Pay Me for Boarding: Why Flight Attendants Must Fight For Fair Pay
Did you know that flight attendants don’t get paid for boarding? Sounds crazy right? But it’s true.
In the US, flight attendants’ hourly wage starts when the boarding door closes. It’s the way the industry has always worked. One public awareness campaign and a lot of flight attendants are trying to change this now. Will they be able to succeed in changing the rules of the game? Will flight attendants ever be paid for boarding?
In this post we’re going to talk about pay. What flight attendants are paid for and what they are not paid for. It might surprise you to find out just how many parts of our job are unpaid. We’re going to crunch some numbers to see how much free boarding is costing flight attendants. And we’re going to talk about the campaign that has got flight attendants around the country all hot ‘n bothered.
It’s called ‘Pay Me For Boarding‘, and it’s gaining quite a cult following. This campaign aims to raise public awareness about the issue of flight attendants not being paid for boarding, and has garnered nearly 125,000 signatures on the related Change.org Petition.
Without further ado, let’s get into this stuff.
Pay us for boarding.
Flight Attendant Pay
Before we get started, I have to clarify that when we talk about flight attendants not being paid for their time at work, we are talking about their hourly wage. The way our pay currently works is that we make X amount of dollars per flight hour. This begins when the boarding door closes and ends when the plane blocks in at the gate. Full-time flight attendants work somewhere between 70-150 flight hours per month. Because of the number of hours we are at work and unpaid (we’ll get into those reasons in a bit), 150 flight hours is very difficult to achieve and very taxing on a person’s body and mental health. It is rare that flight attendants are able to or would choose to work that many flight hours in one month.
At first glance, flight attendants’ hourly pay rates look pretty good. Nothing to complain about. But consider that we are paid not for 40 hours per week, like most jobs. On average we’re doing 80-100 hours per month. Those of you who earn an hourly salary: What would your paychecks be like if you were only earning that wage for 25 hours per week instead of 40?
This is the reason that flight attendant wages might look inflated to an outsider. If we were actually getting paid for every hour we are away from home and working, we would be doing very well, indeed.
A flight attendant’s hourly wage (for flight hours) is not the only pay we receive. We also get a small amount of money called “per diem”. This is somewhere between $2-$3 per hour. It begins when you check in at the airport and ends when you finish your trip. These dollars accrue while you are boarding, working, deplaning, sleeping on a layover, at a hotel gym, eating breakfast in the terminal, etc. “Per diem” is a little extra something to use for incidentals, food on layovers, and things like that. It is a small dollar amount, but it helps to boost our checks.
In the rest of this post, I’m going to talk about all the parts of a flight attendant’s job that are “unpaid”. When I say unpaid, what I mean is we are not earning our hourly wage. (Because, as I said before, that hourly wage is only for flight hours.) During all the times we’ll be discussing in the following paragraphs, keep in mind that flight attendants are being paid something. But it is a $2-$3 per hour stipend. Not exactly market rate labor cost.
Okay, now that we’ve gotten that caveat out of the way, let’s get into the meat. First, we’ll talk boarding, AKA the bane of flight attendants’ existence.
Boarding (is the worst)
Boarding is widely understood to be the worst part of a flight by crew and passengers alike. It’s hot, it’s slow, people sit in the wrong seats. There’s the jerk who puts their bag in row 1 when their seat is in 17. There’s the family trying to settle their crying baby. And it seems like EVERYONE needs to go through the entire contents of their bag IN THE MIDDLE OF THE AISLE before taking their seat. Everyone in front of you, at least.
For flight attendants this is one of our busiest times. We are assisting people with bags, with finding their seats, assessing and mitigating customer issues—alcohol-related, pet-related, mask-related, etc. (All issues become bigger issues in the air, so we try to find and solve them on the ground.) This has been a huge job over the past two years. We assist customers with disabilities, and we look after unaccompanied minors. We are also answering customer questions, showing people how to enter the bathroom (a surprisingly difficult task!), and pouring ever-so-many cups of water “for a pill”.
