Why Flight Attendants Haven’t Gotten Paid For Boarding. Most Crew Should Hate Their Union For It.

The decision by non-union Delta Air Lines to pay flight attendants during boarding, a practice that doesn’t exist at other U.S. airlines, has:

  • Other airline flight attendants envious – this is the talk of the industry – and
  • Other airline unions running scared, because they haven’t been able to deliver anything like this

Delta gave its flight attendants a raise right before the pandemic, declared special profit-sharing earlier this year, and just gave them another raise this month – in addition to thousands of dollars additional pay via this change to compensation that starts June 2.

The truth is that other flight attendants are compensated based on flight length, and that’s meant to cover work done during boarding. And this how how union contracts have been designed – it’s what flight attendant representatives wanted. But there’s another element that most flight attendants don’t realize.

  • By folding pay for boarding into the hourly rate paid for the flight, it’s a system that benefits senior employees at the expense of junior employees.

  • Those working international long haul trips have more flight hours – unpaid boarding time per hour of paid flying time is much lower than for flight attendants working domestic trips.

  • Consider a two hour (paid) flight with 35 minutes of (unpaid) boarding versus a 10 hour (paid) flight with 50 minutes of (unpaid) boarding. Now multiple the unpaid boarding piece across several domestic segments a day for what are usually more junior crew working these trips.

There is a reason unions have supported this pay structure and since most flight attendants are working domestic or short-haul international trips at the large legacy carriers, the majority of cabin crew should be furious with their unions. And this is how most decision-making at airline unions takes place, exploiting junior crew for the benefit of more senior crew.

Thousands of flight attendants at American and United were furloughed during the pandemic. No flight attendants were furloughed at Delta. The biggest difference is that unions at American and United protected senior employees (who were protected from furlough by years of service in the union last-in, first-out system) while Delta was able to adjust hours and duties – even assigning non-flight duties to cabin crew – to keep everyone working and paid.

At American Airlines, when the federal government was subsidizing airlines and requiring them to keep employees on payroll, the most junior flight attendants worked while senior crew were generally paid without having to work. That’s the reverse of how things usually work (trips assigned based on seniority) because once again the union protected its senior members at the expense of junior employees.

Junior employees are told ‘we’re all in this together’ and unions strengthen their hand against management, but the Association of Professional Flight Attendants at American never slammed the airline for furloughing cabin crew while some other airlines didn’t. Neither did Sara Nelson’s AFA at United. It’s a system that enriches senior employees at the expense of junior employees and protects low performers at the expense of high performers.

Union flight attendants don’t benefit when their colleagues shirk on their duties inflight, it leaves more work for them and that extra work is something created by union job protections for underperformers.

Ultimately non-union Delta flight attendants are mostly better off, it isn’t that unions at other airlines are getting something for members that they wouldn’t otherwise get. Flight attendant leverage isn’t also nearly as great as what pilots enjoy (since the supply of pilots is limited). So flight attendants unions mostly spend time redistributing the pay that crew would otherwise get, while charging all members for the privilege.

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. […] However Delta cannot unilaterally change the pay of their pilots. Their pilots literally agreed to – voted on – a contract that paid more for time flying the plane and didn’t calculate pay including boarding time. Not only haven’t pilots made boarding pay a priority, they’ve chosen the current arrangement because it benefits senior union members at the expense of junior ones. […]


  1. In before the pro-union hacks attack you for an anti-union post.

    Too bad they can’t tell their @$$ from a hole in the ground and realize that their union heads don’t give two $hits about them, only about lining their own pockets.

  2. You’ve gone to town with the boarding pay for DL flight attendants, issue. Way to go, Gary.

    There is a bigger issue at play and I hope your readers understand it.
    When people try to socialize anything, they make sure the process of “spreading the wealth” always benefit a few at the expense of others.
    Unionization is workplace socialism. Unions have done a lot of good things for American workers but when their benefit is largely economic – as it is now – it is far more likely that a pure free enterprise approach to work delivers more economically.

