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

Duty free rules, know before you go

Duty Free. It sounds like such a good idea. Duty Free shops and zones in airports and other places common to travelers beckon us to save money . Quick and convenient, we find savings of up to 50 percent just after passing through security on the way to our plane, train or ship. But buyer beware, you may not make it to your final destination with that great deal.

Duty free shop personnel often lack import knowledge for destinations other than their own. They can get you going from where you are, but often laws of other lands will prevent bringing your duty-free items in.

Australian Customs, for example, has a section on duty-free in its ”Know Before You Go” guide for travelers that states: ”If you are aged 18 years or over, you can bring 2.25 litres of alcohol duty-free into Australia with you” – without mentioning that it is subject to regulations about liquids and must be purchased or carried according to strict rules reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

Travelers commonly find out the hard way that security rules concerning liquids vary from country to country. Some require bottles to be in tamper-proof packaging, others don’t. If where you buy and your final destination include a stop in a third country, even a short layover, your duty free purchase could be confiscated.

It’s a good idea to know before you go and online source tells us “Duty-free rules vary by country, with policies ranging from simple and flexible to complex and rigid. To learn about a country’s duty-free laws, try contacting its customs or border patrol agency. Or, call a travel agency, duty-free shop or airline located in that country.”

Catalyst Creative: Duty Free Stores from Catalyst Creative on Vimeo.

Galley Gossip: Can a mother of two young kids become a flight attendant?

My name is Stephanie and I am thinking of becoming a flight attendant. My only concern is my two boys ages 5 and almost 2. How can I have time to be a mom and work? I love to travel and I hear benefits are good. Can I work flights after bedtime? But when will I come back?

The most difficult thing for a flight attendant, Stephanie, is being flexible in terms of scheduling. Making long term plans is next to impossible when you never know what you’ll be working month to month – or even day to day if you’re on reserve! Even if you are able to hold a schedule, that schedule can always change at the last minute and the only thing you can do about it is continue on with the trip or quit! Keep in mind if you do quit mid-sequence, you’ll have to figure out how to get home as you’ll no longer have travel benefits.

Two years ago I had a trip that was scheduled to land on Christmas Eve. With thirteen years as a flight attendant, I was finally able to hold Christmas off! I couldn’t believe my luck. But on Christmas Eve the final leg of our trip canceled. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, the entire crew got reassigned, which meant none of us would make it back in time to celebrate the holiday! I wound up in Toronto at an airport hotel when I should have been at home with my family eating turkey and dressing like everyone else.

Unless you have an amazing support system twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for the kids, this may not be the job for you – at least not right now! It’s why so many flight attendants start working at an early age or later on in life after the kids are grown. Trust me it ain’t easy juggling the job with family, especially when you’re brand spankin new with little to no seniority.

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. It determines what trips a flight attendant can “hold” and whether or not a flight attendant will serve reserve. Basically it determines whether you’ll be working days, nights, weekends, and holidays, as well as where you’re going and how long you’ll be gone. So there’s no telling when – or if – you’ll make it back home.

Here are a few more things to consider…

THE PAY: No one becomes a flight attendant for the money. While the benefits are good, the pay is not. Most flight attendants that work for major U.S. carriers make less than $20,000 annually their first year. Smaller airlines pay even less than that! I know a flight attendant that works for a regional carrier and she makes $14,000 a year! AND she works holidays without incentive pay.

The majority of airlines provide their own training. (This is why it doesn’t make sense to go to one of those “flight attendant schools.”) My airline required seven and a half weeks of unpaid training at a facility near the airlines corporate headquarters. Years ago I worked for a low cost carrier called Sun Jet International Airlines that only required two weeks of unpaid training. It was conducted at a hotel in Houston. Can you handle being away from your children for weeks at a time in order to earn your wings.

CREW BASES: Most airlines have crew bases in a handful of cities. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to work out of the city of your choice. In order to be based in a certain city, there must first be an opening at the base. Crew bases are awarded by seniority. At my airline New York is the most junior base in the system, so it was no surprise that the majority of my classmates in training wound up there – myself included. New York is where I’m still based, even though I live in California. That makes me a commuter.

RESERVE: Flight attendants on reserve have no life. At my airline we bid for a schedule of days off only. We get twelve of them. The rest of themonth we’re on call. This means we must be ready to go to the airport at anytime – day or night. We’re given at least two hours from the time crew schedule calls us with a trip to the time we have to sign in at the airport. One night I ordered Chinese delivery and was out the door and on my way to the airport to work a flight to London before the food even arrived!

