For this article, New Labor Forum’s “Working-Class Voices” columnist Kressent Pottenger interviewed Susannah Carr, a flight attendant at United Airlines. She is a member of the Association of Flight Attendants-Communication Workers of America and United MEC Communication Committee Vice-Chairperson.
I became a flight attendant for United Airlines, and a member of the Association of Flight Attendants-Communication Workers of America seven years ago. To become a flight attendant, you must complete five and a half weeks of unpaid training. My training took place in Dallas, Texas. As part of our training, there was always an expectation that we would be warm and friendly. We were taught how to maintain this attitude because traveling, even without a pandemic, can be a very stressful experience. You run late to the airport; the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) check-in lines are long; you go to the wrong gate; or there is a mechanical issue on a plane. It can be very frustrating. Even pre-pandemic, we had passengers in a bad mood or combative. So, we have always been taught de-escalation techniques: to be empathetic; hear what the customer is saying; try and find a resolution. Pre-pandemic, it was potentially offering air miles or a free snack to try and quell any anxieties or annoyances passengers might bring with them from earlier in their day. For the most part, I found that just listening to a customer’s complaint, giving a genuine apology if the problem was caused by us, and working to find a solution or just allowing people to feel heard did the trick.
My first flight as a flight attendant was to Amsterdam, in 2015, with fifteen of my fellow trainees. Now I am a reserve international purser. An international purser is a flight attendant who works the lead position on the aircraft. They fly international routes, working in business or first class. They are the point person for pilots and have more responsibilities than a domestic purser as they coordinate a larger crew and a more elaborate service. Reserve personnel are there to support the operation if there is “weather,” somebody calls in sick, the company needs to add an additional route, or change to an aircraft that requires more flight attendants to meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s minimum. We know the months and days we should be available to work but not necessarily what trips we are covering. We are guaranteed a certain amount of hours during a month, whether the company flies us or not. Line holder flight attendants, on the other hand, have a set schedule with two days off a week. They can pick trips up if they would like to add more to their schedule; give trips away; or trade them. Reserve flight attendants have a little less flexibility. (When workers are hired, they are aware of the existing system for schedules, trades, and other details of flight arrangements. So this difference in flexibility is not perceived as an inequity.) The longer we are with a company, the higher our compensation and the better schedules we have.
Being a flight attendant, it is almost like having your own travel agent for work. Your airline books your hotels, transportation while you are away, and then you earn per diem, based on whether you are doing international or domestic flying. Essentially, your food is covered. Our union contract includes standards for these accommodations. We have committees within our union that advocate on behalf of the workers and handle hotel procurement and transportation. This ensures that the hotels we are staying at meet the requirements in our contracts: they are in safe locations, have food availability, smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, security—all of those things to make sure we have safe and comfortable accommodations and transportation.
Every flight attendant has a different position on the aircraft. Each position correlates to different equipment.
On a typical day, I check my company computer system to find out if I have a flight scheduled. If I do, the system will tell me the destination, who my crew is, and my check-in time. Because of the pandemic, I would check to see if there are any testing requirements for crew members. On the day of the flight, I get to the airport an hour before my check-in time. Flight crews must clear security and then head to our “domicile.” This is a hub, like an airline office area, for flight attendants. We can do paperwork; take a break between flights; and supervisors are there if we need help. There are backup uniforms if you need to change, and computers so we can get work done. I print out all the necessary paperwork: the crew list, the airplane briefing sheets that show where everybody is working on the airplane, meal order sheets, and any additional health forms needed at the destination. Then I head up to my gate, board my flight, scan in, get my bags situated, and meet with my crew for a briefing. The briefing is basically a moment where everybody gets to lay eyes on everybody else. We talk about who the pilots are going to be for that day, if we have any passengers that might need assistance: perhaps someone in a wheelchair, or someone with an infant who has requested a bassinet, or any unaccompanied minors that will be traveling with us. We do a quick review of any service changes on board the airplane. Once we are done with the briefing, we complete our safety checks. Every flight attendant has a different position on the aircraft. Each position correlates to different equipment. Flight attendants have lots of little checks they do before closing the door for takeoff: oxygen bottles, fire extinguishers, seatbelt extensions, life vests. If any equipment is damaged or expired, we can get that replaced before we take off. As the purser, I touch base with the pilots to find out anything they need to tell us about the flight. I make sure we know when they need to eat so we can have everything setup. We start boarding not long after that.