  3. The executives of American and United were negligent in not laying off all flight attendants and employees during the travel shutdown. They had the opportunity to sever the contracts. Then they could have come back 9 months later and hired non union workers for wages commensurate with the position (it’s always good to pay a very decent wage to attract the good type of workers who demand it) but without the ridiculous restrictions that keep old ladies in senior positions, that prevent bad flight attendants from being fired, and that protect lazy workers. It could have been done with or without chapter 11. They could have rightfully blamed this on the government and these are the new circumstances. Instead, they did nothing to improve the situation and accepted payroll relief that did nothing for the airlines except give it bad press.

    Higher wages are good (including pay for being at the airport as required). Unions which protect the riff raff are bad.

  4. I’m just here to point it’s ironic (maybe not the right word?) Talking about it on May 1st (“May Day”).
    Unions served some legit purposes back in the day, but in today’s Anerica – not to mention : world – they act as an inhibitor to progress, forward thinking, efficieny, in such a way that shadows whatever benefits it “protects”.
    It’s mostly all about union cronies protecting themselves and their friends, family and other general a$$ lickers.

  5. Delta actually held meetings for their work groups including FAs showing them how to take a LOA and go on unemployment. This didn’t make the news but no other carriers did that. Since FAs especially the junior ones don’t make much, their unemployment kicker was more than they were making at Delta, so many took the leave.

    Smart move on Delta’s part but the optics are inherently bad – they got money from the government for keeping people employed yet basically collecting it and having the government pay their now “unemployed” employees.

  6. My experience as I witnessed negotiations at a unionized carrier. The union reps got to the point where they were selling people down the river who hadn’t even been hired yet.

    Them: “We’ll agree to let you pay anyone hired, starting next month, half of what you pay us for the rest of their lives, if you give us more crew rest! Heck, we’ll even throw in their first born child.”

    The airline: Sounds fair! Okey dokey!

    It was shocking to see their complete disregard for those they would eventually represent.
    Their answer? “Well, they aren’t paying us dues and we don’t represent them now.”

  7. Tell me again how they took payroll money from the government to keep people working and then were allowed to lay people off?

  8. Another anti-union piece by Gary Leff, I’m so shocked.

    I’m sure Delta introducing boarding pay in 2022 has nothing to do with Delta FAs getting closer to unionizing, while other employees at places like Starbucks and Amazon successfully unionize. Delta just did it out of the kindness of their corporate heart.

  9. Pilot pay is out of control and driving airfare sky high. Executives pay is too high also.
    How do we fix that?

  10. @Jason, pilot pay at the majors hasn’t increased since 2017 time frame so actually with inflation they are probably down about 20%-25% relative to inflation. Homes in my area
    Have doubled in that time frame, gas is twice as much, groceries are up 50%, but no raises for pilots. So I’d like to know why you think pilot pay is driving this increase in air fare.

  11. Uh Gary?? You seem to forget that NK did not furlough any flight attendants either .. They were offered a package to take a month or more off if they wanted during the pandemic . No one was furloughed or asked to leave . As a matter of fact , they began hiring FAs sooner than the other carriers .


  12. Gee, Gary and others make it sound like workers would be paid more and work less if they didn’t have unions. If that were true, companies would not oppose unionization. Delta FAs get treated well because of nearly successful union organizing campaigns at Delta and the potential for additional organizing attempts.

    There are unions because management takes advantage of workers in pay, hours of work, and other terms and conditions of employment unless something (unions and workplace laws and regulations) prevents it. Unions should do a better job of representing their members, but that doesn’t mean that workers in the airline industry are better off without unions. Not by a longshot.

