Being a stewardess, as flight attendants were previously known, was once a glamorous job. In the glory days of U.S. aviation when there was genuine competition and consumers could choose from multiple carriers to fly them to their destinations, U.S. airlines competed based on the quality of their service. “The Friendly Skies of United,” referred to the experience the carrier offered at 35,000 ft.

Admittedly, airline ads were chock full of sexism, the most famous being National Airlines’ 1972 “Fly Me” campaign, easily among the most sexist ad of all time. It was also very successful: National claimed a 23% increase in passenger traffic the year after the campaign ran. For the record, the campaign was conceived by acclaimed copywriter Mary Wells, the founding president of Wells, Rich, Greene, an advertising agency highly regarded for its creative work.

There is nothing glamorous about being a flight attendant these days, particularly on Alaska Airlines, the carrier whose Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft earlier this year lost a big chunk of its fuselage at 16,000 ft. Alaska Air in 2000 also experienced one of the few U.S. crashes this century, an MD-83 aircraft whose horizontal stabilizer mechanism failed, causing the pilots to lose control and crash into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

Last October, Joseph Emerson, an off-duty pilot sitting in the cockpit on an Everett-to-San Francisco flight by Alaska-owned regional airline Horizon Air, allegedly tried and failed to shut off the plane’s engines when it was airborne. The pilots made an emergency landing in Portland, where Port of Portland police arrested Emerson. Emerson allegedly told police and investigators that he was suffering from depression and had taken psychedelic mushrooms two days before the flight.

When boarding an Air Alaska flight, if you hear someone in the cockpit singing Karen Carpenter’s “Rainy Days and Mondays,” it’s best to deplane and return to the terminal.

Working as a flight attendant is easily among the worst jobs. I truly feel for those assigned to older planes and must demonstrate the fine art of fastening a seat belt. I’m always tempted to raise my hand and ask a question, just so the attendant knows at least one person is paying attention. As an aside, why do airlines insist on demonstrating how to fasten a seat belt but assume all the passengers know how to “power down” their electronic devices, a more challenging task? And why do they say, “power down” instead of “shut off?”

(A major benefit of reading Starkman Approved is I think about these sorts of things, so you don’t have to.)

I’m sympathetic watching flight attendants deliver food and beverage service, as it requires remarkable skill and patience. Navigating the carts down tight aisles is no mean feat, particularly as every flight always has a passenger with a weak bladder who can’t wait until the food and drinks are served to use the bathroom. Then there are the passengers with the expectations of a diner at a five-star restaurant.

“Might it be possible to get some Grey Poupon with my stale and sodium overloaded pretzels?”

Verbal abuse is an occupational flight attendant hazard and increasingly so is getting harmed physically. Violence against airline cabin crews has become so commonplace that American flight attendant Susannah Carr told CNN Travel year: “I come in expecting to have a passenger that could potentially get violent.”

Imagine going to your place of employment knowing that getting physically attacked was a real possibility?

I’ve long known that flight attendants were poorly compensated but never appreciated that many were living in poverty.  The Association of Flight Attendants Alaska (AFA Alaska), the union representing Alaska Airlines flight attendants, has made public a survey revealing that many of its members suffer the financial insecurities and indignities of Disneyland Resort cast members and Uber and Lyft drivers.

As reported by the travel news site Simple Flying, the survey revealed 37% of the respondents reported having to receive government assistance, such as food banks or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), in the past five years.

Additionally, 9% of responding flight attendants reported living out of their car, while another 10% live with their parents to afford housing. A quarter of respondents reported overdrawing their checking account more than six times a year – or requiring more funds than on hand.

Nearly 60% of Alaska Air flight attendants reported not having $500 available on a monthly basis, and 71% of respondents reported not having three months of basic expenses for emergencies.

According to Simple Flying, Alaska Air flight attendants receive a base pay of $24.95 an hour, and they are officially based in some of the most expensive cities in the U.S.: Anchorage, Portland, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, and San Diego. Not surprisingly, more than 29% of Alaska Air’s flight attendants commute more than 100 miles to their base airports.