It’s a lot, but that isn’t half of it. During boarding we are also doing things like making announcements, ensuring we have all the proper catering supplies—drinks and snacks, cups and coffee, etc.—for our flight. We are prepping our galley for service. If you are a flight attendant who works in first class, you are doing service during boarding. Making and serving drinks and snacks, and then cleaning up after all of it.
We are communicating with other work groups like the pilots—about maintenance issues, customer issues, or just to see if they need anything. We are setting up our company-issued devices with the flight information to see who is on board and to charge passengers for in-flight purchases. Essentially, each boarding process is the equivalent of an opening shift in a store, restaurant, or bar. We’re getting the whole thing set up and ready.
I’ve cleaned vomit during boarding. I’ve comforted a man during a major panic attack. I’ve seen a customer try to fly too soon after surgery, bleeding in his seat insisting he could go. (He was not able to fly with us.) And then there are the horrible scenes we’ve all seen online. People shouting at, swearing at, HITTING other people—including crew.
Boarding is not a time of rest for flight attendants. It is our busiest time of all.
I think we can all agree: Boarding is the worst.
Let’s Talk Numbers
There is SO much going on during this time and so much we are responsible for. Yet, flight attendants are not paid for boarding. And it isn’t quick either. Boarding times are scheduled for anywhere from 20-50 minutes depending on the airline and size of the plane. (These are estimates, not exact figures. My airline does 35-45-minute boarding times.)
Twenty minutes may not sound like a lot of missed pay but try this little exercise. Count 1/3 of your hourly wage. Then multiply that by 2 flights. Perhaps you’re working three flights that day. Or even four. Flight Attendants who work for regional airlines sometimes work more than this—up to five or six flights a day. The number doesn’t seem so low now, does it? And this is only one day. Consider how much this could add up to when multiplied by 15-20 workdays per month.
Let’s do a low estimate.
Starting salary for a flight attendant is low—about $18-21. (Remember, we don’t work 40-hour weeks, we work 80-hour months.)
Let’s calculate for a flight attendant earning low salary and with lightning-fast boarding times.
$18 per hour/3 = $6 for a 20-minute boarding.
$6 x 2 Flights = $12 per day
$12 x 15 days working per month = $180
$180 x 12 months = $2,160 per year in unpaid boarding labor.
This might not sound like a lot, but when you make less than $2,000 per month it is a lot. This amount is more than a month of pay for a new flight attendant. And this calculation is the most ridiculously conservative estimate I could dream of. (More often than not, new flight attendants work more than 2 flights per day, and boarding is usually longer than 20 minutes.)
Let’s try something more realistic for a flight attendant with a few years under their belt.
A flight attendant making $30/hr now. And a more realistic boarding time of 30 minutes. (Again, this is a low estimate for boarding times, but I like simple math.)
$30 per hour / 2 = $15 for a 30-minute boarding.
$15 x 3 Flights = $45 per day.
$45 x 15 days working per month = $675
$675 x 12 months = $8,100 per year of unpaid boarding labor.
This is real money!
This estimate isn’t perfect either. The boarding time is shorter than my real-life boardings. It also assumes working three flights per day. Sometimes we work only one. Sometimes we work up to six. And neither of these examples considers how much pay more senior flight attendants make: $50, $60, $70 or more per flight hour.
It seriously adds up.
You can see why boarding is the worst part of a flight attendant’s job. It’s the most work, and we are literally losing money every minute that we do it. This is the reason I work mostly West Coast trips. You can catch me in LA, San Diego, Seattle, or Vegas, because that 4-flights per day life is not the life for me. I try as often as possible to work ONE flight per day. Which means only ONE 45-minute period of working for free.
Other Free Labor
If you think boarding is the only time flight attendants are working for free, then think again. Here are some of the other parts of our job that flight attendants are not paid for.
Before the first passenger steps foot on the plane, your flight attendants have already been working. We show up to the airport about an hour before departure. (Of course, this depends on the airline.) The time we show up is called our “Report Time”, though in the ‘biz we also may refer to it as “Show time,” “Show,” or just “Report.”
In the time between report and boarding we are not in line at Starbucks or filing our nails in an armchair. We are checking in with the gate agent, going over the paperwork for our flight, briefing with our crew—inflight and pilots, and completing security checks.
