Do Flight Attendants Deserve to Be Paid for Time Spent During Boarding of Your Flight?

Reader Mark O. suggests that I comment on the case Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk which the Supreme Court heard arguments in this week. It’s popularly known as the case of whether Amazon workers should be paid to stand in line, but the case isn’t about Amazon and the case has some pretty widespread implications including for travel.

Employees of the staffing company in this case (Integrity Staffing Solutions) would wait in line to be security screened on their way out of Amazon warehouses. They weren’t paid for this time. The time is spent for the benefit of the employer, at least according to the workers’ brief — the point is to ensure that they aren’t stealing from the warehouse. They’re suing for back wages owed. The argument is that hourly workers are being paid based on time should be paid for all of the time spent at the job, more or less.

I’m not an attorney, and have only a passing familiarity with the relevant case law. Workers don’t get paid for all their job-related time, like commuting or going through airport security. The point of airport security isn’t primarily to benefit the employer.

Since the whole point of the case going to the Court is that it’s a tough case with persuasive arguments on both sides, and I’m very much a non-expert here, I’m not going to weigh in on what I think the Court ought to do in this content.

What I’ll point out is the analogue for travel. Flight attendant pay. Flight attendants are generally paid from door close to arrival only.

One possible legal principle that could come from the Court’s decision is that hourly pay is required when time spent benefits the employer. Certainly flight attendants make announcements during boarding and provide direction to passengers. What about time spent traveling from gate to gate for their next trip? They may bid for their trips, so have some control over scheduling, but certainly aren’t responsible for flight delays where they simply have to wait around for their next flight.

All interesting of course, but something especially relevant to me as I think about this is that most flight attendants are represented by unions in the U.S. and the terms of their contract — when they are paid, how much, what kinds of expense allowances they receive (to name just a few items) — are intensely negotiated over long periods of time by specialists acting on their behalf. And each contract is a balance of costs, getting the most for flight attendants and those things their union has determined are most important, and ‘giving’ on those things they consider less important, as the airline looks to balance their total labor costs.

In other words, flight attendants and their representatives have carefully considered and agreed to the current method of pay in exchange for other benefits they receive and in exchange for the wage they’re earning for the time that is paid. At that level I don’t feel like they’re being cheated.

What do you think? Should flight attendants be paid for more than just actual flight time?


About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. It’s really simple, unless they can do whatever they want during that time, including leaving, they are on company time and should therefore be paid.

  2. The Supreme Court argument related to the FLSA. Most of the FLSA does not apply to flight attendants, and instead an entirely separate statutory and regulatory scheme (pursuant to the Railway Labor Act) applies.

  3. I believe the concession stand workers in the airport are given ~15 minutes of pay to account for the time it takes to ride the employee shuttle, get through security, and reach their point of employment.

  4. FAs are not paid for their work during boarding?! Boarding is probably the most stressful part of their day. What if something happens, like the JetBlue flight where the pilot had to be screened for alcohol, and the whole plane was deplaned and then boarded again? Boarding could potentially drag on for hours in such cases, are they not paid extra for that?

  5. The employees should be paid for whatever time is agreed upon between them and the employer.

    If both parties agree that breaks are paid for, they should get paid for it. If both parties agree that commuting is paid for, they should get paid for it. If both parties agree that sleeping is paid for, they should get paid for it.

    The only way I can see the government intervening with these private agreements is regarding the minimum wage. If somebody is making minimum wage, and the employer feels they only need to pay for a portion of their “work”, it could turn into a loophole to skirt around effectively paying the minimum hourly rate.

  6. If they are, in equilibrium the hourly wage will adjust downward accordingly. (Or to put it another way, the fact that they are paid door close to door open when there are other costs to working should have driven up wages in equilibrium).

  7. @ivan that is correct. Clock starts when door is closed and block is removed. No pay during boarding.

