InterVISTAS, on contract to the US airlines' lobby group Airlines for America, did an "economic analysis" on the ripple impacts of California's Meal & Rest Break (MRB) legislation being extended to airlines as mandated breaks for cabin crew. The matter is currently before the federal courts as Virgin America Inc. v. Bernstein, 21-260. Although Virgin America has been merged into Alaska Airlines with its history documented by Simple Flying, the aviation court case lives on.

InterVISTAS's research alleges that "Applying MRB to scheduled air transportation would be highly disruptive, since airlines do not staff flights with “spare” crew to provide substitute labor inflight for the crew on break, and do not schedule aircraft and crew turns to provide time for breaks on the ground."

The cost could run from $1 billion for closing California bases for cabin crew to $8.5 billion for intermediate stops along the way to rest crew every four hours. This means, for example, what was once a nonstop flight from San Francisco (SFO) to New York City (JFK) now will have a state government-imposed stop as the flight requires over seven hours of crew commitment. Clearly, for international flights, the logistics intensify. But there are alternatives.

Options to retain flights with break compliance

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InterVISTAS also calculated the costs of augmenting long-haul flights with the additional crew. One option is to add one pilot and one flight attendant to every flight over four hours, so breaks are staggered while minimum crewing requirements are met. But even this would first impact ground crew with disruptions and cost the US airline industry $3.5 billion to implement.

Another option is to swap both flight attendants and pilots every four hours. This would cost the US airline industry $7 billion to implement.

However, one should note that Simple Flying has extensively reported an acute pilot shortage at the moment. This pilot shortage is severe enough that Essential Air Service may be eliminated from 29 US airports. Although multi-faceted efforts are underway to meet current needs, it will take at least several years to close the current gap.

Potential global impacts

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The report made clear that this State Government of California regulation may and will have global impacts. Quoting from the report;

While California is the natural center of impact of cancellations due to MRB, the impacts extend far beyond its borders. California-based crew staff many flights between California and the other U.S. states and foreign countries. Therefore, MRB-related flight cancellations would materially compromise the entire nation’s airline route network.

InterVISTAS also concluded the risk to US airlines' international business was serious. In the report, InterVISTAS wrote;

For example, between San Francisco–Singapore there is one nonstop U.S. carrier (United Airlines) and one foreign airline competitor (Singapore Airlines). ... Most California long-haul international nonstop markets operated by U.S. carriers face direct nonstop foreign carrier operators.

This means a risk of domestic airlines having to staff flights with 2 or 3 times more employees than foreign airlines due to the meal rest break law. Which means higher costs of operations and fewer revenue-generating seats per flight.

One should also note that if there is an extended time to get an airliner back in the air, that's fewer flights. This again costs airlines money, which will inevitably be passed on to the passengers. Implementing the meal break law will lead to canceled flights - even those shorter than four hours.

Furthermore, if and when routes are canceled the passengers who fly connecting flights to connect to the canceled routes will likely not fly the first leg of the route either. This will bring a cascading effect of unprofitability to operating flights out of California.

In short, the meal rest break law that may be imposed on US airlines by litigation will have many harmful, unintended impacts on US commercial aviation. If the meal rest break becomes law for US airlines, expect US airlines to charge higher fares for fewer domestic flights and less international flights out of California airports.

Wonder what your thoughts are? Please be civil in your comments below.

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