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Pilots got their payday. Now flights attendants are pushing airlines for higher wages

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – JANUARY 24: American Airlines workers picket at O’Hare International Airport on January 24, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. The workers, mostly flight attendants with the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), were picketing to demand better working conditions as their contract negotiations continue. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Scott Olson | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Airline pilots won pay raises worth billions of dollars in new labor deals last year. Flight attendants are now pushing for similar improvements.

Flight attendants from United Airlines, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines and others picketed Tuesday at dozens of airports around the U.S., demanding higher wages and better quality of life.

“We have been in a period of austerity for 20 years, and it’s time the industry paid up,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents cabin crews at United, Spirit, Frontier and others.

The demonstrations mark the first mass pickets jointly held by the labor unions, which represent more than 100,000 flight attendants at U.S. airlines between them. New labor deals would come not just on the heels of pilot contracts, but also pay increases won by auto workers, Hollywood writers and at major companies like UPS.

Flight attendants at most of the largest airlines haven’t received pay increases since before the pandemic, which paused contract talks, while the cost of living rose sharply in recent years.

American and other carriers told CNBC they are optimistic that they will reach agreements with their flight attendants in the coming months.

Labor costs and fuel account for airlines’ two largest expenses.

Stagnant pay

Flight attendants make an average of about $67,000 a year, according to the Labor Department, though pay can range from around $38,000 at the bottom 10th percentile to about $97,000 at the top.

Inflation has been “the most difficult for our new hires,” said Julie Hedrick, national president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents about 27,000 flight attendants at American. “We want [American] to come to the table and recognize what we’ve done to return this airline to profitability.”

Flight attendants for the most part are paid when the aircraft door is closed. Unions are largely pushing for either ground pay or boarding pay to compensate flight attendants for their work before takeoff.

Delta Air Lines, whose flight attendants aren’t unionized, started paying flight attendants for boarding at half their hourly rate in 2022. (The Association of Flight Attendants started a new union drive there before the pandemic.)

Alaska Airlines flight attendants gather at a picket line protesting for landmark changes in their new contracts, currently under negotiation, at San Francisco International Airport, in San Francisco, California, U.S. December 19, 2023.

Carlos Barria | Reuters

Strike threat

During the pandemic, after most travel resumed, cabin crew members faced increased job stress from packed planes, reduced staffing, overloaded schedules and at times, unruly travelers, according to the unions.

“It doesn’t surprise me that they’re unhappy,” said Conor Cunningham, an airline equities analyst at Melius Research. “Remember what happened in the pandemic: They had to be the police of the sky. They got hit with inflation just like all of us and their wages didn’t increase with it.”

Despite the picketing Tuesday, the aviation industry is unlikely to see strikes or work stoppages like those seen in the auto and entertainment industries last year.

Flight attendants’ and other aviation workers’ contracts don’t have expiration dates, and would require federal release to go on strike. Still, several flight attendant unions have approved strike authorizations, and all four carriers are negotiating with their flight attendants’ unions through federal mediation.

Southwest Airlines flight attendants rejected a tentative agreement in a vote earlier this year.

“We reached an industry-leading Tentative Agreement with TWU 556 in October 2023 and are scheduled to meet next week with the union and the National Mediation Board to continue working toward an agreement that benefits our Flight Attendants and Southwest,” the airline said in a statement.

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