7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Flight Attendant
Something happened on my redeye flight from LA to Fort Lauderdale the other night that has me thinking about flight attendant life, external pressures, and assumptions.
A young man came to the back galley, presumably to hit on me. He told me I had beautiful eyes and then proceeded to pepper me with questions as if I’d signed up for an interview. The line of questioning—what school do you go to? What was your major?—alerted me to the fact that he was more than a decade my junior and did not realize it. I graduated college in 2008.
He moved from asking about school to employment. How long have you been at this job? Do you plan to stay here long-term? So, you’ve been here for seven years and haven’t done anything else?
Listen people, I’m working through my own feelings on comfort and coasting. If you want to hear about that journey of self-reflection, feel free to read the post from March where it was tackled. But the place I’m at now, in this journey to becoming my best, most authentic self, is one in which a stranger’s insinuation that I’m failing is not going to ruin my day. Least of all a stranger too young to have experienced the world beyond a dorm room.
I would have had the same questions at 18. (Or 19, or 20, I have no idea how old this kid was.) I, too, thought that only traditional, visibly important jobs carried worth. That prestige, salary, and external approval were the components of defining success. But you learn a lot as you trod through life. And for many of us, these definitions start to look old and rusty when we take a closer look. Like someone that has nothing to do with you, from another place and time, created the rules you’ve been trying to follow.
This interaction got me thinking about my job. This job that I love, that people scoff at or fetishize or romanticize. I put myself in this kid’s shoes. Started thinking about how I saw this job before I was a flight attendant. The misconceptions I carried. A total lack of understanding of how it all works. I decided to put a list together for those of you not in aviation. Those who have considered working as a flight attendant, and those who have never considered the position at all. For those of you in the biz, you’ll probably be able to relate. Here’s a little guide to the things that no one tells you.
Things I wish I’d known before becoming a flight attendant
1. Smart people do this job.
A pretty crappy stereotype that my coworkers and I are up against is the myth that flight attendants are uneducated airheads, dum-dums, people who couldn’t get better jobs. The truth is, while a college education is not required to become a flight attendant, due to the *extremely* competitive applicant pool, many if not most of my coworkers do have a degree. Many are working on their undergrad and graduate degrees while flying. My company now offers a subsidized bachelor’s program, allowing even more employees to achieve their educational goals.
And beyond this very basic, non-comprehensive, non-working definition—the assumption that a degree is what makes one intelligent—I also work with people who have a shit-ton of professional and life experience in a multitude of arenas. I work with doctors, nurses, lawyers, professors, real estate agents, authors, actors, music producers. People who own their own businesses, like my good friend Lesley. Fitness coaches like my good friend Dasha. Real estate investors and day traders. Labor union stewards. Journalists. Socially conscious and politically active citizens, well-read justice fighters. And the list goes on and on.
The same is true for people working in all different service and hospitality sectors—hotels, food & beverage, retail. We cannot know someone’s insides by looking at their outsides. So let’s not make ourselves look stupid by assuming we’re any better, or smarter, than anyone else. Regardless of the job you see them in.
FA secret: We are ADDICTED to this lifestyle.
2. It’s crack.
I don’t have statistics, but anecdotally I can tell you that a LOT of flight attendants return to flying after resigning from the job. They quit flying, get a grounded job, think they’ll be happier and very quickly miss the freedom, the excitement, and the crews.
Flying gets under your skin like an addiction, and many people never shake it.
Contributing to this addiction is the fact that the more time you spend in the air, the better it gets.
Aviation is a seniority-based profession. For flight attendants and pilots, gate agents and grounds crew, the longer you have been in your job, the sweeter it gets. We “bid” for our schedules, meaning that we request the days off we want, the vacation weeks, the trips we prefer to work and those we prefer not to, we can even request to work with or avoid certain people. All of these requests are granted—on the basis of seniority. The employee who has been here the longest has their bid processed first. They get every trip, day off, and preference they ask for. The next person down the line gets everything they want, unless it is something already taken by the person above them. And on and on and on through a roster of thousands of flight attendants.
Each year at this job I have been given a pay raise, faster Paid Time Off accrual, more days off, and have had the pick of trips I actually WANT to work. (Grain of salt here: Corona is affecting all these things.) I may, in fact, be guilty of going off the deep end into princess territory when it comes to trip-selecting. I prefer to only work one leg (flight) per day, and I mostly fly transcons from coast to coast, laying over in California and New York.
