Galley Gossip: How do flight attendants survive on such a small salary?

I’ve been offered a position as a flight attendant. Training hasn’t started yet, but I’m freaking out a little. Should I back out? It seems like a fun and exciting job, but the pay is $20/hour with only a 79-hour guarantee of work per month. The first year I would have to be on reserve and would need to live within 20 minutes of the airport. A one bedroom/studio within 30 minutes of the airport averages $1400-$1800 per month! We were told that during our six weeks of training we will be paid $1400, which will be prorated. Huh? How do flight attendants afford to pay for rent and living expenses? I am trying to calculate it and there is no way to make ends meet…even with a roommate! What do you suggest to those of us who have not started? Should we turn around and run for the hills? – Cold Feet

Dear Cold Feet,

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, no one becomes a flight attendant for the money! This is why the majority of new flight attendants are either right out of college or looking to make a career change after the kids are grown and out of the house. While $20 an hour may look good on paper, the reality is it doesn’t add up to much, not when we’re only paid for flight hours. That’s strictly time spent in the air. And with so many FAA regulations limiting us to the number of hours and days in a row we can work, most of us average between 80-90 hours a month. Keep in mind flight time does not include boarding, deplaning, delays, scheduled sit time between flights and layovers away from home, even though we’re on company time. However we are paid a per diem from sign-in to the time we arrive back to base. It’s less than two-dollars an hour.

You’ve been offered $20 an hour with a 79 hour guarantee. That’s roughly $18,000 a year. It’s more than most first year flight attendants get paid. The average flight attendant makes between $14,000-$18,000 the first year on the job. Each year we’re offered a standard raise. Flight attendants who work international routes, speak a second language, work high time (over 100 hours) and have seniority with a major carrier have the potential to earn up to $80,000 a year, if not more, but this is rare. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Median annual wages of flight attendants were $35,930 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $28,420 and $49,910. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $20,580, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $65,350.”

So how do we do it? Enter the crash pad.

A crash pad is where flight attendants literally crash between trips. My first crash pad was a house with five bedrooms that may have had 60 flight attendants living in it for all I know. There were so many people coming and going it was impossible to keep up. Six of us shared a room that had bunk beds lining the walls. Most crash pad dwellers are commuters. Because we were on probation and travel benefits at my airline wouldn’t kick in for six months, we were all new-hires living full time in a crash pad meant for commuters. It wasn’t pretty. It’s no wonder we were all so eager to work – er, fly away! Because at the end of a long work day there was always a layover hotel with a room that had a bed with no one else sleeping near it. And a tub that was clean that didn’t require one to sign up to use it. This might explain how I managed to actually save $2,000 my first year on the job, even after the airline deducted $800 to cover the cost of the uniform from my paycheck.

There’s a reason why so many flight attendants quit within the first few months of flying – and why the rest of us last a lifetime! It’s that extreme. Being a flight attendant is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle. My advice to you, Cold Feet, is to go for it. You can always quit if you don’t like it. Just remember it won’t be easy in the beginning, but stick with it and make sure to give it at least six months before throwing in the towel. When your travel benefits kick in, you’ll be glad you did. You might also want to consider praying your airline continues hiring flight attendants because a life off reserve makes a world of difference.

Photo courtesy of byronv2

Cockpit Chronicles: It’s official. I’m moving to Germany

Apparently I’ve run out of things to complain about, aside from the occasional gripe about the glossiness of the paint on the office walls which was supposed to be flat. There is little in my life that I can truly complain about, especially in light of the current events unfolding after the earthquake in Japan this week.

Let’s live a little, shall we?

Both my wife and I have discussed changing things up a bit lately-doing something more radical than switching to LED light bulbs in the living room, for example.

I even agonized publicly about a few new flying options on my personal blog last month.

Fortunately for airline pilots, there’s an easy way to thoroughly turn your life upside down-at my company, all it takes is a simple keystroke on the computer: 3P/LGA/767/FO/I.

For those of you who aren’t fluent in SABRE codes, that means that I have officially transferred to NY. I’ll be flying the same airplane, thus saving myself six weeks of simulator and ground school training. Nevertheless, it’ll add some commuting time to my day.

