Are Flight Attendants Significantly Overpaid?

James Asquith argues that flight attendants are significantly underpaid. I want to try out a very unpopular argument: that airlines pay too much for the flight attendants they’re hiring today, but that they should be paying more to attract flight attendants who will provide better service.

Asquith makes some bizarre claims, such as “United have entered into chapter 11 bankruptcy on more than one occasion” and that the bankruptcy was contrived in order to ditch employee pensions (the bankruptcy was real). However his core contention appears to be:

  • They respond to emergencies like the Ural Airlines Airbus A321 landing in a field after a double bird strike

  • They bear the brunt of passenger frustrations and poor passenger behavior. Gate agents do too of course.

  • They work harder than they used to. And airlines have reduced flight attendant staffing, often down to what’s legally required. United got rid of a flight attendant in business class and went with pre-plated food to save work, American introduced premium economy increasing work required without increasing staffing. (At the same time service levels on flights aren’t as high as they once were, reducing work load.)

Being a flight attendant can be a tough job. It’s hardly the toughest, dirtiest, most disgusting job (though sometimes it seems that way) and it’s one voluntarily undertaken in exchange for a wage and travel benefits. U.S. flight attendants aren’t generally cleaning up lavatories several times per flight the way their Asian counterparts often do.

And many flight attendants don’t look up from their phones or take their nose out of People magazine.

More importantly people are lining up to become flight attendants – with current job duties and current rates of pay. That suggests that flight attendant pay is not too low at all not even close.

If an airline is happy with the talent pool they’re choosing from and believes they get to be even more picky than necessary that would suggest pay is too high.

On the other hand perhaps flight attendants should be paid more, if an airline wants to develop a competitive advantage with better service. That would mean, however, either:

  1. Changes to work rules, that allow the airline to incentivize service or
  2. Paying more money to attract different people that would provide better service

In all likelihood it mean would mean a combination of both. Airlines offering higher pay wouldn’t just mean giving more money to the people they currently have on staff, it would mean higher pay in order to attract different people with a different skill set.

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. These are some of my favorite posts from VFTW. As I understand it, a large number of flight attendants are unionized. Isn’t it true that collective bargaining usually favors the sort of pay-for-seniority approach over pay-for-performance?

  2. You have got to be kidding! I was a international flight attendant for 10 years. The pay is fine – much more than a teacher or nurse!

  3. Flight Attendants ARE the airline for most passengers . You rarely see the pilots . The gate agents are just an inconvenience before you can get on the plane . The airline staff you deal with most are the flight attendants . They should receive considerable incentive to provide exceptional service .
    I believe most Union contracts set minimum pay levels but don’t limit better compensation .

  4. The unions always neglect to inform that when flight attendants first started they needed to be a RN. No so today. Therefore, did the pay scale and the subsequent raise(s) start because of that very important fact? Why don’t you list the average pay scale for the pilots and gate personnel you refer and then compare that to a FA?

  5. A typical right-wing, trickle-down argument. Pay front line workers a pittance, and there’s more for corporate bigwigs and shareholders. Cut pensions and benefits, reduce compensation for workers….because there are plenty of people lined up to take their jobs.

    What BS.

  6. The most shocking thing, for me, is that being a flight attendant is the only entry-level job I can think of that some employees do for DECADES.

    Senior flight attendants, at least at US airlines, don’t supervise young colleagues, don’t do anything fundamentally different than brand new hires, and aren’t even judged or paid on how well they perform (or don’t perform).

    Worse still, and unlike many entry-level jobs, a flight attendant position isn’t even a springboard to anything better — or at least so far as I’ve ever heard.

  7. Gotta love working people arguing for other working people they don’t know to be poorer and not have rest breaks to spend how they damn well please. Talk about dehumanizing

    If we want to discuss inappropriate compensation:
    DELTA’S CEO MAKES $13,200,000.00

    That’s enough compensation IN ONE YEAR for a family of 4 to live a long and comfortable life

  8. My husband and I experienced the harassing of a flight attendant. We were seated across from the galley and saw her struggling to get control. My husband got up and told the perpetrators to lay off and they did for the rest of the flight. It was a disgusting scene and the flight attendant did her very best to stay cool.

  9. This article is totally misleading. Flight attendants are only paid when the aircraft is in flight. They are required to travel for training each year, sometimes on a weekend, and are paid a few hours for this. They deal with unruly passengers, work long hours, and take the heat for flight delays. They are clearly not overpaid and their competence and customer service vary according to the airline. Alaska and Delta are clearly among the better ones.

  10. @SounderTID:

    That’s not really the argument we’re making though. It’s just an emotional appeal. Gary is simply saying that the ratio of applications to job openings is a data point suggesting perhaps they could lower pay and still garner a lot of interest. How do you explain the application/opening ratio if you don’t believe it is a signal that the pay package is higher than market rate?

