A frequent flier's views on flying and travel

Pins and Unions

Here are some things about flight attendants (FAs), their work rules, their union(s), and the pins that they wear that maybe you don’t know enough about…

The first and most obvious “pin” is the name tag. It varies from airline to airline, but common tradition has it worn over the heart, and for privacy reasons it is usually just a first name. Let’s face it, most of us (passengers) don’t really need to know FA Susan’s last name, just as she doesn’t need to know our last name. For the purposes of the flight, she is Sue, I am Jeff, and that is just fine. If there is a reason to write up an employee recognition note, or a criticism, then a last name might be needed. But for 99% of flights, knowing just the first name is sufficient. And just FYI, I never stare and try to read an FAs name tag. Doubly so when the FA is a she… that kind of staring can get awkward… Just offer a handshake, introduce yourself (first name only), ask for their name, and you will get along just fine that way.

The next piece of uniform kit varies between the airlines, but it is their airline ‘wings’, which in many cases does double duty as their seniority pin. All the airlines do this differently, but if you are flying on an airline you don’t know, one guideline is that each ‘jewel’ on one of these pins represents 5 years of service. So when that FA with 4 small gems on her ‘wings’ is telling you to do something… Do it. Actually, you should just do what the FA tells you to do, always, even if the FA is a brand new hire with her hair still in a bun. You see, obeying crew member instructions is not just nice, it is the law.

But if you ever have a serious problem or issue in flight, the FA you really want to be talking to is the most senior one (the senior mama, or papa). They rule the roost at 37000 ft, and within the ranks of the cabin crew their word is law. Do not fall into the trap of assuming that because you are in Business or First that “your” FA must outrank or be more senior than the FAs working behind you in coach. The opposite is often true. On many flights, the most junior and lowest ranking FAs are assigned to BC and FC. The senior ones might prefer to work coach. Yes, there are exceptions, but on a majority of my long haul flights the FA crew boss was in coach. So to find the boss FA, look for the one with the most decorated seniority pin, unless you are flying on Singapore Airlines. In that case, you just look for the red kebaya (sarong).

Sing girls

The last item you may notice on an FA uniform is something unique to unionized airlines that are based in the USA, and (honestly) not all the crew members who are entitled to wear this pin wear it. It is their Union pin (AFA-CWA or APFA), and it has been my experience that the ones wearing this pin tend to be either the most senior FAs, or the union officers at the various crew bases. Perhaps a crew base needs to be explained?

Large airlines run flights from hundreds of different airports, but almost none of these airports are crew bases, they are just the airports from Anchorage to Xian to Zurich that are served by that airline. Crew bases are a special category of airport, and slightly different than hubs. For example there are 14 hubs in the UAL system (18 at American), but a few select airports (eg: Boston and LA at UAL) are crew bases, even though they are not hubs. The bottom line is that all ~30,000 of the FA’s who work for United and American are assigned to a crew base as “home”. They may, or may not actually live there, but it is their home base for flights and scheduling. And because of Union and seniority rules within a base, the best trips and the best schedules get selected by the most senior FA’s. The lower your seniority, the harder it is to hold a choice route and a really nice assignment. OK, so when you see the Union pin on an FA you can be fairly confident that this is either a senior FA, or a Union officer.

APFA pin

APFA: American Airlines FA Union

And that gets to the real point of this blog about the flight attendants, pins, and their Union(s).


AFA_CWA, United Airlines and about 15 others…

I am generally not a big fan or advocate of Unions, because in many cases I think they are as much of a problem themselves as the ‘problem’ they are trying to fix. Full disclosure: I was a member of the teamsters (AFL-CIO) driving a forklift in a warehouse when I was younger. But that’s not really relevant. Specifically I want to talk about flight attendants, and why in this case I really respect, admire, and support those crew members who are willing to stand up and put their union pin on their uniforms. And I’d like to ask you, no matter your stance on Unions, to consider a few things.

Top of the list… pay. It’s a typical day, you are sitting by the gate waiting for your domestic flight, and up by the podium you see the FAs who will be working your flight. Just like you, they are sitting and waiting for the connecting flight to arrive and for the arriving passengers and crew to get off. But what you don’t know is they are not getting paid right now. Nope. They showed up at the airport about the same time you did, at least an hour before the flight, very likely they had to attend a mandatory crew meeting to discuss the flight, any weather concerns, and the passenger load. But now they are just waiting and sitting by the gate, unpaid. It’s crazy that they don’t get paid for all this time before a flight, even though they had to be checked in at least an hour early.

