Flight Attendant Pay and Why It’s Not What You Think It Is

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You see all the photos on social media of flight attendants going to some really cool destinations. We share food photos while dining in cool restaurants, we show you beautiful swimming pools that we sit by and brag how we are getting paid to lounge (which isn’t a total wash) and we share openly our stories about meaningful interactions, crew jokes, gorgeous views from 28,000 feet above, and how much we love our airline family.

What we don’t show you are our paychecks.

While the world thinks that flight attendants are paid a generous salary, that is the furthest from the truth. In my own, personal opinion (and maybe a few opinions of some others), we are not paid as generous as we should be for the job that we do.

It is one of the most misunderstood aspects of our job so I am going to take the time to try to explain to you just how flight attendants are paid, and how we arrive at the places we do in the many stages of our airline career. As you take the time to read this valuable information, I ask that you keep in mind that these are my own personal experiences and experiences from other flight crews around the world. What you will find is that we all start out the same way and from there, we branch out to find our own way of surviving in the industry.

NEW HIRE PAY

If you are a new hire at the airline, you are at the bottom for everything – bidding, pay rate, seniority – everything, and lets face it – it stinks. The average new hire for a regional airline can be around $17 per flight hour, and if you are a new hire at mainline, that can be around $28 or $29 per flight hour. You have to start somewhere, right? We call that paying your due’s and that is not union dues either.

MAINLINE VS REGIONAL

Mainline vs regional you ask? The most simple and quick explanation is that mainline is where you work directly for an airline such as Delta, American, United and regional is where you work for what is called a codeshare partner. The codeshare partners operate the smaller planes (think 100 seats or less) that feed into the larger hubs from the smaller airports.  Regional’s also do short-haul international flights as well. A lot to it huh? Yeah, you learn it as you go once you are a flight attendant.

When someone applies to a flight attendant job, they must know if they want to work for a regional or for mainline. Many start with a regional and never leave, some start with a regional and move onto mainline, some start with mainline and retire from the mainline. It is all depending on where you can get hired on at and what your personal goals are.

Now that you have learned the difference between the two, lets move onto pay calculations.

PAY CALCULATION 

  • Flight Hour – Flight Attendants are only paid from the time the main cabin door closes and is armed until the main cabin door is disarmed. Some call this gate to gate, flight leg to flight leg. Call it what you want but that is when our clock starts for pay.
  • We are not paid for : commuting to work (if you commute from your home city to your base), waiting in the airport for our assigned trip to start, delayed boarding, actual boarding, deplaning, sits in the airport (meaning we may have to sit from an hour up to three hours waiting on another aircraft to arrive) and so yeah, there is that.
  • Pay is usually two times a month with one paycheck being a small paycheck and one being the large one.
  • Airlines pay you based on a required amount of hours worked per your union’s contract with your airline. I will use me for example. I am paid based on 75 flight hours a month. If I work all of my hours, I am paid for only 37.5 of those hours on my small check and then on the bigger check, I am paid for the remaining 37.5 hours plus any per diem from the entire month before and anything over the total hours of 75. Getting tricky? Yeah. I get it. Trust me.
  • Hours can be taken away if you drop a trip, swap out one trip for another and it has less hours or if you call out of work and can’t make up the time. When all this begins to happen, the paycheck can get very confusing. It happens to all of us somewhere along the way. It is not fun but sometimes life just happens.
  • Pay depends on if you are a new hire and your starting hourly rate, if you are sitting reserve or a block holder.
  • You can pick up trips to increase your pay and your per diem each month. Even if you have to drop a trip, you can go in and pick up a trip that has not been assigned yet or one that another flight attendant may want to give away. All of these factors can help in your pay as well.

So what is the difference between reserve life and a block holder?

RESERVE LIFE

When a flight attendant successfully completes training, they are assigned a base before they leave the training center. A base is where you are to report for duty. Many will commute to and from their base, some will move to their base and some will get what is called a crashpad. The following is a list of descriptions for each scenario.

  • Commuter – A commuter is a flight attendant who does not live in their base and they do not want to move to their base because of personal reasons. There are a lot of commuters in the airline world.  They will go to the closest airport that can get them to and from their base. They fly standby just like any other airline crew member who may be commuting. It is always best to commute in as early as possible so that you can hopefully get a seat on the first plane out or so that you have enough time to keep rolling over to the next one until you do get on. If you can’t get out, we have what is called a commuter clause that we can use but there are rules and policies with that. Each airline is different but it is all pretty much the same. Bottom line on this one – you better get to work and be able to report for your assigned duty time.
  • Crashpad – Many crew get what is called a crashpad. The simplest way to describe that to you is this – it is an apartment, house, townhome, or condo style living that will house up to 10 (maybe more) flight attendants. Some have what is called a hot bed meaning that whatever bed is empty, you take it.  You are responsible for your own sheets, etc. A cold bed is when that is your bed, you pay for that space and no one else can use it. It is not your airlines responsibility to get you a crashpad, and they do not pay for that. You pay for that on your own. Rates can range from $200 – $400 depending on what you are seeking. A crashpad can be made up of several flight attendants from other airlines, some are co-ed, and some are all same sex. It just depends on who is running it. There is definitely something out there for everyone. Many of them are always located very close to the airport and provide shuttle transportation or they have a bus stop near by.
  • Living in base – You are just lucky, blessed, and that is all I have to say about that.