    I know someone who quit a corporate HR job to become a Frontier Airlines flight attendant because the job was “easier” and more flexible for the same pay rate. If you lower the pay you may attract people who are more interested and skilled at the actual work than people who are just switching from other careers for a cushy job (<—not suggesting on an absolute scale it is an easy job but relative to other jobs at a certain pay/education level)

  11. “And many flight attendants don’t look up from their peoples…”

    You meant “phones” here, based on the link.

  12. Politics aside, just because the labor market will bear lower wages, that doesn’t mean that they are fairly compensated for their efforts, that they earn. Living wage, or that they can earn the same income at a different job that requires less responsibility/effort/grief.

  13. Not when you compare to the degree management is overpaid.

    Like someone said, FAs are the airline, not some suit in a board room somewhere being grossly overpaid to be a VP of whatever.

  14. How do you write an article about flight attendant pay and whether it is too high/low without ever mentioning how much they actually get paid (on average)?

  15. Irrespective of most of these points, any discussion of the FA’s having to deal with frustrated and pissed off people needs to be pointed directly at the operation of the airline and the senior flight attendants that do nothing. I have no idea about their salaries, but if the airlines had a way to get rid of most of their existing FA’s and let all of those applicants take a shot at it, i would certainly be happier dealing with a less experienced FA than one that knows it all.

  16. F/A’s are the No.1 Safety Tool on any Airline/Airplane in existence! This is by Law and their number one function! What price would you pay someone to assist you and/or your family to save your LIFE. Trust me they do almost everyday somewhere! Start with this concept in mind. You get what you pay for, eh?

  17. People in all sorts of service jobs put up with unpleasant people. And , in most cases, work harder . What about restaurant workers, retail sales people, and – most difficult of all – people who care for the sick? Those are the kinds of occupations and compensations that can be compared with flight attendants’ pay. The CEOs’ remunerations are a separate issue.

    As for the flight attendants themselves, I have generally found them minimally helpful or attentive. They stand and watch as passengers struggle with overhead bins, never offering to help a short of elderly person. Assistance is always forthcoming – from a fellow passenger.

  18. “James Asquith argues that flight attendants are significantly underpaid. I want to try out a very unpopular argument: that airlines pay too much for the flight attendants they’re hiring today, but that they should be paying more to attract flight attendants who will provide better service.”

    It sounds like Gary and Asquith agree (for different reasons) that FAs should be paid more. But paying FAs more to attract the type of applicant who will provide better service would only increase the disparity in applications versus job openings which is the argument being put forth by some to justify paying the current crop of FAs less.

    Of course if airlines lower pay and reduce the pool of applicants, FA quality and their ability to deliver service will also be lower. As employers know, especially in these days of extraordinarily low unemployment, hiring good employees is a competition.

    I like @Tom’s point about FA being an entry-level position with no direct line of promotion. Employees are expected to do the same job their whole careers. The reason there is an excess supply of applicants for flight attendant positions may be unrelated to new-hire pay. It has more to do with the pay, benefits and job security job applicants believe FAs receive over a career.

  19. Hmmm. On a 12-hour intl flight, the FAs are working for maybe 4 hours. claims that United FAs make $60-90K for that. That is an incredible amount of pay for not very much work. Add in the travel benefits and you have a case that FAs are some of the most overpaid unskilled employees in our economy. Name another unskilled position that pays that much….

  20. Unfortunately, as long as long as you have the combination of unions and seniority based compensation, it doesn’t matter how much, or how little you pay, how effective the screening process is for new hires, or how well intentioned new hires are. Before long by example, by pressure to conform or by coming to the realization that customer service isn’t rewarded, the crappy attitudes of the long timers will ensure the continuation of crappy service. American is the poster child.

    And yes they are overpaid. I get better service on American Eagle where the pay truly is low, than I do on the mainline. Another data point would be attrition. I’d be willing to bet the rate is far lower than other professions regarding no degree or specialized training.

  21. The number of applicants for a job is meaningless. The important number is the number of qualified applicants.

    Here’s a thought: increase the minimum job qualifications in a way that enables an airline to select FAs with the appropriate skills or aptitude for a high level of customer service. The problem with this approach though is that at some point the airline will need to be able to demonstrate objectively that those minimum qualifications are in fact job related.

    I’ve noticed substantial improvement in FA customer service over the last several years. I’d think airlines could use training and coaching to continue to elevate the customer service skills of the current group of FAs. Or maybe airlines should go to the restaurant model and cut pay but allow tipping, forcing FAs to “sing for their supper.” Yuck.

  22. @Tom,

    How about teachers, firefighters, postal carriers, barbers, construction workers…? Just to name a few….

