The Flying Sweatshop

It was once the career that had it all — glamour, sex appeal, the ability to travel the world and get paid for it, and a wage sufficient to support a middle-class lifestyle.

Not anymore. Gone are the days when airlines would set the bar high when recruiting flight attendants, knowing that it was a highly desirable low-turnover job that applicants would fall over themselves to get.

Today, a newly hired flight attendant can look forward to struggling to get by in a high-cost city like Toronto on an annual salary of $25,000 or less.  The same goes for a newly hired pilot at a smaller carrier flying regional jets on a larger carrier’s behalf. Many resort to living at least part-time in “crash pads” — shared accommodations that offer the dorm living experience for the 25- and even 30-plus crowd.

Forget about commuting from afar by flying standby, as many crew members did in the old days: empty seats are hard to find following the capacity cuts of recent years, intended to ensure that as many flights as possible fly with a 100 percent passenger load.

On the job, the working conditions aren’t particularly hospitable, either. Airplanes are cramped, noisy places, and a certain percentage of the flying public will always be difficult to deal with no matter what.  But there were also changes made during the airline restructurings of the past 10 years that turned the airplane into the modern-day sweatshop.

There are the “stand up overnights”, for example, where a crew might start its workday at a hub airport at 9 p.m., work a 90-minute flight out to the hinterland, have a shower and a nap at an airport hotel, and then board the 6 a.m.  flight back to the hub.

It’s helpful from the airlines’ point of view — a single crew can work a late-night flight and the early morning return flight in a ten and a half hour shift, and it cuts down significantly on accommodation and meal costs — but exhausting for the crew.

Then there are the lengthy periods of time away from home. For instance, prospective WestJet flight attendants are cautioned that they “must be able to travel away from home for over 5 days and nights” — a qualification that in most other jobs would send a shiver down the would-be applicant’s spine.  (Translation: They’re looking for people without family responsibilities, who see living out of a suitcase as an adventure rather than a bleak existence.)

There is naturally some resistance to the increasing unpleasantness of working for an airline. British Airways cabin crew are on strike this week in opposition to a new round of concessions intended to reduce the carrier’s record losses.

Will they succeed? It seems unlikely, given British Airways’ financial woes, brutal competition from low-cost carriers like Ryanair and EasyJet, and the difficulty of finding a job in the U.K. these days.

It makes you wonder, though. Even if jobs in the airline industry turn into high-turnover jobs where the average employee only stays a year or two — it certainly seems to be heading in that direction — does anyone deserve to put up with the working conditions?

Related:

PBS Frontline: “Flying Cheap”

Dispatches: “Ryanair: Caught Napping”

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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