Recession Keeps Older Flight Attendants In The Air

They were once called stewardesses, then flight attendants. A mix of glamour and grunt work, the position of flight attendant has long offered young workers a chance to see the world. Now, some senior flight attendants say that given the recession, they will keep flying — even though they're ready to retire. And that's slowing the takeoff of those who aspire to their jobs.

For the past four years, Kathryn Flanagan, a flight attendant for United Airlines, had been looking forward to a particular day.

"I had planned on retiring April 26, 2009," she says, the day after she turned 62.

She began her career more than 41 years ago, working first on domestic flights and for the past several years flying international routes from her home base in Seattle. Today, Flanagan is returning from what was to have been her last on-the-job flight to Japan. Twelve loyal passengers had planned to join her, to celebrate.

But that all changed. "Just due to all of the financial situations [that are] coming up with the economy and 401(k) and the markets and life," Flanagan says. "I have to put it on hold. I have to postpone it."

Flanagan, a union representative, says United flight attendants had already lost some pay and their pensions after the airline entered into bankruptcy in 2003. She says that when her 401(k) took a dive, she knew she'd have to work at least another two years.

"I know 10 people, the same right now here in Seattle," she says. "We were all leaving March, April, May — and they are not going to be able to leave now."

New Attendants Ready To Move Up

Despite their help stowing bags and grabbing pillows, the primary job of the country's nearly 100,000 flight attendants is to ensure safety and security. Even with the hard work, the mystique of a flight attendant's job remains.

Iris Upshaw is a recruiter for Mesaba Airlines, a subsidiary of the now-merged Northwest and Delta Airlines. Mesaba is one of the few airlines hiring flight attendants these days. More than 100 people showed up for a recent open house at Mesaba's hangar in Detroit.

At the session, it's all about the details of the job, like how much money starting flight attendants can expect to earn — in this case, a guaranteed minimum pay of 75 hours per month. That means about $1,100 a month with annual increases.

There are also free flights for attendants, their immediate family or a friend. The applicants take a short test, explain how they've handled stressful situations and finally try some real flight attendant duty by reading a boarding announcement.

The crowd is diverse. Some applicants are just out of college; others have worked as flight attendants for other companies. The young and older here are all looking to fly. Ryan Rinner is 25 and has worked in customer service.

"I've worked all around the United States," he says. "I've worked in California, experienced all types of different backgrounds, and I love it. I think being a flight attendant would be fun."

Detra Phelps, 41, is trying to find a job after moving to Michigan from Atlanta

"I've always wanted to be a flight attendant," she says. But at one point, I had got kind of scared thinking about the planes going down and all that. But you know, this will be a great opportunity for me to travel and see the world."

Sara Machiniak, who just graduated from college, wants to travel, too. She understands how a shaky economy could make more senior flight attendants reluctant to hang up their wings, she says. But, "it's kind of hard for someone my age, because people who've been in the industry for a long time aren't giving up the positions and leaving them open for a youngster like myself. So, it's difficult."

The Benefits Of Seniority

In a flight attendant's world, seniority helps workers get better schedules, holidays off and the vacations they want. Flight attendant Alexander Parr has worked for Mesaba for seven years — several of them without a regular schedule.

"I can't move anywhere until people retire above me, because I'm pretty much in the middle of the seniority list," he says. But Parr says he's content with his status and isn't wishing anyone out the door.

Flanagan says she knows not everyone thinks that way. "I was on our Japanese trip and discussing something with a flight attendant I needed to bring to his attention. And under his breath, he said, 'When is this witch going to retire?' "

Flanagan says she understands the frustration, but she wants everyone to know she's started the countdown to retirement once again.

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