Travel: Flight Attendants, Pilots Could Have It Rough

Amy Forester works as a flight attendant for a firm that hires her and her fellowship out to multiple commuter airlines.

That’s not her real name, but it’s close. She asks me to withhold all of the details because she likes her job and is just earning a bit of seniority. She’s on a connecting flight between Austin and SFO. While she woke up in a Texas motel a 10 minute shuttle ride to the airport, she’ll sleep tonight in a multi-bunk apartment in South San Francisco – sacked out in a bed shared with countless other flight attendants on a rotating basis.

Uptight and Locked Position: That’s the less glamorous side of life an airline employee — a gypsy life marked by occasional flophouse residency, long hours and unpaid time on the job.

When not on duty serving drinks and looking after grownup babies 35,000 feet in the sky, Forester has to be up before the sunrise and ready to meet the rest of her assigned flight service team for transportation to the airpot. Unfortunately, many entry level pirates working their way up to service on the big carriers are paid hourly only once they’re on board. Those paid minutes start once Amy’s high heels hit the plane.

“Actually getting to work can be a relief sometimes,” Forester said.

Related: Travel: Do Big Time Resorts Feel Pinch?

Your Captain Makes Less than You: The grind takes it to more than just the flight crew. Pilots of all ages have to endure similar ordeals, depending on their seniority and position with an airline’s hierarchy. In fact, if most passengers realized how little the pilot at the controls was being paid (especially on commuter flights) they might start looking for a parachute.

Pilot Todd Simoneau flew a career path typical for many pilots. He trained at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University before serving as a pilot with seven different airlines. Along the way, he was laid off by AA in 2003 and went to work for North American Airlines. After a year there, he moved to American Eagle before he was finally recalled to AA six years later.

“It also costs pilots thousands of dollars to gain the education they need,” Roghair said. “New pilots can come into the industry in significant debt. When you consider the wages they’ll make if they enter the industry, and the hours they’ll send in bunk houses and motels, more would-be pilots are simply choosing another path.”


Flight Costs Rise: “Unless they come from a wealthy family, the main problem every new pilot has is debt,” Simoneau said. “The First Officers I flew with at American Eagle came there with over $200,000 in debt for a job that pays $22,914 per year to start. It took me about 10 years to pay my own debt back.”

“If anything the situation for new pilots is much worse.  More debt, higher number of hours required to get a job.  Fewer jobs to build those hours. Lower wages. You’ll find pilots making less than $20 per hour on some flights.”

As Simoneau put it: “The airlines are the only industry that passes along the costs of doing business to the employees, instead of the consumer.”

Of course, once they acquire enough seniority, both pilots and flight attendants pull down decent coin. But, they have to love the job with a passion to get there, literally and financially.