I’ve been fortunate in my career to fly from an airport in Boston that’s just an easy hour drive from my home in New Hampshire. I heeded the advice of my brother, a former commuter from Seattle to Chicago.

“Commuting turns a good deal into an or-deal.” He’d say.

But my wife and I aren’t stopping there. Since New York is rather nearby to our home in New England, we decided to do something really extreme (for our family at least), and move to Germany.

For a year.
Paying back a debt

When I asked Linda to marry me, she was more than half way through a degree at Swansea University in Wales. She gave up her degree aspiration temporarily to join me in Alaska. And then Queens. Then Long Island. Followed by three places in Dallas. And on to Denver, then New Jersey before finally landing in New Hampshire which we’ve enjoyed for the past twelve years.

But now it’s payback time. Linda has been attending a nearby university part time, but she wants to study full-time to get her German and English teaching degree sooner.

Studying in Germany, where her mom could watch the kids while I was away at work and she was attending classes, seemed like a surprisingly logical idea when she mentioned it. Not only that, the kids, ages 9 and 5, could really hone their German language skills (i.e. be able to say more than “guten tag.”)

As a pilot, it’s possible to live pretty much anywhere in the world. We have crew members based in New York who live in Anchorage, and a few who live in Europe and fly out of the northeastern United States.

“I can do anything for a year.” I told Linda. And deep down, I know I owe her. She never complained about our moves while I was chasing flying jobs for cargo and passenger operators around the country.

How about the rest of the family?

The kids are surprisingly excited about the temporary relocation. Every night at dinner we’ve been practicing our German vocabulary and they’re able to retain what they’ve learned far better than I can.

To be honest, my German language skills are limited to about ten words. But this experience can only help me get serious about learning more, I’m sure.

So the plan is to rent our furnished house for a year, pack up the pets and just a few ‘comfort’ items and move to the village where Linda herself grew up, near Cologne.

The 3,700 mile commute

My plan is to back up my trips, so that I’ll fly two, three or four three-day Europe flights in a row, with 26-hour breaks after each Atlantic crossing. Instead of a crashpad or hotel near the airport, I’ll be staying with a friend in Manhattan, where I can keep some clothes and do laundry.

If I align my schedule right, I may be able to fly nine or twelve days in a row, followed by nine or twelve days off. This will limit the time spent in the back of an airplane and train riding to and from Brussels or Frankfurt and New York.

It sounds tiring, but commuting responsibly, with 26 hours off before starting my trips should make it easier.

The logistics

Of course there are so many questions about being an ‘expatriate.’ Do I have to pay taxes in the U.S. and Germany? Will my health insurance cover the family overseas? Will the pets have to be quarantined? How do we even transport two cats to Europe? What kind of car should we buy? (Linda has vetoed my choice of a used Alfa Romeo, unfortunately).

As I searched online, one website, How To Germany continued to pop up that answered almost all of my questions.

We’re still looking into those questions, and Linda is currently in Germany signing up the kids for school. I still expect someone to throw a wrench into the whole process at any point.

“You can’t do that. It is verboten!” I imagine someone saying as we apply for a residency permit. But so far, we haven’t run into any roadblocks.

Alas, the perfect writing cubicle

So you should see more posts now that I’ll be spending more time in the back of an airplane, a place where I’m the most productive when writing, since there’s no internet available and few distractions.

And I suspect I’ll have some things to talk about, especially since the two European destinations I’ve been flying to from Boston, London and Paris, will expand to so many more out of New York such as Rome, Barcelona, Budapest, Milan, Madrid, Manchester, Brussels, Zurich and even Rio.

Since today’s Gadling theme is focused around Europe, I’m looking forward to reading about the other parts of the continent I’ll need to visit according to the rest of the Gadling team. In exchange, I’ll be sure to let them know where they can score some LED light bulbs.

