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Airlines Push back on California Break Time Law

Application of Employment Law on Crews Would Mandate Lunch Breaks, Off-Duty Time Even in Flight

A proposed rule shift has worried airline brass in California following a 2021 appellate court decision that could enforce state break time laws on the airline pilots based in the region.

If the law is applied to pilots and flight attendants, flight personnel will be required to be freed from their duties for 10 minutes every 4 hours, with a 30-minute meal break every 5 hours, even while in flight. So far, such rules have not been applied to flight crew, due to the perception of them being outside their jurisdiction. The possible change was spurred by a lawsuit filed by flight attendants from the now-defunct Virgin America, an issue that has been superseded by time and market forces only to rear its head once again.

Since the era of deregulation, aircraft have nearly always been seen as the exclusive legislative and regulatory domain of the FAA, a fact that the airline industry as a whole has been quick to protect. 

Airline execs worry that the imposition of state break time rules could kick off a series of new legislative applications, ultimately adding complexity and delays to flight subjected to a patchy, uneven collection of disparate rules. The impact of just the California rule is estimated to cost the industry anywhere from $3.5 billion to $9 billion, according to an outside consultant tasked with the issue. Imposing required break time and lunch hours for pilots based in the state could cause a cascade of scheduling issues, as pilots would be forced to find suitable downtime in a hectic flight schedule. 

The probable solution, say industry pundits, is to shutter employee bases in California. Changing the base for local employees would sidestep the California rules entirely but require significant investment into whatever location the operations move to, along with some severe growing pains for those uprooting their families to make the commute. 



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