Because each year gets better and better, it becomes harder and harder to leave. For people who belong in aviation—who have always dreamt of doing this job, it makes the idea of leaving for a bigger airline less appealing. Having achieved a certain seniority and quality of life, it is difficult to start over at the bottom somewhere else. This is especially tough at my young airline, where, due to incredible growth, half our workforce has 5 or fewer years of seniority. Brand spanking new, by industry standards. The quality of life and seniority I have here would take double the time to achieve at a legacy carrier. Yikes.
I’ve never considered myself a “Lifer.” I certainly don’t want to be 70 and still arguing over bags. But even for someone like me it is hard to imagine leaving. Go to work FIVE days a week? To the SAME place? With the SAME coworkers? In the SAME chair in the SAME office? What do you MEAN I can’t just drop my workday when I don’t feel like coming in? REQUEST time off?! But it’s MINE! Having so much control over my schedule would be hard to walk away from. Having so much time off (without touching vacation, sick time, PTO, and without requesting permission to take it) would be hard to throw away.
So, though I won’t call myself a “lifer,” I would not leave for anything less than a(nother) dream job. Something that moved me personally. Fulfilled my soul. Something so important that I would consider giving up the freedom I’ve enjoyed and come to expect over the past 7 years.
Otherwise, I’m an aviation addict, basking in my vice.
You are not a title. You are a badass.
3. The people are the worst.
At my flight attendant interview 7 years ago, I jokingly said “Crying babies.” When asked what I thought the most difficult part of flying would be. It turns out babies, crying or not, do not even make the list of difficult things in my sphere.
The entitlement people have after paying $100 for an airplane ticket is incredible. I’ve had a man yelling in my face with my back against the aircraft door because he was upset about another customer being barefoot. I had another man threaten to file a class action lawsuit over his television not working. (No, you are not a protected class as a member of the flying public.) People insisting on me moving another customer because they were too big, didn’t smell nice, or had an animal. People quite literally throwing their trash all over the ground as if it’s peanut shells at a Texas Road House. This despite the dozen or so times the crew has walked down the aisle with bags to collect said trash. Those demanding a better seat. Demanding free drinks. Snapping their fingers to get my attention—or worse, TOUCHING me.
The guy who shat himself on the plane. And worse—the people who flipped their Sh*t because they assumed he had some exotic disease. (Read: everyday racism.)
The people who ask for drinks or snacks while I’m tending to a MEDICAL EMERGENCY.
The guy who threw so many F-bombs my way during a flight that 3 separate passengers wrote in compliments for how I handled the verbal assault. (It was over a pet. It is always over a pet.)
Everyone on THIS list of 6 Ways to be the Worst.
Basically, people suck.
4. But they’re really not that bad.
For all the ridiculous, absurd, out-of-line things just mentioned above, the truth remains that those people are in the minority. The bad apple stands out and sears into your memory, but the vast majority of the flying public are fine. Just regular-degular, normal, nice enough people just trying to get from point A to point B. It is sometimes tough to remember after a particularly bad day, but it is still the truth.
Despite the horror stories, most people aren't so bad.
5. Small checks, Big vibes.
Being a flight attendant is a lifestyle job. Meaning if pay is your biggest or only concern, then this job is not the job for you.
To be clear, there is money to be made. Stick around long enough and you can pull a pretty nice salary. But this is not a high-power, high-paying gig. The flex of flight attendant life is truly the lifestyle.
Who wouldn’t like working only 15 days a month as a full-time employee? Working when you want and as much as you want, largely controlling your income level.
Beyond the flexibility in scheduling, the freedom of movement is possibly the most addictive part. Sure, other people travel. But do they decide to take an impromptu trip to Atlanta to check out some properties and catch a flight that same afternoon? Do they decide, at the end of a trip to Singapore, that they’ll “just stop by” Paris for three days on the way home? Can they plan visits to see family and friends where, instead of taking time off from work, they are actually on a work trip, laying over, and getting paid? Being a flight attendant, you get accustomed to doing things “on the fly” and whenever you feel like it. This is one of the things ex-FAs miss the most about flying and why they feel locked down and boxed in when they go to a “regular” job.
