Galley Gossip: How much do flight attendants get paid?

In 1995 I made $18,000 a year working for a major U.S. carrier. Nowadays most newly hired flight attendants make even less than that. This is because right after 9/11 the majority of flight attendants took huge pay cuts in order to help keep the airlines up and running. Not only did I lose 30% of my salary, I’m still not making what I did before the terrorists did what they did that day in 2001. The only reason I bring this up is because flight attendants that are hired today work harder than ever before, are paid less to do so, and may never make what I do now because salaries are capped after a certain number of years on the job.

How much do flight attendants make? It depends on the carrier, company seniority, and number of hours worked each month. On average flight attendants make $35,000-$40,000 a year. What most people don’t realize is newly hired flight attendants in the U.S. start out only making between $14,000 – $18,000 a year. While some flight attendants manage to top out near the end of their careers at $60,000 (I’ve even heard rumors of flight attendants making as much as $80,000) the only way to do this is to work a killer schedule picking up incentive pay along the way for things like speaking another language and flying the lead position (or both).

Beginning salaries vary by carrier with major airlines paying more than smaller ones. Regardless of experience new hires start out at the same hourly rate and each year are given a raise based on an already established pay scale. It’s important to note that most flight attendants max out on pay after ten to twelve years on the job. Flight attendants are paid hourly, not annually, for flying time only. This means the time clock doesn’t start ticking until the aircraft door is closed and the airplane has backed away from the gate. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, flight attendants generally work 65-90 hours each month and spend another 50 (unpaid) hours on the ground preparing planes for flights, writing reports following completed flights and waiting around for planes to arrive.

Working 75 hours a month probably sounds pretty great. Well I’m here to tell you it is. That’s why many of us took the job in the first place. I can usually get 75 hours worth of flying by working just twelve to fifteen days a month. But due to pay cuts after 9/11 most flight attendants are forced to work high time (100 plus hours a month) or take on second jobs in order to make ends meet. I met one such flight attendant at a restaurant near Times Square who told me he worked for Delta AFTER I mentioned he’d make a wonderful flight attendant because of his outgoing and friendly personality.

So why don’t we just work more hours? Due to FAA regulations flight attendants can only work so many hours a day and so many days in a row without a day off. 150 hours is the most I’ve ever heard of a flight attendant working in a single month. How does one get that many hours in just 30 days? They only work high time international routes, which means they must have enough company seniority to hold the most desirable trips. After six days of flying, flight attendants are required to take a 24 hour rest. The way around this is take a day off on a layover – that is if there are any trips with 24 hour layovers available to work. Trips must be scheduled NOT back to back, but overlapping, meaning a flight attendant will land at 5 a.m, sleep all day, and then take off again twelve hours later on a flight departing after 6 p.m. And passengers wonder why flight attendants are cranky.

Now let’s break down the hourly rate. Take a flight attendant whose been working twelve years on the job. Let’s say he makes thirty dollars an hour because he works for one of the top paying carriers. If that flight attendant worked a Los Angeles – New York, two-day trip worth eleven hours and change he would only get paid about $339. But when you take into account all the time he’s away from home, at least twenty-four hours, and add that into the equation this flight attendant is making about $13 an hour. That’s not bad, but the flight attendant is working a good trip, meaning a trip that only the most senior flight attendants can hold. Now let’s take a more common 15 hour, 3-day trip and that same flight attendant now makes less than $10 an hour. Sure that’s better than minimum wage, but don’t forget this flight attendant can’t do laundry, run errands, hang out with friends, or tuck his children into bed at night when he’s away. He’s also working weekends and holidays and missing important events for the rest of his life – unless he’s off reserve. With fifteen years seniority at my airline I’m still on reserve at the most junior base in the system. Is that worth $9 an hour? Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on the person I guess. Keep in mind this same flight attendant is making top pay. If a first year flight attendant were to work the same trip and you were to take into account all those unpaid hours on company time, this flight attendant will make less than minimum wage. Flight attendants are a lot of things, but overpaid is not one of them.

After I graduated from college I actually gave up an opportunity to work for a well-known clothing line in New York City because they only offered 50K to start. I didn’t think that was enough to live on in one of the most expensive cities in the world. A year later I wound up living in Queens with so many roommates I have no idea how so many of us lived in the house while working for an airline that paid less $20,000 a year. I figured I’d do the job for a little while and eventually move on. But like so many flight attendants the job got into my blood and, well, I never moved on and I wound up having the best time of my life! For me life is about experiences and that’s one thing the job still offers, lots and lots of amazing and unusual experiences. Even though the job has changed drastically over the last few years and the pay isn’t all that great, whenever someone tells me they want to become a flight attendant I still say go for it! But I also explain how important it is to have a college degree and a back up plan in case the job doesn’t work out or the airline goes bust.


Photos courtesy of Heather Poole and Davity Dave