Some flight attendants wonder whether job is worth it

NWA customers check in
Customers check in for a flight at Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport. Union flight attendants voted down two contracts and a court will decide whether they have the legal authority to go on strike.
MPR Photo/Annie Baxter

When flight attendant Nancy Olson thinks about the contract Northwest has imposed, she sees a lot of potential. Potential for financial turmoil, since flight attendants' overall take-home pay will shrink by about 40 percent.

Olson sees potential for marital problems among flight attendants who will spend more time away from home, since they'll spend more time flying, despite the pay reductions. And then there's the potential for plain old burnout among workers.

Two planes
Northwest planes on the tarmac at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.
MPR file photo

"We're talking 12 or 13-hour days, and nine-hour rests at a different hotel every night, and time-zone changes. I don't know if people can physically tolerate it," she says.

Olson voted against both the contracts that were put to the rank and file for a vote. In her view, Northwest is trying to make flight attendants' jobs unappealing as a long-term career option.

"They want the job to say, 'Oh, people will only do it for a couple of years.' Then they won't stay, and then they won't have the higher costs and stuff," Olson says.

Northwest Airlines spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch says the company is not trying to undermine flight attendants' jobs. He says everyone at Northwest is taking a hit in bankruptcy. The groundworkers contract cuts pay by 11.5 percent, and allows Northwest to lay off about 700 workers. The pilots' contract reduces pay by 24 percent.

Ebenhoch says competition with low-cost carriers has forced "legacy" airlines like Northwest to compete both on ticket prices and labor costs. So he says the problem is "larger than one airline, and it's larger than one union."

This has been an absolutely wonderful job for 23 years and I have loved it. But this past year it's been really stressful.

Transportation analyst Joe Schwieterman of DePaul University in Chicago says the whole industry is taking a hit, and flight attendants are indeed seeing their jobs take an unfortunate turn.

"I think for older flight attendants it's really been a humbling experience, to watch their jobs go from what's perceived as upper-echelon service jobs, to one where the flights are crowded, the schedules are more difficult, the glamor of course of flying is diminished," Schwieterman says. "I think they see a need to protect the integrity of their profession."

Schwieterman says some changes in recent years have lessened flight attendants' roles. In- flight services like meals have been slashed, cutting back on flight attendants' responsibilities. And safety instructions often issue from television monitors, not from flight attendants. But at the same time, flight attendants have become more crucial in other ways.

"Flight attendants, in the post-9/11 environment, have a much bigger role in security than we ever imagined," Schwieterman says. "It's something the general public probably doesn't understand -- the amount of incidents, the stress they face. And they want respect for that. And of course their pay hasn't gone up, it's gone down in that kind of environment."

Experts differ on how much skill is required to enforce those security measures. Barbara Byer, president of the aviation consultancy Avmark, says flight attendants are low on the airline totem pole in terms of skills.

"It basically takes about six weeks to train a flight attendant. It takes years to train the pilots and mechanics and so on," she says.

Beyer says that means if Northwest's flight attendants do strike, they could be easily replaced. Northwest would not address any plans for replacing flight attendants at this point.

For some flight attendants, there's nothing to worry about. Fonda Schmitz has worked for Northwest for 11 years. She thinks the flight attendant's contract is fully reasonable.

"We need to give the money to stay afloat, otherwise none of us will have jobs, and I just want to keep my job," Schmitz says. "And I'm going to stay no matter what, because I love it."

It's a different story for Laura, a flight attendant who does not want her last name used because she fears getting fired. Laura says if the current dispute between flight attendants and Northwest led to the loss of her job, she wouldn't seek work at another airline.

"Definitely not. This has been an absolutely wonderful job for 23, years and I have loved it," she says. "But this past year it's been really stressful. I would just hang it up at this point."

Laura says should that ever happen, her husband's job could support her. But she worries about other flight attendants who would have to make it on their own.