From the Sky to SNAP: How American Airlines Flight Attendants Qualify For Food Stamps

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.)

Flight attendants have confronted CEO Isom in ‘WAR’ shirts and corporate headquarters has been placed on alert over flight attendants infiltrating the premises.

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.

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. Union Pay-scales are a low-key MLM. Lower members get the shaft to support the higher ups. Since a lot of people burn out or quit, the bottom rungs keep churning at a lower rate while the 13+ years play candy crush under the disguise of “turbulence.”

  2. Yeah I don’t feel bad here at all – you choose your career path fully knowing the pay/benefits.

    Also, the proposed ‘raises’ are insane. $68 to $92 per hour with one raise? All of this will simply be passed on to the consumer.

  3. Sizeable increases from 4th to 5th year, 5th to 6th year, and again from 12 into 13th year-all about 10%. Any idea what the metric is, especially for the jump into year 13? One possibility is a 25 year service requirement for pension, and then employee would be more than 50% of the way.
    This situation closely resembles a dog chasing it’s tail. Employees want more money because others in the industry get more, but detest management (and possibly their union) so much choose to do LESS rather than more to prove to the airline they bring value and have earned a premium increase in their salary. In this situation, the employees will need to provide a reason to break the impasse, as their employer has the advantage every day there is not a new contract

  4. I think that the final agreement will be around 20% the first year. The boarding pay will be a nice bonus to the lowest paid employees. It would be useful to see a table of how many employees are at each pay level and even more useful to see a table of how much each employee was paid (or maybe how many were paid $30k to $35k, how many were paid $35k to $40k, etc.), redacting the names.

  5. Why is this a topic exactly?

    From what I understand, most new flight attendants are chosen from hundreds of candidates, so one can assume the people being hired for these positions are talented/skilled/educated and therefore capable of securing work in other fields and industries that pay a very livable wage and then some.

    If you are not able to do this as a flight attendant, then please, find a job that allows you to live a quality life or the lifestyle you would like to have. We can throw up all the charts we want, debate whether or not this is a repercussion of unions and union seniority, or other variables, but these associates all have options. If the option they choose is to make $30k or less, then fine, but why does this need to be a discussion?

  6. “…but why does this need to be a discussion?”

    Because, in today’s society, everyone feels entitled to air their grievances, whether or not we want to hear them.

  7. fair and accurate article.
    Delta recognizes that boarding pay helps the lower seniority flight attendants.
    The FA job – like much in the airline industry – is not easy. Despite all of the excuses that AA FAs have made on other threads for not providing the service that the company asks them to do because they don’t get paid enough, AA employees only hurt themselves by cheapening the quality of their company’s product.
    The only consolation is that AA, WN and UA FAs are all in the same boat. AS FAs are also upset esp. since their company can find money for a merger.

    Delta also approved 5 new satellite FA bases which could help reduce the amount of commuting. Not sure what other airlines are doing for FAs in that regard but UA specifically has opened pilot bases in cities in WN bases in the south to try to poach pilots.

    Airlines are going to have to be creative to keep employees happy. Money is the first step.

  8. According to Forbes, 80% of Walmart employees qualify–and receive–SNAP, Medicaid, and the like. In the last full year before the pandemic the cost to taxpayers was over $6 Billion/yr. Yet another reason to shun employee-hating, taxpayer-draining Walmart.

  9. AA management would probably rather have FAs continue to peddle credit cards if they want more pay. Come to think of it, if they need extra money they could always sell a kidney since they have a spare one.

  10. I think it’s always reasonable to point out when a person is working and their wages are eligible for subsidy from the government. I oppose such subsidies because they are an effective subsidy to the employer and not really the employee. These subsidies also help mollify workers who otherwise could radicalize.

    I also think that AA really has aces here, for maybe the first time since I have ever had any regular usage of its products. They should refuse to accept any wages other than the current wages provided to the FAs.

  11. @Jo,

    That is probably what the Employees and Union voted for. Many CBAs vary so not surprising that year 13 = a lot more pay.

