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Disgruntled Airline Workers: The Next Terrorist Threat?

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According to The New York Post, yesterday federal agents charged a former American Airlines flight attendant with making terrorist threats. After being fired for throwing a coffee pot at a co-worker, Rodney Lorenzo allegedly said he would retaliate by giving cockpit-access instructions to Islamic terrorist groups.

The coffee-pot incident suggests Mr. Lorenzo is not your average mentally-stable flight attendant, and American surely made the right decision in firing him. Nevertheless, it's frightening to think of what could happen if airline workers were to "go postal." Especially when you consider that air crews are now among the most poorly treated work groups in the nation.

Most Americans are protected by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which limits a workday to eight hours and a workweek to 40 hours, but airlines are exempt. Governed only by the Federal Aviation Administration, they can push flight attendants up to 20 hours per day with no overtime. And thanks to ever-shortening layovers, they may only get four or five hours of sleep in between flights.

When I became a flight attendant in 2000, these brutal schedules existed, but they were the exception. My layovers probably averaged 13 hours. By the time I left in 2008, I could expect only eight or nine hours. When you consider that a layover is clocked from touchdown to takeoff, my "rest" included deplaning, traveling to and from the hotel, reporting back to the airport an hour before the next flight in order to brief with the crew, ready the airplane, board passengers, hang coats, and even pass out pre-departure mimosas.

I have been so tired that I have fallen asleep standing up. I have walked through the cabin, struggling under the weight of a coffee pot and asked "Cream or sugar? Cream or sugar?" I have cried in the lobby of a crowded hotel when, after a sixteen-hour duty day that ended at dawn, they were out of rooms.

Do I sound disgruntled yet?

The FAA's bare-minimum work restrictions were designed to be supplemented by collective bargaining agreements, most of which were dismantled after 9/11 through "temporary" employee concessions or bankruptcy proceedings.

Unfortunately, growing revenues are not easing the burden. As legacy US carriers now post a billion dollars in second-quarter profits, they continue to squeeze frontline employees - asking for even longer hours, shorter rest breaks, and further pay cuts. In many cases, these sacrifies are demanded while executives rack up salaries as much as 200 times that of their employees.

Yes, I am bitter. But relax, I won't be selling any of my insider-knowledge to Al Qaeda. Neither am I writing this for my benefit. Although I would love to go back to the job I had pre-9/11, I will not work as a flight attendant again. By publicly advocating for more rest and improved contracts, I have long burned any bridges there.

The question I ask is this: As contract negotiations stall and strikes loom at United and American, as Frontier unionizes and Virgin America attempts to, how will we as consumers respond? Will we support them, or will we spend our energy fighting for cheaper fares?

Airline workers deserve the fair labor standards we take for granted. Without them, you and I could pay the ultimate price.