BLOCK HOLDER

A flight attendant who is a block holder is one that has basically ‘paid’ their dues to the reserve life and now they can bid for a better schedule, have more flexibility in their schedule and no, we do not fly the same routes. When you have a line, aka – block holder, you are able to have a better quality of life when it comes to scheduling. Keep in mind that getting to this point in your airline career can take anywhere from one year up to five years or more. It really just depends on who you are flying for. So many factors come into play for this milestone in your flight career – base operations, someone left the airline and you moved up in seniority, someone is on medical leave, your base added more flying for that month. As you can see, the things that determine it are various in reasons.

When you are a block holder, you can pick up extra flying, you can drop some of your flying but many will pick up extra flying to help increase the paycheck.

As you can see, there are a lot of factors that go into our pay. It doesn’t just have to do with the dollar amount. So much can lessen our pay and so much can increase it. Flight attendants have a lot of flexibility in their schedule once they come off of the reserve line. Some will not survive the reserve life and will quit within the first six months. Some will move on to other airlines for wanting what suits them best. Some will stay, stick it out and retire from the airline they are with. I have talked to some who will say, ‘Oh honey, I am on my third (or fifth) airline and I just love to fly’. Drives me nuts because I don’t know who wants to go through all that training but some of them do. One training was enough for me.

WHY DO WE STAY IF THE PAY ISN’T SO GREAT?

None of us do this job because of the pay.  Ask any flight attendant and they will tell you the same thing. It gets in our blood. It is like poison to the vein. There is a love/hate relationship with this job and anyone who tells you that there isn’t, they are lying to you.

We do this job because we have a love of flying, we love to interact with the passengers (at least I do), layovers are sometimes nice and sometimes they are boring. You can enjoy a quiet stroll along the old western streets of Durango, Colorado, take in the sights of Times Square in NYC, enjoy the beaches of The Bahamas, explore the foodie in you while you have 22 hours in a strange city. Whatever it may be for you, it can be fun if you have the extra money to enjoy it (which is why we all love good overnights on payday) or it can be an exhausting day,  and sometimes we just face palm on the bed when we get to the hotel. It all depends on the kind of day you had or the showtime for the next day.

Crews become like family out there. It can be a lonely job at times and there is no explanation of how that even occurs but it does. Depression is high among flight crews. You can be surrounded by a sea of thousands and still feel alone. Your crew is your family for the time you are out there getting the job done. We help each other, we listen to each other vent, tell jokes, go eat dinner together (if you can afford it) and if time allows we may even go on a little outing together to sight-see. There is no rhyme or reason. There is no plan. It is literally flying by the seat of your pants when you are out there.

When the trip is done and you arrive home – rather you commute, live in base or go to a crashpad – we all experience what is called Flight Coma. It is a real diagnosis among health officials. It takes about 24 – 48 hours to come out of it. You don’t want to see another human being if you can help it. No matter how social you are, no matter how much you love people, you just need a break. Getting out of bed seems like a chore. You stay in your pajamas all day or lounge in your comfies. You don’t answer your phone or return text messages or emails.

You have spent the last several days being the babysitter, the therapist, the referee, the doctor, the mentor, the waitress, walking aisles collecting trash, telling mothers how to safely hold their baby for taxi, takeoff and landing, showing people how to open the lavatory door, cleaning up throw up mid-air, answering call bells, and the list goes on.

You stare at the walls for a good 24 hours and feel ‘lost’ because for the duration of your work trip, it was all scheduled and go, go, go. When you are home, it just isn’t the same environment so don’t be so hard on your flight attendant family member. We just need sleep, a hot meal, a hot shower and to regroup in our heads.

No one can tell another to take a flight attendant job. That is something we all dream of doing and it use to be a glam industry to be in but that all changed as early as the 1990’s. It began to be an industry to evolve into a more relaxed hiring process. We all come from many backgrounds. Some of us have part-time jobs and some make the airline the only job. The flexibility of that kind of schedule is appealing as well as being able to board a flight at last-minute and either fly for free or just pay the taxes.

I am a single parent so for me, I need the health insurance which I feel is really amazing for me and my family. You will have a retirement fund if you invest in it, you do get to travel domestically for free but will have to pay the taxes coming back into the US from any international destination. I have experienced multiple discounts with my airline ID and there are some other perks of the job. The perks/benefits are nice but they are not always equal to the time we work and are not paid. I would love to see the day that flight crews are paid the moment we step up to sign in for work. Pipe dream? I don’t know but I think it would boost a major moral across the airline industry for all.

If you are reading this and considering applying for a flight attendant job, the only warning I can give to you is this – the job is addicting. Even if you feel you are not paid for what you put into it, it is still the most addicting job in the world. You still board the plane knowing you are not getting paid. You still ‘sit’ with your crew for however long knowing you are not getting paid. You will still commute in or get to work however you can knowing you are not getting paid for that time either. It is lifestyle and one that we pay dearly with for our time and our sacrifices.

I encourage anyone who is seeking out to be a flight attendant to just do the research on the airline you seem interested in. They all have something to offer. Go to recruiting events, join job boards, ask other flight attendants, inquire through a companies social media pages or just send in that resume, apply and see what happens. You may get rejected on the first one you apply to, you may not. The odds are crazy out there but if it is something you really want, then I encourage you to stay focused and determined. It is a lot of time to go through different flight attendant training’s. It can take a lot out of you mentally and that is why I encourage you to do the research on all angles of the job. It is okay to be picky, to wait for the one that suits you best, to not settle. You want to get somewhere and get yourself set up for a career but even more so, the lifestyle that this job requires out of you is not something to be playing around with.

If you are reading this then I wish you the best on your endeavors of finding the right airline for your particular needs and if you come on board, then always know that we are all united by wings. If you are not airline crew and you are reading this but you know someone who is airline crew, I hope this better assist you in understanding the lifestyle.

 

Peace, Love & Hugs

Christian ♥

 

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