.
Now, I’ve unexpectedly become an airline labor activist and I’m anything but a bitter or disgruntled ex-employee. It’s always been about the love I have for the airline industry and the deep respect I feel for those on the front-lines that keep things moving day after day.
My intention has always been to lift up my former coworkers and to speak up for them since they often face workplace discipline for speaking up themselves. If you’d like to have a better understanding of what motivates me and where I’m coming from, read on.
It began with a passion for planes
From the time I was five years old, I’ve been crazy about airplanes and fascinated with the airline industry. With divorced parents, I enjoyed the upside of being able to travel by plane to visit my father in Washington, DC from Atlanta, where I lived with my mother. As I flew back and forth, I truly fell in love life on airplanes and literally had dreams of becoming a flight attendant. I loved the hospitality aspect of the business and wanted to be a part of it.
I became an American Airlines flight attendant in 1988, when I was twenty years old. Although I enjoyed the career immensely, I went through the ups and downs along with my coworkers and the industry itself. One thing that began to wear on me was a constant stream of messages directly from upper management or through the press that airline employees were costing the company too much money. In the beginning of my career, American Airlines had what was called C-scale which placed newer employees like me at much lower pay than those who’d joined the airline years before. I was literally starving while those who were senior to me, and on a higher pay scale, were making a descent living while enjoying the flexibility that the job allowed. I knew that I would get to that higher pay-scale eventually, but I couldn’t help but notice the rhetoric from upper management naming labor costs as the major source of financial troubles at the airline; it was a perpetual campaign.
I wondered if I’d ever make it to that higher pay-scale before American’s management found a way to completely dismantle it. In a way I succumbed to the messaging and began to look at each paycheck as if I didn’t really deserve it.
With all the challenges the airline industry faced, employees were not the only ones turned to by management to provide some quick financial relief to a business in need of a tune-up. Passengers began to notice changes in the inflight offerings at American and other airlines as well. The “Something Special in the Air” marketing campaign at American was in constant conflict with some of the decisions being made by those in control at headquarters and the customers were not pleased. Whatever changes were put into place, those on the front-lines are unfortunately the ones who have to deliver the bad news. When pillows and blankets are deemed unnecessary from the airline board room, the flight attendants are the ones who have to say “no” to the passengers and endure their subsequent reactions. Constantly being embarrassed, having to apologize as well as dealing with angry passengers began to wear on me and over time I found I’d become one of those bitter flight attendants we’ve all experienced at one time or another. At that point, I felt so badly about the career choice I had made and knew it was time for a break.
I took some time off in order to decide if the career was still the right one for me. What I discovered was that the best part of my role as a flight attendant was the opportunity I had to make a positive difference in someone’s journey. I thought of all of the airline people who’d made positive impressions on me through the years and decided that I wanted to have that type of effect on others as well. After a year and a half leave of absence I returned to American with a new outlook.
It wasn’t long before the local base management in Miami noticed my turnaround. My coworkers saw a difference as well and I was elected by my peers to a advocacy leadership position among the pursers at American. American also asked me to travel around the system and deliver a program I created with two other AA flight attendants called “Why I Fly”. This program allowed me to share my experiences and discoveries as well as how I’d reignited my excitement about being of service to others and I wanted to be as honest as possible and it eventually became a short-lived training video.
“Why I Fly” © Gailen David
My ability to articulate the challenges and frustrations of the career in a humorous manner to groups of flight attendants, as well as encouraging them to rediscover what drives them, had me heading in a new direction at American that I’d not anticipated. I was asked to work with a team in Dallas to develop the annual Purser Conferences which were held at all crew bases as a training refresher with a motivational element. There are many managers at American who appreciated my talents and encouraged me to take the lead in creating the content of these conferences including comical parody videos.
Employees at American as well as other airlines were forced to endure more and more changes to their careers; even more so in the years following 9/11. Frankly, this tragic event was improperly used by airlines to wrangle out of virtually any commitments they desired from inflight meals to employee collective bargaining agreements.
My new role as a motivational speaker of sorts at American was in conflict with how I felt employees were truly thought of by upper management. In fact, some of the statements I’d heard first hand from senior management made it impossible for me to continue. One executive stated that American and other airlines were interested in transforming the flight attendants career into one in which people would “not grow old in” which would lead to a younger flight attendant workforce that would only fly for 3 or 4 years before quitting. The writing was on the wall.
How could I ask my coworkers to give more of themselves when they were seen as nothing but a burden by the company. I resigned from my special position and gave up the higher pay I was receiving for providing my creative services to a company that clearly did not have the right intentions when it came to employees.
Deciding to Flight Back
It wasn’t long before American unveiled its bankruptcy plans, with over $4 billion dollars in the bank, in November 2011 including draconian cuts to employee pay, benefits and work rules. These bankruptcy measures were in addition to the concessions employees employees had previously given in 2003 while executives continued to shower themselves with huge bonus payouts. Upon reading a letter from American’s Vice President of Flight Service, I decided to use all the video making experience I’d received at American to make a video to express how ridiculous this treatment of employees seemed to me. I used the letter from the AA VP as the script for the video.
Video that got me terminated: This parody mocks the bankruptcy letter sent to employees outlining major pay cuts, loss of pensions and more. AA declared bankruptcy with over $4B in the bank and has gone on to make billions in profits; benefiting daily from gains obtained through bankruptcy at the expense of workers, including retirees.
Needless to say, American was not pleased with this video but I felt driven, after experiencing the years of corporate assault on workers everywhere, to speak out on behalf of my colleagues and was prepared to face the consequences. The truth was, I’d never stopped loving American Airlines but had sadly come to realize that the contributions of the employees had been completely disregarded for far too long by people who didn’t even have a passion for the business. I had the support of my partner, my family and tens of thousands of American employees who understood what it must have taken to cause me, a person who traveled around the country preaching the “AA gospel”, to take this step which very quickly ended my career.
They’ll always be my colleagues
Since then, I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to develop a new career in television. However, I’ve continued my work as an advocate for flight attendants and other workers by creating my parody videos and writing articles at SavvyStews.com. My years as a flight attendant allowed me to work with an amazing group of people that I’ll always support.