Described as “America’s most powerful flight attendant” and mentioned in the same sentence as “Joe Biden’s running mate” as possible Democratic nominee for vice president, Sara Nelson is a woman making waves. Nelson’s profile rose dramatically when she played a pivotal role in ending the US Government shutdown in January 2019. Now, she’s fighting the largest battle yet – ensuring flight attendants don’t become political pawns who lose their pay, healthcare and worker rights as a result of airline management and government handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But who is the real Sara Nelson? What drives her? How did she set course on this trajectory, and where might she go next?
Prior to our interview, I was nervous. Imposter syndrome kicked in. Why has Sara agreed to an interview with little old me when she’s all over the biggest media names? I wonder if there was ever a time when she felt like this?
Sara is warm, open, and has an ability to make things feel unrushed, even when time is tight. All skills of a good flight attendant. We have both been flight attendants and both led internal and external communications – Sara for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), and me for airlines. It’s instantly clear that Sara is an exceptional communicator. Airline crew in general have an aptitude for building quick rapport. Any flight attendant will know that you can have a base history of the person sitting on the jump seat next to you before the runway is even in sight. Our phone call was no different, as Sara started by sharing how a “combination of hard times and serendipity” acted as a catalyst for her journey to the here and now, as President of the Association of Flight Attendants, representing 50,000 members across 20 airlines since 2014.
Rewind to a white frosted snowy St. Louis day in 1996. Sara had gained a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Education and was eagerly applying for her first position as a teacher. This process took longer than planned and Sara worked not one, not two, not three, but four ‘unfulfilling’ jobs to keep food in her belly and bills paid. Meanwhile, Sara’s close friend was enjoying exciting adventures as a United Airlines flight attendant and regularly encouraged Sara to jump onboard too. On this particularly arctic St. Louis day, Sara’s friend called her from the warm, welcoming sands of Miami Beach and again urged her to become a flight attendant. She decided it was worth a shot and, not one to hang around, set off for Chicago the very next day for an interview with United Airlines, and got the job.
Sara didn’t know it yet, but her early days in the role would set her on a path to where she is today. Following weeks of unpaid training, her first pay check was delayed and she didn’t get a cent for eight weeks. Sara survived on plane food and with her bank balance at zero, she’d hit her limit. In the hope that United would put this situation right, Sara visited the airline’s Boston office and to her deep disappointment was met with indifference. Crying in despair, she felt a tap on the shoulder: “I turned around to see someone standing there dressed in the exact same uniform as me. She could be me, yet I’d never seen her before. She was holding her chequebook and asked how to spell my name. She handed me a cheque for $800 and said, ‘Number one, you take care of yourself, and number two, you call our union.’” That’s exactly what Sara did, and not long after that the Association of Flight Attendants asked her to become a more active member of the union.
When Sara relayed her encounter with this kind stranger (who is now a close friend) it is clear that the moment is etched in her brain. I can hear the emotion in her voice tingling down my spine. Sara shares: “I learned everything I needed to know in that moment when she was standing in front of me with that cheque. And that is, that flight attendants are union members. There is almost nobody better at taking care of each other. And in our unions we are never alone.”
This point resonates with me. It’s easy to feel alone as airline crew. I remember feeling this as a 21-year-old, turning up at the Heathrow or Gatwick crew room not knowing a soul, including who you would be spending the next few days with. Then, home you’d go, and turn up again for your next trip ready to meet another sea of new faces. That was what led me to take a role in crew communications. I wanted to bridge the gap between crew and the company so flight attendants didn’t feel alone or isolated. Sara’s affiliation resonated deeply with me.
A few years later and the world changed forever as a result of the 9/11 terror attacks. United flight 175 left Boston’s Logan International Airport bound for Los Angeles International Airport but was hijacked by five al-Qaeda terrorists who deliberately crashed the Boeing 767-200 into the South Tower of the World Trade Center along with its nine crew members and 50 passengers. As it was for too many people, this was catastrophic moment for Sara. The crew were her friends, and she regularly operated the route.
