Why Flight Attendants Don’t Get Paid Until Aircraft Doors Close

NPR ran a piece purporting to explain why flight attendants don’t get paid for time spent boarding planes, except they did not explain it at all.

“We have a lot of time in our days that we are unpaid,” says Julie Hedrick, a flight attendant for American Airlines and president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, a flight attendants union.

That unpaid time — which might be five or six hours a day — includes all the hours flight attendants spend in airports, waiting for their next flight, as well as all the time it takes to get people and their bags on board and in their proper places.

American Airlines flight attendants currently earn $30 to $68 per hour. They are in negotiations, and have been offered higher pay, but remain far apart on economic terms.

These pay rates apply for flight time only. They don’t ‘clock in’ when they get to the airport, and they don’t get paid for boarding. And they wind up racking up hours that are closer to half time rather than 40 hours per week.

Delta Air Lines, whose flight attendants are non-union, made a revolutionary move in 2022 to implement boarding pay at 50% of standard wages (Delta flight attendants also make a little more than American’s do).

Historically, unions representing American Airlines and other airline flight attendants have not pushed for boarding pay. They have preferred higher wages for time spent on trips to lower hourly rates that cover more of their working time. This has to do with seniority and scheduling.

  • Junior flight attendants tend to work more short flights. They spend more time on planes during boarding (since they do it more often) and more time in airports waiting between flights.

  • More senior flight attendants tend to work fewer, longer flights. They may work a single long haul flight in a day, so board only one plane and not spend any time in the airport between flights they’re going to work.

Higher wages, but no boarding pay, has benefited senior members of the union at the expense of junior members. It’s no surprise that non-union Delta made this move to offer boarding pay also first. The largest flight attendants union, AFA-CWA, even negotiated a contract after this (Spirit) and didn’t push for boarding pay.

American Airlines has offered the basic terms of Delta’s flight attendant economic package in bargaining,

  • Higher Delta hourly rates
  • Delta-equivalent boarding pay
  • Delta’s profit-sharing formula

However if American’s flight attendants take that deal, they will still earn less than Delta flight attendants because profit sharing will be lower – a function of lower profits, and more employees to split the profit-sharing pool across.

United Airlines flight attendants are also in negotiations with their airline, and they’ve talked up not just boarding pay but also pay for sit time. Basically all the job ‘on the job’ at the airport should be paid.

I’m actually sympathetic with the United flight attendants union argument here, except it would mean lower hourly rates than they’d otherwise be able to achieve. And that can’t fly because it would come at the expense of more senior members of the union. An unwillingness to budget on hourly rates will mean that they aren’t able to achieve the restructure of their contract that they say they want, and a move towards being paid for all hours on the job.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. FA’s definitely should be paid for time spend boarding. I’m surprised the current structure is even legal as it requires hourly workers to work in an uncompensated manner. Perhaps the solution is a phased in approach so that it gives those with seniority a couple more years of the old structure before moving on to the inevitable (get paid when you work).

  2. I’ve always been perplexed how airlines can legally get away with the DOL rules of being paid for all working time that the rest of America has to comply with. I didn’t think you could negotiate to not be paid for worked hours. It sounds to me like it’s a shell game designed to hide the real truth and value that employees should be receiving.

  3. @Gary, I’m with @Jeff and @DavidP. Could you please explain why it is legal for FAs to not get paid when they are required to perform duties such as boarding?

  4. @controller1 They are getting paid, they get an inflated rate for their flight time to make up for it. They knew the pay structure when they signed on, they aren’t victims. They are still getting well over minimum wage for what is essentially unskilled labor.

    Gary, you didn’t explain why FAs don’t get paid for boarding time, you only explained why the FA union has not fought for it. The reason seems to me that it is much easier to account and track flight time since there is a clear record of actual flight times that can easily be used for pay calculations. There’s no record of when boarding actually starts. So to incorporate that you’d just have to end up adding 30 minutes or whatever to each leg as an inexact approximation.

  5. There should be minimal seniority pay increases, pay for all time on the job, and no decrease or increase in total workforce compensation.

