- Courtesy of Annette Long
As passengers, you blindly place a huge amount of trust in your airline crew to ensure that you’re safely hurtled through the air about 35,000 feet up.
So it’s a little surprising that there is still so much about the world of commercial aviation that’s shrouded in mystery.
To answer all those burning questions we had about flying and the people who ensure we do it safely, we turned to Annette Long, a flight attendant with 13 years of experience.
Below she answers all the questions you’ve ever wanted to ask a flight attendant.
Do flight attendants eat the airplane food?
“Oh, yeah. All the time. You can just picture the vultures when there’s a first-class meal available.
“We get what’s left over of the fresh food after the passengers have been fed.”
What’s the most desirable flight for a flight attendant to work?
“We have a saying: ‘One girl’s trash is another girl’s treasure.’
“When I posted on my Facebook page that I was flying to Beijing, one of my friends wrote, ‘Better you than me.’ She likes to fly domestic, and there are a lot of my friends who love to fly domestic. They want nothing to do with flying international. And then there are people who only want to fly international.
“Of the international trips, I would say that Beijing and Tokyo from Washington, where I’m based, are probably the primo trips. Because of the high flying time, you’re working a lot of time in a short amount of days. In Beijing, you’re laid over for 52 hours, so you can go shopping, you can go relax, and you can go get your hair and nails done and your back massaged – whatever you want to do there – and we stay in a really nice hotel. Tokyo is a shorter layover, something like 24 hours, so you fly there about 13 hours, you lay over for 24 hours, and then you fly back home. So it’s a three-day trip versus Beijing, which is a four-day trip.”
How do those long-haul trips affect you?
“You’re pretty beat up by the time you get home. You really are so tired, you can’t even type on Facebook, ‘I’m home now.’ On the day after your trip you close the blinds, you may or may not answer the phone. You definitely won’t answer the door. You’re definitely going to cancel any plans you have with your friends because you were dumb enough to make them in the first place thinking you would go. But you just kind of come back into yourself and stay home because that’s where you need to be.
“When I get home I plan on sleeping in as late as I can. Your time clock gets crazy. But you do the best you can, you sleep when you can.”
- Courtesy of Annette Long
Can you sleep during long-haul flights?
“Yes. On the Beijing flight, which is 14 hours, we have four-hour breaks. We do the beverage service, the meal service, we pick up, do the dessert service, we pick up again, and then we start taking breaks.
“Half of the crew heads to the crew rest bunks for four hours while the other half stay up.
“The bunks, which are up a very small spiral staircase in the tail of the plane, are small. You can’t sit up in them. They’re like a coffin almost. The opening is on the side and there’s a curtain. And they give you a chance to sleep or listen to music or just relax – whatever you want to do.
“There are some unspoken rules up there. Like you don’t go down there and start chatting. We keep it quiet. If you’re the first crew up there, the cleaning people have put on fresh linen, so when you get done, you take your dirty stuff off and put fresh stuff on. You’re not making the bed, but you just put the sheets, the pillow, and the blanket right on top of the bed so I don’t have to go looking for it when I get up there. You leave it the way you found it.”
- Courtesy of Annette Long
Is it difficult to sleep during that four-hour time span?
“One of our new hires recently slept through three wake-up calls so, apparently for her, no. For me, I only slept a couple of hours and then I got up and it got really bumpy.”
What happens if you hit turbulence when you’re up there?
“We have seat belts. They come across the width of the bed.”
- Wikimedia Commons
What happens when someone gets really sick or dies mid-flight?
“They will never ‘die’ on the flight – we don’t pronounce them.
“If somebody gets really sick, we have a connection to a company called MedLink. We communicate what’s going on with our pilot and we talk to a doctor on the ground with MedLink, who will advise us on what to do. They ask the questions, and we give the answers that we’re able to give them with the equipment that we have. We have an automated external defibrillator, which would check the heart rate and things like that, and we’re able to convey this information to a doctor on the ground, and the doctor makes the decision whether to divert the plane or to continue on.
“The most common medical situations involve diabetics who haven’t had anything to eat or drink.”
Do you keep the passenger in their seat if they die?
“Yes. Thankfully I’ve never been in that situation, and I don’t know anyone who has been in that situation.
“I would probably put a blanket over the person so it would become less of something to look at. You want to maintain dignity and respect for someone who passed away. You don’t want anyone staring at them. That would be really sad.”
Are there any signals you use to communicate with crew members to be more subtle?
“There are couple of situations where we have not signals but words that we use to convey what we need to convey, and I can’t share them with you.
“But it’s really limited. Our main form of communication – and you hear it on a plane – is ‘ding dong, ding dong’ all night long. It’s because we’re calling each other going, ‘What do we have on the buy cart today?’ So we’re just calling back and forth for things like that.
“As far as signals go, what limited things we do, they’re security related and I can’t talk about them.”
- Flight/Paramount Pictures
What happens when a passenger refuses to fasten their seat belt after the ‘fasten seat belt’ light comes on?
“When a seat-belt sign is on but it’s smooth, some people don’t listen. They want to go to the bathroom – they don’t want to be rude and ugly – but they want to go to the bathroom, so they get up to go to the bathroom.
“Well, I’m not going to physically force you to stop. I’m not going to tell you ‘No, you can’t go to the bathroom.’ I’m just going to inform you, because I’m required to inform you, that the captain still has his seat-belt sign on, and I don’t think it’s safe for you to be up. And then they usually say, ‘Well, I just have to pee.’
“OK, well, I don’t want to be involved in that decision – you’re the adult, you make that decision.