The impact of the attack caused a temporary but sharp downturn in air travel which resulted in cuts. Sara watched ‘capitalism unchecked’; flight attendants’ T&C’s were deliberately diluted due to the actions of senior executives. She was reminded of that fateful moment in United’s Boston office when her employer demonstrated a lack of care for her as an employee, yet a total stranger handed her an unconditional $800 cheque.
Dedicated to giving a voice to the flight attendants of United, Sara’s involvement grew, spurred on by a dedication to protect the rights and welfare of the flight attendant workforce, of which to this day, Sara remains an active flying crew member.
From initial involvement with the United chapter of AFA, her presence grew: “People kept asking me to do more – be the strike chair, run internal and external comms. I ran for national office for the whole union and then became president in 2014. I never imagined being president and now I am. It’s the honor of my life.”
As for the COVID-19 pandemic, Sara describes it as the ‘challenge of my life.’ If anyone can take it on, it’s the woman who goes against the grain of opinion that flight attendants are merely ‘trolley dollies.’
The enormity of the task ahead is clear from Sara’s striking tone: “Everything that we have fought for, and all that we have achieved feels like an accumulation of experience that has prepared us for this pandemic – the toughest challenge ever faced by aviation.”
Nelson has the know-how. When in 2013 the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced it would lift a knife ban on flights to free up more time for TSA officers to search for explosives, Sara led AFA’s ‘No Knives Ever Again Campaign’ which saw the decision reversed.
On 24 January 2019 Nelson made a raw, and powerful speech urging an end to the US Government shutdown that led to forced labour of the federal workforce.
The shutdown started on 22 December 2018 after government to support $5 billion funding for the new border wall Trump wanted to build between the US and Mexico. Approximately 800,000 federal employees stopped getting paid during the 35-day shut down but were forced to continue working or face reprimand. This workforce included TSA security screeners and air traffic controllers, the FBI, cyber security and all other federalised sectors.
Nelson placed emphasis on the shutdown’s weakening of safety and security, highlighting that key workers who need 100% concentration to conduct their jobs safely were being compromised because they had no money, with air traffic controllers: ““sleeping in their cars because they can’t afford the gas to get to work, so they’re staying there.”
Sometimes with tragedy comes freedom. A freedom to fight without fear and let your passion become the beacon. I sense Sara stepped over a precipice the moment she lost her dear friends and fellow flight attendants in the senseless 9/11 attacks. This is backed by her deeply emotional reference to the terrorist attacks during her viral speech: ““I lost my dear friends on 9/11, and the profession changed forever.”
It’s clear that Nelson has innate emotional intelligence and a longing to give back the human acts of kindness received when she was on her knees. The loss of her own on September 11 is likely to have strengthened her fight – and her true passion to represent each and every flight attendant as an individual contributing a unique and valuable role within aviation. She highlights this critical role in her speech: ““Not only are we aviation’s first responders, we are the last line of defense.” Nelson’s argument that that shutdown was diminishing the safety of aviation due to the burdens being placed on people conducting critical safety and security functions led to Donald Trump reluctantly ending the shutdown the following day.
How right her argument was: “[The shutdown] opens us up to tremendous risk,” Nelson warns. “Air traffic controllers have to get it right 100 percent of the time when they’re on the job. In any other workplace, if you have an efficiency of 99.5 percent, that is stellar. It’s unheard of. It’s unbelievable. If air traffic controllers got it 99.5 percent right, you’d have fifty aircraft accidents a day. This is what’s at stake.”
She’s not afraid to strike if it means protecting her union members, as was the case during the shutdown, when on 20 January Nelson said strikes would happen if required. Nelson explains: “There are no labor rights without the right to strike. You can’t have a collective bargaining process without the right to strike.”
Sara explains why this right is fundamental and is only powerful if a union is organised and willing to strike: ““You have to be able to show the company that your workforce is ready to act. You cannot lead on policy. You can’t lead by slamming your hand on the table. I’ve never seen management, when you walk in and make this impassioned argument at the table, that they sort of slap their head and go, ‘Oh you’re right! We should pay the flight attendants more!’ No, it’s when they know that you have a mobilized workforce who can go out.”
