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Why flight attendants have a lot of time in their day that is unpaid


OK. I got to travel a lot for work. And with all that travel, here's something I didn't realize. When passengers crowd onto airplanes with the help of flight attendants, many attendants are not being paid for their time. Most do not begin receiving an hourly wage until you hear them say, the aircraft doors are now closed. That's a longstanding practice that they would like to change. NPR's Andrea Hsu reports.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: For flight attendants, clocking in and clocking out is not so straightforward.

JULIE HEDRICK: So we have a lot of time in our days that we are unpaid.

HSU: Julie Hedrick is a flight attendant for American and president of the flight attendants union there. That unpaid time, she says, includes all the hours they spend sitting around in airports waiting for their next flight and all the hours spent getting people and their bags on board and in their seats.

HEDRICK: It's our most chaotic and the hardest time in our day, and we can have 4 or 5 boardings per day.

HSU: Flight attendants across airlines say in recent years, things have only gotten worse. Here's Sara Nelson, president of the largest flight attendants union representing workers at United, Alaska and other airlines.

SARA NELSON: Every flight is full. Boarding time is much more hectic. There's fewer flight attendants doing that work.

HSU: Now, the airlines will argue those hours on the ground are, in fact, compensated. Alaska says on its website, contrary to union narratives, we do pay flight attendants for boarding time. I asked Sara Nelson about that. She says in years past, the union fought for and the airlines agreed to guarantees of minimum pay.

NELSON: Very common today would be one hour of flight time for every two hours on duty.

HSU: So a simplified example - if you get to the airport early in the morning for your first flight and finish up your day 12 hours later, you are guaranteed six hours of pay even if you're not in the air for six hours. But, Nelson says...

NELSON: That no longer flies because of the way that the flying has changed.

HSU: Not only are flights more often full. Planes have been configured to pack in more seats. Unruly passengers are on the rise. And since 9/11, flight attendants have served as the last line of defense in aviation security.

NELSON: These are. Significant duties that we have to perform in addition to keeping everybody calm on board.

HSU: Including during emergencies, as we just saw in that Alaska flight when a panel flew off the plane, leaving a gaping hole. Now, there is one major airline that does pay for boarding time. In 2022, Delta began paying its flight attendants at half their hourly rate. Sara Nelson says that's not enough.

NELSON: No, absolutely not.

HSU: Over at American, Julie Hedrick says the union and the airline have agreed on boarding pay similar to Delta's, though they're still pushing on other issues.

HEDRICK: All of us, of course, feel that we should be paid for the minute that we report to work until we go home, but we have to look at the entire package.

HSU: Including wages. Her union is pushing for an immediate 33% raise. American has offered 11%. To draw attention to the broader fight, flight attendants have planned a global picket next month, but don't expect a strike anytime soon. That's because under federal law, it's illegal for airline workers to strike unless they get permission from the federal government. American's flight attendants recently asked for that permission and were denied - a frustration for Hedrick, given the wave of labor actions last year.

HEDRICK: UAW, UPS, Writers Guild, the Actors Guild. And not that they've all gone on strike, but they've pushed it to that point and they've been able to get the contracts that they deserve.

HSU: For now, negotiations continue. The airlines say they have offered flight attendants competitive wages and benefits and look forward to further talks. Andrea Hsu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP AL BRINDLE'S "GAS LINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Hsu is NPR's labor and workplace correspondent.

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