  8. While it seems logical to me that FAs should be paid for time for boarding time I agree that this is all negotiated by the unions and therefore the courts should not get involved. This is not a new policy and FAs took the job knowing about this rules. Furthermore, their unions negotiated these labor agreements so I am not too concerned about FAs being shafted on this particular point. As for going through security I don’t believe that should be paid. I don’t get paid for my commute and I think that is what it is, part of the commute to the work assignment. Whether or not FAs are underpaid in general (very likely) is a whole different topic, but that should be worked out between management and the labor unions not in the court.

  9. @AP as I say the current case in front of the Court raises the same moral and ethical issues for some as far as flight attendants, even if a Supreme Court decision would not apply to airline employee work.

  10. What’s morally/ethically right and what the Supreme Court does are not the same thing, but I do think it is important for people to understand, especially when discussing labor organization negotiation — which also is very different under the RLA as opposed to the NLRA.

  11. @People who think all flight attendants are unionized

    Significant portions of the airline workforce are non-unionized. Strangely, those that aren’t have similar practices to those that are. So it’s really misleading to say that “x labor group agreed to it, so that’s the way it is” when “y labor group” at a different airline is non-unionized but has the same practices.

  12. AP raises an important point that the FLSA scheme does not apply to FA’s.

    As far as ethics/fairness, I presume that the union concluded that the balance of 0 for boarding time and whatever it is for “door closed time” is fair and equitable. This is an arms length arrangement, after all.

  13. @Gary

    You touched on this ever so slightly, but when I worked on the ramp for ACA at IAD, it took like half an hour to get from the employee lot to my time clock in the “A” terminal. Going home at night, when the moon buggies ran on really infrequent schedules, it took even longer.

    When I switched over to the general aviation ramp, I bragged to my boyz that there were only five minutes separating me from my car and the time clock. They were jealous.

    This gets into a really slippery slope argument. Does the airline “owe” me pay from the parking lot to the terminal door? I don’t have to park in the lot, I can get dropped off at the main door. I can take a bus from the city, a cab, or whatever. We traditionally don’t pay people to commute in this country, so at what point am I commuting, and at what point am I “at work” in the scenario in which I describe?

    If it’s one thing when the employer institutes procedures (security at Amazon, flight attendants who must greet passengers), is it another when a third party (ie the *airport*) institutes the procedures (and heck even the layout of the airport itself) that are presumably outside the control of the airlines?

    Fascinating issue.

  14. Overall, I think this decision will barely have any impact on labor costs for employers or how much employees will get to bring home except for those making the minimum wage.

    Employers will just simply adjust the pay ranges downward slightly for non exempt employees and reduce next year’s merit increases for current employees.

    Nobody really wins here except for select Amazon employees who will get back pay.

  15. @jfhscott

    As someone who used to work for an airline, I tend to agree with you that the FA argument is a bit irrelevant in this case.

    If it is relevant, at what point does it stop, and what does “free to leave” mean? How does it apply to layovers? If I’m stuck on a layover in a very small town with no rental car and no friends with rides, I’m clearly there at the behest of my employer, no? I also don’t have complete control over my time — because I have to work the next day, the FAA (and company) regulate whether or not I can drink alcohol or smoke weed.

    It should be noted that some (if not all) airlines have a trip rig called a “continuous duty overnight” where you in fact are on official duty all night and are paid for it. This is typically a last flight in/first flight out arrangement, and is done so that if the last flight of the evening is delayed, it won’t impact the first flight in the morning. So there is some precedent for being on a layover and being on full paid duty.

    Like I said, fascinating subject.

  16. Let me clarify a few things.

    Current employees – only referring to the non exempt employees

    Amazon employees – employees of whoever employs the warehouse workers

  17. Airline employees are not exempt from the basic wage provisions of the FLSA. They are exempt from the overtime provisions. The fact that they fall under the jurisdiction of the RLA, and not the NLRB for collective-bargaining purposes is entirely irrelevant to whether the are entitled to be paid for duties that are integral and indispensable to their work. Just the duty of assisting passengers in stowing their baggage is probably about the most strenuous activity a flight attendant performs in the course of a flight. And it is integral and indispensable to the flight safety and hospitality responsibilities of that job. I think it is legitimate question to ask whether these duties are compensible under federal law.

