Delta Air Lines is ending a long-standing but divisive airline industry practice of flight attendants working for free during boarding.
The practice has sparked an online campaign among flight attendants at several major U.S. carriers, and Delta’s action comes as the Atlanta-based airline faces a renewed drive from activists to unionize its flight attendants.
Although the laws vary by airline, flight attendants on many U.S.-based airlines are only paid an hourly rate until the last aircraft door closes and the plane pulls away from the gate, thus indicating that boarding and pre-departure services are provided for free. Flight attendants are not compensated if there is a delay on the ground.
According to flight attendants, the amount of time spent performing pre-departure services has increased steadily over the last decade.
Airlines used to give passengers 30 minutes to board a domestic flight, but Delta recently upped the boarding period for domestic single-aisle flights to 40 minutes, while boarding for widebody domestic flights now begins 45 minutes before scheduled departure. Boarding for international services begins 50 minutes prior to departure.
That period was previously unpaid, but beginning June 2, 2022, Delta will begin paying flight attendants a lower hourly rate for time spent boarding. The wage is capped at 50% of the usual flying hourly rate, although experts estimate that most flight attendants will earn an extra $4,000 per year.
Longer-serving flight attendants may be rewarded even more, with hourly wages ranging from $16.10 to $36.19 per hour depending on the length of service.
Although some staff has already openly criticized the measure as “insulting” because boarding time has been capped at half the typical hourly pay rate, the decision has been heralded as a huge triumph for Delta flight attendants. The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA), which is trying to organize Delta’s flight attendants, has also criticized the move.
According to the union, the salary increase was only disclosed because management is becoming “nervous” about the possibility of flight attendants opting to unionize. While the union recognizes that the decision is a beneficial one, it alleges it was taken solely to avoid a “uproar” over Delta’s intention to increase domestic boarding times.
Last month, the union representing American Airlines flight attendants said that it will seek boarding compensation in ongoing contract negotiations. Previously, the loss of boarding pay was offset by the whole salary package, but flight attendants are now requesting more compensation due to the increased workload that comes with boarding.
Campaigners claim that Delta’s action shows that airlines can afford to pay more for boarding and that adding boarding pay will not result in a pay cut elsewhere.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandates flight attendants to be onboard to undertake safety-critical activities, according to flight attendants.
Hand luggage has become a more difficult issue to police in recent years, as airlines now expect flight attendants to fulfill a number of jobs, including serving pre-departure beverages.