  13. Such BS. Anything to pay people Less Yet the cost of Everything still goes Up!

  14. If the airlines had to pay flight crews starting 1 hour before the flight is SCHEDULED to depart (they should be at the gate 20 minutes before boarding which for most airlines starts 40 minutes before departure … unless they gave them at least 6 hours notice so they did not rush to the airport) the FA’s would be paid for all of their on-duty time and both the FA’s and the public would know well in advance when flights were going to be late. I’d bet on-time departures would increase, too!

  15. actually, AMP, Gary got it right and so did many other commenters. Whether you like what someone says doesn’t make their comments ignorant.

    Delta has long paid its employees better than other airlines but alot of people don’t understand that the increased efficiency and higher standards create higher revenue and profits for Delta which makes it possible to pay employees more.

    Southwest uses the same model but their employees are highly unionized. Delta simply uses its higher pay to make the union proposition much less appealing while Southwest uses its higher efficiency to increase profits – but both airlines employees provide better than average service.

    It is also worth noting that a 20 year Delta flight attendant has voted in more union elections than many Americans have voted for president – and have rejected unions over and over.

    Large, profitable companies are targets of unions – you need only look at the unionization campaigns that are going on at Starbucks and Amazon, the latter of which has repeatedly increased pay to keep unions out. Multiple unionization attempts at new auto manufacturing plants have also failed. If companies pay their employees as well or better than they can get elsewhere, there is no incentive to vote in a union with its politics and transfer of wealth.

  16. @Jackson Waterson: “At American Airlines, when the federal government was subsidizing airlines and requiring them to keep employees on payroll…” So, it is your contention that AA should have turned down the PSP money and laid people off instead?

  17. Wow.
    And Delta employees are get raises above UA/AA PRE union dues, right? I.e. making more and making more.

    I can’t imagine paying for such “benefits”.

  18. Here’s what no one in the industry doesn’t understand, the companies havecome to negotiations for over 30 years, immediately stating, “we will never pay for boarding,”.

  19. I worked for Delta in the 70s. We were non-Union. Loved it.
    One time I worked with ex Northeast flight attendants whoops were Union..(A merger). We were delayed at an airport and the passengers needed refreshments, etc. The Northeast flight attendants refused to help.because under their old contract they had worked all their hours. What about the passengers?

  20. Delta is giving its flight att’s what other unions are negotiating now. If the other airlines were nonunion Delta would not be forced to give all these extra perks. The delta flight att’s enjoy what they have because unions fought to get the pay rates for years. Some might say the delta flight att are freeloading off the years other union airline flight att paid and sacrifice to get a seat at the table and get benefits. Also Delta has a huge lawsuit it’s fighting because the uniforms they have got their crews
    It’s kinda look the other way dont pay attention to all the other things we are doing to harm our employees.
    So delta gave something to flight att’s that changed the industry.
    It still does not out weigh all the benefits unions fought to give delta flight att’s
    Everyone also forgets it ‘s thr flight attendant unions that fight and legislate to make sure passengers are safe as well.

  21. In Australia we are paid from sign on to 15mins after chocks on, 30mins on INTL sectors. Time to stand up and fight for fair pay… regardless what airline we fly for they all cry poor, we can’t afford pay rises etc but continue to make millions in profit, buy new aircraft, but when it comes too wages cry poor

  22. ChiChi: they’ve been “negotiating” for 20 years on this. When is the breakthrough? This proud union man is not holding his breath…..

  23. Wow… I know your not a journalist, your a blogger. But as a professional journalist in the airlines myself, this blog is all over the place and unsourced.

    You’re wrong, it comes down to one thing… ‘Railway Labor Act’ which means airlines do not have to pay flight attendants for boarding.

    Can they if they want to? Of course, but unless they have a hidden agenda (I.e. Delta and union drive) they’re not going to.

    You’ve really screwed this article, I mean blog, up. You would have to know each union contract, junior vs senior, duty rigs, minimum day credits to creditably write this blog.

    You’re waaaaay over your head.

    One of the foremost experts in aviation? Whatever your name is, you are not sir.

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