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As airlines recover, flight attendants still suffer

Flight attendant Sara Nelson sold her Saturn sedan in 2002 because she couldn't afford to keep it after UAL Corp.'s United Airlines slashed her pay in its struggle to stay afloat.
Flight Attendants Protest Payments To American Airlines Executives
American Airlines flight attendants picket at San Francisco International Airport in April over bonuses given to senior management. Flight attendants contend they are not sharing in the airlines' recovery.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file
/ Source: Reuters

Flight attendant Sara Nelson sold her Saturn sedan in 2002 because she couldn't afford to keep it after UAL Corp.'s United Airlines slashed her pay in its struggle to stay afloat.

Now, even though U.S. airlines are enjoying resurgent profits, the 11-year veteran still doesn't have her own car and reckons her income is down about 30 percent. What she does have is longer hours and more broken toilets with which to deal.

"It seems more and more that one or two lavatories are shut down," said Nelson, who is also a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants union.

With on-board staffing reduced, "There are fewer people to look out for the problems and try to head them off from the get-go," she said.

Like others on U.S. carriers toiling in the crowded skies, Nelson is working under difficult conditions and her growing frustration is symptomatic of the strain on flight attendants as airlines seek to recover financially from years of losses.

Because of heightened security restrictions, packed planes, and tight turnaround times, flight attendants can end up captive on board with little food and little pay.

"You have more people getting off, more people getting on, so the expectation is you basically don't get off the plane," said Carla Rogat, a flight attendant with Mesaba Airlines, a regional unit of Northwest Airlines Corp.

"You can work a 14-hour day and get off the plane for 20 minutes," the five-year veteran said.

In addition to crowded planes, worsening flight delays also create headaches for flight attendants.

The attendants only get paid once the plane leaves the gate. If a plane is stuck at the terminal waiting for air traffic control to clear it, flight attendants are generally off the clock.

"I can work a 14-hour day and get paid for five of it," said Rogat.

Salaries of U.S. flight attendants average between $19,200 and $33,800, according to the Association of Flight Attendants. Despite the low pay, many remain committed to the job because of the flexibility, camaraderie, and the travel benefits.

"I still really do love the job," said Alin Boswell, an 18-year veteran of US Airways Group Inc.

Airlines are trying to alleviate the stress, but flight attendants said the promises made during the belt-tightening years remain unkept.

"We have taken a number of steps to improve the quality of life and scheduling flexibility for our flight attendants," said United Airlines spokeswoman Jean Medina.

She said hiring more flight attendants has allowed United to offer transfers, special leaves of absence, and extended breaks. So far this year, roughly 1,400 United flight attendants have taken off a full month.

Also, the carrier's flight attendant contracts provide paid time at the end of every flight for reporting any issues from the flight or with the equipment, she added.

But the changes haven't been enough for some.

"People are very, very upset. They've been stretched to the end," said Nelson. "They were stretched to the end before, but at least there was a promise of something better. Now when that hasn't been returned, it's as if the rubber band was broken."

Many flight attendants made personal sacrifices — such as selling cars, pulling kids from dance classes, and taking on second jobs — in order to help keep their employers flying after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks sent the airline industry into a tailspin.

But they have not shared in the fledgling recovery that began about a year ago.

"Morale is in the toilet," said US Airways' Boswell.

Last year, the U.S. airline industry posted a combined profit of $3 billion after racking up $35 billion of losses between 2001 and 2005, according to the Air Transport Association. The industry is on track for another profitable year in 2007.

"Now we see our airline and every other airline beginning to be successful, and we're not sharing in any of that success," added Boswell, who says he works an additional four to five days a month to make up for the wages lost to pay cuts.