All photos by the author.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Galley Gossip: Advice for the employees of US Airways

Heather,

Yesterday the flight attendants got terrible news at US Airways. THREE base closures. Mine included. In all these years, I’ve never commuted. And now, gone early next year: BOS, LGA and LAS. We got the news in the crew room. Some of the senior girls started to tear up. One cried, “I have thirty years, I’ve never commuted.” The base is closing and we didn’t even receive any information on base transfers, voluntary furloughs, whether or not we can keep our parking lot space, bidding packets from the other bases and seniority lists to help make a decision. Any tips? Prayers? An Article to educate us newbies?

Sincerely,

In shock

Dear in shock,

I’m sorry to hear about the unfortunate news. I understand why you and your colleagues are frustrated and upset. Honestly, I’m not sure which is worse, your airline closing three bases or the fact that they did not alert employees until the last minute, only to do so with little to no information. These are your lives we’re talking about, not just base closures! While commuting is not always easy, it is doable, and chances are you might even become a better flight attendant because of it. I know I did. First, here’s the prayer you’re looking for. And now for a few tips…


1. EMBRACE IT - Now that you’ll be traveling like a real passenger….wait a minute, take that back, you’re the farthest thing from a real passenger. You’re at the bottom of the standby list and there’s nothing you can do about it. So stop fighting it and learn to enjoy it – as much as you possibly can. I do so by reading – a lot.

2. CHOOSE A BASE WISELY: Don’t choose the base with the best flying if you won’t be able to get there easily. Pick a base that offers several flights a day from your home city. And don’t go where everyone else who has just been displaced wants to go! I can’t tell you how many Dallas commuters think I’m crazy for commuting from California to New York. Yet their standby list is insane compared to mine. Not only do I always get on a flight, I usually end up with a pretty good seat! That’s because there aren’t that many LA commuters who work in New York. It also means in a worst case scenario the jump seat is mine!

3. GET CREATIVE: Because the flights are usually full, it’s not always easy getting to work. Prior to 9/11, I would fly to Toronto and connect to New York in order to avoid holiday traffic. Yeah, that was a little crazy, but it worked, even during the busy Christmas season! And don’t forget that sometimes those “thru” flights really aren’t thru flights at all. Many often stop at a hub city. Get to know these flights well, the ones that are scheduled to arrive in Kansas City but actually make a quick stop in a hub city, and then jump off and connect to where you really need to go.

4. BACK IT UP: Commuting can be stressful, which is why I arrange my schedule so that I’m only commuting once a month. I’ll back up my trips and work for several days in a row, flying as many hours as I can until I get the hours I need for the month. Sure it’s a killer, and half the time I have no idea where I am, whether I’m coming or going, but when I’m done I have the rest of the month off to recuperate. Don’t t waste your “days off” trying to get to and from work.

5. BID SMART: Forget about layovers. They no longer matter. Bid for “commutable trips.” Look for late departures and early returns. The layovers might be short, but this will enable you to travel to and from work on the days you’re scheduled to work, allowing your days off to remain just that – days off. That’s why we took this job, isn’t it – for the days off? If you do choose to back up your trips, look for a late departure on the first day of your first trip and an early return on the last day of your last trip. This will make bidding easier because what you work in-between these two trips won’t matter in terms of commuting.

6. FIND A CRASH PAD: If on reserve, find a crashpad and you won’t have to sleep in flight operations. I’m sure there’s a bulletin board somewhere in ops where you can find fliers from fight attendants looking for roommates. A crashpad usually averages around $150 per month. Or try calling airport hotels / motels offering free shuttle service to and from the airport and ask if they offer a “crew discount” on rooms that will only be occupied for a few hours. Once I overheard a pilot refer to this as an “emergency crew rate.” He got the room for next to nothing. Share the room with a fellow commuter to save a little cash.

7. GET TO KNOW THE GATE AGENTS: Agents have power, big time power, because they’re the ones controlling the seating chart. They decide whether or not you’ll get a middle seat – or if you get on a flight at all. Do yourself a favor and make friends with these people. It won’t be easy. They’re just as overworked as we are and they hear the exact same moans and groans from passengers as we do, so tread lightly, don’t become another one of their problems, and always, ALWAYS, respect the counter. Stand at least ten feet away. Remember, whether you’re an agent or a flight attendant, we’re all on the same team. Let’s try to treat each other that way.