  18. Leave it to the government to have a flight attendant’s life dictated by a steam-age law that was intended for railroad employees.

    Here’s an idea: keep the government out of the picture and let decisions be made by the people who are actually involved.

  19. The FA’s have to check in for the flight an hour before departure, that is when they should start to be paid. Now lets look at if the flight is delayed, the flight is boarded and now there is a delay the cabin door is still open, and the delay will be an hour, so for over two hours the FA’s aren’t being paid but are in charge for the safety of the passengers on the aircraft. Not fair if the airline is expecting the FA to work and ready the cabin for flight but to do it for free, please…

  20. I used to work for The DOL doing exactly this kind of legal analysis about exactly this same kind of thing. Whether pre-work time counts for ‘hours worked’ is entirely different for flight attendants versus pretty much any other type of employee. When they changed the rules regarding how FAs qualify for FMLA it became apparent that neither the airlines, FAs, or unions had any interest in calculating hours worked the same way as would be under the FLSA (and accordingly how you qualify for FMLA.) The FAs have a far better deal calculating their hours the way they do now than they would under the FLSA. The RLA is ridiculously beneficial for those who qualify for it and they don’t have any desire to change that.
    Even if you calculated FLSA hours worked, since they don’t qualify for FLSA overtime, you just take their total pay and divide by the hours worked. In all those cases, the FAs are going to be paid far more than minimum wage. In essence, they are paid for that time, it’s just calculated differently.

  21. You say: “I’m very much a non-expert here” and I applaud you for saying that…but, when has that stopped you in the past from giving your opinion (i.e., TSA/security issues)?

  22. @Tony is correct. FAs HAVE to be to the gate an hour before the flight. If the flight is delayed two hours (LGA, JFK, EWR….), they aren’t getting paid. During boarding they aren’t getting paid. Mechanical on the plane while the door is open…FAs not getting paid.

  23. Tony- not only do they check in early (more than 1 hr for international) they meet and go over logistics of who the purser will be, who will work what area of the cabin, etc. Sounds like work to me.

  24. I believe that all employees should be paid for productive time for their employer’s benefit. FA’s perform productive services such as cabin and safety checks, prep announcements etc before the doors close. While FA’s have extensive training to act and respond in emergencies, fortunately they are called up for those skills in-flight infrequently. Not to diminish the important role FAs play, on most domestic flights when they are not performing safety checks and engaged in passenger comfort duties, I often see the FAs reading, listening to music or socializing in the rear galley. While they are ready to respond, at any moment in time I wouldn’t call those activities productive time that benefits their employer, other than for the fact their mere presence meets FAA minimum crew requirements.

    I have to put my faith in the agreement struct between management and the labor unions that balances all of these factors in setting when the clock starts and stops and the applied wage rate.

    Pardon me for taking a capitalist approach but its not like it is a secret in the industry and I would presume any one signing up for the job of FA does it on an informed basis and like any other employee, in considering their ultimate career goal weighs the net annual pay against their other market career and pay prospects.

  25. @mark – I know a little bit more about that issue. Just because you don’t agree with me, doesn’t mean that I don’t have a decent amount of reading, conversations with experts, and time spent thinking and studying it.

  26. They definitely should be paid during boarding! It’s ridiculous that this is even an issue. They’re working, therefore they should be paid.

  27. If we pay the flight attendants more, guess what? Increased ticket prices. They knew what they were getting into when they accepted the job. If they don’t like it, find another job. Society can’t just increase salaries / hourly pay rates / billable hours left and right without someone paying for it. The only thing for certain is it won’t be the airlines that foots the bill.

  28. I detect certain claims about equity here which depend upon data we do not have before us. Simply, if the wage for flight time is sufficiently inflated, not paying for boarding time is quite equitable.

    For example, what if the pay for flight time was $1,000,000 per hour? Not getting paid for boarding the plane would be a tiny concession for the opportunity to earn such wages. What we DO know is that in many cases, these arrangements have been stricken by union negotiators at arms length. I presume they did not agree to something wholly inequitable.