  6. unrelated but I dont find your AI generated stock images very interesting or additive to your posts. At least not in the frequency that you use it.

  7. Pilots dont get paid for their preflight duties such as flight planning, pre-flight airplane safety checks and getting the plane ready for taxi and takeoff. Like FAs only paid when doors are closed.

  8. This is one of the dirty little secrets in union jobs. The union works for and negotiates deals that are almost exclusively for the benefit of the most senior in their ranks. I’ve been in negotiations where management is offering a really, really good deal for the rank and file, but the bosses won’t even present it to their members because it’s not rich enough for those at the top.

  9. Why are we still talking about this? This is nothing!
    I want to talk more about the fact that FA’s shouldn’t be doing ANY service on planes, and ensuring that all pax are triple vaxxed and quadruple masked for safety! I have been asking this for YEARS!

  10. I feel something like Delta’s plan of half time for boarding makes sense as a way to get payment to their employees for all work, but also incentivizing quick boarding. Maybe a more fair solution would be to pay attendants a flat rate per boarding that works out to something closer to their standard pay on average.

  11. For those that make the point that FA’s really do get paid for boarding through inflated flight pay, I’d argue that is a poor approximation of the wages they are due. Employees who are working are entitled to be paid for flight delays. This is especially relevant if they are sitting on the plane or on the tarmac.
    Last year, I was on a flight that landed during a thunderstorm. As a result of the risk, we had to sit on the plane for more than an hour before they could guide us into the gate. There is no reasonable argument here to suggest the FA’s don’t deserve an hour of overtime pay while sitting on the tarmac waiting to deplane. They even did an extra walk through the cabin handing out cookies to the passengers.

  12. The unions representing flight attendants are functionally useless. I’m pro-union, but FA’s just get a raw deal, and moronically pay DUES in order to receive the raw deal.

    A real union would fight for 100% boarding pay, from the minute they walk into the airport. Period. Not 50%, and they should be willing to strike if they don’t get it. There really is no point to having a union, if they are unable to provide this.

  13. The unions speak for and on behalf of their members. Members have voing rights to replace their leadership.

    Flight attendants, flight crew in general have, collectively agreed to their compensation packages that the membership agreed to, according to union rules.

    There’s should be no complaints from any reasonable person who accepts a job offer under the terms of employment that’s been negotiated on their behalf.

    Clearly, if they don’t like the terms, they should look elsewhere for their employment.

    No one is forced to work where they don’t want to. We all should have enough common sense to stay or move on.

  14. David P. Flight attendants are paid gate to gate. So they did get paid until the plane got to the gate.

  15. I am a talking coke dispenser. I like to block off the galley so I can play video games. I really have no education but like 60 an hour. Please feel bad for me.

  16. To those moaning about what FAs do or don’t do, I implore you: Please, go do this thankless grueling job about which you are clueless. It isn’t a coincidence that FAs start out bright eyed and excited to have this job but are soon all in the same boat mentally and emotionally. Speak for yourselves and not for other people.

  17. Novel idea: mandatory retirement age for flight attendants. That’ll break the backlog of seniors who literally die in the jumpseat.

  18. Fine. Let’s punch a clock. $20/hr. And ONLY a 20% discount on the product (flights) unless it’s company business then it’s free……just like every other job out there. They want it to be like every other job, let’s give it to them.

  19. Flight Attendants are not “ unskilled labor” we are highly trained professionals who you may one day depend on to save you in the event of a medical emergency, a terror threat, a fire inflight, or a crash – we do a million little things you don’t see everyday because we love the job. We deserve to be paid a living wage.