8. WATCH THE WEATHER CHANNEL - It’s important to know what’s going on weather-wise around the country. If there’s a storm in the forecast on the day of your commute, you might want to get out a day earlier. If that’s not possible, make sure to get on the first flight of the day! Do not get caught up in delays that are bound to come later on in the day. A cancellation will nine times out of ten ruin your chance of getting to work. Save the “missed trip” for a time you really need it.

9. TRIP TRADING: If you don’t know how to do a “trip trade” you better learn quick! Often times, while commuting, there’s not enough time to ask for help when you desperately need to change your schedule. Otherwise you can do what I do and pay someone to do the dirty work for you. If I’m at the airport and unsure if I’m going to make it out, I’ll call my “trip trader” who will either drop the trip or trade it for a different trip later on in the month. If not for my trip trader, I don’t know what I’d do. She truly works magic and is worth every penny.

10. BECOME A BETTER FLIGHT ATTENDANT: Now that you’re stuck in a crap seat with nothing to do but analyze the flight attendants, you’ll have a better understanding of how the other half lives. I can honestly say I’ve mellowed out because of my commuting lifestyle. I now have a lot more patience and empathy for passengers than I did when I first started flying. Not only will this make you a better flight attendant, it will make you a more rounded individual. That, I think, is a gift.

Once you get over the initial shock, you and your colleagues will be just fine.

Good luck!

Heather Poole

Photos courtesy of carribb – US Airways, Heather Poole - woman reading & crashpad fliers

Galley Gossip: Bids are out! (my schedule, a little airline lingo, and a flight attendant poll)

“Bids are out!”

Those three words are exclaimed each and every month by flight attendants (and pilots) around the world. Perhaps you’ve even witnessed a crew of four (or more) call out the three words above as they briskly walk through the terminal and pass another crew of four (or more) on their way to the gate.

Maybe you’ve wondered, what does that mean, as you stood waiting for your delayed flight to board. And while you continued to stand there impatiently waiting, you watched as four (or more) cell phones were simultaneously flipped open and placed to the ear. Rest assured that call must be made upon hearing those three words. If it can’t happen right then and there, it will happen very shortly, even if the flight attendant has to hide in the lavatory during the boarding process to make it happen. Why? BECAUSE THE BIDS ARE OUT!

BID, BIDS, BIDDING, BID SHEET – a request of choice routes made by each flight attendant to fly specific monthly schedules. At the airline I work for, our bid sheet offers over hundreds of lines to choose from. Bids are awarded by company seniority, which is why those flights to Asia and Europe always have the most senior flight attendants working the trip.

LINE, LINE HOLDER – a sequence of trips a flight attendant is offered each month. A line holder is not on reserve and works each of those trips in consecutive order.

RESERVE – Reserve flight attendants do not have a line. They bid for days off only. When they don’t have a day off, they remain on-call, meaning the company can (and will) assign the flight attendant a trip at any time of day (or night), with at least two hours time to get to the airport. Reserve duty is much like an on-call doctor. We must stay within a manageable radius of our base (mine covers three airports JFK, LGA and EWR). The flight attendant must be duty ready whenever on reserve. This means you must be ready to board a flight within one hour of its departure, which means there are no late nights out and absolutely no alcohol, since you can (and will) be called out to work any time of day or night. I remember one night having a quiet evening at home with a movie and Chinese take out. The food had not even arrived to my apartment and I was already leaving for a trip to London! There’s no warning, no lead time, and no excuses.

JUNIOR, SENIOR, SENIORITY – Refers to a flight attendants years of experience. Years of experience with an airline is based on date of hire. Seniority is everything at an airline, which is why the merging of most airlines does not happen smoothly. Junior flight attendants have to serve on reserve. In order to avoid having to do reserve duty , I commute from my home in Los Angeles (one of our most senior bases in the system) to New York (our most junior base). For me it is better to commute and be a big fish in a little pond than to work from home and have the uncertainty of my schedule loom over our family.

BASE - City in which a crew member originates and ends a trip. All trips start and end from ones base.

COMMUTE, COMMUTER, COMMUTING – the process of getting to your base city. I commute to work from Los Angeles to New York before each trip. Most airline employees who commute to work spend the night in a crash-pad. Like many flight attendants, my crash-pad is located very close to two of the three airports in my base city.

