Biden administration opposes airlines in lawsuit over crew breaks

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The Biden administration has sided against the airline industry and urged the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday to uphold a California law that would provide more rest and meal breaks than airline crews are guaranteed under federal rules.

The U.S. solicitor general and other administration officials said in a filing that California’s law is not preempted by the Federal Aviation Administration’s authority to regulate airline safety.

A federal appeals court ruled in 2021 that California was within its rights to apply a law on employee rest and meal breaks to the airline industry. The original defendant, Virgin America, was later bought by Alaska Airlines, which asked the Supreme Court to overturn the decision.

The administration asked the court to deny the airline’s appeal to hear the case or send the matter back to lower courts for further consideration. The Trump administration had sided with the airlines when the case went before the appeals court.

The airline industry, represented by trade group Airlines for America, has lobbied to overturn the appeals court ruling. Airlines worry about a patchwork of different state rules, and the trade group says the California law would cause airlines to reduce flights and raise fares.

The trade group said Wednesday, “The conflict between federal and state law is a critical issue with nationwide implications,” and it hopes that the Supreme Court will overturn the lower court’s ruling.

Under the ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, airlines would have to release California-based flight crews from all job duties — even during flights — for 10 minutes every four hours, a 30-minute meal break every five hours, and another meal break after 10 hours.

FAA rules set a maximum workday of 14 hours for flight attendants, during which they can take meal breaks but must remain on duty. That saves airlines the cost of adding flight attendants to cover for those who are off duty.

Lawyers for flight attendants who sued Virgin America say that a 1978 federal law deregulating the airline industry gave the FAA sole authority over airline prices, routes and services, but not other matters.

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