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Frontier and Flight Attendant Activism

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In my humble opinion as an increasingly frequent traveler, Frontier is an airline best compared to diarrhea. The worst of the worst, this was once a way to get to the West fairly cheap. Now it is a way to be stuck at the airport for 20 hours without answers. It is a complete nonstarter in terms of choosing to fly on it. Given how poorly Frontier treats passengers, it’s not at all surprising that they treat their own workers just as bad. Although Frontier flight attendants have union representation from the Association of Flight Attendants, they have some of the lowest pay rates in the industry and its workers have authorized a strike by a 99 percent yes vote if union leadership calls for it, as Sarah Jones reports.

This time, wages are driving unrest. Unionized flight attendants say their low wages reflect Frontier’s former state of precarity, and that the airline could now afford to pay them a higher rate if it chose. In fact, Frontier’s wages are low even when compared to other low-cost competitors, like Spirit Airlines. Flight attendants who have worked for Frontier a year or less only make a base rate of $19.25 per flight hour. Newcomers on reserve, which is the industry’s equivalent to being on call, are only guaranteed to be paid for 75 flight hours a month. Pay increases the longer a flight attendant works for Frontier, but veterans say it’s still difficult to make ends meet. Weise has worked for Frontier for 15 years, and only makes $37 per flight hour. If she worked for Spirit, she’d be making at least $45.94. The most senior flight attendants at Frontier make a yearly base salary of $33,489; at Spirit, it’s $43,380.

Significantly lower than Spirit is, well, wow.

To support themselves, some Frontier flight attendants work overtime to be able to pay their bills. Flight attendant schedules don’t correlate to a typical 40-hour work week; anywhere from 80 to 85 hours on a plane per month is considered a full-time schedule for workers in this industry. Weise says that before she got married, she “always” worked at least 100 flight hours a month. That is about average for members of her local, she estimated. Other flight attendants work even more. Michael Rice, who has worked for Frontier for five years and heads the union’s Trenton-Philadelphia local, told New York that he usually works at least 120 flight hours per month, a schedule that only gives him six days a month at home. He lives with his sister, an arrangement that helps him makes ends meet, but he says it’s harder for others, especially first-year staff. “With our current starting pay, it’s not sustainable,” he explained. “Some people can apply for food stamps, but they can’t pay their regular bills. They are deciding, do I pay a bill this month or do I disregard that bill and buy groceries?”

Economic precarity inflicts well-known psychological burdens. For Frontier flight attendants, those burdens pose unique risks: They pride themselves on being the first responders of the air. Flight attendants are responsible for identifying safety threats onboard their flights. When the worst happens — a crash, a safety failure, an attack — flight attendants are also tasked with getting passengers to safety, even though they too are in harm’s way. Twenty-five flight attendants died on September 11, 2001. “You do have to be alert,” Weise said. “You have to make sure all of your safety equipment is checked and you have to be vigilant about every passenger that walks on the plane.” Sometimes passengers are sick and need emergency care; on other occasions, they’re belligerent. Flight attendants have to manage both situations. “It’s a very emotional job. People are stressed out when they get on the plane,” Weise added.

“We’re safety professionals. We go through training to do what we need to do,” Rice echoed. “When we’re on our layovers and we’re in different cities, we’re kind of budgeting our whole lives. And we’re worrying so much at home that sometimes, you know, our minds are not as clear when they need to be.” For flight attendants, stress is also a safety concern, which adds some urgency to the union’s negotiations with Frontier.

The AFA spent today protesting Frontier in Denver, seeking to put pressure on the company to agree to a good and fair contract. Given the AFA’s leadership in ending the government shutdown, this is an important moment for the union to take another step forward in getting a fair wage for its members. Now imagine if Frontier was committed to good working conditions and carrying about getting people where they are going at a decent time and with passable service. Why, it’d almost be a choice I might make!

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