Yesterday was International Flight Attendant Day. And while my friends and coworkers were posting cute photos of themselves in uniform, hashtagging this made-up (but fun) holiday, I was having a pretty awful day at work. The first in a long while. I wrote this post in the late, late night and wee hours of the morning on the plane, as a way to do a bit of thoughtful venting and also as a means of opening up and giving a true picture of what FA Life is all about. Though I love what I do and wouldn’t want to be doing anything else, and though I talk it up like I’m a paid promoter, like any other job there are some times when work just isn’t awesome. Or glamorous. Or exciting. Some days are exhausting and irritating and terrible. So here’s that post, which could really be named International Flight Attendant Day: A Good Day to get Screwed.
I tend to give glowy, whimsical reviews about my job. It’s the best job in the world! I have so much flexibility! I have so much time off! I get to visit so many cool places! I couldn’t imagine not doing this.
And for the most part that’s true.
But every now and then…
A day like today comes along, full of shenanigans and extensions and problems—all out of my control but all affecting me very much, and I feel like popping out a slide, running off the tarmac and never coming back.
Okay, that was dramatic flair. It’s not quite bad enough for me to want to do that, but today is one of those days when work just plain sucks. No two ways about it. On International Flight Attendant Day, to boot. I thought in the interest of being real, and not just giving highlight reels, I’d provide a small peak into what a bad day at work is like.
I worked a 14 hour day on Wednesday that began at 4:45 am, meaning I left my house at 3:45 am. Yesterday I worked a 15 hour day that began at 10 am. They were long days, three flights each day and we flew to international destinations which adds in an additional little annoyance—a stop through customs. But my crew, exhausted as we all were, was in high spirits. We had made it past the long, tough days, and now was reward time. One two-hour flight to Bermuda, where we would layover at one of the most beautiful hotels our company has, and then deadhead (be a paid passenger) on a flight to Boston on Saturday.
Oh, we had plans. Up bright and early for the beach! Maybe a crew “debriefing” at the lobby bar in the hotel if we arrived early enough! Turquoise waters! And best of all—hardly any “work” left to do. The future was looking glorious.
Ten minutes before my transportation arrived to pick me up from the hotel, as I was doing the finishing touches of getting ready before leaving my room, I received a call from my company. Informing me that I was being “reassigned.”
No longer would I be working one quick flight to Bermuda. Instead, they wanted me to fly to Santo Domingo and then back, on a red eye turn. I was to continue to the airport, sit for two hours, work these two overnight flights, and arrive back in New York at 5:45 am. I was to sleep in a hotel and then deadhead (sit as a passenger on a flight) back to Boston Saturday evening.
Not only was my glorious Bermuda layover (with a great crew!) taken away. My whole crew was taken away—all split up to work different trips, filling in gaps where people had called out or gone illegal. I was now to work a full 8.5 hours more in this duty period than I had anticipated. I was to finish my trip and arrive in Boston four hours later than I anticipated on Saturday evening. AND I was now going to have to stay up, awake and completely alert, overnight until six in the morning, after I had been living on a morning schedule all week.
Those of you who know me know that I don’t mind working red eyes. As a matter of fact, I prefer them over morning flights. Any day! I often work red eye turns back to back as a way to earn lots of hours in a short amount of time and, as a bonus, get productive things accomplished (like blogging) when the people are sleeping. But choosing to work red eyes and being assigned a surprise red eye are two completely different things.
When I choose to work red eyes I also plan my rest accordingly. I sleep late. Or, on rare occasion, I get up early, and then nap in the afternoon. Getting adequate rest before your red eye is critical because if I fall asleep on the jumpseat it is grounds for automatic termination.
The whole getting enough sleep thing becomes very real when your livelihood depends on it. Not to mention your life, on the drive home.
And this, friends, is why my crew and I felt shocked and angered by this reassignment of red eye flying when none of us had prepared. And why we fought tooth and nail to be returned to our original schedule.
We were Davids. The company Goliath. And despite our pleas for understanding and our repeatedly explaining how unprepared we were for the new assignments given, we were assured that they were “legal.”
It’s the same in a lot of airlines and in a lot of corporate settings. The values preached in training sessions go out the window when shit hits the fan and it is time to get down to business and put bodies to work. And in many corporate settings labor is just that: bodies. Thousands and thousands of cogs in the wheel, keeping it spinning, each one that chips quickly replaced.
Life is unfair.
We all know it, but isn’t it a kick to the gut every time you have to sit with it face-to-face?
I love my job. I love where I work.
But sometimes I feel a real disappointment. That we can’t really live those values we talk about. That accountability falls on the shoulders of those at the bottom when the people sitting in comfortable chairs looking down can fail frequently and massively and never be held to accord. That life isn’t fair. We all know it, but isn’t it a kick to the gut each time you have to sit with it face-to-face?
After feeling unsupported with the individuals in leadership we had hoped might look out for us, we all three, resigned, shoulders slumped, headed to our respective gates to work these flights. Partly because the conversations we had with those in positions of power made us too nervous to consider the option of refusing to accept the assignment or a fatigue call.
All of our new flights became delayed. All of them became very long due to avoiding bad weather. By the time I land from this turn it will be not 5:45 am, but almost 9. Nearly 12 hours later than my original scheduled landing.
When it became apparent that I was going to “time out”, to become illegal from working too long, I felt a sense of haughty self-righteousness.
I told you you shouldn’t have put me on this flight, I thought.
Now they’re going to have to deal with a bigger mess when the flight cancels from my removal, I scoffed.
Look what you did.
But sitting up there at the gate, on the phone with the company associate who would be removing me, that sense of combativeness I’d been carrying in my body and mind for the last eight hours throughout this debacle was dissipating rapidly. I looked around at all the people, exhausted by this time, who had been waiting around for hours. They had their baggage, they were shuffling about, antsy to get the show on the road. The thought struck me that if the company couldn’t replace me to work the flight it would cancel. Now. After they’d all been sitting here for at least two hours, maybe three, waiting for us to land to take them back.
And in this moment it was a lot more difficult to think about how the company had done us wrong or made a mistake. Because the people I was looking at did nothing wrong. They didn’t deserve this hassle or to be stuck here for another night, just as much as I didn’t deserve this unexpected extension of duty.
I questioned whether I was being selfish. Whether I should try to suck it up and extend my duty into the 16-hour range. And really thinking about it, that option just wasn’t okay for me. For my health or safety. For my job security, or for the safety of the passengers I’d be in charge of saving in a medical or emergency situation. I took the removal. I gathered my belongings off the airplane, heavy with guilt but relieved to be going to bed. I stopped to tell my crew that I would be leaving, unsure of what the night would hold for them once I left. And while the three of us discussed possibilities and said our goodbyes, it came to our attention that a flight attendant from an inbound plane would be taking my place.
The flight would go.
The people would go.
I was absolved of guilt.
Taking care of myself didn’t cause a catastrophe for other people.
And I smiled to myself, walking alone through the airport, dragging my suitcase, thinking how we really are just cogs in a wheel. It had made me feel disheartened earlier, and now the same truth was putting me at ease. I am so, so replaceable.
So here I am, at the rooftop pool in my hotel in Santo Domingo, finishing up this story that started angry on the plane and is now a reminder to myself to see the silver linings.
Disappointments happen. Oh, yes they do. And life being unfair will probably never get any easier to accept. But overall, life is still very, very good.