During boarding on some aircraft, the purser is up in business class, so we are only boarding from one door on that aircraft. During that time, we are greeting all the passengers and offering a pre-departure beverage to business-class passengers. For safety reasons related to Covid-19, the union has been pushing back on alcohol service. We want to make sure people are in masks as much as possible. When you have passengers boarding a flight and they see people with their masks off, having a welcome beverage, it sort of defeats the whole “we need you to wear a mask” message.
For safety reasons related to Covid-19, the union has been pushing back on alcohol service. We want to make sure people are in masks as much as possible.
Flight attendants are paid their hourly rate while the aircraft is in operation. Think door closure to door open. They also receive per diem from the moment the trip starts until they return home. Some flight attendants want to be in the air, working as much of their time away, to earn more money. Others, like me, really revel in a nice layover. I enjoy it as more of a company-paid vacation. With a variety of fights scheduled, we can trade trips with each other and with the company or we can give trips away to other people. The longer you have been a flight attendant, the more choice in flying you have and the more money you make.
I fly for fun as well as for a paycheck. As an international purser, I fly more of our international destinations than domestic, so I tend to get longer layovers, where I get to enjoy a location for at least twenty-four hours. These trips are longer because there are regulations—both federal and union—that mean I cannot just turn right around and come home. The Federal Aviation Administration requires flight attendants to have a certain number of hours of rest between trips and regulates the number of hours you can be on duty—as does the union. Let’s say a flight attendant arrives home from a trip after delays. It is now 1:00 a.m., and they are scheduled for their next trip starting at 5:00 a.m. that same day. They would not be legal to work that 5:00 a.m. flight because they would not have enough rest time between flights.
Flight attendants are a female-dominated labor force, so maternity leave is something we are working very hard on, pushing for more benefits in that area. The same for Family Medical Leave.
A reserve flight attendant starts out working weekends, then moves up to having weekends off. Then you move up to being a line-holder. You get a schedule, but it is not a very nice schedule at first—not beautiful trips with long layovers. The more senior you get is when you hold the long Hawaii layovers. Seniority within our industry may seem a little complicated, but it is such an incredible career because of the flexibility that we have negotiated in our contracts over the years. One of the greatest benefits of our career is the ability to work the type of flying you enjoy and, to some extent, the ability to earn more money by selecting trips that meet your financial needs. We have flight attendants who have been working for thirty years who are still amazing in their careers and are having a great time doing this job.
With regard to salary, I can open my union contract, and see what a first-year flight attendant is making all the way up to the salary cap, which—for my airline—comes at thirteen years. For us, the first to thirteenth year range is $28.88 an hour to $67.11 an hour. The union has worked hard to find strong benefits packages, too. We have full comprehensive medical care: dental, vision, mental health, all of it, which, especially in a pandemic, is a big relief to have. As far as other benefits, everyone has the same amount of accrued and compensated sick leave they can take throughout the year. You have a sick leave bank and can see how much you have accrued. Women who are planning to take maternity leave can utilize their sick bank time while they are on maternity leave, to pay out so many hours a month. In addition, you can take up to one year of unpaid leave. Flight attendants are a female-dominated labor force, so maternity leave is something we are working very hard on, pushing for more benefits in that area. The same for Family Medical leave. Our work schedules make it hard to determine family medical leave. If you look at my schedule, it looks like I only worked seventy hours in a month, which does not qualify for Family Medical leave. But that was seventy flight hours. That does not include all the time I was away from home. If you add all that up, I work a normal schedule like anyone in an office. We worked very hard to finally pass Family Medical leave for flight attendants, which we did in 2009.