TURN, TURNS, TURNAROUND – any trip that originates from and returns to the same city on the same day. It is not uncommon for a flight attendant to see several cities over the course of 48hrs, only to arrive back to the city they left from. I have flown from LGA to ORD to DFW back to ORD and arrived back in LGA only to come home, shower, sleep and do it all over again the very next day.

Last week, after spending a good four days in a row staring cross-eyed at the bid sheet, I found out that for the month of November I was awarded line 50. Chicago turns. My particular trip will depart to Chicago a little after noon and return to New York just before midnight on the same day. Turns, are not my trip of choice, but we’ll get to that later.

Flight attendants bid once a month, near the end of the month, for a schedule the following month. I know, it’s confusing, but stick with me. Each line shows exactly what days and which trips a flight attendant will be working for the month. So whenever you see a couple of crew members sitting in the terminal, or on the jump-seat, with their noses glued to a packet of papers for hours on end, nine times out of ten they’re studying the bid sheet. This is not the time for chit chat, so unless you have a serious concern to discuss, or food to share, do not disturb the flight attendant. Bidding, for a flight attendant, is very serious business.

TRANSCONS – a transcontinental, across country, or coast to coast flight.

TRADING, DROPPING, PICKING UP – the act of swapping, giving away, or taking another flight attendant’s trip.

BACK UP, BACKING UP: working several trips in a row in order to have several days off in a row.

WIDEBODY – any aircraft with two aisles. The bigger the airplane, the more senior the crew.

NARROWBODY – any aircraft with a single aisle.

When I bid, I choose to work the transcons because they are easy to drop. I’m a commuter, and because I don’t want to waste my precious days off flying back and forth across the country, I back my trips up. That means at some point during the month I’ll fly to New York as a stand by passenger, spend the night in my crash-pad, work back and forth across the country as many times as possible in seven days, and then fly home to Los Angeles, which is where I’ll stay because I’m done for the month. Yeah, I know, it’s a good life – until all the flights to base are oversold, canceled, delayed and I’m unable to make it to work.

But remember, unlike most of my colleagues, I’m a low time flier, which pretty much means I work part time. In order to do this, I have to hold something desirable, not necessarily what I want to work, but what others prefer to work. Transcons on the widebody are the most sought after trips. Since I’m now a domestic flight attendant, I bid the flights to Los Angeles from New York. They’re easy, worth a lot of money, rarely ever cancel, and if I do decide to work one, I can layover at home with my family, not the layover hotel.

The reason I bid Chicago turns, and not transcons, for the month of November is because that line was the first line I could hold with Thanksgiving off. Yes, believe it or not, this will be the first Thanksgiving I’ve held off in thirteen years of flying. I’m way too junior to hold a holiday off on a line of transcons. In fact, I can barely hold transcons on non-holiday months, and if I do, I’ll most likely be working in business class, the most junior position on the aircraft, which is not a position you want to work if you’re trying to drop the trip.

TRIP TRADE, TRIP TRADER – the act of trading trips with another flight attendant. As this can prove to be a daunting task, flight attendants hire a person who manages, (for a fee), several different flight attendant schedules at once.

The first thing I do when bids are finalized is call my trip trader. She is one of the most important people in my life. Without her I don’t know what I would do. She makes my life work. Actually, what she does is make it possible for me to work, because it’s not easy when you have a two-year old child at home and you are married to a man who travels over 100,000 miles a year, and you don’t have family around to help when you’re out of town.

Now I have no idea how my trip trader does what she does, but the girl works magic, and I love her for that! In fact, I just checked my schedule and most of my Chicago turns have already disappeared. YES! And I’ve got two fantastic San Francisco transcons backed up in the middle of the month on my schedule! WOO-HOO! I love my trip trader, and life is good.

So good, in fact, I’m about to purchase three airline tickets to fly home to Dallas for the Thanksgiving holidays. Remember, this is the first Thanksgiving I’ll be celebrating at a home, and not in a dumpy airport hotel. Yes, I can fly for free as a stand by passenger, but like I said, I actually want to make it home for the holidays. What I don’t want to do is spend the holiday weekend getting bumped from flight to flight traveling with the family on the busiest holiday of the year. Oh no, I want to eat delicious turkey and dressing at my mother’s house, not a turkey sandwich and fries at Chili’s in the Los Angeles Airport.