To put the wages in perspective, the minimum wage for fast food employees in California is $20 an hour, who require considerably less training and don’t have the safety responsibilities of flight attendants.

Surprisingly, the CEO and Alaska Airlines’ other top bosses are also struggling to find shelter and feed themselves and their families.

Just kidding!

I wanted to make certain you weren’t dozing off.

Dominic Gates, the stupendous aviation reporter for the Seattle Times, reported that Alaska Air’s C-suite executives last year received millions of dollars in special additional raises, including $5.3 million extra for CEO Ben Minicucci, bumping his total compensation to $10.3 million.

Ben Minicucci

Alaska Air said that the extra millions replaced compensation the top brass gave up during the pandemic, when Congress constrained the airline’s executive pay for three years as a condition for its $2.3 billion taxpayer bailout.  According to a regulatory filing, after it had “consulted extensively with its independent compensation advisor (emphasis mine),” the board “re-granted the compensation that had been approved but clawed back during the restricted period.”

A compensation advisor hired by a corporate board isn’t independent. They are hired with the understanding that they will come up with ways to justify obscene executive pay or they won’t have any clients. That’s why Starkman CEO Compensation Consulting (SCCC) failed so miserably; our formula was basing a CEO’s compensation as a multiple of the median salary paid within their corporation. SCCC was tarred as a front for Bernie Sanders and his people.

To be fair, Minicucci is good at his job. He’s been at Air Alaska for some two decades and helped transform the carrier into one of the most respected in the industry. Given that Minicucci served in the Canadian Armed Forces for 14 years and earned his master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Royal Military College of Canada, it’s a safe bet that he’s a fellow Canadian and it’s reasonable to assume he’s a nice guy who appreciates good beer.

When one considers that the CEOS of Boeing, GM, and Ford were each paid more than $25 million last year for running their companies into the ground, even Starkman CEO Compensation Consulting would concede that Minicucci isn’t as greedy as many rival CEOs.

Unfortunately for Minicucci, that’s not how the flight attendants’ union sees things.

Thresia Raynor, a veteran flight attendant union official based in Anchorage, told the Seattle Times that “it’s infuriating to all of us to see Ben get a $5 million raise knowing our union sat in front of Congress begging for money to bail out the airline and keep us out of bankruptcy.”

“I cannot believe he has continued with the corporate greed,” Raynor added.

During the pandemic, Alaska Air asked flight attendants to take voluntary leave without pay to help the company. According to union data, half the flight attendants took at least temporary leave for a month or two. Unpaid, they could apply for unemployment benefits, although many had difficulty getting it.

Unlike management, Alaska Air flight attendants weren’t made whole for their financial sacrifices during the pandemic.

“This is stupid and insensitive and management better fix it with an industry-leading contract for Alaska flight attendants,” warned Sara Nelson, who heads the national union representing flight attendants and ranked by InStyle magazine among the top 50 “badass” women in America.

Yale Law School

These days, restaurants are tacking on tips supposedly earmarked for their kitchen staff or their employees’ healthcare costs. Starbucks baristas expect a dollar or two extra just for pouring a cup of Joe, even in California where they are paid $20 an hour. When you consider that flight attendants are not only expected to serve food and drinks, and also expected to provide the safety leadership when things increasingly go awry, it’s a no brainer that they are deserving of some grease when a plane safely lands.

Frankly, I’m surprised Alaska Airlines and other carriers haven’t already thought of this.  After a passenger books a flight, why not add on facilities and equipment charges, gratuities for flight attendants, the pilots, the cleaning crews, and maybe a little something for the catering staff. Alternatively, maybe flight attendants should place a tip jar at the front of the plane when travelers are boarding, and tailor their service according to a passenger’s generosity.

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants has sought a release to strike from the National Mediation Board (NMB) for the second time. Union members last week picketed in front of the White House calling on the Biden Administration to pressure the NMB to grant the release.

President Biden pays lips service that he’s a union supporter. Let’s hope that’s not just another one of his many phony claims. Suffice to say, Alaska Air’s flight attendants have my support, and they deserve the flying public’s.

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