Flight attendant salaries have been the cornerstone of recent disputation within the USA’s aviation industry. Desire for better pay and better working conditions has pushed some unions, including the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA) and the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA-CWA), to threaten strike action back in September. Even now, things seem far from resolved.
Having voted to authorize strike action, APFA continue to insist on an immediate 35% pay increase, with 6% yearly increases thereafter. On September 13, American Airlines’ counter-offer – of 11% with 2% annual increase – was swiftly rejected. The fruitless negotiation is not new, but four years in the making. American’s “flight attendants haven’t had a pay raise or cost of living raise since January 2019,” said veteran flight attendant and spokesperson for APFA, Paul Hartshorn Jr.
Over the last four years, flight attendants employed by American have failed to secure an improved contract through APFA. Meanwhile, peers at other major airlines such as Southwest, Delta and United have secured contracts which cover many of APFA’s demands.
So, how do flight attendant salaries actually measure up? According to Flight Attendant Professionals, the average hourly rate for a flight attendant in their first six months, as of August 2023, is $27.11. This increases with respect to time of service.
United Airline’s hourly rate for starting flight attendants comes just above average ($28.88), whilst American’s is slightly higher ($30.35). Both sit behind Delta Air Lines ($32.20), which leads the pack. After 12 years of service, this scales up to $67.11, $68.25, and $72.38 respectively, this calculation being based on minimum hours. The difference is significant.
On average, flight attendants at Delta are currently paid $5,400 per annum more than their peers at United and American. What’s more, Delta’s flight attendants have had their wages raised in the past 18 months, first in May 2022 and a further 5% increase in April 2023; United and American flight attendants threaten strikes through union action in order to achieve a similar pay rise. Flight attendants at all major US airlines are unionized with the exception of Delta’s flight attendants.
In contrast to the flight attendant unions’ apparent lack of success, pilots of major US airlines have seen the opposite. In August, American approved of giving over 15,000 pilots a 21% raise, totalling 46% over the course of a four year contract. United recently followed suit, agreeing a 40% increase for 16,000 pilots over a four year contract on September 29.
Delta previously paved the way in March 2023, with a 34% increase in pilots pay coupled with an announced company-wide 5% pay rise in two years. Furthermore, Delta flight attendant salaries have increased pay by 10% since 2021.
Sara Nelson, president of the AFA-CWA and representative of United flight attendants (amongst other airlines), has since commented that “much like the auto workers are saying, ‘these executives got a 40% increase, we’re not asking for anything different,’ the same thing is happening at the airlines.” Flight attendants at major airlines are after similar treatment to their pilots.
For these unions to succeed, however, the battle may be hard-fought and even harder won. Strike action “puts uncertainty where it shouldn’t be and where it can be removed,” observes Capt. Dennis Tajer, spokesperson for the Allied Pilots Association (APA), representing American Airline pilots; yet, uncertainty looms over the likelihood of resolution.
Despite strike authorization votes, under the Railway Labor Act 1993, unions cannot effectively strike until the board decides that talks have reached an impasse and release both parties into a 30-day cooling-off period. APFA’s authorization was only signed in late August and it seems possible strikes could still happen well into October.
All the while, United and American face other pressing issues on different fronts. Senator Dick Durbin, the Senate's second highest ranking Democrat, on October 5 questioned the CEOs of United and American on their increase in passenger complaints and higher ticket prices. He asked both airlines how they might be ensuring that “profit is not earned at the expense of a fair, pleasant, and affordable travel experience for consumers?”
It remains to be seen how pressure from flight attendant unions will weigh up against this, whilst flight salaries at United and American continue to stand unamended.