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Viral ‘courtesy’ letter American Airlines gives flight attendants shows how little they make

Scott Olson/Getty Images

America’s cost of living crisis has stung new flight attendants, many of whom haven’t had an opportunity to renegotiate their contracts since the inflation spiral began several years ago.

An employment verification letter American Airlines gives to some newly hired flight attendants documenting their salary has been circulating on Reddit, drawing attention to their low wages.

The letter states that a new American Airlines flight attendant will have a “projected annual salary [of] $27,315 per year before incentives and taxes” and concludes, “Any courtesy you can provide would be appreciated.”

The union representing American Airlines workers, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA), verified the authenticity of the letter, which is given to potential landlords or for other services where attendants need to verify their employment and income. The union represents 28,000 American Airlines flight attendants, and it is working on their first new contract in five years – a deal that stretches back before the pandemic and the inflation crisis.

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American Airlines did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment.

Even as price increases are slowing down, the letter shows how, for some Americans, a little inflation relief isn’t nearly enough. The low wages for starting flight attendants – a job once seen as glitzy – underscores how many people are still struggling, despite what on paper looks like a strong economy and job market.

This salary is above the federal poverty line of $15,060 for a single-person household. But that’s a national level and doesn’t take into account regional price differences, including in major metro areas where the cost of living can be significantly higher.

In some states, such as Massachusetts, new flight attendants would qualify for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly referred to as food stamps. For a single-person household, Massachusetts residents earning less than $30,120 a year are eligible for SNAP benefits.

The union says that flight attendants’ low salaries compared to top airline executives is a prime example of “corporate greed.”

New flight attendants at American Airlines start at $27,000 per year. Robert Isom, the CEO of American Airlines, earned $31.4 million last year — 1,162 times more than a new attendant.

“We have flight attendants who are sleeping in their cars,” APFA communications director Paul Hartshorn told CNN.

American Airlines flight attendants have not gotten a raise since 2019, and the union is escalating its push for a new contract to raise wages.

Flight attendants for United Airlines, Alaska Airlines and other carriers are also pushing for new contracts to raise wages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for flight attendants in 2023 was $71,000.

While being a flight attendant is a full-time job, many flight attendants only get about 75 hours of hourly pay a month. For many flight attendants, hourly pay basically begins when the plane’s door closes. They do not get paid for the hours they need to be at the airport or on the plane during boarding and deplaning.

APFA is proposing a 33% pay increase to top out at $91 an hour during the first year of a new contract and increases of 5%, 4% and 4% for the remaining years of a four-year agreement. The union is also calling for full retroactive pay raises based on how much attendants flew during five years of negotiations.

Under federal law, flight attendants cannot go on strike without permission from the government. The law, which is known as the Railway Labor Act, requires union members at airlines, among other certain industries, to remain on the job until after federal mediators declare an impasse in talks.

But the union is calling on President Joe Biden and congressional leaders to urge the National Mediation Board to allow the union to pursue a potential strike. The National Mediation Board is a federal agency that oversees labor-management relations in the US railroad and airline industries.

“American Airlines is not going to come to the table with an economic proposal that meets our needs unless they have the threat of a strike,” Hartshorn said. “Management needs the threat of a strike to move in the direction we need them to.”

Flight attendants at Southwest Airlines last month ratified a new contract that includes pay raises totaling more than 33% over four years.

“We expect to be compensated along the lines of Southwest,” he said.

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