  20. @Fred VonFirstenberg

    Workers of the past knew what they were signing up for and made change for what’s right. It’s called progress. If all flight attendants would’ve just quit and got new jobs years ago, airlines would still be able to fire them when they got married. Should workers all over the country still be put in danger or did the changes people fought for in our history improve our country? We evolve as humans, as a country, as a society by brave people standing up for what’s right. Telling flight attendants they should quit and get new jobs would perpetuate the issue. The new hire pay was barely sustainable 5 years ago. Working on a 5 year expired contract, it’s absolutely not sustainable now. It wouldn’t take long for no one to be able to be flight attendants. If the new hire pay isn’t sufficient to survive without living in low income housing and food stamps in the cities they expect us to live in, why would future FAs be any different? Your ignorant comment that flight attendants knew what they signed up for (that the company would be able to stall 5+ years to give basic cost of living adjustments after record-breaking inflation after we were all furloughed due to COVID was not on my bingo card when i signed up 5 years ago) and should quit if they don’t like it is a very cowardly suggestion. I choose to stay and fight for improvements for future generations. Plus, I love my job and I’m good at it. If I quit now, id have to start all over at new hire pay when they did finally get a new contract. That would be silly.

    I’m college educated, have worked in management, was a project manager working with Fortune 500 companies when I switched to this job. I knew I was taking a pay cut to do what I love doing. While getting to learn about the world and other cultures. While taking good care of you while you’re flying. The contract I signed up under had annual cost of living increases built in. This 5 year stall wasn’t something I thought could be possible.

    For the record, in response to many other comments, in 6 week live-in training, we spent maybe a few hours on serving people food and drinks. That’s seriously just a side-note for what we’re trained to do. When people say we’re just there to serve you, it’s laughable. If you only knew what could happen to airline travelers if we weren’t there. Please don’t make vitriolic remarks on things you are so obviously uneducated on.

    Another one for the record…when I’ve taken care of everything I can do on the plane. When it’s a long flight. When the first class passenger’s drinks are full, when everything is done and smooth . Between my 15 minute walk-throughs, I’m not playing candy crush on my phone. I’m reading on my kindle app. History is my favorite genre. I’d personally love to chat with you, that’s one of the things I love about my job…learning about other people. However, you’re too busy on your device and you’d be so annoyed if FAs chatted to you the whole flight. People complain on this blog that we’re talking to each other. I guess you want me to stare at a wall? Unreal.

    Trust me, we’re not trying to get rich here. (Unlike Isom). We’re just asking for fair wages that we can survive on and some human decency.

  21. if the FA do not like the compensation they have options.
    1. Get a job elsewhere
    2. Get the union to get better pay for junior workers at the cost of senior workers
    3. They applied for the job knowing what the pay was so accept it.
    4. Retire and get a job at Wal Mart.

  22. CHRIS Excellent comment. I don’t hear them clamoring for other parts of “normal” work.

  23. @chris & @texasoilfields

    Deal. When I work a 15 hour day and only get paid for 5, this would be better for me. Actually, since we’re going to be treated like other “normal” jobs, we should not legally be allowed to work so many hours in a day unexpectedly and we should be allowed breaks. When I sit at the airport on standby for 6 hours, I should get paid for 6 hours instead of the 4 they pay us now. Also, we shouldn’t be penalized when we use our own sick time. You’re a genius, thank you.

  24. @ DunkinDFDubya

    What Job do you work that makes it ok to fire people because they’re old? How is that any different than firing people for their race? Or their sex? I believe it is just as much a legally protected class. As a 5yr flight attendant, trust me, we need experienced flight attendants that have been in every situation to learn from. It would not be safe to have all new flight attendants who have never experienced the myriad of new things that come up everyday on a metal tube flying through the air with no back-up.

  25. @ Mantis

    I could spend my life correcting false information posted and commented on in this blog and I don’t have time for that, I’m too busy playing candy crush on my phone, but, occasionally I’ll help.

    We have to sign in on our device an hour before our flight. It won’t let us sign in unless the GPS on our device says we’re in the airport. If we’re late, we get punitive points. We scan in once we arrive at the gate. Of course we have a report of when the first passenger scans in at the gate to enter the aircraft. That’s 3 verifiable ways to pay us for our time at work.

  26. Its absurd that FA are not paid until the door closes. Consequently, if someone suffers a heart attack or some other illness that requires assistance, FAs must provide assistance without being paid. I think this is illegal.

  27. As a millennial, this sounds just like the economy: government policies favor the older generations at the expense of the younger ones, because the older ones vote and therefore have the voting power.

  28. I hereby demand passenger pay for putting up with surly flight staff and passenger tiktok/TMZ antics, before, during, and after any doors close.