But wait, there’s more! We don’t answer to a boss in our day-to-day job. This means individual responsibility and autonomy. We don’t take our work home with us. The most stressful flight on Earth can’t shake me because tomorrow is a new day, and today’s problems don’t follow me into tomorrow. There is plenty of time for any number of side-hustles. Not surprisingly, I spend a lot of my time in the air and on layovers writing. There is the opportunity to escape your kids and relax in nice hotels for a night. There is the opportunity to escape your lonely single blues and hop a flight to the Caribbean with another FA. (There is literally ALWAYS someone to travel with.) It is like you are part of a worldwide exclusive club. And being in a club feels good.
The perks, which I’ll get into next, the opportunities, and above all, the freedom are the gravitational centers that make flight attendant life nice and keep us all coming back for more.
6. Those Perks , tho.
Travel benefits are what most people are thinking of when they get wide-eyed and excited in a conversation about flight attendant life. And with good reason. I fly for free within the US, on my airline and other airlines. Whenever I want, so long as there is a seat available on the flight. When I fly international I pay taxes, which there really is no getting around. And in some cases, I pay what is called a “Zed fare”, which is just a heavily discounted fare for standby travel. A trip to Europe might cost $200-300 round trip. While a trip to California, Hawaii, Alaska, and Saint Thomas cost exactly $0. Not too shabby.
Our friends and family benefit, too. We get a set number of buddy passes per year that we can give out to anyone we trust to use them wisely. That person then pays a small fee and travels space-available, or standby, to their destination. We are allowed to have our parents, children, and spouse or travel companion on our benefits. These people do not have to pay a buddy pass fare, and instead fly just like us—for free! Being able to help family get to where they need to be is honestly one of the most rewarding perks.
(Having random people you do not hang out with ask for buddy passes is one of the annoyances. So, unless you’re on a texting regularly basis, don’t bother asking a flight attendant for their passes.)
We have agreements to fly on other airlines and generally, due to the whole exclusive club thing, we are treated like royalty when we do. We get discounts on hotels and car rentals through work. We get random discounts on a slew of other things from pet care to home insurance to cell phone plans.
The big perk of flight attendant life, of course, is the travel. But we could never take full advantage, were it not for the lifestyle perk of our insane flexibility. And damn if that isn’t some sweet harmony.
The freedom of movement is unmatched.
7. It’s not all Coke & Pretzels
One of the biggest misconceptions about this job is that it is equivalent to being a “sky waitress.”
Actually, Maribel, I’m here to save your life.
I know, I know, like it’ll ever happen. But eventually something will happen, on some flight, at some time. And if it happens to be on our flight, know that I have been trained to handle a hell of a lot of emergency situations. Medicals, fires, evacuations—scenarios in which seconds count and a well-rehearsed course of action can be the difference between success and tragedy.
Seven years ago, when I went to flight attendant training, we stayed for 30 days. For eight hours a day, six days per week, we were in classrooms or airplane simulators. We were tested almost daily on new materials at a pace that could make one’s head spin. Of that month of eight-hour long training shifts, six days per week, do you know how much time was spent on serving beverages and snacks?
Two hours. In one afternoon. And largely it was a DIY lesson.
You see, as much as my airline prides itself on great customer service and giving people all kinds of cozy extras, the priority is always safety.
I had to learn a whole new language at training. Plane parts and airport codes and SO many acronyms. I had to learn how to use every piece of emergency equipment on the airplane (there is a lot!) How to get your butts out in seconds when there is an emergency. What to do if we end up stranded in the OCEAN! The things I have learned how to handle give me the willys to think about. But if put in the situation, I’d handle them.
I’m not trying to get you to bow down to flight attendants. We’re not saving lives every day. Most days, we are just handing out coke and pretzels, boarding and deplaning, going about our business. But on the ONE day that we are really needed, we’ll rise to the occasion.
So, in case it wasn’t clear before: We are safety professionals first.
And there you have it. Clarification on some of the biggest misconceptions about flight attendants and flight attendant life. Did any of them surprise you? Fellow FAs—what would you add to the list?
Try to keep these things in mind next time you’re flying, or anytime you’re moving about in the world. Most of my points are universal truths and not solely related to flight attendants. Bear in mind that insulting the (much older) woman you’re trying to hit on falls flat after being inadvertently rude, and let’s keep our assumptions to a minimum. Above all, whatever position you’re in, and whatever your job title may be, remember that you have intrinsic value that can not be quantified. You are not a title. You are a badass. And the only one like you.
Thanks for reading and have a great weekend.
Until next time!