The date of the strike was announced far enough in advance that we could bid our trips accordingly. At 8 years seniority and flying RIO regularly as a non-speaker, I knew I could hold a line that didn’t work during the strike. I REALLY wanted to be on the picket line at MIA if the strike was actually called. Just days before the planned strike date APFA decided to move the date several days ahead, coinciding with a trip I would be flying to RIO. In anticipation of the possibility that I might have to find my own way home, I brought enough cash on the trip to purchase 2 full fare coach tickets($800 each) for me and someone who might not have brought funds. Most of my crewmates also brought funds, and one other person brought double funds like myself.
We arrived in RIO the day before the strike, everybody on my crew having held the line except our reserve purser Austin Provins (who later was voted by the 2 MIA and 2 JFK crews on layover in RIO to be our leader.) We were all on pins and needles, glued to CNN watching the news of the potential strike and hoping, like every other crew member, passenger, union official and AA Executive that a compromise would be reached by the 11th hour. But the strike went into effect as the next MIA and JFK crews were already inflight headed to RIO. When they arrived at the hotel we were outside to greet them and advise them that we would be meeting shortly with all 36 flight attendants and the pilots from all 4 crews. We were also unexpectedly visited at our group headquarters (Austin Provins hotel room) by union representatives from Brazilian carrier VARIG. They offered to help us out financially and logistically but we declined and thanked them.
We started receiving calls in our rooms from crew schedule (remember, no cell phones back then) wanting to know if we would be working our flights home to MIA and JFK that night. We either didn’t answer or individually told them we were on strike. The pilots had no choice to strike, so that night the first set of MIA and JFK pilots headed to the airport to ferry their cancelled flights home. All 36 of us accompanied them to the airport in full uniform, cleared security and waited in the empty boarding areas of our respective flights. The captain from my flight promised us that he would NOT be leaving us behind and that he would bring us on the flight home. At departure time he exited the empty aircraft, crying as he walked up to us. He’d been on the phone pleading with the chief pilot back in Miami to allow us to travel home but he’d been threatened with his job if he did. Both empty aircraft pushed back and we reboarded the buses that had brought us to the airport, returning to the layover hotel for one more night. The crews who had arrived during the strike still had one more night stay at the hotel and had all kept their room keys, so the 36 of us doubled up into 18 rooms.
The next day crew schedule was calling the MIA and JFK crewmembers who were to fly home that night to see if THEY were going on strike as well. The MIA and JFK flights canceled, and we traveled to the airport in uniform for a 2nd night with the remaining pilots, who assured us they would be bringing us home on the ferry flights. Unsurprisingly they were unable to (though 3 flight attendants chose to declare themselves not on strike at departure time and went home with the pilots.) Feeling completely helpless, we called the kind union reps from VARIG who immediately chartered 2 large tour buses and whisked us away in the middle of the night to a small hotel in downtown Rio. We remained there for the next 2 days, which VARIG’s union payed for but refused reimbursement from us.
Each night we returned to the airport and met every crew on any airline headed to the US as they arrived from their layover hotels. They were ALL aware by now (thank you CNN) that 36 AA flight attendants were stranded in RIO, all of us capable to purchase full fare tickets home, but prevented by EVERY airline from purchasing them because the local AA MANAGER told them we were criminals trying to flee the country!! (When the strike ended and Bob Crandall found out what the RIO manager had done, he fired him.)
In the meantime, one of the native speakers on my crew, who was in contact with his uncle (a police officer in RIO) was able to find in the Brazilian law books a stipulation that requires any foreign company doing business on Brazilian soil must provide their employees safe passage back to their home countries at the completion of their tenure in Brazil. The police officer brought this to the attention of his superiors, who contacted AA HEADQUARTERS and threatened to impound all AA aircraft on Brazilian soil AND fine AA $1500 per flight attendant per day for every day we remained in Brazil. FINALLY the dirty word was out and we were immediately granted passage home that night to MIA and JFK. We arrived at the airport only minutes before the last flights of the night were departing, the agents unwilling to sell us tickets. Austin quickly called MIA STRIKE HEADQUARTERS from a nearby pay phone, describing our plight and the NEW threat of arrest by the FEDERAL POLICE (who had suddenly appeared around us) if we didn’t leave Brazilian soil by midnight. A Miami captain who was at strike headquarters immediately called UAL reservations (the last carrier flying out of Brazil that night) and purchased tens of thousands of dollars in tickets to fly us home. The UAL agents in front of us at the ticket counter appeared flabbergasted as reservations in each one of our names suddenly appeared on their computers for the imminently departing flights. One by one we were each handed our boarding passes and whizzed ourselves through security to the waiting, nearly empty aircraft. My most visceral memory of this ordeal occurred as we crossed the threshold onto these aircraft, the interiors completely silent except for 9 working flight attendants clapping in honor as we passed each one on our way to our assigned seats.
The flight home was surreal, a jarring normalcy that was in stark contrast to the extremely foreign experience of abandonment and helplessness. I think we all felt an overwhelming peace, further refreshed by the UAL crew wanting to hear details of our ordeal.
Just before landing in Miami at sunrise our UAL pilots got word that the strike had just ended. We were elated and relieved as we deplaned, and as we were about to exit customs we heard loud shouts coming from ahead, an enormous crowd of recently picketing flight attendants gathered with WELCOME HOME signs to greet our return!
Many months later I flew for the first time with the captain (Girardi?) who had pulled out his American Express card at strike headquarters to purchase all our tickets. I even brought $800 with me, and when I went into the cockpit to introduce myself to him, thank him for his selfless act and try to hand him an envelope full of money, he declined and said APA had “taken care of him.”
Benham Ignacio (LAX)
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