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With some flight attendants on welfare, Alaska Airlines faces contract fight

By Dominic Gates, The Seattle Times
Published: December 26, 2023, 7:27am

You wouldn’t know it to look at them. Junior Alaska Airlines flight attendants say they are barely getting by on poverty level wages, many of them building up debt and scrambling to make rent.

Yes, they look sleekly professional on the job. But some with children qualify for food stamps and housing assistance. Some who live in cities far from their airline base resort to sleeping in their cars in crew parking lots the night before a flight, unable to pay for a hotel.

Flight attendants Rebecca Owens, 34, and Thresia Raynor, 54, both based in Anchorage, set up a private Facebook page in September for “Alaska Airlines FAs experiencing hunger and homelessness.” It’s filled with tales of financial distress, offers to Venmo help and tips on where to get free food in the cities to which the airline flies.

“When you go to work, you see all these bright shining faces. We’re known for that, right?” Owens said. “You don’t see the difficulty that people are facing. Oftentimes it’s actually hidden because people feel so ashamed.”

“We needed somewhere that people can finally talk about it so that nobody is struggling alone anymore,” she said.

That was the backdrop to the picket earlier this week by about 1,000 off-duty Alaska Airlines flight attendants outside airports at Alaska hubs across the country, including Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

That came two months after flight attendants’ union negotiators rejected a company proposal that Alaska’s Chief Financial Officer Shane Tackett calls “the single largest offer we’ve ever made to settle a flight attendant contract.”

The Association of Flight Attendants union representing 6,900 employees at Alaska has been negotiating with management for a year. In October the company offered a 15% wage increase, with 2% hikes each year over four years.

The union said that taking the 20% inflation since 2019 into account, even with the couple of incremental raises since then, the offer was equivalent to just a 1% raise above pre-pandemic levels.

The pressure from high inflation since COVID-19 battered the economy has caused a crisis among low-wage earners. Flight attendants who had been just getting by now find the job unsustainable.

“We recognize our flight attendants need increased wages,” Tackett said in an interview. “We continue to come to the bargaining table in good faith to reach a contract that ensures our flight attendants are paid competitively, so that each of them has the opportunity to provide for themselves and their loved ones.”

Mediation discussions will resume next month. Last Tuesday, the AFA announced it will hold a strike vote early in the new year, though any actual strike can only happen after a multistep process and remains a long way off.

Over two decades of recurrent industry downturns, first following the 9/11 attacks, then the global financial crisis and most recently the COVID pandemic, airline unions granted concessions to management.

As has been the case with labor groups across the country, flight attendants feel the time is now to win back lost ground.

Flight attendants at American, Southwest and United Airlines are likewise deep in tense contract bargains. In August, the American flight attendants union voted to authorize a strike and the Southwest attendants union on Thursday also decided to hold a strike vote.

With the U.S. airlines all competing on pay while striving to keep costs down, whoever goes first may set the standard for all.

Sara Nelson, AFA international president, said the lack of a living wage for new flight attendants represents “the last vestiges of the sexism in the industry” from the early days of aviation when “flight stewardesses” were not expected to be independent breadwinners.

Nelson called for a restoration of America’s “social compact,” the American dream that if you work full time you can expect a living wage, a secure retirement, health care and time off to spend with family.

“Jobs across our economy are in crisis right now,” she said. And with labor power resurgent, from the autoworkers to the Hollywood writers, “there’s an expectation now across the working class that things are going to get better,” Nelson said in an interview.

Alaska, she said, is “going to need to go significantly higher to make this work.”

Arcane pay structure

Through Owens, Raynor and another person — not through the union — The Seattle Times interviewed seven Alaska Airlines flight attendants with significant levels of financial stress. All asked not to be identified for fear of losing their jobs.

Owens and Raynor, neither of whom is living on the edge financially, asked to be named in this story to stand up on behalf of others more vulnerable.

Raynor’s husband is a 30-year air traffic controller, without whom, she said, “I would have never been able to hang on and keep my job long enough to earn a living wage.”

And Owens, who has been at Alaska only 18 months after years as a paramedic on medevac helicopters and ambulances, likewise said her pilot husband’s income is “why I have a home and a vehicle and food on my table. Alaska does not pay for that.”

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“This story needs to be told,” Owens said. “If you go on TikTok and follow flight attendants, a lot of times it’s really glamorized. But unless you come from means you cannot have this job. And that is wrong on absolutely every level.”

Flight attendant pay at Alaska is calculated through an arcane formula. They are paid not by the hour but by distance flown.

The current entry level pay rate is $24.95 per flight segment, with a one-day trip counted as a minimum of five segments and longer flights at eight.

What Alaska Airlines crews call a “milk run” in the state of Alaska — for example, Flight 66, Anchorage to Seattle with stops along the way at Cordova, Yakutat and Juneau — counts as 5.1 flight segments and is scheduled to take nine hours.

For that, a new flight attendant will be paid just $127 gross. That’s $14.14 per hour. And if the trip ends up taking an extra 90 minutes, which happens easily on these multileg journeys especially in winter, the rate would be $12.12 per hour. Extra pay only kicks in when the delay is more than two hours.

“That’s not even minimum wage,” said Raynor.

The minimum wage in Washington state is currently $15.74 per hour, rising to $16.28 next month. However, because they are covered by a union contract, the flight attendants are exempt from the minimum wage law.

Alaska spokesperson Alexa Rudin in response to this example said the complexities of the contract and pay structure mean that flight attendants can receive additional compensation.

