How much do flight attendants really make?

3975233940_af85b53812“Friendlier service doesn’t cost a thing.”

That’s what one travel writer said, after complaining about an experience on board a flight recently. But as a flight attendant with years of experience, my first thought was: Yes. It does.

Whenever I speak to people about what I do for a living, most seem to assume the money is pretty good. I did, too, before I became a flight attendant.

Despite the reputation of the job, there’s nothing glamorous about life as a flight attendant, especially in the first few years. New flight attendants who work for major carriers start out making $18,000-$20,000 a year. Flight attendants at smaller airlines and regional carriers? They make even less.

The airlines won’t tell you that, though. Ask, and they’ll refer to some stat about the median annual wage: $40,000. Sounds so much nicer, doesn’t it? Something else they won’t tell you is how long it takes to make that kind of money working a regular schedule, or the kind of flying it takes to get there when you have less than 10 years with a carrier.

“I took this job to spend what little money I make on vacations I can’t afford,” joked a new hire, who works 120 hours a month, after she saw me tweeting about flight attendant pay.

“But flight attendants barely work,” is what I hear all the time.

Don’t let the hours fool you.

A hundred and twenty hours a month may sound reasonable for your typical job on the ground, but in the air, it’s insane. Working “80 hours” a month — a more regular schedule for flight attendants — actually means working many, many hours more.

We’re only paid for time in the air. That flight attendant greeting you at the boarding door, helping you find a place for your bag, guitar, crutches, wedding gown, emotional support pig? They’re not being paid.

The clock doesn’t officially start ticking until the door is closed and the plane backs away from the gate. That’s why flight attendants hate delays maybe even more than passengers. At my airline, when a flight is cancelled, I lose the hours, meaning I don’t get paid. I have to look for another trip — pray I can find another trip — to make up for it.

Time on the ground adds up, which is why the most senior flight attendants work the best trips, longhaul flights, to maximize their time in the air. It’s also why the number of hours can be misleading. Not all 12 hour trips are created equal.

I have 19 years with my airline, and I’m based at one of the most junior bases in the system: New York. It’s where most of our new hires end up, even though it’s too expensive to live here on our salary. That’s why so many flight attendants — including me — commute to the city (even though I live in Los Angeles). If I were based in LA, where my airline’s most senior flight attendants work, I’d spend more time on the ground than in the air.

My two-day, 11 hour roundtrip from New York to Los Angeles might only take me 13 hours to complete, whereas a new hire might have to work three days (and who knows how many hours) hopping from city to city to make the same amount of time. While I’m on duty seven hours, a junior flight attendant could be on duty 12 or 14 hours. We’ll be paid the same. Factor in the layovers and the time away from home, and it looks more like minimum wage than $25 an hour.

“How do you do it?” I’ve been asked by more than one flight attendant hopeful.

Enter the “crashpad,” where flight attendants literally crash between trips.

In my first crashpad, there were probably 30 or 40 of us living together in a five-bedroom house. That’s a guess. I have no idea how many roommates I had because people were constantly in and out at all hours of the day and night. Six of us lived in my room alone, with bunk beds lining the walls. I spent $100 a month to stay there. I couldn’t afford anything else.

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Heather Poole View All →

Yeah, that's me, the one standing in the aisle wearing flammable polyester...

1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. Wow … great article, and what an amazing collection of comments on the mashable site.

    I, too, work far beyond the wage I get paid. Why? I love my job, too. It’s possible to spoil that goodness, though.

    I think that ultimately, those working for a wage are not “working who they are”. Once we’ve found the job that matches who we are, wages are less the issue. Respect and fulfillment are more the issue.

    If so, the question arises: “Why don’t FAs get more respect?”

    I think FAs’ woes are more about the churlishness of the flying public, and less about the wages (though wages matter a lot, and being taken advantage of by management leaves a pretty bad taste). There’s little FAs can do about the flyers’ attitudes. I wonder what airlines can do to change the demeanor of their customers.

    At one point in the late 80s, Eastern and Continental competed for the cheapest/crankiest/entitled passengers. Those passengers made gate agents cranky, which made passengers worse, which made flight attendants bitter, which made passengers worse.

    For me, the solution was to pick an airline with better passengers.

    What to do now??

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