The income of flight attendants at commercial airlines may vary significantly from airline to airline. The major airlines (for example, United, Delta, American or US Airways) generally pay more than the low-cost airlines (for example, JetBlue or AirTran). Within airlines, pay is also based on seniority. Junior flight attendants generally start at the bottom of the pay scale and often receive annual pay increases.
At the major airlines, the pay rates range from $17 to $19 per hour for new hires up to $50 an hour for senior flight attendants with 15 or more years of service. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of May 2009, the mean annual wage of a flight attendant was $43,350, with a low of $25,420 and a high of $71,280. The hourly rates are usually determined by collective bargaining agreements that frequently span three to five years.
Flight attendants are usually paid only from the time the aircraft door closes on departure to the time the aircraft door opens upon arrival. Thus, a flight attendant generally logs only about 80 to 100 paid hours per month. Putting in a lot of hours as a flight attendant can be difficult. The Federal Aviation Administration imposes minimum crew rest periods, and flight attendants are required to have at least eight days off per month.
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A newly hired flight attendant is generally put "on reserve." This means the attendant has only a set number of days off per month. During the flight attendant's days "on," he has no control of his schedule and is assigned trips based on the company's need (usually assigned by crew scheduling) and can have as little as two hours to report for an assignment.
A flight attendant on reserve is paid a monthly guarantee, usually 75 or 80 hours. The company can choose to fly the reserve flight attendant as much or as little as needed on his "on" days. If the attendant flies fewer than the guaranteed number of hours, he is still paid the guaranteed amount; otherwise, the attendant is paid for the actual flight hours.
When a flight attendant is no longer on reserve, she is referred to as a line-holder, and is paid for on the number of hours actually flown in a month. Generally, every month a flight attendant bids for a line, and receives a schedule that dictates where and when she must report for work and how much she must fly. Seniority determines the assignments.
Some airlines permit flight attendants to trade their trips with co-workers, sometimes allowing the employee to fly more or less than what was awarded on her line. The contract dictates the minimum time a flight attendant must fly in order to receive benefits or to stay current, and it sometimes dictates the maximum allowed flying time.
Flight attendants also receive daily allowances to cover expenses for their time away from their bases. Generally, the airline will pay per diem at rates ranging from $1.80 per hour to $3 per hour for every hour the flight attendant is away from his primary base. Thus, if a flight attendant is gone from his base for three days, he is paid his per diem rate for 72 hours. He is paid even while on a layover and not on duty. The per diem pay is to cover such items as meals and incidental expenses. Domestic per diem rates may be lower than international rates.
Flight attendants, like other airline employees, receive travel benefits as part of their remuneration. Typically, this means unlimited travel on a standby basis to wherever the airline flies. Paying customers have priority, and unsold seats are awarded to airline employees by seniority. The cost varies from airline to airline and by class of service. For example, an employee could pay from $10 to $30 for a domestic coach ticket. Sometimes an airline will allow an employee to travel for free, even in first class, as a reward.