A flight attendant’s work, according to Joslynn Wiese, begins long before the an airplane leaves the tarmac. “You have to think about the trip you’re going on,” Wiese, who works for Denver-based Frontier Airlines, told New York last week. “If you’re doing a three- or four-day trip, you’re packing. You’ve got to think about all the food, so you’re meal prepping.” She usually takes half a day to get ready for a trip, she said, and when it’s time to fly, she arrives an hour before her scheduled check-in to get ready for the work ahead of her. She isn’t paid for that preparation time, which is normal for the industry. Flight attendants are generally paid for flight hours, and the clock starts as soon as the airplane door shuts.
That industry practice means that a flight attendant’s hourly wage is all-important to their ability to pay rent. But Wiese’s employer, Frontier, pays among the lowest wages in the industry, and she and her colleagues say they often can’t afford to make ends meet. They want a raise, and soon. Their union, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, has been in contract negotiations with Frontier since 2016, and in November 2018, 99 percent of the union’s members voted to authorize a strike if those negotiations stall. Though the National Mediation Board is guiding talks, AFA-CWA’s patience appears to be running thin. The union’s international president, Sara Nelson, wrote to Frontier members on March 6 to tell them that the union would demonstrate in Denver if a new contract isn’t reached by March 20.
It’s a major test for the union, which made national headlines earlier this year after Nelson called for a general strike to end the government shutdown. For Frontier flight attendants themselves, the stakes are also high. Their work requires a high degree of vigilance, and they say their poor compensation adds to their stress. “Over 15 years, we’ve taken two pay cuts and we’ve had three different owners,” Wiese said. “We just haven’t been compensated.”
As Wiese’s comments indicate, Frontier has a tumultuous past. Its current contract with flight attendants dates from 2011, not long after it filed for bankruptcy and was acquired by Republic Airlines. Frontier then changed hands a second time. Indigo Partners, a Phoenix, Arizona–based private equity firm, purchased the airline in 2013. Amid this turnover, the airline’s working conditions produced other, high-profile complaints. In 2016, four Frontier pilots filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that the airline had failed to provide them a private area to pump breast milk, as required by Colorado state law. A year later, two flight attendants sued the airline, claiming that they had been required to take unpaid leave in order to breastfeed, the Washington Post reported.
This time, wages are driving unrest. Unionized flight attendants say their low wages reflect Frontier’s former state of precarity, and that the airline could now afford to pay them a higher rate if it chose. In fact, Frontier’s wages are low even when compared to other low-cost competitors, like Spirit Airlines. Flight attendants who have worked for Frontier a year or less only make a base rate of $19.25 per flight hour. Newcomers on reserve, which is the industry’s equivalent to being on call, are only guaranteed to be paid for 75 flight hours a month. Pay increases the longer a flight attendant works for Frontier, but veterans say it’s still difficult to make ends meet. Wiese has worked for Frontier for 15 years, and only makes $37 per flight hour. If she worked for Spirit, she’d be making at least $45.94. The most senior flight attendants at Frontier make a yearly base salary of $33,489; at Spirit, it’s $43,380.
To support themselves, some Frontier flight attendants work overtime to be able to pay their bills. Flight attendant schedules don’t correlate to a typical 40-hour work week; anywhere from 80 to 85 hours on a plane per month is considered a full-time schedule for workers in this industry. Wiese says that before she got married, she “always” worked at least 100 flight hours a month. That is about average for members of her local, she estimated. Other flight attendants work even more. Michael Rice, who has worked for Frontier for five years and heads the union’s Trenton-Philadelphia local, told New York that he usually works at least 120 flight hours per month, a schedule that only gives him six days a month at home. He lives with his sister, an arrangement that helps him makes ends meet, but he says it’s harder for others, especially first-year staff. “With our current starting pay, it’s not sustainable,” he explained. “Some people can apply for food stamps, but they can’t pay their regular bills. They are deciding, do I pay a bill this month or do I disregard that bill and buy groceries?”
Economic precarity inflicts well-known psychological burdens. For Frontier flight attendants, those burdens pose unique risks: They pride themselves on being the first responders of the air. Flight attendants are responsible for identifying safety threats onboard their flights. When the worst happens — a crash, a safety failure, an attack — flight attendants are also tasked with getting passengers to safety, even though they too are in harm’s way. Twenty-five flight attendants died on September 11, 2001. “You do have to be alert,” Wiese said. “You have to make sure all of your safety equipment is checked and you have to be vigilant about every passenger that walks on the plane.” Sometimes passengers are sick and need emergency care; on other occasions, they’re belligerent. Flight attendants have to manage both situations. “It’s a very emotional job. People are stressed out when they get on the plane,” Weise added.
“We’re safety professionals. We go through training to do what we need to do,” Rice echoed. “When we’re on our layovers and we’re in different cities, we’re kind of budgeting our whole lives. And we’re worrying so much at home that sometimes, you know, our minds are not as clear when they need to be.” For flight attendants, stress is also a safety concern, which adds some urgency to the union’s negotiations with Frontier.
Weise said she felt “optimistic” that the union will reach an agreement with Frontier, and in a statement emailed to New York on Friday, the airline itself said it remained committed to talks. “We are engaged in negotiations with our flight attendants for a new contract and continue to exchange proposals under the guidance of the National Mediation Board. We look forward to working toward an agreement that is fair and sustainable,” said Jonathan Freed, a spokesman for Frontier. On Tuesday, however, the union and the airline remained at the bargaining table, and Wednesday’s demonstration is imminent. An AFA spokesperson said that over 200 flight attendants from Frontier and other airlines are expected in Denver tomorrow.