And now the earlier flight arrives, the passengers and crew exit, and after waiting for as long as it takes for the cleaners to exit the aircraft, the gate agent opens up the door so the flight crew (the pilots) and the cabin crew can head down the jetway to get ready for you and your flight. Before you can get on board the crew have to do their safety checks, wait on the catering service to make sure the galley is stocked with drinks and ice, verify that the bathrooms are working, and everything is good to go. But you know what? They are not being paid for any of this work either. All these pre-flight checks and services by the cabin crew are also unpaid labor.

And now the boarding starts. You stand up, and when your group or section is called, you pick up your carryon bag, maybe a briefcase too, and head down to the plane. There at the door, an FA greets you and says hello, and if you are like 80% of the typical passengers, you just walk past the FA and don’t even say “Hello” back. Down the aisle you go, looking for your seat and a place to put your bags overhead. Of course it’s you and at least 100 others, maybe 200, all trying to do that, and invariably space runs low, some bags don’t fit, and the FA’s have to come down the aisle, reach up and rearrange bags in the overhead trying to help stow those last bags, and maybe even walk back to the front of the plane with some unlucky passenger who has to gate check their bags. And again… all of this is unpaid work for the FAs.


credit Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty/Images

That’s right… The FAs probably reported for duty in the airport before you arrived, went through a preflight crew meeting, conducted the pre-flight checks, and then were working through the entire boarding and overhead bag process, but on your domestic flight they still may not have been paid a dime. All this is considered part of their duty, but it is often unpaid work. Their pay typically does not start until the door closes and the plane is sealed up. And their pay stops as soon as that door opens at the end of the flight. Everything else on a normal domestic flight is unpaid work. Mandatory, required, and unpaid.

Do you begin to get an idea why I support the FA unions?

So jump ahead to the end of the flight. Your flight has landed, you have arrived at the gate, and the exit door opens. Their pay stops. But they have to stay there, and stand there, and wait for every passenger to collect their bags and stream off the plane. There is a good chance they have another flight they have to work, their day may not be done, but odds are they are on a different plane. So once the last passenger from the last row has left the plane, they collect their own bags, and head back into the terminal to go to the next gate. And all this time, from when that exit door opened until the door closes on the next flight is unpaid. Maybe there is a delay, maybe they have to wait in the terminal (like you would) for an hour or two or three during the delay. The rules don’t change; they still don’t get paid while they are waiting.

Next, what about meals? You probably think the airlines provide meals for the FAs. Wrong. Unless it is a very long flight (ie: international), the airlines do not feed the cabin crew. The crew have to either bring their own meals (which is impossible if they spent the previous night in a hotel), or buy airport food. On some flights they might get lucky and the crew can split some left over passenger meals that were not served. But day in and day out, they buy their meals in the airport. Even inexperienced travelers know how expensive food is in an airport, so how would you like it if your job required you to buy over-priced airport food every day? That also explains why every coffee shop in every airport always has FAs standing in line, sometimes it’s the only ‘meal’ they have the time for between their flights.

FA liquid lunch

Now it is the end of the day, and after 3 flights from Texas to Florida to Virginia to Illinois, and having had nothing but a granola bar and airport coffee, it is time to sleep. The airline provides a hotel for the crew, and transportation to/from the airport. But have you ever wondered how much rest the crew are entitled to before they have to start work again? This varies between airlines, based on the contract, but a typical value (USA) is between 8 and 10 hours. 8 hours is the minimum as legislated by the FAA, and is something unions have had to fight to get. But what does that 8-10 hours really mean? That’s another nasty little problem. Those “hours” are measured from when the exit door opened on the last flight of the day, until that same door closes on the first flight the next morning. FAA Rest rules

So from those hours of “rest” you have to allow for the 15-30 minutes as the last passengers got off that last flight. The time walking thru the airport, getting to the pickup, being driven to the overnight hotel, a change of clothes, a dinner, and then finally that “rest period” can start. Of course in the morning, deduct all the time used for showering and getting dressed, breakfast (maybe), the shuttle going back to the airport, the pre-flight crew meeting, the waiting by the gate, and then the boarding process. In actual fact it is rare for an FA to get 5 hours of sleep during one of these 8 hour rest breaks.  Flyertalk Crew Rest

How well do you function on 5 hours of sleep, combined with jet lag from a 2 or 3 hour time zone shift? And how well would you function if you had to do this several days in a row, waking up in a series of hotel rooms, going consecutive days with lack of sleep, skipping meals, and putting in hours every day of unpaid work? I will bet you get upset if your boss makes you work through lunch one day a week. Doesn’t compare, does it?