Back to the present and there are likely to be millions of aviation workers around the world who wish Nelson was their driving force in the midst of this global pandemic. What’s her view on the US CARES Act, that includes up to $25 billion in financial assistance for airlines? “I’m pleased with what was passed by congress, but the treasury is watering it down.”
The Act provides financial assistance to continue paying employees their salaries and benefits up to 30 September 2020 and prevent airline bankruptcies.
Sara was instrumental in creating the Act but is not happy with how it’s being played out: “30% of grants given to airlines have now been classified as loans, and the treasury is pushing airlines into bankruptcy.” Take Miami Air International for example. The airline was born in 1990 and has 350 employees. The airline filed for bankruptcy within the allotted time frame to receive financial support from the treasury under the CARES Act, but the treasury did not respond, therefore the airline has gone into liquidation, and its employees will be left with no pay and no healthcare – at the time they need it most.
Sara observes that in general, “airlines have made good on the deal” and their workers are being kept in employment and receiving pay. However, Sara exclaims: “Delta is the bad actor here.” The carrier’s pilots are unionised, but their flight attendants are not. Flight attendants’ contractual hours have been cut without any form of consultation to reduce the amount of pay they are obliged to pay their flight attendants – a cruel loop hole of the CARES Act.
What is Sara’s focus right now? “We need to avoid airlines going into bankruptcy, both for the protection of jobs, and to sustain the critical transport infrastructure relied upon by a multitude of industries.”
And of course, Sara wants to ensure flight attendants remain safe while flying with the threat of COVID-19: “There are mixed messages and this makes life difficult for flight attendants. They might take off from New York wearing face masks, a city badly bruised by the pandemic, and land in Florida where face masks are barely worn.” Creating and maintaining consistency during the pandemic is high on Sara’s list of priorities.
As for rumours of a move into politics, Sara is ‘deeply honoured and humbled’ but says her focus is the Association of Flight Attendants: “I believe that the only way to have a free democracy is for individuals to have a voice and that requires a strong labour movement. I’m incredibly proud of flight attendants. It’s exciting to me that we as flight attendants and workers are being named in the political mix.”
Our conversation came to a close with a couple of questions posed by you, the readers of the blog.
What can I do as a passenger, besides wearing a mask, to promote safe travel during the pandemic?
We would encourage you to bring your own food and drink where possible. We have already changed our food and beverage offering onboard to minimize touchpoints and brining your own food will cut down physical contact further.
DO bring hand sanitizer and sanitation/antibacterial wipes. Airport and aircraft cleaning is already much more comprehensive, but bringing wipes to wipe down your seatbelt, tray table, and other areas around your seat is advisable.
Wash your hands thoroughly with soap for at least 20 seconds at every opportunity, and use hand sanitiser frequently.
Bring a zip locked bag with Kleenex/tissues inside. Due to pressure changes inflight it’s normal to get a sniffly nose. Having a ziplocked bag to hand means you can use a tissue and lock it away in the bag to avoid contamination, being sure to sanitize your hands.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
One – it doesn’t matter what the boys think.
Two – emotion is not something to be ashamed of and hide. If they are channelled in the right direction, emotion can be your superpower. It can ignite your fire to get results. Everything I have done has been fuelled by love. We’ve been taught that we’re weak if we show emotion, but this is simply untrue. Emotion is what drives us. It’s what connects us.
Sara struck a chord with me on many levels – the young flight attendant, the 20 something communications manager supporting flight operations, the 30-year-old trying to coach senior execs to speak to their employees as leaders who care but feeling like I’m knocking on a closed door. Then, of course, the incredible heart-leaders, like Sara who know that their people are everything. Maybe this is part of Sara’s magic. She cuts to the core, and people feel seen and heard. Whatever that ‘X Factor’ is, Sara has it, and it’s refreshing to see someone in this world using it for the greater good.