How a flight attendant who's now making $1,000 less a month is getting by


Although flight attendants are deemed "essential" by the Department of Homeland Security, many have had to take pay cuts because of recent travel restrictions and the lack of demand. Last year on April 6, more than 2 million people traveled by air, according to the Transportation Security Administration. On April 6 of this year, only 108,310 people went through TSA checkpoints. 

Suzanne, 31, has been a flight attendant for five years and lives in New Jersey. (She asked to go only by her first name and not to identify her employer.) Along with the health concerns that come from working in close quarters with those who are traveling, she worries about how the spread of the coronavirus will affect her finances. 

"We're losing financial protection to some extent and we're losing options to fly places," she says. "There is definitely still tension on board the aircraft because we still could lose our jobs." 

'We're seeing pay decrease across the board'

There are 120,000 flight attendants in the United States, and their average annual salary is just below $51,000, according to government data analyzing platform Data USA. Many flight attendants were aware that the coronavirus was going to significantly affect the U.S. even before cities and states started enforcing shelter-in-place guidelines.

Suzanne says she noticed a dramatic change in her work schedule about two months ago: "China flights stopped and there were reductions here and reductions there." 

Within the past month, the number of flights taken in North America has decreased by 35%, according to flight tracking site. On March 7, there were 8,400 flights, and on April 7, there were only 2,950.

The average amount of flight time Suzanne and most other flight attendants work is 85 hours per month, she says. In April, however, she is only scheduled to work 20 hours. 

If you're accustomed to making 200 hours worth of flight time and now you're making 71, that's a huge pay loss.
Flight Attendant

Because she is in a union, Suzanne is guaranteed pay for up to 71 hours per month, regardless of how much she flies. Still, in April she will be earning $1,000 less than she would during an average month. 

The airline that employs Suzanne bases salaries on seniority. Those who are in their first couple years of flying are making in the "low 20s" per hour, she says, while senior flight attendants make $58 per hour. This means that those who are more senior are taking even bigger pay cuts.

Plus, many flight attendants choose to fly far more than 85 hours per month. 

"If you're accustomed to making 200 hours worth of flight time and now you're making 71, that's a huge pay loss," she says. "We're definitely seeing a pay loss across the board, but we still have jobs, thank God." 

'There was gratitude that we were still flying'

Though demand has decreased significantly, flight attendants still need to be on board for those passengers who do need to fly. Many of them, Suzanne says, are people who want to get home to be with a loved one.

The last flight she worked was to Zurich, Switzerland, about two weeks ago. The flight crew was supplied with disinfectants and safety equipment. "Going over, we were pretty empty in business class and pretty full in economy," she says. "And the flight coming out of Zurich was basically empty." 

Most passengers had gloves and masks and the flight crew tried to seat them as far from each other as possible. Although meals were provided on board, many passengers opted to not eat them. 

"Passengers were tense, but there was gratitude that we were still flying," she says.

How to recession-proof your finances

Video by Jason Armesto

'I'm not supercomfortable right now, but I'm not extraordinarily concerned yet'

To prepare for a smaller paycheck, Suzanne double-checked the balance on her student loans and credit cards to ensure that she could still make payments. Next, she called her credit card company and was able to reduce her interest rate

"Our union came out a month ago and said, 'Call your mortgage company, call your banks, call your loans,'" she says. "'Check to see if you can pause payment for a few months because you will be looking at a reduction in pay.'" 

She already did her taxes and and put her refund into savings, along with a profit-sharing bonus. To save money, she cut any ancillary spending and is only buying "the necessities" like groceries. 

"Believe me, I'm not supercomfortable right now, but I'm not extraordinarily concerned yet," she says.

Although she considers aviation her passion, she knows she needs to keep her employment options open. If the spread of coronavirus continues and travel restrictions tighten, she could be furloughed or let go. To prepare for that possibility, she's already prepared her resume and sent it to a few places, "just to get it out there." 

"We often say flight attendants are the worst passengers because we don't know how to be still," she says. "We're always working."

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