Should Flight Attendants Have to Hustle for Tips?

Shutterstock | RUBEN M RAMOS

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Starting this year, Frontier Airlines will allow flight attendants to seek tips directly from passengers. Given the problems that tipping brings into any industry it enters, this is a terrible idea, a threat to all parties’ safety, and yet another reminder of the problems of forcing workers to rely on tips in any industry.

Allowing workers to solicit tips to subsidize their wages is just another way for employers to lower operating costs at customers’ and employees’ expenses. Rather than pay workers more, they claim that by allowing tips those workers are supposedly emboldened by the opportunity to work harder and earn tips. While this may be good for the airline’s bottom line, it spells trouble for flight attendants and passengers.

Frontier Airlines may be joining the restaurant industry in claiming tips as a method of empowering workers and improving service for customers, but at this point, it’s hard to ignore all the downsides of relying on tips as a form of payment. Workers that rely on tips make less money than workers that don’t, and with a much more unstable source of income, are much less able to plan for large purchases or emergencies than non-tipped employees. That’s not good for flight attendants; it’s also not good for their families, their landlords, or anyone who is trying to run a business in their neighborhoods. Frontier Airlines will still be paying their flight attendants a salary, but as the airline is currently in the midst of an extended contract dispute with its flight attendants, this is pretty clearly a way to increase their compensation while not increasing their salaries.

Sexual harassment is a constant concern for flight attendants (almost two-thirds experience sexual harassment during their career); having them rely on tips for part of their income will obviously make that worse. This is because tipping is mostly influenced by external factors such as race, age, and attractiveness, which has resulted in the restaurant industry, which is notorious for requiring waitstaff to subsidize subminimum wages with tips, facing more sexual harassment claims than any other industry. Frontier’s decision will only further expose its employees to harmful working conditions that come from flight attendants feeling like they need to be friendlier with inappropriate customers, and from customers feeling emboldened because of their control over a portion of the attendant’s income for the day.

The change isn’t just bad for flight attendants – passengers suffer as well. Airline passengers do not need further costs pushed onto them, especially as in-flight service remains virtually the same (there is no reported correlation between quality of service and tips earned). Similarly, flight attendants should not feel added pressure to please customers for tips instead of focusing on safety protocols. Rather, everyone deserves to earn a living wage without relying on the kindness of customers, both in the air and on the ground, making this a lose-lose situation for everyone but Frontier’s front office.

There is a reason that tipped workers have a higher poverty rate than non-tipped workers, and it’s because relying on the kindness of strangers for income results in inconsistent pay. Frontier could have given its workers a raise, but instead the company has decided to push payroll costs onto customers with no guarantee that customers will tip. This is clearly not the way for a responsible company to act, and hopefully other airlines and businesses will see the public outcry against Frontier and refrain from following its example.

Ultimately, we want to live in a country where everyone is a first-class member of society and paid enough to live on by their employer. In order to do this, we need fewer workers, not more, relying on tips to make ends meet.


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