We have a wide range of flight attendants: men, women, gender non-binary. We have all different body types and age groups . . . [W]e have partnered with the company to address that. Upcoming uniforms . . . provide a non-binary option and the ability to choose the male, female, or non-binary option.
Back in the day, there was an advertisement in which flight attendants promoted the industry with the line: “Fly me—I’m Cathy” or “Fly me—I’m Betty.” So deeply inappropriate. I think my favorite bad nickname for flight attendants was “trolly dollies.” We have come a long way. We are no longer being called “trolly dollies.” We are being recognized for the safety professionals we are—who are there to save you in an emergency. Our current uniforms are definitely far more professional than sexist, thank goodness. Though we wear a standard company uniform, we have some autonomy. We can choose between suiting-quality pants or skirts with blazers, and vests. We have a wide range of flight attendants: men, women, gender non-binary. We have all different body types and age groups. Over the years, we have partnered with the company to address that. Upcoming uniforms, placed on hold because of the pandemic, provide a non-binary option and the ability to choose the male, female, or nonbinary option. We also have uniform safety standards worked into our contract. We must have flame retardant, non-allergen options for our flight attendants. Fabric cannot be treated with any frightening chemicals like PFOAs [perfluorooctanoic acids] or chromium. There have been cases where flight attendants have had reactions to their uniforms like rashes and headaches. There has to be transparency, so we know what we are wearing.
When it comes to the look, the company definitely gets to pick. But, when it comes to the safety elements, the union has a say—if it is a wrap dress is it going to get caught; can a flight attendant get out of a jump seat quickly; does the outfit have a buckle that can get caught on something when evacuating a plane. Is that buckle going to beep, going through a metal detector? We work together to find solutions and ensure that the uniform is safe. We still wear heels in the concourse. It is a very beautiful “Mad Men” moment for me, getting to wear my heels in the concourse. Until I walk a mile in the Frankfurt airport because I went the wrong way. Then I am deeply regretting my choice of shoes. But we do have reasonable accommodations for flight attendants who need a different type of shoe, working in the concourse. We have all shuffled uniforms back and forth amongst ourselves, including on Facebook where we swap uniform pieces because we have put on the “Covid ten” or lost the “Thanksgiving ten.” If you look in most veteran flight attendants’ closets, they have the skinny uniform, the average uniform, the “I’ve been flying for a little too long and had too many fun layovers” uniform.
When the pandemic began, I was in purser-training. United Airlines was ramping up for an incredible summer. We had so much flying planned. They were getting ready to do a ton of hiring. I was actually in our corporate headquarters at Willis tower in Chicago when everything came to a head. The whole flight schedule for the next few days was pulled down. My entire personal flight schedule was canceled. They were not reassigning me to anything, which is unheard of. One of my last “normal” trips, even though it was far from normal, was to Zurich. It was a light flight going over—just three-quarters full. The pandemic was raging, and there was no mask mandate for passengers yet. It was not even something that was being promoted. Flight attendants wore gloves, N95 masks, and used hand sanitizer in the aisles. This was the very early N95 days, when we all felt like we could not breathe in them because we were not used to them.
We got into Zurich, which is usually a bustling airport. It was a ghost town. Everything was shuttered. We drove to our hotel, and no one was out front. We were the only crew at the hotel, which literally closed when our crew left. You could not really go out. On the next day’s flight, the crew that brought the plane out went straight back on that same plane. We spaced out the passengers in the cabin.