  29. Mantis,Flight attendants are considered skilled workers. Their role requires specialized training and expertise, including safety procedures, emergency response, and customer service skills.
    Additionally, they are responsible for ensuring passengers’ safety and comfort, which requires a high level of professionalism and attention to detail. Flight attendants’ work involves a range of tasks that necessitate various skills and knowledge, making their position a skilled occupation.
    So when was it that a flight attendant turned you down.

  30. What is not mentioned regarding Delta Air Lines’ flight attendants is that they, along with the rest of the employees, are getting a 10.4% profit sharing bonus this year. The dollar amount is based on the amount of profit the company makes but everyone gets a piece of the pie. It is always paid on Valentine’s Day as a “thank you” for the hard work keeping Delta climbing to the top.

  31. Mainline FA’s are the over paid employees. Regional airlines are under paid and work 5 leg days. While mainline work 2 legs and complain about it.

  32. I am a flight attendant. Our days go from one leg per day to perhaps four. Contrary to what is said here we DO get paid from check in. It’s called “on duty” and there is a formula that protects us from lower flying time and longer layovers. It’s always been like this and I have never heard a complaint about it until we started hiring a lot of new people. If we got hourly pay from our check in time we would be getting a pay cut because the companies would not be paying us the $30.35-$68.25 that they do now as flying time, OR the airlines, being airlines, would adjust the trips to cause us to get a lot less money than they do now…

  33. I don’t dispute that FA’s don’t deserve their salary. I don’t dispute that they work hard. I don’t dispute that federal regulations limiting their time in service may be part of the issue.
    I do question that airlines are making higher profits using this method because if they could pay them less, they would, it’s their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to maximize profits.

    Any attempt to overpay some hours while not compensating for other hours is usually to the company’s benefit.
    If I worked 15 hours but was only paid for 5, at 4x the rate, I’d know the company was taking advantage of me. I’d sooner work 15 hours and be paid for 15 hours at 1x rate. It’s just smoke and mirrors.

  34. @Bella
    Then why aren’t you asking for exactly what I detailed? Remember now, no fringe benefits like non-revving for free. Sure a 20% discount just like home depot employees get. Want to commute?…. you’re paying for it. Of course you’ll only be scheduled for 8 hours per day +/- and sure you’ll get OT after 8. But just think, the company will be able to hire more dues paying members so that they minimize OT. Don’t you WANT more dues paying members?
    “College educated” yeah….maybe you got your degree in some worthless subject from DeVry online….or you could be completely full of bs. Either way, you’re wasting whatever you were supposedly educated in.
    More likely you’re what would be known as a senior mama. A lazy old hag who has a million years of seniority and exists solely to cause trouble and provide a terrible experience for passengers. No, you don’t do a million things….you do a few… and often aren’t very good at those or you just flat out refuse. I’ll bet that your heart broke the day your mask enforcement powers were stripped.
    It’s a service job.
    You’re NOT police
    You’re NOT firefighters even though they showed you how to use a fire extinguisher (just like every employee at Wawa)
    You’re NOT the counterterrorism arm of the FBI or CIA.
    You’re NOT doctors or EMTs even though you were shown how to use an AUTOMATED External Defibrillator or were shown the basics of first aid (like Walmart employees).
    Climb down from that perch that you’ve been sitting on since 9/11. You’d have a lot more support from passengers if you treated us better.
    You’re getting exactly what you deserve. As for the money, you supported outrageous salaries for them hoping that they’d return the support……welp, guess what. The airline can’t afford to pay you both. YOU can be replaced in three weeks. They can’t.
    I fly weekly (or more) and usually in F/J. Your sob story may work the $40 to EWR crowd but for people like me, we know EXACTLY what you do and more importantly we notice what you DON’T.

  35. Thanks for explaining this pay oddity. The simple reason that it’s better for senior flight attendants explains everything.