She said they will get extra pay for operational events, such as ground delays of more than two hours or being stranded, and can also earn more by bidding for positions on a flight with additional responsibilities, such as serving the first class passengers.

A new flight attendant at Alaska will have guaranteed flying time for the month of about 90 flight segments, which essentially means flying for 18 days in the month, with 12 days off. For that, the current pay rates mean their base pay will be about $2,200 gross, or just less than $2,000 a month after taxes and deductions, a figure verified through pay stubs reviewed by The Seattle Times.

By working extra days, and being away from home most of the month, that can be bumped up to about $2,500 take home.

Once a flight attendant has been in the job for more than 10 years, the situation improves dramatically. The pay rate at the top of the scale, 16 years into the career, is $59.42 per flight segment, 2.4 times the starting rate.

In addition, more senior flight attendants get first dibs on longer routes that pay more for a given time commitment.

A trip from Anchorage with a 24-hour layover in Honolulu, spanning three days and counting as 16 flight segments, would earn Raynor nearly $1,000 gross while a new attendant on the same flight would get less than $400.

And a new flight attendant would likely only get such a choice flight by being on call when an assigned attendant is out sick.

Enduring financial distress

After six weeks of training that is unpaid, new flight attendants start out “on reserve” initially, meaning they must be on call and available to fly for a certain number of days.

One new flight attendant who commuted to work by air, as many do, slept in a car at the airline base while on reserve waiting for a call up. Unable to afford a hotel, the flight attendant used a gym to shower and freshen up for the job.

The flight attendant recalled one particularly miserable month when no call came for the entire reserve period, which meant five nights straight sleeping in the crew parking lot.

Another said that when she first showed up from a job at a different airline at her new Alaska base and asked her supervisor for housing suggestions, she was stunned at the response that she should sleep in her car as others did. She didn’t have a car in that city.

Instead she took a too-expensive Motel 6 room, then couch-surfed, cadged a shared hotel room with a colleague and slept some nights in the airport — which isn’t allowed, she said, but “I chanced it.”

Another new flight attendant in her mid-20s is a single mom with a toddler who stays with her sister’s family. When she works, she must pay for day care while her sister is at work. Overwhelmed with debt, she said she recently wept on the phone with a credit card customer service rep.

She says junior flight attendants must hide such hardship behind a “mask” while on flights.

“You have to shove everything away. You know it’s not the passengers’ fault,” she said. “A lot of us look put together. We’re in debt and using the money to look put together.”

Another single mom with three small kids said half her paycheck goes directly to child care. She said she lives on a shoestring, with food stamps and state assistance, works part time for Instacart, and buys only the necessities for her children.

Another late 40s divorced flight attendant has a toddler and works an office job on the side every day she isn’t flying. She considers herself fortunate because her dad left her a small inheritance that allowed her to buy her home. “The rest of the savings, I dip into every month,” she said.

Every one of the flight attendants interviewed said they love the job, and want to hang on and try to make it work financially.

If they just can keep going until they have the seniority to get better pay and choose the best flight routes, they see it as a lifestyle offering freedom and flexibility.

All are hoping for a big boost in this pending contract.

Alaska CFO Tackett said, “Our flight attendants do a phenomenal job serving customers. I think they’re the best in the industry.”

“We recognize we’re going to have to increase that [October] offer to get this done,” he said, adding that one focus in the talks is to “increase the rates of pay for folks at the lower end.”

But he cautioned that the cost of the contract cannot be so high as to damage the business.

“We do have to ensure that we can remain competitive … and continue to offer value to [passengers] and to have a company that can be here for an entire career,” he said.

Tackett said Alaska anticipates total additional costs when all its labor contracts are settled will be $400 million more than in 2019, 40% of the airline’s profit that year.

After the COVID downturn, the major U.S. airlines settled first with their pilots, granting big contracts amid a pilot shortage.

Last year, Alaska gave its captains initial pay increases of between 15% and 23% and then bumped that up another 11.2% this year to match bigger increases at rival airlines.

Union leverage

The last time Alaska Airlines flight attendants struck was 30 years ago, when they introduced a novel and highly successful tactic designed to make it difficult for the airline to replace strikers.

Dubbed CHAOS, or “Create Havoc Around Our System,” the concept was to call limited and intermittent lightning strikes on individual flights. The first one in August 1993 started when the cabin crew on one flight declared a strike and walked out just as passengers were about to board.

The union won a big contract victory that year. Nelson said the AFA is primed to use the tactic again.

However, under the Railway Labor Act that governs airline employees, there is a long process to get to that stage.

First a National Labor Relations Board mediator in the contract talks would have to declare an impasse. The NLRB would then offer binding arbitration.

If either party rejects that option, the NLRB can “release” the parties from mediation and impose a 30-day “cooling-off period.” The NLRB this month declined to release the American Airlines flight attendants union, insisting on continued mediation.

At the end of the 30-day cooling-off period, the White House can set up an emergency board to recommend a settlement. Only if that fails, after a further 30 days, would the union finally be free to strike.

Still, the AFA has another card to play besides striking. Many flight attendants point to Alaska’s offer to pay $1.9 billion to acquire Hawaiian Airlines as evidence that it has enough money to grant a generous contract.

The union will meet at the end of January to decide whether to support or oppose the company’s planned acquisition.

“We will not support the merger if there is not clear benefit for the flight attendants,” said Nelson. “And the bare minimum of that is a fair contract at Alaska.”

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