  12. I feel for anyone that is struggling as a flight attendant. As the junior FAs are aware they knew what the wages were when they signed up as the pay information is readily available on line and is easily accessible. So there are choices to make in one’s career path. As a retired pilot many years ago I flew at Mesa Airlines flying a 16 million dollar turbo prop and my first check as a FO was 268 dollars. I should have kept it and framed it, this was for 2 weeks of flying being paid by the mile. Anyone and everyone should be able to make enough money to pay rent, food, gas, and electric bills and or student loan payments period. The problem is most airline management’s look at each airline employee group the same regardless of where they live. The cost of living for example in Denver is so outrageous now we have one of the highest homeless populations in the nation and no one seems to care especially those that have caused the rents in this city to skyrockets. You cannot expect customer service employees to be able to pay 2000 to 30000 per month for a place to live and that is what it costs here. Now go 400 miles east of Denver to Wichita, KS and you can find some pretty nice living quarters for say a 1000 per month. Airlines management needs to take on looking at a new approach to this situation and start either paying employees enough to live on or help them in some other way say subsidized housing.or give out incentive pay to help these folks out. Otherwise good talent is going to start leaving and on some airline properties this is already happening. I retired from flying a few years ago as a Captain on the 737 made really good money but I got tired of it and decided 25 years was enough. I came back to Denver and decided I still wanted to work in aviation and took a job as a CSA at DIA for a major airline because I love working at the airport and like helping people. When costs of living went up in Denver the airline I worked for started a incentive pay program and now every quarter we get an additional 1400 dollars per month. So some airlines do recognize the situation at hand. I hope the Flight Attendants at American and others Airlines start getting paid enough to have a decent way to live…….

  13. American’s Board needed to cleanse the scourge of AmericaWest management years ago in order to replace inept management with actual leadership. Preferably capable leadership. Since the merger things have been run by management that have been indoctrinated with this ULCC mentality that in no way fits with running a giant international airline.

    As to the FA’s, since they’re completely unprepared for a major fight they should take the deal being offered to them and be better prepared next time their contract expires.

  14. Tim,
    Fascinating on the satellite bases. That’s a good deal. One airline I used to work at prohibited having more than 1 satellite base because the F/A union contract didn’t allow it due to the union LEC and MEC being one and the same not wanting to dilute its power.

    I don’t know if DL still does this, but a benefit of non-union, is that crew members have to apply and be approved by their supervisors to transfer to a satellite base (basically they have to be on good behavior and trustworthy to exist even more so without supervision). Probably a good incentive.

    Culebra John has it right… it is a dog chasing its tail. And there is zero incentive for any side involved to put an end to it.

  15. @Christian: You are apparently not aware that America West bought American Airlines. They simply opted to keep the AA name.

    @Culebra John: There are no flight attendants pensions any longer at AA.

    Pay cannot be looked at in isolation. AA could give flight attendants a 40% raise and take it all away in work rules.

  16. bidenomics isn’t helping either considering a large fry at mcdonald’s is $4.50. lots of people being hurt right now.

  17. Inflation is destructive to wage earners and those on fixed incomes . There are a few moneybags around , who can afford to pay a large surcharge for the FA’s extra pay . I propose each First Class passenger pay an additional 25% surcharge , earmarked for the FAs .

  18. Try Sun Country’s pay scale out of Minnesota! No contract for years and years. Most new hires live with their parents or are already retired and on Social Security. Probation is 9 months and you can be fired without cause within the 9 months. If you survive the 9 months you can join the Union and then have another big chunk deducted out of your pay check after paying for your uniform and basic luggage with roughly 800.00 Dollars minimum taken out of your pay check after graduation. No boarding or deplaning pay or time to travel unless your very Senior. The CEO’s, CFO’s etc. don’t care. It’s about their stock options and worker Bees be damned.

  19. Does anyone know what the turn over rate is for junior flight attendants? The low starting pay and being on reserve must take its toll. My understanding there is no pay (only room and board) for new flight attendants during the initial 6 weeks training.

  20. Gary,
    You got some things right for once, but not enough to keep the pot from being stirred.

    None of you people get it. That saying of happy life? Happy wife! Same goes with the Flight Attendants. We are so much more than a beverage pusher on board. Yeah yeah we all hear how we are there for your safety & that is a fact, and lately I’ve had more medical emergencies than not. Half way across the Atlantic or Pacific and sometimes it’s pretty scary. If we divert? You don’t always get to take off right away. So many legalities, and there goes my day off with very little if any compensation. Our job is far from glamorous and not for the weak. Every Pilot commends our patience for the drama on board, because they would probably flatten some of the jerks we get.