JetlaggedComic Hotel

via @jetlaggedcomic

Some flights and extended trip schedules do have different work rules, especially international, but most of the basics are the same. An FA’s work day may reach 15 to 16 hours, with less than half of these hours being paid time. Although I knew there was a per-diem meal allowance in most FA contracts, I was really surprised to find out that what is considered to be a generous (industry leading!) meal allowance on a multi-day trip schedule is $50 a day (or $2.00 an hour). I challenge you to eat 3 meals a day plus any snacks or coffees, all in airports or within walking distance of your hotel, and do it for under $50. Not only is that hard, it is nearly impossible if you are in a major (expensive) city, or if it is mid-winter in Fargo when walking outside is not an option and you can only eat in the hotel. Unless of course you do what many FAs do, save some money, skip some meals, and substitute coffee for lunch.

If you want to learn how/why the airlines get away with this per-diem instead of having to pay full wages for a full days work, here is a court decision that is rather easy to read. Per diem is legal

Hell yeah, they need Unions. Actually they need stronger Unions. Please note I have simplified some things in this discussion, the origins of many of these work rules actually go back to 1926 and the Railway labor act. Railway Labor Act

Something that still stuns me has to do with the recent merger of United with Continental, and Continental’s subsidiary CO-Micronesia. These airlines started their merger 5 years ago (in the spring of 2011), but their 3 groups of cabin crew (UA, CO, COm) still lack a unified contract and still have 3 different sets of work rules. Putting that into perspective, the United States entered, fought, and won World War 2 in less than 4 years. I think that fighting a World War is a slightly more complex task than negotiating a unified Union contract. But UAL management has taken a stall and delay tactic the past 5 years, and used it to their advantage to squeeze even harder on the crews.  UA FA Contract status

Update June 2016 – Negotiations at UA have resulted in a unified contract (after 5 years !) that now needs to be ratified by the Union membership

Of course American Airlines have their problems too. When AA purchased US-Airways and wanted to quickly merge their operations and work forces, the FAs were told to vote up/down to accept a rather unfavorable new contract that was being offered or “We will treat you like United”. One result of the new AA contract is that while Delta and SouthWest just paid out profit sharing bonuses to all employees at the start of 2016 ($1.1B and $620M), AA had no profit sharing. Nothing. Well, in reality there was a large amount of profit sharing at AA, but only for Level-5 and higher corporate executives. Or as AA CEO Doug Parker infamously said in Nov 2014 about not profit sharing with his front line workers: “It’s just not the right way to pay 100,000 employees that don’t have that much impact on the daily profits.” Parker Foot In Mouth

Update March 2016 – AA recognized how dumb this policy was, corrected themselves, and gave cash bonuses to flight crews…

Excuse me? Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t fly with many airline executives, and in my experience the executives have zero impact on the quality of my flight, the inflight service I receive, or how I feel about an airline. Most of my interaction with any airline is with the FAs. They are the “face” of the airline, and they are the ones who have to work the longest and with the most unpaid hours of any profession that I know of.

Bottom line; if on your next flight you see an FA wearing their union pin, please take a minute. Smile at them, introduce yourself, and let them know you know that it is long past time for the FAA to step in and protect these safety workers with some legislation.

It is the right thing to do, and they appreciate and need our support right now.

OK, so now you know what I think. How about you ? Comments appreciated.


4 comments on “Pins and Unions

  1. Matt
    February 26, 2016

    Always enjoy your posts Jeff. Insightful in ways I’ve usually never thought of.


    • jlroehr
      February 26, 2016

      Thanks! I try, just wish writing came easier.


  2. JC
    March 13, 2016

    This is one of the best summaries I’ve read about working conditions for Flight Attendants, and I’ve tried writing a few myself. As someone who never saw the value of unions when I was younger, that all changed when I became an FA and experienced how most of the companies out there treat us.

    I never let a chance go by to try educating someone about when we are and are NOT being paid. They are always shocked.

    To wit: yesterday I put in a 13hr 29 minute duty day.
    I was paid for 6 hrs 45 minutes.

    We got under 11 hours of “rest” and were back at it again today.
    Day 4 of similar days.


    • jlroehr
      March 13, 2016

      Thanks for the feedback JC.
      On every flight, it is my ass in the seats too, and having tired and over worked (underpaid) FA’s is not good for anyone. Except perhaps for airline executives bonuses…


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This entry was posted on February 22, 2016 by in Passenger thoughts and tagged , , , , , .
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