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Startup Breeze Airways Defends Plans to Hire College Kids Against Discrimination Claims

Madhu Unnikrishnan

June 17th, 2021

Breeze Airways fired back against unions and defended its controversial flight attendant hiring plans in the latest salvo of a war of words waged in the dockets between the startup airline and organized labor. In a filing this week, Breeze asked the Transportation Department (DOT) to dismiss unions’ claims that its plans to hire college students violate federal law.

Breeze defended its plan to offer tuition reimbursement to Utah Valley University students who work as flight attendants for the airline as just one pathway to a career at the company. The company won’t use students alone to fill its flight attendant ranks and also will hire full-time and part-time professional flight attendants, it said in its answer to the unions’ complaint. But the plan to hire students will help the startup compete in the labor market against larger carriers for flight attendants. “As a startup airline that will compete with the largest legacy airlines across the country, Breeze needed a portion of its flight attendants to be part of a flexible workforce that quickly could be deployed to new start-up cities as it grew its operation,” the airline said.

“Breeze argues that federal regulators have no business asking about its plans to follow labor and civil rights law,” AFA President Sara Nelson said. “We fundamentally disagree.”

Breeze founder David Neeleman, who also founded JetBlue Airways and Brazil’s Azul, caused a stir earlier this year when he first suggested Breeze would hire college students for flight attendant positions. At the time, labor bristled, saying the plans minimized their profession.

But things escalated last week, after Breeze’s plans to work with Utah Valley University were made public. The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), the AFL-CIO, the Transportation Trades Department, and the Transportation Workers Union filed a complaint alleging Breeze’s plans violated federal law, and the unions asked the DOT to delay its final approval, or fitness to operate, for Breeze until the plans had been clarified and resolved.

The unions alleged that Breeze’s plans to hire Utah Valley students could fall afoul of the Age Discrimination Employment Act (ADEA) and, because more than three-quarters of the university’s students are white, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  “As written, Breeze’s hiring documents raise serious questions about employment discrimination and could set back decades of progress in our profession,” Nelson said last week.

Breeze categorically rejected the unions’ claims. “Speculative claims in the petition that any individual has been excluded based on age or race are inaccurate,” Breeze said in its filing. “Breeze has partnered with [Utah Valley] in connection with the program because it is a reputable, state university that offers attractive online education programs, including a Bachelor of Science degree in Aviation Management, and is located near Breeze’s commercial headquarters.”

Moreover, any claim that Breeze’s flight attendants are not qualified are baseless, the carrier said, pointing out that its employees must complete all FAA-required training programs. Breeze also argues that the DOT does not have jurisdiction to evaluate hiring plans in the agency’s evaluation of a carrier’s fitness to operate; instead, Congress have given the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission jurisdiction to handle those claims.

“Airlines have a long history of age, race, and sex discrimination, that we are still working to overcome,” Nelson said. “What is Breeze afraid they’ll find?” 

The airline argues that it is new and its hiring plans are developing, even as it defended the diversity of its workforce. “Breeze has been flying for less than three weeks and has hired a diverse group of flight attendants, including grandmothers,” the airline said.

Note: This story has been updated with the AFA’s comments.

Madhu Unnikrishnan

June 17th, 2021


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