  29. @Gary – I am not even necessarily saying I don’t agree with what you say. I guess my point is that travel bloggers (and, I guess bloggers, in general) have a bit of a “know it all” mentality. I guess you’d have to have that thought if you are a blogger. Bloggers regularly discuss issues that simply have no idea/data/basis for their opinions. My favorite is adding or dropping a route or downgauging/upgauging aircraft. It’s laughable when a blogger questions those decisions when people in the company have detailed P&L’s on the route.

  30. @mark – working on a post later where I say I don’t get a particular new route. There’s CLEARLY a reason for it. It’s just not obvious, and I hazard a guess. That’s what makes the route INTERESTING.

    There are, however, plenty of stupid routes … and they are obviously stupid, even without the data that the airline has. You look at them, and you’re like, “how could anyone think that would be a good idea — ESPECIALLY when they have the internal data?!” And it works out.. exactly like that.

    Although I do agree with you, that a lot of speculation is total B.S.

    And here I wanted to make clear that I was not particularly knowledgeable in this area of the law. There’s a lot of things I’m not very knowledgeable in 🙂 It’s also sort of funny, the things people assume I know nothing about where I’m actually deeply immersed in the subject and published on it. I tend to keep my worlds a bit separate. As for airport security, I’m hardly an insider with access to classified threat assessments. Most of those are bullshit though. And I am published on the subject, and have spoken in front of audiences of policymakers on it. Hardly the number one expert, but not completely ignorant, either.

  31. I’m not a fan of unions; I believe their usefulness has long since expired and there are gov’t agencies that largely serve the same purpose. Having said that, I think they should in fact get paid. They are required to be there at that time, get paid.

    However, I think there is a case to be made for how easy their job is. Let the flames begin. On my PHX – CLT flight today, the FA in F spent about 2 of the 3.5 hours working. What did she do the rest of the time? Read. Play games on the tablet. Eat. Chat with co-workers.

    So should they get paid for time on the plane? Yes. Should they work when they are on the plane? Yes.

  32. It probably is irrelevant to most of the readership, but, since there has been much talk on this thread about unionized carriers, remember that there are some airlines that are not unionized, mostly regional, I realize. But their FAs perform the same tasks as their unionized counterparts, and they’re probably not as well compensated as the represented ones. Maybe they should get some pay for the work they perform before the door is closed and maybe even after it is reopened.

  33. I’m a flight attendant for a major U.S. Carrier. Employed for 18 years with the company. Yesterday I calculated my “real pay” for a 2 day trip. From check in to release time I was on the clock for 30 hrs. This included briefing,preflight checks, inflight service, layover in a hotel that was located inside the airport and debriefing. My pay with per diem added in was 17.00$ an hour. This is a far cry from the luring over 50.00$ An hour that they say and advertise that they are paying you. My per diem was 59.00$, breakfast at the hotel was 33.00$, I did not eat breakfast. I did however purchase a salad at a fast food booth for 11.00$. I was unable to bring food with me because we were entering Canada, you can’t even bring in a ham sandwich there. I live on instant cream of wheat, pretzels and peanut butter. The Railway Labor Act is old and outdated. The airlines and all the computerized scheduling have indeed pushed our schedules to their limits. My advice to all thinking of working for an airline these days is, dont. Our wages are meager,hours are long,work is difficult and customers are more difficult by the day. We put our life on the line daily, we insure the publics safety, provide life saving first aid all for 17.00 an hour. In response to an earlier comment about reading and laughing while working..its against company policy to read non company material while on the jet. Laughing with a coworker is permitted.

  34. The above comments about the union negotiating for pay for all duty performed is not correct. There is this thing the union calls industry standard referring to the block to block pay for flight attendants. The unions which I have belonged to which is 2 both will not even engage in negotiations with the company I work for or the company that owns us to be paid for work performed prior or after block. Therefore, we do not get paid for boarding and deplaning, securing the aircraft till all passengers are clear from jetbridges. When I average my hours worked to what I am paid its less than min wage. I have attended many union meetings and the only answer I get from them is its industry standard. I find our union useless and a waste of money.

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