    Our bodies go through hell on these planes. Our Circadian clock is non-existent. Do you know how harmful that is to your body and your health? If we are injured on board the plane or on an overnight? We rarely get a sorry or how are you doing. We are punished for being injured and they want us back at work ASAP. The amount of surgeries on feet, hands and hips is ridiculous. AA tried to force us recently into using a specific surgical center for all joint surgeries. We couldn’t use our Doctors. If you had to travel hours for this? Oh well. If you couldn’t use that center? We were respinsible 100% for the cost of surgery. Our Union won that small battle, for now. Flying around is not always fun when turbulence hits at 35,000 feet. Flying around in a germ tube is not the healthiest lifestyle. We do this job because we honestly like our job. It’s hard work & it’s getting even harder with the abuse from clientele and management.The Senior people have seen a lot in Aviation & have poured their blood, sweat and tears into years of concessions to keep airlines running.

    Our workload has increased because AA has pulled Flight Attendants off of international flights. It’s impossible to perform a decent service short staffed by 2 FA’s on every Flight. Our Pursers who are meant to take care of problems. Smooze the passengers and help pick up the slack? They are now in a working position and cannot even provide the service they were trained to do. They are paid extra for compounding their stress?


    We aren’t rewarded for good behavior or exceptional service. AA even destroyed one good program we had. The Above and Beyond program. Once upon a time the Premium customers would hand you a little piece of paper telling you what a pleasure you were, or admiring your hard work. It was great because 10 would get you a positive round trip to any destination. A great perk in the standby world of travel. (We did pay taxes as it was reported as income) AA changed it. Every A & B card was put into a system wide drawing for prizes. $10,000 being top prize. As shitty as that program was, it also disappeared. I don’t even know what the value of the A & B card is anymore. I stopped registering them & decided to wallpaper my bathroom with them. We have zero performance incentives. Not even for perfect attendance. Profit Sharing is a joke for any employee other than the Pilots. Our 401k shrinks more than grows & not every Flight Attendant has a pension. That belongs to the legacies. Who knows if Social Security will even be around with our current worthless government. You people should go harp on that bandwagon. Politicians that serve even one term get paid a lifetime salary and benefits. No wonder our politicians suck!

    The turn over rate for Flight Attendants is saddening. 40 years ago we were hired under false promises and stuck it out. Which is what good hardworking employees do right? I get it. There are bad Senior FA’s also, and they should be weeded out. The new hires don’t understand hard work. A lot of them anyway. Boarding a flight while sitting in your jumpseat on your phone, drinking a tomatoe juice? Is that what AA is hiring? Good people don’t want to work for poverty wages, and they won’t stick around for the crap AA promises.

    This is not your typical job, and I have never been pro Union, especially ours, but it is the lesser of 2 evils. If management had there way we’d all still be wearing stilletos at 35,000 feet. Unions were established initially for good & have made a lot of changes in our work rules and policies for the better. They don’t have the power any longer, thanks to Presidential interference. This is a chosen career for many. A hard, tough career.

    AA has made 2 bases a nightmare. Every FA, no matter how long they have been flying must serve a rotation of reserve 2-3 months a year. That is a pay cut and not right. Good FA’s had to transfer out of those bases & a lot had to quit after 40 years because they could not be on call after 40 years. Even a FA of 55 years was forced into that nightmare. For those not familiar with reserve? It’s hell being called out for anything and anywhere. We all served it and it was expected. Some served almost 20 years. Now you get hired and hold a line or at the worst serve reserve for a year, forcing Seniors back into reserve. This was changed without membership input. Our sick policy is designed to fail, and once again FA’s have to become creative not to get fired. We use our vacations for surgeries or medical needs & an FMLA is a must, and AA even makes money from the government off of FMLA’s.

    Y’all have no idea how management at AA operates. Robert Isom is Satan swimming in our profits.

    Until you walk in our shoes? Shut the hell up! Bring on the CHAOS.