NOTE: How the reserve system works varies at different airlines, but most flight attendants serve straight reserve. This means they’re on reserve until they have enough seniority to hold off. If the airline is in a hiring frenzy, you may not have to be on reserve for very long as newer flight attendants will bump you off. But if you’re hired at the end of a massive hiring streak, you could get stuck on reserve for a very long time. I’ve been working at my airline now for fifteen years, I’m based at the most junior base in the system, and even I am still on reserve!

Photo courtesy of Santheo and Tawheed Manzoor

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

Galley Gossip: A question about why flight attendants are paid twice as much as teachers

Dear Heather,

Any time I go back to the rear of the plane and find flight attendants reading magazines, I am finding people off the job. You people are being paid roughly TWICE per hour what they pay the teachers who teach your children to read…How would you like to go into a classroom and find the teacher reading “Vogue”?


Dear Anonymous,

I take it you had a bad flight. Perhaps you wanted something to drink or eat and got ignored by a flight attendant reading Vogue? If so, I’m sorry for that and I do hope it never happens to you again. As with every job there are always a few bad apples in the bunch, but you don’t really mean to stereotype all crew members based on one lazy Vogue reading flight attendant, do you? I hope not.

For the record, I seriously doubt that flight attendants get paid twice as much as teachers. While I do not know how much the average teacher makes, the average flight attendant is not making as much as it may seem. Oh sure on paper it looks like we have a cush job when we’re not shocking people back to life or landing in the Hudson River. And of course there are those of us who do have it nice, like flight attendants who are employed by a major carrier who have enough seniority to fly the best trips, working to amazing destinations like Japan, Rio, and Paris. But in reality the majority of us don’t have it that good. A lot of us don’t even get a layover anymore, and if we do, they’re so short we call them lean-overs, not layovers. Seriously, most of us do struggle to make ends meet and therefore have to pick up extra trips or work a second job on our days off just to get by.


Don’t forget that flight attendants are only paid for flight time – not ground time. That means we are not making a dime until all passengers are seated, overhead bins have been closed, the aircraft door is shut and the airplane has backed away from the gate. Just last week I worked a trip from New York to Dallas and back to New York again, all in the same day, that, because of a mechanical in New York and a weather delay out of Dallas, I only got paid 6 hours and 15 minutes (flight time) for a 14 hour and 33 minute duty day. Do teachers go to work and only get paid half the time? I don’t think so. And when they are at work, are they constantly getting yelled at for situations that are beyond their control? And are they stuck in a flying tube at 35,000 feet for hours on end without a means to escape whatever could go wrong if something did go wrong? You tell me.

Now that I’ve been flying for 14 years, I make $30-something an hour, which is pretty darn good – except that due to FAA regulations I can only work so many hours in a day and so many days in a row. Not to mention when you add in the delays on the ground, the sit time between connecting flights, and the layover time at the airport hotels (per diem is less than $2), our hourly rate drastically drops. As for all those amazing layovers, they no longer exist. Mine average ten hours a night and all I usually have time to do is two of the following – eat, sleep, or shower. Keep in mind that this is unpaid time away from home, time that teachers are able to spend in the comforts of their own home with family or friends, actually getting important things done like a load of laundry, running to the grocery store, kissing their kids goodnight, those kinds of things.

Now I’m not saying that my job is more important, not at all, I’m just saying that it’s different and should not be compared to a job on the ground. Anyway, this is about flight flight attendant pay, not who has the worst job. I love my job and I’m sure teachers do, too.

And before I forget, Anonymous Writer, I do not read Vogue. Not that there’s anything wrong with Vogue, it’s just way too heavy to drag from city to city and gate to gate in my tote-bag to my layover hotel where I’d only have a few minutes to look at it before going to bed. However, what you may find me reading on the airplane is Vanity Fair. That’s because it’s the perfect magazine for a long haul flight due to the fact that it takes an entire six hours to get through, which is why I only read it when I’m commuting to work, not while I am at work – working. While I have been known to flip through a passenger’s discarded newspaper or celebrity gossip magazine while standing in the galley, I am quick to put it down if someone needs something from me.

Just because you’ve spotted a flight attendant glancing at reading material in flight does not mean you’ve found an employee “off the job.” Believe it or not, once the service is over there actually comes a time in flight where there may not be anymore more trash to pick up and passengers are settled into their seats and do not need anything else to eat or drink and have actually had all their connecting gate information sorted out. If there is a passenger who needs something that has not been provided, like a pillow or blanket (not that we always have them on board) the passenger will either stop us while we’re walking down the aisle and ask, come to the back of the aircraft and ask, or ring their call light which signals the flight attendants to put down their magazine or newspaper or lunch or liquor money they were adding up, and answer the call. Nine times out of ten that call is answered immediately.

Happy travels,

Heather Poole

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Photos courtesy of (stewardess barbie) Heather Poole, (Vanity Fair) JacquieK