On Monday I wrote about the struggles of American Airlines flight attendants, especially junior crew, who have seen their wages eroded by inflation and whose last pay increase was in January 2019.
Some report lacking gas money to get to the airport, being unable to afford meals (and living off of snacks from the first class snack basket) and not being able to afford Christmas presents.
There’s a lot of confusion over how flight attendants are paid and how much they work – and who is responsible for the low pay and higher living costs of some of the most junior crew.
What American Airlines Flight Attendants Make
Here’s the flight attendant pay scale from the current contract. Their last raise was in January 2019. The contract has been amendable since shortly before the pandemic, and wages have been eroded in value significantly by inflation since then.
Here are some key things to understand about this pay.
- The lineholder minimum guarantee is 71 hours per month. A flight attendant working reserve is guaranteed 75 hours per month. Many cabin crew do work more than that.
- Those are hours from push back to arrival. Those hours do not include time at the airport, connecting between flights, or boarding planes.
There’s no question that it’s tough to live on $30,000 a year at the start. In inflation-adjusted terms that’s what the $21,000 I made right out of school is worth today. It’s fine if you’re not trying to support a family, but there’s not a lot of space for luxuries. Many flight attendants work a second job.
Some Junior Flight Attendants Are Eligible For Food Stamps
Where do I get $30,000 from, giving these hourly rates? A ‘full time’ flight attendant in their second year, working reserve, is guaranteed 75 hours at $32.18 per hour. That’s $2,413.50 per month gross, or $28,962 per year.
And that would make them eligible for SNAP payments if they’re assigned to the Boston flight attendant base. A single person, earning less than $2,430 per month, is eligible for $291 per month in supplemental nutritional assistance program payments (provided they are a Massachusetts resident and have less than $2,000 in the bank).
An early career flight attendant needs to work a second job to make ends meet.
Who Is At Fault For Low Junior Wages?
I believe that the union should prioritize base premiums, so that flight attendants in the Boston, New York and Chicago flight attendant bases receive a premium on top of standard pay. They do not simply have the option of being hired into the base of their choosing, and the same pay goes a lot farther in Dallas or Phoenix. I also believe that the airline should be willing to pay more in exchange for greater accountability in delivering exceptional service.
The union is as much to blame for the low wages of early career flight attendants as the company is. By year 13 flight attendants are making more than double that of second year cabin crew. The distribution of wages is what the union cares about. More senior flight crew aren’t more valuable to the airline, they aren’t more productive, the airline cares about total flight attendant cost. The union take that total cost and distributes it among its members, skewing it towards those with higher seniority.
Flight Attendants Have To Live Frugally
Before Robert Isom became CEO of American Airlines, the airline brought his former boss ex-Northwest Airlines CEO Doug Steenland onto the board.
Steenland’s Northwest obtained employee pay cuts in bankruptcy. They also got to outsource ground handling at airports with fewer than 50 flights a week, meaning some employees faced layoffs. In an effort to make them those employees feel better about it, they put out a guide for making do with less, “Preparing for a Financial Setback.” They recommended “101 ways to save money.” The advice for those about to be laid off included,
Use the phone book instead of directory assistance.
Replace 100 watt bulbs with 60 watt.
Take a shorter shower.
Write letters instead of calling.
Drop duplicate medical insurance.
Don’t be shy about pulling something you like out of the trash.
When you buy a home negotiate the sales price and closing costs.
Never grocery shop hungry.
Skip annual full mouth x-rays unless there is a problem; the ADA recommends x-rays every 3 years.
Dumpster dive! Dropping ‘duplicate’ medical insurance becomes easier! But “When you buy a home negotiate the sales price and closing costs” doesn’t seem like actionable advice under the circumstances. “Never grocery shop hungry.” Don’t be poor!
Cabin Crew Increasingly See Management As Out Of Touch
American Airlines flight attendants are increasingly taking a hostile posture towards management, and in some cases that bleeds over into the cabin, where I’ve heard crew talking about doing the bare minimum because of contract negotiations.
There’s a rumor rocketing around flight attendants about their negotiations being mocked by CEO Robert Isom at a dinner. I do not know what he actually said, but the way it’s being reported has truthiness to cabin crew. Increasingly they’re contrasting his executive pay to their lack of an increase, and building resentment over it. (While I don’t think the airline’s financial performance necessarily warrants the highest rates of executive pay, the two really are not comparable.)
How Much Money Is The Union Fighting Over?
Here’s what American has been offering – wages equal to Delta at top of the industry – and what the union is asking for, with everyone understanding that the ratio of first year to 13th year flight attendant pay remaining the same in both cases.
Note that in this offer, it’s not just hourly wages that would go up. American is also offering boarding pay at 50% of flight pay, matching non-union Delta. That benefits junior crew the most, who tend to fly more short flights and thus have more time spent boarding (e.g. four domestic flights in a day each with time boarding versus a long haul flight every few days).
The union lacks the leverage to gain such a big increase, and the flight attendant job is no more productive than it was at the start of the last contract. Wages might keep up with inflation, and the broader industry, but there’s no reason to believe that union demands are possible. Moreover the union lacks the funds to sustain members through a long strike (and has been talking about wildcat strikes only, for this reason).
In messaging the union highlights the struggles of their junior members – while fighting for bigger increases in dollar terms at the top. That’s a choice.
The longer it takes to come to a contract, the longer American’s flight attendants keep their current wage levels, and the more money the airline saves. (Unlike pilots, flight attendants aren’t going to get retro pay back to the 2019 amendable date upon agreeing to a new contract.)
Union leaders who may not want to disappoint members they’ve been telling are going to get big raises while running for re-election aren’t in a position to compromise, to the detriment of their membership. But ultimately the nature of compensation for the job isn’t going to be fundamentally transformed. And such a transformation certainly wouldn’t start with the most financially-challenged of the largest U.S. airlines.
What’s A Better Outcome?
Delta pays flight attendants at the top of the industry. They were first to introduce boarding pay. Their flight attendants mostly perform the same function as they do at other carriers, but are also generally marginally friendlier and help create the airline’s premium culture that is core to their strategy. Delta flight attendants are also non-union.
American flight attendants pay union dues but won’t outpace Delta’s crew in terms of take-home pay. American also is not as profitable, so profit sharing will be lower even under the same formula.
American Airlines has high costs, and needs to generate a revenue premium. A contract that aligns flight attendants towards convincing customers to spend more to fly the airline is the only way to support higher wages – it makes them more productive towards the bottom line, and helps support the economics of an airline which can afford those wages.
A model where employees do the same task but see wages continually rise can be supported only by Baumol-like cost disease where opportunities outside the industry push up wages to attract workers (think university administration). But there are plenty of people banging down the doors of airlines to become flight attendants, and the training involved to replace them is much less stringent than to become an aircraft mechanic or pilot.
A union that cares about the plight of junior crew would focus on it in negotiations (but usually is more responsive to senior members). An airline that cared about its profitability, and supporting its team, would work to align incentives so that productivity was rewarded with compensation.