    “The most shocking thing, for me, is that being a flight attendant is the only entry-level job I can think of that some employees do for DECADES.”

  23. @Andrew

    Teachers move into administration all the time. Firefighters become supervisors. Construction workers become foremen. But postal carriers and barbers I think are good ones…

  24. Most entry level FA these days start at 16-18K a year but work long hours for that. They are required to arrive and brief one hour before the flight and board the passengers and pay doesn’t even start until the doors are closed and the aircraft has started moved. Pay stops when the aircraft stops and blocks in. After 11 years with my airline I was making 30K a year. Yes with mainline such as DL UA and AA with years of seniority you can make decent pay on long haul international flights however this is the exception to the rule

  25. How many jobs bring you to foreign countries and warm places during the winter months? How many waiters & waitress say they are underpaid, BUT stay at their jobs any way? If you do not like what you are getting paid you will leave it for something else where the pay is what you want. No one is forcing FA to stay for the payroll they receive and the FA are the ones who’s unions AGREED to the compensation arrangements.

  26. The flight attendant on the Delta flight that I just got off of said they make between $100K and $250K a year.

  27. Some of the new recruits(from what i have seen)did not get it–the customer service part..rather go to the back and hide with the others..The older almost retired FA’S work their feet off!!The millenials not sooo much too busy with their phones and buds..

  28. Really good “click bait” Gary. Hope it works for you as your “content” is garbage there days. Good luck

  29. @Randy They must have thought you said pilot. Or they earn from an outside job, too? No way any FA earns that (well, not from the airline). I have many FA friends at most of the majors. Mainline normally earn about $40-60k per year. Regional usually much lower. This discussion is beating up a group that is already beat. Ask the United FAs that had their career pension torn up and simply thrown away by bankruptcy. Bad service is generated right from the top by the same management that has crammed in more seats and phone booth bathrooms while telling you they are enhancing your experience. They work those crews like machines and they have the scheduling software to do it. Yes, a minority of senior FAs have it pretty good (usually after 20+ years at the same company), but overall they earn every buck. Does anyone honestly think their management is spoiling them?

  30. Please don’t conflate flight attendants in Europe or Russia with those in the U.S. People here talk about why unions are problematic for customers and shareholders but then others point to flight attendants in Europe who are unionized. Same thing with universal healthcare or high speed trains. The mistake people make is not realizing the U.S. is completely different and what works there doesn’t work here. Our flight attendants in the U.S. tend to be the worst of the worst. In Europe it is the opposite with young men and women and most will go on to careers better suited for family life at 30 for women and 40 for men. Even though they are unionized, European flight attendants would feel embarrassment if they don’t provide good service and would feel shame from their coworkers if they don’t carry their weight. That doesn’t happen here. Just like the hotel receptionists in Europe tend to be the most attractive and proficient and in the U.S. we get Godzilla at least in the big cities.

    Flight attendants do deserve more but only when the right ones are hired. From what I have seen that is usually not the case.

  31. You nailed it Rick. Most FT try their best to provide good service and earn every dollar they make, which is not much in most cases. Going after them as suggested in this discussion is not going to get you better service.

  32. @Rick, that was a Delta flight attendant telling me that as we were taxiing in at ATL. She specifically stated that FAs make between $100K and $250K a year. I didn’t believe it, but also didn’t question her on it. She also told me that she has been working 23 years and is number 11K on the seniority list.

  33. Love how some people LOVE to complain about other people’s pay. The marketplace can take care of itself.
    Ditch this topic.

  34. generally speaking, flight attendants at legacy carriers are paid very fairly for their services. Be clear though, Delta flight attendants are not in a union, and typically the union carriers seek to negotiate something in the ball park of what Delta flight attendants have. The name of the game in the airline business in 2019 is the in-flight experience and Delta flight attendants lead the way in every category.

  35. “precisely because the way to determine if it’s too high or too low has nothing to do with the amount!”

    Ding, ding, ding! Give that man a prize.

  36. Why does everyone go back to the “they only get paid when doors are closed” argument? I would imagine their union pay scale accounts for that fact and thus they are paid a higher amount per hour which factors in the door open time. If not, time to get a new union boss.

  37. @TheJetsFan – of course it is factored! Both airlines and unions prefer this otherwise flight attendants would have to clock in and out, it really complicates tracking pay when there are minor delays that affect total duty time by a few minutes.

  38. What a bunch of misinformed comments I am reading. There are no flight attendants that make a six figure income and most are around the 40-50K area. This whole line of discussion is beyond ridiculous. My wife has been working as a flight attendant for a major carrier and works hard to provide excellent customer service under challenging circumstances every time she goes out. She goes to training once a year to make sure you all are kept safe. Over and out.

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