American Airlines Flight Attendants Rent Out Their Seniority for $200

Unionized flight attendants — and flight attendants at airlines whose procedures mirror union work rules — get to work the most desirable trips based on seniority. Senior flight attendants at large international airlines can jet away to Sydney, to Buenos Aires, to Paris while more junior flight attendants overnight in Des Moines.

Humphrey Bogart tells Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca “we’ll always have Paris.” But you don’t always want to fly to Paris.

American Airlines flight attendants have created a secondary market renting out their seniority. They sell prime trip assignments to junior flight attendants, reportedly on average for $200 per trip.

Mid-career flight attendants hate the practice, figuring that if senior flight attendants don’t want to fly the trips they should go to whomever is next in seniority — them — for free. Airline management sent a memo to flight attendants, “We continue to receive complaints from your colleagues that certain flight attendants are not using these systems responsibly.”

Flight attendants who bid for a trip and are assigned that trip have a property right in the trip. American’s memo supports that position. However the airline says it is cracking down on trip trades, “rolling out new technology to actively monitor bidding and trading systems for suspicious activity.” Individuals may be investigated, with “suspension of individual trip trade capabilities” along with “corrective action up to and including termination of employment” a consequence.

This is apparently most common amongst legacy US Airways flight attendants, who will gain access to even more destinations worldwide when they’re merged into the same system as legacy American flight attendants and can work trips to places that are currently the exclusive province of pre-merger American Airlines crew.

The airline is giving something of value based on seniority to one group of workers, that’s valued more by others. Naturally a secondary market develops, and both parties benefit from the exchange. Problems here stem from inefficiently allocating what employees want most based on seniority, and then cowing to the envy of less senior flight attendants. Fighting the symptom of a broken duty assignment system seems the least good approach here.

From a customer service standpoint I prefer more junior – less jaundiced – crew working the ‘best’ flights and indeed working long haul business class. Assigning customer service duties to an airline’s most profitable customers based primarily on being around the longest makes little sense for a business.

Flight attendants interesting in working trips that go primarily to those with greater seniority can enhance their chances through language skills. Airlines assign flight attendants with language ability to international routes and that allows them to jump the queue because they hold out specific positions on the plane for flight attendants with language skills.

(HT: @xJonNYC)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Damn. Don’t know what to think other than my observation that the WORST service from FA’s comes on these long glamorous routes that have the most senior FA’s. The best service is usually from the younger FA’s. I usually get younger ones who are on these routes during the holidays (Christmas, etc) when the ones with seniority want to stay home with their families.

  2. As you probably realize, there is zero chance of any major US airline ending its flight attendant seniority system. It will never happen, even if it should happen. So given that management is stuck with it, they have every right to prevent senior flight attendants from further abusing the system by selling their seniority to junior flight attendants.

    Given that seniority is here to stay, I do think there are some things management could try to better motivate their flight attendants. I think rewards for superior service might work. Like all those “how was your flight” surveys. What if employees got tangible benefits if their service scored high on those surveys? Seems like it would be worth a shot.

  3. What’s wrong with jaundiced FAs? Other than their serious underlying medical condition of course. But jaundiced FAs generally give the same level of service as non-jaundiced FAs.

  4. Surveys are good but have some limitations. Doctors who rank high on surveys are the ones that prescribe pain pills when asked. That is why nurse practitioners (in states where they can practice without doctor supervision) get high ranking in surveys.

    Maybe any surveys that mention flight attendants should throw out the bottom 20% and the top 20% of responses. Some FA would still be lousy, like those who get bad ratings for 75% of their passengers and passable for the remaining 25%

  5. Gotta love the free market. It always allocates scarce goods to the highest and best use.

    I frankly don’t see what is wrong with the secondary market. And I don’t see what the mid-level people have to cry about. They can get the best routes, or the money from the best routes, when they get more seniority. It assumes many facts not in evidence that senior FA’s would skip the best flights and let them go to mid-level FA’s if there was no bidding. It is far more likely that the senior FA’s would just take the most desirable trips themselves.

    If American caves to the pressure — shame on them.

  6. @retired – Seems like a safety issue, much like me buying a ticket and then reselling it to someone else would be. While AA might not care about it I would think the the FAA should care. Work your scheduled flight, if you don’t want to work it then pass and it’ll move on to the next FA in line. Plus, from a scheduling standpoint, this would throw all kinds of problems into the mix…crew rest, crew positioning etc.

  7. Now that we know about all this unreported income we can TAX these fA.

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