Being a flight attendant might seem like a dream job. The average salary is above $60,000, you get to see the world, and there’s no college degree requirement to land a position. But for all they do and put up with, flight attendants in the U.S. are frequently not paid their full hourly rate for hours worked outside of in-air flight time.
You read that correctly – these professionals are not paid fully for the work they do to help passengers board and deboard a plane, or what one Delta flight attendant called the worst part of their job.
ConsumerAffairs found one flight attendant who said she only got paid for 2 hours of flight time when her plane was delayed 6 hours. A flight attendant for Mesa Airlines stated that they may be paid for fewer than half of the hours they work on some days.
How attendants are paid when they’re not on board a plane varies by airline. For example, in a United Airlines contract that ConsumerAffairs reviewed, flight attendants were paid $2.20 an hour for the time they were assigned to domestic U.S. flights and $2.70 per hour for international flights.
“Our pay rate sounds really great until you average in all the hours we aren't getting paid. All that time on the ground, connecting, delays, NOT PAID,” one flight attendant wrote on Twitter.
Are there legal remedies?
Outraged flight attendants are pushing for a major shift to get pay that’s comparable to workers in other employment sectors who are on the clock the moment they show up to their job. More than 140,000 people have signed a Change.org petition to request that airlines pay these employees for all their time at work.
“It is time for that disparity to stop. While some receive per diem for the hours, that is often only a couple of bucks per hour and certainly does not equal their hourly pay or even minimum wage,” Gary Peterson, International Vice President & Air Division Director at the Transport Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, told ConsumerAffairs.
Peterson said the flight attendant community might have a good shot at succeeding if they get their day in court over these issues.
”There is no legal measure that stands in the way of correcting this egregious error that has been ongoing for years. As for contractual language, this is a fight I believe each union who negotiates flight attendant agreements will have at the front and center of negotiations.”
And those contracts are the sticky wickets, according to Eric Hockman, a former pilot and attorney in Miami who practices aviation law.
“It is possible for a labor contract at an air carrier to pay employees, such as flight attendants, for all their work, including tasks performed before ‘flight time’ begins,” he told ConsumerAffairs. “But the contracts have not developed this way because there is no 9 to 5 schedule for flight crews and no reasonable way to create a ‘shift.’ Flight crews simply can’t work an 8-hour, continuous shift (except on long overseas flights), and they don’t ‘punch a clock.’ There is too much opportunity for abuse and fraudulent time claims. As a result, they are paid for flight hours, the same way pilots are paid, because it’s a verifiable period and easy for airlines to track.”
Despite that historical logic, one airline recently figured out how to adjust and give its flight attendants good news. Delta Air Lines recently revealed a new pay component that took effect on June 2 that compensates workers for hours worked during boarding time.
“The addition of boarding pay to flight attendant compensation is a testament to Delta’s longstanding commitment to deliver industry-leading pay to our industry-leading team while enhancing our operational reliability for customers,” the airline said in a statement.
Despite that progress, the overall issue of paying flight attendants is something that union representatives are vigorously trying to resolve.
“I believe that the boarding pay discussions need to go further,” Peterson told ConsumerAffairs. “[They should] include the time flight attendants are required to remain onboard when passengers deplane, which oftentimes is extended due to passengers requiring wheelchairs, as well as for those for the times that they are responsible after flight for handling unaccompanied minors, which airlines often charge passengers for the service,”
Workers face headwinds while the industry makes money
Unfortunately, financial compensation isn’t the only thing that is causing a drag on flight attendants; staffing shortages across the industry have also created a difficult environment for these workers.
As the airline industry came out of the COVID-19 pandemic, many carriers scrambled to rehire employees who had been out of work for months. Getting flight attendants up to speed with training certifications is still an ongoing process, and it’s forcing those who are already on the job to take on more work and cover more responsibilities. Those conditions have reportedly led to high rates of burnout among flight attendants, some of whom are choosing to leave the industry.
While a recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment of flight attendants is projected to grow by 30% from 2020 to 2030, the agency notes that many of those positions will be created due to the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force.
In the middle of this employee churn, the airline industry hasn’t exactly struggled to generate revenue or secure funds. A recent report shows that the industry made a whopping $20.9 billion in ancillary revenue from baggage fees alone last year. Consumers shouldn’t forget that airline companies were also granted $54 billion in relief funds by the U.S. government during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Flight attendants can make a difference
Some travelers may take flight attendants for granted, but there are others who recognize just how important they are to having a positive air travel experience.
One ConsumerAffairs reviewer – Cherise from Winston-Salem, N.C. – recently told us about a nightmare scenario in which her flight was canceled three times and she had to wait until the next day for the next possible departure. After sleeping in her car and being denied any chance of a refund, she told us how her interaction with one flight attendant turned the experience around.
“Jordan, our flight attendant, is a refreshing soul who has made my heart happy and I feel rejuvenated. She was so helpful and took her time to meet my needs. I am forever grateful for her hospitality. If I had the power to promote her I would and for those who are reading this if you have the power to promote her you should,” Cherise said.
Perhaps instead of a promotion, Jordan could simply be paid a fair wage for their time and effort.