A “flight attendant briefing” is when the crew comes together to make introductions. (Often this is our first time ever meeting one another!) We ensure everyone has necessary items, go over relevant safety points, and discuss important information about the day’s flight. A pilot briefing includes other necessary information like the flight time, whether we should expect turbulence, and other pressing things that I won’t discuss here due to safety & security.
“Security checks” for flight attendants means checking to ensure that all of our emergency equipment is present, functional, and where it should be on the plane. This includes medical supplies, fire extinguishers, rafts, and even checking the interphone to make sure we can communicate. If something is broken or missing, we have procedures for reporting this and getting it fixed or replaced. My airline also asks us to check every single galley cart and bin on the airplane for sharp edges, loose latches, and nonfunctional brake pedals. They also request that we check to ensure the bathrooms are stocked with paper towels, soap, and toilet paper. And if we work first class, all catering must be completed and checked by flight attendants before boarding can begin.
That is an awful lot of tasks to complete before boarding starts, and a lot of work to be doing for free.
Think your flight attendant loves racking up pay through those long delays? Think again.
Flight Attendants also do not get paid for delays. So, that’s fun.
This morning I showed up at 6:44 am to work my first of two long flights, on my first day of a 4-day trip. For those of you wondering (or even if you weren’t), that 6:44 report time required me to wake up at 3:45 am. It required me to drive in the freezing cold and pitch darkness to get to the airport.
Our crew was all there, on little sleep, but ready to get the workday started. It was just about time to board, when we got a notification that our flight was now delayed THREE hours. It wasn’t weather, and it wasn’t a maintenance issue with the plane. That would have made our sudden delay less brutal. Instead, it was a staffing issue. And not a last minute one, but one that could have been fixed the night before. I COULD HAVE SLEPT FOR THREE MORE HOURS.
We sat, first on the freezing cold plane, then in the airport for three hours. All for free.
You’re in your work uniform. (If you work in an office, picture a suit or some hip business casual.)
You’re at your place of employment.
You can’t leave.
You are not being paid.
The only time flight attendants are paid for delays is when the aircraft door is closed. If you sit on the runway after landing, waiting for a gate, for example, we are still being paid our hourly wage for the time on the ground. Delays due to de-icing in the winter are common, and we get paid for that time sitting in the plane on the taxiway.
But long delays spent in the airport? $0. Free-99. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
I really mean it when I say we hate delays as much as you do.
Then, after our three-hour delay, we boarded 200 unhappy people. And that was free, too. Sometimes we have delays during boarding (for customer issues, maintenance issues, ramp closures, or any number of other things.) Those delays are free AND we’re responsible for the safety of everyone on the aircraft at the same time. Cool, right?
Above I told you about the hours sitting in the airport that go unpaid during delays. Well, buckle up, here’s another fun one.
Sometimes our company inserts these hours-long blocks of sitting-in-the-airport time into our schedules IN ADVANCE, on purpose. These are called “sits”.
A “pairing” (what we call a work trip) the company builds might have one day where you fly from New York to LA, sit for two hours, then fly LA to Las Vegas. Not only is that a long ass day, but in those two hours spent in the airport, you are not earning an hourly wage. So, not only are we not paid for extra time sitting around when unexpected delays happen. The company is creating these little “Free labor time blocks” AKA “sits” well before any of us will work them.
Imagine running a business in which you could pay employees for 6 hours but keep them there for 10? (Or 12, or 18.)
The campaign trying to change it all.
A Change.org petition was filed in November of 2021 entitled Flight Attendants Need to be Paid for Boarding. It was created by Domenica Rohrborn with intent to send the hundred-thousand-plus signatures to the heads of the three major flight attendant unions in the US: Sara Nelson, International President Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, John Samuelsen, President, Transportation Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, and Julie Hendrick, President of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants.
This petition has garnered nearly 125,000 signatures and has now expanded to a full-on public awareness campaign through the website Paymeforboarding.org and the Instagram account @paymeforboarding. Both the website and Instagram account provide information, a place to sign the petition, and a forum to read and share boarding horror stories submitted by real flight attendants. If you’d like to share your own boarding experience, just go to paymeforboarding.org or send a DM on Instagram. All stories are posted anonymously. You can also purchase merchandise like Pay Me For Boarding luggage tags and stickers—another way to get people talking about this issue.