Are you a flight attendant? If so, take the following poll. If not, check out this cool website and test your knowledge of even more airline lingo.

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Photos courtesy of: (flight attendant legs) Laszlo-photo , (airplane interior) Carrib, (turkey) Xbermathew

Galley Gossip: The mini motel for the commuting flight attendant

See that guy over there, the one wearing a business suit lying on the floor inside an orange tent at the airport? The first time I saw that picture on The New York Times website, I laughed, and then I thought to myself, genius, absolute genius. The Mini Motel, a one-person tent complete with air mattress, pillow, reading light and alarm clock, that’s what Frank Giotto, a business traveler, created after an unscheduled stay at a German airport.

There’s one problem with the luxury tent, and it’s a pretty big problem. Simply put, it’s a tent. Personally, I can’t see too many passengers interested in buying a tent. I mean who in their right mind wants to lug that thing on the airplane – just in case there’s a delay, or cancellation, or something that would cause one to set up tent? Nor do I see the airlines purchasing it. Not when they’re getting rid of things – namely employees – in order to save money. So who do I see desperate to get their hands on a luxury tent aimed at stranded people at the airport? Flight attendants of course!

According to Wikipedia, Commuting is the process of traveling between one’s place of residence and regular place of work. For most people, normal people, commuting means getting in the car or hopping on a train and taking an hour long ride to the city where the office is located. Commuting for a flight attendant is a whole other animal. We cross cities, as in several cities, in order to get to work. Yet it’s what a lot of flight attendants choose to do, particularly the ones based in New York – like me! Yes, I am a commuter. I commute from my home in Los Angeles to New York where I start my trips at one of two New York airports. I know I know, it’s a little crazy, but it works.

Just to be safe, and well rested, I always fly to New York the night before my trip. But some commuters travel up on the same morning of their trip. Haven’t you ever wondered why the crew looks so worn out? Why they look as if they haven’t slept in days? Chances are they haven’t. Chances are, if they weren’t working twelve hours a day for three days straight (with short layovers), they could be commuters.

Now I know what you’re wondering: where do commuters stay at night when they’re not on a trip and laying over at a hotel in a strange city? If they do not have family or friends they can “visit”, they’ll stay in one of three locations…

  1. The Crash Pad: If they’ve got the money to spend (about $150/month), you’ll find commuters living in crash pads not too far away from the airport. My first crash pad, located in Kew Gardens, also known as Crew Gardens, was a three story house that was home to so many flight attendants I couldn’t begin to count them all. Seriously. I don’t even know if I met everyone who lived in this particular crash pad during my first three months as a flight attendant. All I know is “my room” had six bunk beds lining the walls, and each bunk bed had a different flight attendant (who brought along their own set of sheets) sleeping in it each and every night.
  2. The Airport Hotel: Sometimes a few commuters will get together and chip in to share a cheap hotel room near the airport — though this doesn’t really happen often, not anymore, not since we took a pay cut after 9/11. However, I do still see quite a few commuting pilots waiting for the hotel shuttle outside the airport.
  3. Flight Operations – Besides a couple of computers and a few sofas and maybe a television, there’s usually a little “quiet room” located somewhere at the back of ops. The quiet room is always dark and filled with reclining chairs. This is where you’ll find a majority of the New York commuters. But ONLY if ops is located on the outside of security, which isn’t always the norm at most airline terminals. But if ops is an option, rest assured, that’s the place to be.

Which brings me back to The Mini Motel, a $39.95 luxury one-person tent that comes complete with a mattress, pillow, reading light, alarm clock, and, most importantly, a bit of privacy when you’re stranded at the airport far away from home. Tell me this isn’t the perfect gift for that commuting flight attendant in your life! After that commuting flight attendant FINALLY stops thanking you over and over and over for the wonderful gift, you tell me that thoughtful gift is just a tent and not a luxurious crew condo.