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Flight attendants don't earn their hourly pay until aircraft doors close. Here's why

American Airlines flight attendants, represented by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), picket outside Ronald Reagan National Airport last August in Arlington, Va.
Kevin Dietsch
Getty Images
American Airlines flight attendants, represented by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), picket outside Ronald Reagan National Airport last August in Arlington, Va.

If air travel feels unusually taxing to you these days, you have company.

Flight attendants are exasperated with fuller flights and leaner staffing. They say managing passengers' safety and onboard experience is more stressful than ever. Now, flight attendants hope airlines will step up with a major change to how they're paid.

Even frequent travelers may not realize that at most airlines, flight attendants are not clocking paid time until you hear the words "the aircraft doors are now closed."

It's a longstanding practice that flight attendants want changed.

On Tuesday, with contract negotiations ongoing at a number of airlines, flight attendants will be picketing at dozens of airports across the U.S. to bring attention to that demand and others.

Not as simple as punching in and punching out

"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.

"It's our most chaotic and the hardest time in our day, and we can have four to five boardings per day," says Hedrick.

Airlines say time on the ground is compensated

Airlines argue that those hours on the ground are, in fact, compensated. In a statement on its website, Alaska Airlines says, "Contrary to union narratives, we do pay flight attendants for boarding time through a pay mechanism that was negotiated with the union in previous contract cycles."

That "pay mechanism" is a guarantee of minimum pay, says Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, the union representing flight attendants at Alaska, United and a number of other airlines.

A very common formula, Nelson says, is a guarantee of one hour of paid flight time for every two hours on duty.

A simplified example: If a flight attendant gets to the airport early in the morning for her first flight and finishes up her day 12 hours later, she is guaranteed six hours of pay even if she's not in the air for six hours.

"That no longer flies because of the way flying has changed," Nelson says.

Not only are flights more often sold out, but planes have been configured to pack in more seats. Unruly passengers are on the rise. Since Sept. 11, 2001, flight attendants have served as the last line of defense in aviation security.

"These are significant duties that we have to perform in addition to keeping everybody calm on board," says Nelson, pointing to the recent emergency aboard an Alaska flight when a panel flew off the plane, leaving a gaping hole.

According to the Labor Department, flight attendants earn about $38,000 a year on the low end and close to $100,000 a year on the high end.

"First-year flight attendants, you're getting real close to state minimum wages," says Nelson.

Half pay for boarding time at Delta

There is one major airline that pays flight attendants for boarding time. In 2022, Delta began paying its flight attendants at half their hourly rate for a set 40 to 50 minutes of boarding, depending on the type of aircraft and where it's headed. Notably, Delta is the only major U.S. airline whose flight attendants are not unionized, and some saw the move as an effort by the airline to discourage unionizing.

American and the union representing its flight attendants have now agreed to boarding pay similar to Delta's, says APFA president Hedrick, but the union is still pushing on other issues.

"All of us, of course, feel that we should be paid for the minute we get to work until we go home, but we have to look at the entire package," she says.

The APFA is pushing for an immediate 33% raise. In its latest offer, American offered a third that.

Permission to strike not easily secured

While flight attendants hope to make some noise around these issues at Tuesday's picket, don't expect a strike anytime soon. Under federal law, it's illegal for airline workers to strike unless they get permission from the federal government.

American flight attendants asked for that permission last fall and were denied, a frustration for Hedrick given the wave of labor actions last year.

"UAW, UPS, Writers Guild, the Actors Guild — and not that they've all gone on strike, but they've pushed it to that point, and they've been able to get the contracts that they deserve," she says.

The APFA has once again asked federal mediators to declare an impasse in the contract talks at American Airlines, clearing the way for a strike. The union will present its case to federal officials in Washington next month.

For now, contract negotiations continue. The airlines say they have offered flight attendants competitive wages and benefits and look forward to coming to an agreement.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.