Whenever airlines advertise openings for flight attendants, the applications gush in. Southwest Airlines (LUV) recently received 10,000 applications for 750 attendant positions—in about two hours. A year ago, 114,000 people sought 2,500 flight attendant spots at the airline, known for its laid-back work environment. It’s the same at other carriers: US Airways (AAL) had 16,500 applicants this past January for 450 spots, and Delta Air Lines (DAL) got 22,000 for 300 to 400 positions a year ago.
Why such interest?
“In the job market the way it is right now, who wouldn’t want to get paid to travel?” says Leslie Mayo, a 27-year flight attendant at American Airlines (AAL), who lives in San Diego. The schedule is flexible, and “a day off is a day off—you don’t take your job home with you,” she says, preparing for a trip to Zurich the next day.
The opportunity to fly for free is a big part of the industry’s allure, even though most airline employees fly as “nonrevenue” standby passengers, waiting for an unsold empty (often middle) seat. At American, employees can get an open seat in first class for $150; coach is a third that price.
The salary is just OK. Few people ever get rich corralling a drinks cart, but a veteran flight attendant can make more than $50,000 annually—though no new hire will approach that amount, even at Southwest, which is noted for its relative generosity. To start, $25,000 per year is typical. Still, there are also many days per month on which flight crews stay home, another major perk of the job.
Southwest is a little unusual in that it calculates salary based on a flight’s distance and time. After their first year, Southwest’s flight attendants are guaranteed at least 80 flight segments per month, which are based on $22.36 for each trip up to 243 miles and 55 minutes or less. For example, a usual five-hour flight from Baltimore to Los Angeles counts as 6.2 trips, or $138.63. But that trip count could rise, based on whether the flight is longer because of head winds or air traffic delays.
Southwest is hiring flight attendants to help staff the larger Boeing (BA) 737-800 airplanes it’s added to its fleet, which require four attendants, one more than Southwest’s smaller 737s. For those who get hired, Mayo offers one piece of advice: Focus on the travel and health insurance benefits, not the paycheck. “You’re not doing it for the money.”