By an overwhelming margin, American Airlines’ flight attendants authorized union leaders to call a strike as negotiations on a new contract continued in Washington.
"This means that the flight attendants are sending the message loud and clear that they're willing to do whatever they need to do in order to get a fair agreement," she said.
The vote gives union leaders the power to authorize a strike, but the union cannot take such action unless federal mediators declare an impasse in negotiations. At this point, there is no indication mediators will do so.
If an impasse is declared, a strike could not occur until after a 30-day “cooling-off” period.
American Airlines immediately dismissed the union vote as a bargaining tactic.
"APFA's announcement today is not unexpected and is a common part of the bargaining process," said airline spokeswoman Missy Latham in a prepared release. "Our team remains steadfastly focused on negotiations, presenting thoughtful proposals and coming to agreement on the items important to our flight attendants and the company."
Gerard Arpey, the chief executive officer of American Airlines’ parent company, AMR, said the company’s labor costs are $600 million more than the industry standard because it did not slash payroll costs in bankruptcy like some of ts competitors.
In prepared remarks before a stockholders meeting in New York, Arpey said the airline is emerging from “the worst decade in the history of our industry.”
“We are committed to working in good faith to reach responsible (labor) agreements,” he said. “There is no disputing the fact we have been involved in some lengthy and challenging negotiations.” American is also in contract talks with pilots and other employee groups.
Negotiations with the flight attendants union resumed Wednesday morning before a new federal mediator. Both sides met with the mediator one-on-one on Tuesday.
The last major airline strike occurred in 2005 when more than 4,000 Northwest Airlines mechanics went on strike after the company sought deep pay cuts. The airline responded by hiring replacement workers.
American flight attendants are seeking to re-coup the 33 percent pay cuts they accepted in 2003 when the airline was on the verge of bankruptcy.
The carrier argues its flight attendants are among the best paid in the industry and that any pay raise must also come with increased productivity or health care changes.
If a strike occurs, it could cost the company as much as $40 million per day, according to Rick Seaney, CEO of Dallas-based FareCompare.com. But Seaney said it would not have a huge financial impact on the airline considering it had $5.1 in revenue in the first quarter.
"The real impact, to me, is the downstream PR, the happiness of employees, the experience of customers as they get on the plane," he said.
Seaney also said some customers who would typically book on American Airline might switch carriers in fears that a looming strike could interrupt their travel plans.
NBC DFW's Lindsay Wilcox contributed to this report. NBC DFW's Scott Gordon is reporting from Washington.