We had a passenger who was traveling with a small child that was definitely feverish. This is when we had to report anything that even looked like Covid-19 to the captain. Of course, everyone was terrified. No flight attendant said anything, but passengers were calling us: “That kid looks sick. Is it Covid-19?” We were professional: made sure the child was ok; kept our captain in the loop; made sure the flight deck was aware of what was going on. But there were all these questions: Am I bringing this home with me? Was it on our shoes or bags? Our uniform? Do we need to sleep in the guest bedroom at home between trips? In the early days of the pandemic, we got pushback for wearing masks from the airline companies. Thankfully, the Centers for Disease Control—and our union—took the position that masking is necessary to keep people safe on planes—that pushed it forward. I have to give full credit to our union’s Safety, Health, and Security committee who pushed the airline to get masks and wipes when nobody else could. There was no feeling safe at work at that point. Even right now, it is still uncomfortable being around so many people on a plane. I personally have dealt with mask compliance issues that have resulted in the removal of a passenger. But thankfully, most people are wearing their masks responsibly. Airlines are bringing back these elaborate services, like alcohol, causing people to take off their masks more frequently and raising concerns: Is wearing our masks as much as possible still important? Is keeping up high cleaning standards important? Is quarantining after we come up with a positive case important? Our union has worked hard with the company to make sure that we have the ability to stay home when we are sick. A big part of combating this pandemic is going to be mitigating the spread as much as humanly possible. Flight attendants not coming to work sick is going to play a crucial role in that. It is also going to keep our airline going.
Workers were furloughed early on in my airline. People had a few options to take different retirement packages. When the numbers first came out for furlough at United, it was around eleven thousand flight attendants, not including catering workers or pilots. That’s a lot of people losing their jobs and health insurance, which is even more frightening in a global pandemic. Thankfully, our union was able to work with the company to get those numbers down. This meant you might not get paid, but you kept your travel privileges and health insurance for the duration of that furlough. Unfortunately, more junior flight attendants were subject to what is called involuntary furloughs—that is, layoffs. I put in for voluntary furlough. I felt I could find another job temporarily that paid my bills, but maybe not with health insurance. We do have furlough protection in our union contract that prevents the airline from hiring new flight attendants while workers are on furlough. It also provides recall rights and protects your health insurance for several months after you are furloughed. Finally, we have compensation that is tied to years of service. All of those things have been negotiated by our union over the years to make sure flight attendants are protected when things are going well, and when things go horribly wrong.
Looking ahead, our union has really been championing the removal of alcohol on flights. I believe firmly that taking alcohol out of the equation could help in reducing mask-related incidents. If there are tensions on the aircraft or in the airport, alcohol can certainly be a catalyst. At many of the airport bars, you can have alcoholic beverages delivered while you are sitting next to your gate. There is not a great system for monitoring alcohol intake pre-flight. When it comes to the mask mandate, every airline has protocols in place. If a passenger on the ground is refusing to wear the mask, generally the response is that they will not be flying on that particular flight or on that day. If the situation escalates, they could be banned from flying on that airline altogether. At this point, with the assaults we have seen on airline personnel, the time has come for a no-fly list across this country. The Association for Flight Attendants supports a no-fly list. It does not matter if you were disruptive or assaultive on Southwest or American, or Delta or United. If you assault someone doing their job—following the laws and the protocols of their company—you should not be flying. It is not safe for us or our passengers. Likewise, those who assault people who are working—whether they are flight attendants, gate agents, or baggage handlers—should be criminally prosecuted. If we are getting hurt at work, we need the Department of Justice to step up and make sure that prosecution is taking place.
The Association for Flight Attendants supports a no-fly list. It does not matter if you were disruptive or assaultive on Southwest or American, or Delta or United. If you assault someone doing their job, . . . you should not be flying.
To the traveling public, we are tired of masks, too. We look forward to the day that is safe for us to be at work without them and for passengers to travel without them. That is not today. Wear the mask over your nose and mouth properly. When there are delays, we are delayed, too. We are not getting home to our families. Come on the plane with that sense of patience and humility for the people around you. We know traveling is a stressful experience. Right now, this is about safety. It is about wearing that mask for the people around you just as much as for yourself.
Kressent Pottenger holds an MA in Labor Studies from the Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY, and was
awarded the SEIU 925 Research Fellowship by Wayne State University in 2012. She is currently working on a research project about 925 and women
organizing in the workplace.