Flight attendants at American Airlines and Southwest Airlines are pushing to end a decades-old practice of not getting paid during boarding, even though they are required to be in the cabin 30 minutes to an hour before the plane takes off and the clock starts on their regular pay.
Boarding pay has become a hot-button topic as flight attendants across the country enter contract negotiations in a new era for flying following two years of pandemic chaos and a shift in worker power with labor shortages across the globe.
“Boarding for us is one of the hardest times during our flights,” said Julie Hedrick, president of the Association of Professional Attendants, which represents about 24,000 American Airlines employees. “We are getting everyone seated and you’ve seen the last two years what happens when we are on the ground.”
Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines recently announced it would start paying flight attendants for the 35-40 minutes of preflight time they are required to be on a plane before takeoff, an industry first. Delta is facing a fierce union organizing battle among flight attendants, the only major flight attendant group in the country not represented by a labor union.
Delta’s move gave a boost to efforts already underway for unions at Fort Worth-based American Airlines and Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, who now expect boarding pay to be a part of their contracts now being negotiated.
“Pay for boarding has set a new industry standard,” said Lyn Montgomery, head of Southwest Airlines’ flight attendants union.
The Association of Flight Attendants, which is pushing to organize Delta flight attendants, took credit for the boarding pay. Flight attendants at Seattle-based Alaska Airlines also are pushing for boarding pay after Delta’s move.
“Flight attendants deserve definitely boarding pay, and boarding pay will be in our opening proposal to management,” said a statement from the Association of Flight Attendants at Alaska Airlines.
Boarding pay is an official part of the contract proposal for APFA flight attendants negotiating with American Airlines, and TWU Local 556 at Southwest Airlines said the issue will shape its contract priorities, too.
The boarding pay issue isn’t as simple as it seems and involves questions about the complicated ways that flight attendants are compensated, relying mostly on a high rate of pay when they are in the air and little when they are on the ground, whether that’s in an airport or on the other side of the world on a trip.
Their hourly pay doesn’t begin until an aircraft pulls back from the gate, even though they are legally required to be in the plane before then.
Flight attendants are given some pay from the time they arrive at airports until the time they leave the airport at the end of a one- to five-day trip. But that rate is often about $2 an hour and is mostly an incentive to make sure that airlines build efficient schedules to get flight attendants back home as quickly as possible. There are also per diems paid for meals and other benefits.
Pilots are paid in a similar manner but don’t have as many passenger-facing responsibilities as flight attendants. The average annual pilot pay is also about four to five times higher than flight attendants.
In 2019, the average American Airlines flight attendant was paid about $69,600 in salaries and benefits, according to MIT’s Airline Data Project. That was the highest rate in the industry.
The average Southwest Airlines flight attendant made about $56,000 in salary and benefits.
However, average numbers don’t take into account how often flight attendants work or seniority. The average pay for American Airlines flight attendants spiked in 2020 to more than $103,000 in a year as senior flight attendants with higher pay rates grabbed the bulk of the flying when airlines slashed flights during the pandemic. American also furloughed thousands of flight attendants in late 2020.
Delta’s move to pay flight attendants for boarding isn’t as simple as it sounds. Delta said it will pay flight attendants 50% of their regular rate for the 35- to 40-minute boarding window. Delta also gave employees across the company, excluding pilots, a 4% pay bump in March.
Pay for boarding has been a growing issue at American Airlines since 2018-19, when delays and cancellations piled up and often forced flight attendants to spend extra time taking care of passengers as they sat on taxiways. The last two years of pandemic flying has only increased responsibilities for flight attendants before flights, including more than a year of enforcing COVID-19 face mask requirements.
But since flight attendants at most airlines, excluding Delta, are covered by union contracts, the boarding pay issue hasn’t been a high priority in past negotiations as flight attendants simply pushed for higher pay and better benefits.
“Our flight attendants have definitely let us know that this is really important to us,” Hedrick said. “It’s always been a topic that’s been discussed, but prior to this, I don’t ever recall it going anywhere.”