Let’s Stop this Travel “Secret” in its Tracks

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Did you guys read Brian Cohen’s listicle dissection this week here on FlyerTalk? In it, he walks us through some recently published travel “secrets” (most of which, he points out, are actually old news to FlyerTalkers) and kindly directs the flight attendant claims to me. I appreciate that because I see quite a rumor being started here. I spotted it once before and dismissed it; now I see it in this new “listicle” discussed by Brian and, like a spark leaping into the thirsty forest of the internet, it has jumped to multiple other articles recently – complete with the key quotes having lost their original sourcing. I’d like to catch this train before it’s too late.

That rumor is “secret” number seven: Flight Attendants may delay your flight on purpose. My immediate response was, Uh, What? I’m paid to be more articulate than that, so let me explain.

I traced this “secret” back to several articles by George Hobica spread over the last few years. On several occasions he reports that flight attendants friends told him,

“We get paid only when the wheels leave the ground (“wheels up” in airline parlance). We don’t even get paid when we’re taxiing! There can sometimes be hours of delay between the time we show up for work and when we’re airborne…If a flight is late, the airline might have to pay us overtime. If the flight is going to be late anyway, we’ve been known to delay it even further in order make sure overtime kicks in, which on our airline means up to double the hourly pay. We might find some minor defect in the aircraft or use some other ruse to make up for the money we don’t get paid waiting for take off.”

The problem is what was glossed over in his original article – and has been conveniently dropped altogether from subsequent ones – “Different airlines have different policies.” That is actually the most important part of the original quote. Why? Because getting paid only for “wheels up” time is extremely unusual.

I don’t doubt that Hobica has friends for whom this is true. I’m sorry to report that a few airlines like Air Canada and Mesa do pay this way (sadly, there are probably others), but this practice is definitely an exception. The norm, by far, is for flight attendants (and pilots, by the way) to get paid whenever the parking brakes of the airplane are disengaged. Our paid time is less than our actual duty time, but it’s from the moment we leave the gate to the moment we “block in” – and yes, I think that’s bad enough! We do sign in, conduct pre-flight duties, board and unload the plane and endure gate delays…basically for free. However, the difference matters because 98% of us are getting full pay for delays on the tarmac. That eliminates those delays from the claim.

What about gate delays? In that situation a small purposeful stall could be desirable, but only in certain, narrow cases. A “delay pay” does kick in, retroactively, after a hold-up reaches a certain threshold. Let’s say that threshold is an hour (this will vary airline to airline but an hour is a typical amount of time).

After we’ve spent that 60th minute working for free, we’ll begin to accrue delay pay reaching back to the first, say, 15 minutes. So in this example, if you’ve been delayed for 54 minutes, it makes sense that the flight crew might want to delay you for another six minutes in order to hit that mark.

However, there are yet two caveats to add. One, for the vast majority of us under the usual “paid-at-brake-release” system, delay pay is only a fraction of “real,” wheels-up pay. Who wants to risk sitting at the gate for two more hours of token pay instead of getting the wheels up for “real” pay? Not this girl.

Why “risk”? Because of caveat number two: it’s not so easy for flight attendants to manufacture a “desirable” delay. Five minutes, possible. But beyond that, things like “finding minor defects with the plane”? That would only, maybe, work at the gate and would probably incur a big delay, which is just not financially worth it.

The flight attendants quoted in the article that started all this report their delay pay that as “up to twice” normal flight pay. Wow! I admit that does sound worth it! If that’s the system we all worked under, I can imagine that delays are worth it. But again, it’s a very very few of us that work under such a system – and it seems obvious why more of us are unlikely to ever do so.

Like so many rumors, this one does have a kernel of truth to it, but that’s about it. If you see this “flight attendants might delay your flight on purpose” claim, I assure you it’s mostly empty. People already accuse us of lots of crazy, conspiratorial things. Let’s not add this myth to the mix.

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Comments (Showing 2 of 2)

  • sethb at 2:36pm April 15, 2014

    The reason that flight attendants (and pilots) are not paid for so much of their duty time is to assist them in cheating states out of income taxes. Consider: an FA works 1 hour on the ground in NY, then 3 hours in flight, then 30 minutes on the ground in MN. By not being paid for the ground time (or very little of it), NY and MN don’t get to claim much income earned in their states. If the total pay for the flight were allocated evenly to all the time the FA was required to be working (defined as “required arrival time until allowed to leave the destination airport”) those states would see more taxable income and collect more taxes.

  • harvyk at 10:52pm April 16, 2014

    Sethb, whilst I realise that you are probably talking from a USA, how does that work from a traveling businessman’s perspective?

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