  36. @chris I’ve been a flight attendant for 5 years. I wish I was a senior mama. You are so wrong about me and so many other FAs. You’re incorrectly generalizing . Guarantee if I’ve had you in first, you loved me. Love you too. You probably gave me one of these above & beyond slips I trade in for Amazon gift cards to buy more art supplies. If so, thank you! Happy Travels:)

  37. As a 40+ year Flight Attendant I appreciate the opportunity to comment.
    The pay structure is based on an antiquated system. In the 1950s the opportunity to become a stewardess was quite revered, the interest being the ability to travel as a benefit of your employment to see the world and to be treated respectfully & even elegantly. I actually remembered limousines picking us up at JFK and taking us to New York City.
    Travel as a benefit no longer exists. Our benefits are sold last minute on several Internet applications. We are no longer picked up by limousines in an elegant manner we pile onto hotel shuttles, and eventually get to our frequently substandard hotel room exhausted by a duty day that can extend to 16 hours being paid for only the hours aloft.
    And yes the traveling public has changed dramatically over several decades. No more needs to be said about that.
    I cannot think of any other type of employment where you actually do work and are not paid for it !

  38. @Elaine
    “I cannot think of any other type of employment where you actually do work and are not paid for it !”

    You mean like anyone on salary?

  39. Another hour that flight attendants are not paid for is the “check in” time. Some airlines require that you check in one hour before your flight time and if you are late a few times you can lose your job. Traffic, flat tire, etc. could cause you to be unemployed even though you were not yet on the clock.

  40. Wages are set by the supply/demand dynamics of that jobs’ labor market. The leverage FA unions have in negotiating is directly tied to their potential to enact financial harm to the company. Railway acts make it difficult for FAs to strike. If the company needed to spend more money constantly training new FAs because senior FAs were quitting FA unions would have more leverage. Otherwise drawn out negotiations should be expected.

  41. A couple misconceptions-

    Senior FAs do not have any more power in the union over more junior members. Every person has 1 vote when it comes to approving/denying contract proposals.

    The difference in number of flights per year between senior and junior members is negligible at best. Junior flight attendants tend to be on “reserve” and are given a monthly guarantee regardless of flights flown per month. The whole premise of this article is nonsense for multiple reasons and shows very little understanding of how FA schedules work.

  42. I’ve been married to a Flight Attendant for 37 years. She’s worked at Pan Am, United, and AA. Like many others, she does the job because she loves it – the travel and interactions with customers – and fortunately the money is secondary. What’s not being discussed in all the union / pay conversations is that the FA union(s) right to strike is essentially prevented by the Federal Government. If you can’t strike then negotiation leverage is lost – there is no threat of pain to the other side. As airlines have consolidated, their size is now such that if they were to strike there would be a severe impact on the country, especially in an election year. This kills the standard management -union negotiation process that most industries follow, as evidenced by AA stalling for 5 years and a government arbitrator failing to declare a negotiation impasse. FA’s can picket and complain until they drop and nothing will happen until the Federal Government allows it to happen. It’s understandable why FA’s are frustrated with the impasse. When that day finally comes – cynically I’ll guess after the November election – the arbitrator will declare an impasse and then there will be a quick and fair negotiation followed by its members ratifying a contract they choose to live with. I suspect when that happens you will see the level of frustrations with both young and old FA’s decrease.

  43. @Mantis
    I think you are confused and/or uninformed about what FAs do. Yes, you are right that FAs find out about the pay structure before agreeing to the job, but that doesn’t make it fair. You also call it “unskilled labor” but FAs are required to do almost 2 months of training in order to qualify to be a flight attendant, AND must frequently renew those qualifications. Do other unskilled labors have to requalify for their jobs? Or do computer training multiple times a year? Or in person training?
    And are unskilled laborers responsible for the lives of the clients they serve??

    Also, boarding time is ABSOLUTELY a metric that they track and know – or they wouldn’t be able to reprimand/congratulate the gate agents for keeping to their timetables. It’s ignorant to think that these companies are just “in the dark” about when their people start working.

    But in addition, boarding is not the only work that FAs are not getting paid for: FAs do ALL PREFLIGHT SAFETY CHECKS as well as multiple briefings about the flight before boarding even starts. Pay should start when the FA checks in and boards the plane – not when passengers start getting on, nor when the brake of the plane gets released…

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