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Flight attendants’ legal win in California could impact air cargo

Industry official concerned about spillover effect on freight from Alaska Airlines case

California's ability to apply workplace rules on Alaska Airlines has broader implications for the industry, including cargo carriers. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

WASHINGTON — A cargo industry official is calling on Congress to guard against state interference in airfreight operations following a recent court ruling in favor of California-based flight attendants at Alaska Airlines.

The U.S. Supreme Court last summer refused to hear Alaska Airlines’ appeal of a lower court ruling that a state’s wage laws apply to airline employees because they only have an indirect impact on airline services. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the carrier had to give flight attendants meal and rest breaks required under California law even though the Federal Aviation Act says that no state or locality can regulate the rates, routes or services of an air carrier.

Alaska Airlines (NYSE: ALK) and trade group Airlines for America (A4A) argued that the ruling is incompatible with Federal Aviation Administration rules for in-flight crews and would lead to canceled flights and higher fares. According to the A4A, at least 19 states have meal and rest break laws for workers.

“What happens if that spreads and individual states across the country decide to regulate other things that airlines do? We can’t operate with 50 different rules,” Steve Alterman, president of the Cargo Airline Association, told FreightWaves on the sidelines of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s aerospace summit here.

The Cargo Airline Association represents the interests of ABX Air, Amazon Air, Atlas Air, DHL Express, FedEx and UPS in the halls of government.

The group plans to call on Congress to strengthen the federal preemption provisions in the aviation law when FAA funding and authorities come up for extension next year. The five-year FAA reauthorization law expires at the end of September 2023.


“We have to have a nationwide system. I think that the law was incorrectly applied,” Alterman said. “What if, in the past, the city of Burbank [California] had tried to put curfews on cargo flights at night?” 

The law needs to be clearer, he argued, so that states and localities can’t regulate how airlines operate.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]