  21. Babs,
    all of that and you don’t understand basic economics.
    You harm AA’s customers and you harm yourself. There is a reason why AA can’t make it in the competitive business markets including LAX, NYC, and a dozen other destinations around the world where Delta and United grow and it is because AA doesn’t provide the level of service that people consider worthwhile for the fares AA charges.
    Go ahead and CHAOS. You only help your competitors and speed your own financial demise.

  22. The same flyers who claim to not care or are adverse to FA’s making a living wage are the same people bitching about service on AA. You get what you pay for silly boys!

  23. Love the people who claim “we get what we pay for” yet the older, more tenured FA’s are typically the worst when it comes to service and attitude, yet the best paid.

  24. In these contracts there are numerous provisions to increase the actual wages earned far above what just taking one line from a pay scale indicates. Thus, before making any conclusions, the correct number (s) to be used should be actual W-2 wages. That may well paint quite a different picture.
    One positive note from this article. It shows what a sham unemployment insurance is in cases like this.

  25. Babs – no, you’re nothing more than a drinks pusher. And a laaazy entitled one at that. Your bodies go through hell? Suck it. You chose the job. Trying working on a road gang. Or working in a shop. Or any other job out there. It’s called “work”, but we’ve established you’re senior enough you don’t actually do any. Bring on the chaos? This is why you should be terminated on the spot.

  26. I think it’s absolutely disgusting that the CEOs of these airlines right around in private jets and spend money on lavish parties for their families and friends while the people who were day and night eroding their health and relationships with their families suffering silence in utter poverty! And they wonder why that is an industry that’s constantly losing people? Because people want to be able to eat and support their families too!

  27. Jason major – I think it’s absolutely disgusting that pathetic little communists like you are jealous of people that are clearly working harder than you. Want their jobs? Get their skills, education, background, etc.

    EVERYONE knew the pay when they took the job. Boo hoo they have to work physically hard. So does the military, nurses, and road repairmen. Sky waitresss are not special.

    Well, they and you are “special”, but that’s the other kind.

  28. The FA are the ones who choose the job and agree to the pay before they started to work. If you don’t like the pay change your job. Many people change their employer all the time because they do not like what they are getting paid . They pay union dues to get that check .

    They are sticking around because they want that job regardless of the wages.
    Do not forget what the other benefits are. Health insurance, travel, etc.

  29. The flight attendants 10 years ago gave up their retirement so the company could compete with low cost carries. So what did management do? Instead of shoring up the balance sheet, they spend 12 Billion dollars over a decade buying back shares only to see a 72% decline in the value of AAL shares. Do you think investing 100K in 2013 to have it amount to 26K today is a good investment ? I’m not from Wall Street but Finance 101 says this is a loser strategy. Delta, Untied, Alaska don’t seem to be so inept. I think the front line employees are tired of subsidizing the poor performance of management with their petty salaries. They took multiple pay cuts in 2004 to subsidize the strategic blunder of procuring TWA which added no benefit to the bottom line. Management continues to pay themselves gracious bonuses while under performing the market and the industry and running a sloppy operation. Perhaps positions at the Post Office would be more commensurate with their talent. Front line employees do not want to use their salaries to subsidize freeloader management who can not perform anymore.

  30. Just shows you the union doesn’t care about workers. And these old Bettys want $90/hr+…and their service will still suck.

  31. Ok. Food stamps, SNAP, WIC, EBT cards, Medicaid, affordable housing and other transfers from the U.S. taxpayer. Let’s socialize the industry. Or. Let’s go back to tipping culture, to insure proper service. I tip the skycap.ok. I also have to tip the barman and the barmaid at the “exclusive” prepaid airport lounge. I read tabloid stories of tipping all snd every passenger-facing ground staff and flight staff. Would some blogger please sort this out for us loyal flyers?

  32. Non union Delta has similar payscale over 10 plus year career span, yet you still blame the unions for the disparity of pay, a little biased aren’t we?
    The management has interest in retaining experienced flight attendants. Believe it or not, experience matters in this field.
    You may blame the unions for creating flexibile work rules, so that some FAs choose not to be as productive as others, but you are not understanding this industry correctly, if you put the whole blame on the union for the payscale.

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