Some of the highlighted stories will shock you, some will get your blood boiling, but if you’re a flight attendant, most will sound like “a day in the life”. It is unfortunately all too common for things to go awry and for us to spend many hours working for free.
Stop Exploiting Flight Attendants
Flight attendants are not paid for boarding, or for a whole host of other things in their workday.
It’s easy to see why airlines have done this, continue to do this, and would like to keep doing it. Running a business is way more profitable when you don’t pay your employees. Or when you pay them for only a fraction of the hours they work.
Many people will say “This is just the industry” and “It’s always been this way”, and they will be correct. But this doesn’t mean it’s how we must continue in this industry. With all the time flight attendants spend at work unpaid, the very least airlines could do is pay them for boarding.
Boarding is a time when flight attendants do a lot. And not one single second of a flight—including boarding and deplaning—can happen without us. There is a minimum number of flight attendants that must be present in order for a customer to step foot on the plane. It’s called “minimum crew” and the requirement is 1 Flight Attendant per 50 passengers. This is federal law mandated by the FAA. If one flight attendant steps off the plane to use the restroom, talk to the gate agent, or for any other reason, NO ONE can get on the plane. This seems to prove something understood by flight attendants, but perhaps not fully realized by companies or customers.
We are essential. Not only during the flight, but on the ground, during boarding, as well.
I believe the frontline workers, essential workers, or whatever you call the people who quite literally make your business run should be paid for their time. This is not charity, and we are not here for the thrill of it all.
Given ALL of the free time flight attendants give to their companies (through sits, delays, and report times), asking to be paid an hourly wage for the 20-45 minutes of boarding, during which we are performing safety, security, and customer service work, is not a lot to ask.
And it’s not just for us.
Let's modernize this industry and pay flight attendants fairly.
If you think this issue has nothing to do with you, you’re wrong. Whether you are a flight attendant or just a member of the flying public, this practice of not paying flight attendants affects you. How, you ask?
Here’s a wild idea: Paying flight attendants for boarding is good for EVERYONE. I know it sounds crazy, but bear with me.
Obviously, it would benefit flight attendants to be paid for their labor. But it would also benefit passengers. When a company has free labor at their disposal, there is no incentive to use them for less time. Think about this: Airlines have no monetary reason to have quicker boardings.
Those long delays during boarding? Things that could be prevented but for some reason are not? Crew swaps while passengers sit on the plane. Waiting for maintenance, for bags to be loaded. Doing all kinds of things during boarding that could have been done earlier. These things hurt passengers. It makes you delayed. It makes you hangry. It makes you anxious. Leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
And it hurts flight attendants. We’re stuck apologizing for things we have no control over, bearing the brunt of the passengers’ (understandable) frustration. And we’re doing it all for free.
But the companies? Airline executives are not personally harmed by missing their ride or sitting in a hot airplane for far too long or—gasp—working hours of their lives for free. When you’re not paying your employees to be there, what is the incentive for getting problems solved in a timely manner? There isn’t one.
If companies had to pay flight attendants for boarding, there would be monetary incentive to get flights out in a timely manner. To have quicker boardings. To delay or cancel flights earlier and notify people in advance—rather than in real time, when they have already been sitting around at the airport. Basically, companies would have reason to get their sh*t together.
I am arguing here that airlines would be better if they paid their flight attendants for boarding. They would have a reason to do better, and their reputations could gain some favor as a result. Their boardings could be quicker and delays fewer. Passengers could be spared the agony of sitting on a plane forever, waiting for some issue to be resolved, and could suffer fewer delays. And I don’t have to explain to you all what being paid for our labor could mean for flight attendants. This is not a high-paying job. That extra hour of pay each day could make a real difference for us.
If you haven’t already, please sign the petition to pay flight attendants for boarding. You can do this on Change.org or directly on Paymeforboarding.org. Please consider sending it along to friends or posting in your social media stories. This is an issue that most people don’t know about, and it is one that truly affects us all.
From all of us flight attendants, just trying to be paid fairly to do the job we love: Thank you.
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