American Flight Attendants Prepare For Strike

American Flight Attendants Prepare For Strike

by Michael E. Marotta  ( )

January 7,  2001.  Depicting American Airlines CEO Don Carty as the Grinch, attendants passed out leaflets at Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport on December 22, 2000.  Earlier in the month, mass media news reported that their union had rejected "an offer" from the company.  How this plays out will move from news to history in a few weeks.

Basically, the airline attendants want more money.  The issue of pay starts with the fact that base salary for an American Airlines attendant is less than $16,000. As a corollary, the union is asking for changes in scheduling that eliminate 23-hour on duty turn around.  The third issue is retirement.  According to the union, some attendants cannot afford to retire even after 50 years of service.  The flight attendants at American point to the company's profits ($732 million) and want a share of the wealth they have helped to create.

For most passengers, a flight attendant is a waiter or a bartender.  The fact is that the flight attendant is the last person out of the plane in the event of a forced landing.  The bottom line is that becoming a flight attendant is impossible without memorizing a manual four inches thick.  The flight attendant knows (by heart) where the exits are, how to activate the emergency equipment (by heart), as well has how to fix (by heart) a surprising range of cabin malfunctions -- for all the makes and models in the fleet, MD80, B757, or whatever the company happens to buy in the future. The flight attendant also knows how to splint a broken arm, deliver a baby, and on American Airlines how to operate a cardiac defibrilator.

Unlike other unionized workers, flight attendants do not take their seniority with them.  I spoke to one American attendant who had worked for Braniff before they went bankrupt. Coming to American meant starting over in a system where flights are assigned or bid by seniority.

In the years 1995-2000 median individual income in the United States was about $34,000 per year.  Flight Attendant wages start at a range of $12,000 to $18,400 annually. With several years of experience [another source cites 'six years'], Flight Attendants can expect to earn from $14,100 to $20,100 per annum. Top senior wages can reach from $20,100 to $42,000 a year.

The hourly wage paid to Flight Attendants is quite high, from $35 to $58 per flight hour, but they are customarily contracted to work only from as little as 50 to as many as 85 hours per month.  The operative phrase is "flight hours."  Attendants are not paid between flights, though they may spend one or more hours waiting to board.  You can see them at the gates along with passengers. If the need arises for them to fly more often, some contracts call for time and one half.  [At American the base is 67 hours with a differential of $5 per hour for time over 71 hours.] I spoke to an American attendant whose 12.5 hour day included only 6.5 billable flight hours.

Many airlines offer extra compensation on international flights to Flight Attendants who are fluent in a foreign language. The pay differential for multilingual Flight Attendants can range from 50 to 75 cents per hour. [At American the differential is about double this.] However, this proficiency is for the ability to carry out PERFORMANCE DUTIES (boarding, safety, emergency, landing, debarking), not merely for the ability to wish everyone a cheerful Good Morning.

Fringe benefits can include health and life insurance, retirement plan, and paid vacation.  However, these are defined by contract usually extend to all of the employees at an airline, with some differences.  One AA attendant I talked to pays $69 per month co-pay for single health insurance, not outside the norms for most white collar workers, but not free, either, and like most insurance, deductibles and co-pays must be considered.  In addition, some attendants can expense back for lodging and food costs on layovers, as well as uniform repair or replacement. Of course the primary benefit is the free or discount air travel for themselves and their immediate family members.

On the other side of the benefits are inherent expenses. Consider uniforms. They are mandatory and flight attendants pay for them. At some airlines, the first uniform is issued during training and the new uniforms are the responsibility of the attendant.  At American, the first uniforms cost $700.  The company deducts a fixed amount per paycheck to recoup the cost.

On the other hand, according to former flight attendant and present employment agent Wendy Stafford, "...the benefits far outweigh the challenges. will be provided with a plethora of travel discounts on other carriers, anywhere from a 50 percent discount to 90 percent. Some even offer an annual "freebie" on a space-available basis! I remember flying to England and Ireland once on another carrier for the paltry fare of $40!" [However, the current situation is for flights to be fully booked, if not overbooked.  Therefore, in reality, this perk is unlikely today, though it was common when Stafford was a working flight

Stafford also points to reduced rates on rental cars, some restaurants and tour packages. "Many courtesies are extended to airline employees that are usually extended only to high rolling jet setters. I once stayed in a hotel that had biking and horseback riding trails -- free to us -- and unlimited access to a Jacuzzi and workout room. The owners also provided a private car for our use only to go into town and shop during our 23-hour layover in that city."  For Stafford having 10 to 15 days off each month is a plus, not a minus.  Wendy Stafford is president and senior recruiter for Air Inflight Resources.

The majority of flight attendants are represented by one of the following unions: Association of Flight Attendants, Teamsters (IBT), or Air Transport Division of the Transport Workers Union of America. Several airlines have company unions, such as the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the American Airlines union.

Getting hired as an attendant is work.  It is not unusual for the process to take two months.  The process involves a three hour medical exam, psychological profiling, and lot of one-on-one talks with employment screeners.  Generally, attendants work their way up a ladder from small and regional careers.  This is the same kind of career path pilots have -- and it precludes someone walking in off the street and working for a major airline.
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