Can flight attendants and pilots ride out their job turbulence?
When commercial jets hit skies in the 1950s, flying was glamorous. Male passengers donned suits; ladies, dresses. Some planes even had cocktail lounges. Young women jumped at the chance to fly to exotic destinations around the world, despite a dark side of being a flight attendant—on many airlines, you couldn’t be married, had to endure weight and measurement checks, and could be forced out when you hit 32, says Georgia Panter Nielsen, 75, part of the first group of United employees to work the new jets.
Conditions and attitudes slowly have changed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average starting salary for a flight attendant in 2011 was $16,597—low enough to qualify for food stamps in a two-person household (with that level of compensation, the common perk of free stand-by flights may be of little solace). On some airlines, flight crews haven’t gotten a raise in seven years. Most have suffered pay cuts, and are working more hours to make ends meet, on flights that are more crowded than ever. Hours stuck on the tarmac are unpaid, even when you’re seeing to passengers. Forgot to stock your cart with hot chocolate? That’s one demerit point; after three, on most airlines, you can be fired, according to flight attendants interviewed for this story.
And there are other woes. Often, to work for an airline is to accept a job not based in your home city; you either relocate, as I did to Chicago from L.A., or live where you want and rent a “crash pad,” a tiny apartment in the city you’ve been assigned to. You share the place with other crew members who don’t want to be uprooted. Panter Nielsen, who was a United flight attendant for 42 years before retiring in 2002, fondly remembers having three roommates, bunk beds and all. But today, crash pads are less romanticized.
“I was based out of Oakland,” says “Debbie,” 32, a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines from 2004 to 2006. (None of the current or former Chicago-based pilots or flight attendants I interviewed wanted their names, and some their airlines, published in this article for fear of employer retribution.) She didn’t want to relocate from Chicago, but also couldn’t afford the extra rent for a crash pad. “I ended up staying with a friend’s family [when working shifts],” she says. “Frankly, I don’t know how first-year flight attendants based in San Francisco or NYC can afford to live there.”
That’s especially relevant considering the industry’s pay cuts and wage freezes. Following Chicago-based United’s bankruptcy in 2002, all the airline’s employees took pay cuts; raises were not given until February of this year, when “all [flight attendants] received pay increases,” says a United spokesperson via e-mail. Because flight attendants are paid hourly wages, “People are working these crazy hours to supplement their income,” says United flight attendant “Chad,” 42.
AirlineFinancials.com’s Robert Herbst, an independent airline consultant who was a pilot for 37 years, says that though the average annual salary of a flight attendant has gone up in the past 11 years (from $31,020 in 2000 to $45,218 in 2011, according to Herbst’s calculations, which he culled from Securities and Exchange Commission filings and the Department of Transportation), “you’d have to have a whole chapter in a book” to put the figures into context. Flight crews are working more hours to get that pay, he confirms. And, accounting for factors like inflation and the salary disparity between airlines (Southwest attendants make, on average, 60 to 80 percent more per hour than at other airlines, he says), most in the industry are making less than they did a decade ago. “Pilots are making 50 percent less [than they did ten years ago], excluding Southwest.”
“[The airlines have] stripped everything to the bare bones: our salaries, our benefits, our pensions—everything is gone,” says “Frank,” 48, a pilot for AirTran who has worked for several other airlines.
That’s while exec bonuses and stock awards are skyrocketing. In 2010, former United CEO Glenn Tilton received $16 million (up from $3 million in 2009 ) beyond his $823,000 salary, mostly due to soaring stock prices, according to figures publicly traded companies are required to disclose to the SEC. Before resigning, American CEO Gerard J. Arpey earned $4.6 million in stock awards and other nonsalary compensation in 2010, a half million more than the year before; the company filed for bankruptcy in 2011.
“While we took huge pay cuts, it’s so annoying the amount of bonuses that upper management has received,” says United’s Chad. “Back in the day, we sucked it up. But now because it’s so blatant, it seems like a slap in the face.”
“Edward,” a 19-year United flight attendant in his thirties, says cuts in pay, benefits and more have taken an emotional toll on many fellow employees, some of whom have lost their houses and cars. And while he admits he’s doing okay—although he’s having to work more hours to do so—it’s not the same with the new hires, who are making roughly $20,000 a year, he says. (Flight attendants, paid by the hour, “have control over what they earn” by working more hours, the United spokesperson says.) “There was a memo from management that said, ‘Don’t go get food stamps in your uniform.’ They don’t want people to know how bad it is,” Edward says. “No memo of that kind was ever sent,” the United rep counters.
And it could get worse. A bankruptcy judge will announce after this issue goes to press whether American Airlines will be able to end its labor contracts with unions, which will allow it to enforce further pay cuts and benefit reductions to pilots, flight attendants and transport workers.
In response to questions about what it is doing to ease employee stress, American issued this statement: “The health and safety of our employees and customers is a primary focus. We have a number of company and peer-driven programs designed to encourage wellness and care for employees when they need assistance.”