“If the flight attendants are sitting down with their seat belts on, it’s probably a good idea to have yours on too.
“Am I going to get crazy over seat belts? No. Am I going to be concerned about somebody that’s not listening to any instructions and is not acting appropriately? Yes.”
- Flight/Paramount Pictures
What are some things a passenger would have to do to get kicked off a plane, restrained, or to have the plane diverted?
“If you were to come on the plane drunk – if the agent missed it and we noticed it before we left – you’d be escorted off the plane. Because we don’t need you to get up to 35,000 feet and get crazy on us. Most of the time people don’t do that. But, as a flight attendant, you have to do things with an abundance of caution.
“If you got physical, depending on what the act was, how it happened, and who it happened to, that might divert the plane. But I don’t make those decisions. I convey the information to the cockpit and the chief flight attendant, and they make the decision about whether or not we’re going to land and get someone off the plane.
“If you try to open a door mid flight, which is impossible to do, but most people don’t know that – that’s happened a couple of times.
“If you were belligerent with us before we took off, you wouldn’t go.
“Most of the pilots say to us, ‘If you’ve got a problem with them, I’ve got a problem with them,’ and they will back us up 100%.
“We all just want to get on the plane and get where we’re going. We don’t need to have any problems. It’s the law that you comply with the crew members’ instructions. My job isn’t to enforce stuff – it’s to let you know but there are certain things that you can’t cross the line on – so don’t make me pull this plane over.
“It’s not our nature to want to fight with you. Our nature is to diffuse the situation, make everything better. Flight attendants should be able to insert a little sweetness, confidence, and sometimes be the cop a little bit. But I’m not going to get into a fight with you. I’m going to report it, and we’re not going to make it worse than it is.”
What is the strangest thing you’ve ever experienced on the job?
“My flying has been so generic, if you will. I’ve had incidents. I’ve seen a guy fall – he passed out – and his face was what broke the fall against the wall of the airplane. He did not even put his arms out. But that’s not even that strange.
“I haven’t seen this, but I did have flight attendants tell me about blood dripping from the overhead because someone was bringing in a goat’s head from a Caribbean island. That was before TSA and all their security procedures were put in place, of course.
“For me, the strangest stuff is just gross human behavior.”
What would be some pet peeves you have of things passengers do?
“I’ve seen people clipping toe nails. It’s very gross and you can’t make them stop. And it’s not an infrequent thing, believe it or not.
“And feet in general – we have feet everywhere. We have people take their shoes off and put their feet on the bulkhead, the wall between first class. Their feet are up there or their feet are on either armrest of the seat in front of them. Feet in general just aren’t nice to have for other people’s viewing pleasure.
“People come back in the very small galley area and they do what we call ‘galley yoga.’ They start doing their deep knee bends and stretches. And we get it. We get it! But it’s just one of those things that bothers flight attendants, when you get into our little space.
“People sometimes come on plane and hint for a free drink: ‘The plane was delayed ten minutes, is there a free drink for me for that?’ ‘Drinks are on the captain right?’ I just grin and smile. ‘Smile and wave boys,’ that’s what I say.
“I’ve seen people watching porn on the plane. One guy had the whole row to himself and you had to be standing up and walking behind him to see that he was watching porn. I was like, ‘Really?’ What do I say to that?
“There weren’t any little children around, so there wasn’t anything to say. But there was one guy I could see was watching porn on his phone, and because it was nighttime, you could see the reflection on the window. I did point that out to him because I didn’t think everybody needed to see that.
“Some people will go to the local liquor store and bring their mini bottles of booze on the plane. We always know who you are; we always find it. You can’t serve yourself. We need to know how much you’ve had to drink so we’re not overserving you, because the higher you fly and the longer you go, the more the alcohol affects your brain.
“When I’m greeting people on the plane, sometimes they don’t even look at me. Most people will smile and say good morning, but there’s a large percentage that will ignore you and pretend they didn’t hear you and just walk past you.
“And then there are people who put their oversized bags in the overhead compartment and, when it doesn’t close, they just leave it for the flight attendant to take care of it. Now I’ve got to track you down and you’ve got to check your bag in, and you say, ‘Oh no let me try this.’ I don’t have any magic here. I can’t fix it. You have to check it.
“And just so you know, when you go to the bathroom and you’re barefoot or you’re in your socks, that’s not water on the floor.”
- Flickr/Jena Fuller
How thoroughly is the airplane getting cleaned? Is every tray table getting wiped down?
“No – first class and business class I think so, but not between every flight. I think the tray tables are wiped every night. But remember, they’re using a rag to start row one, and when they end up in row 35, that rag has wiped a lot of tables.
“It’s just not the cleanest environment.”
Is it considered rude or helpful for a passenger to use the call light?
“Well, we don’t like when you use it after we’ve just walked through the aisle. This happens all the time. We’ve just walked through three times picking up trash, and I’m barely back to the galley, and I hear ‘ding dong.’ And I go up there and you just want to hand me your trash.
“Absolutely use it when you need it. But if the seat-belt sign is off, you should get up and walk back to the galley anyway for circulation purposes.
“If you’re diabetic and you have an emergency situation, you need to ring it – two or three times even. Let us know. We’ll be right there. And sometimes when people are stuck in the window seat, and the two people next to them are sleeping, and all they want is a glass of water, it’s not problem.
“But if I had just come through to pick up trash and you call me to pick up trash, you can call, but it doesn’t make us happy.”
Would it annoy you if a passenger tried to bribe you for an upgrade with a magazine or chocolates?
“It doesn’t frustrate me because I can’t upgrade you.
“I’m very grateful for a People magazine, and if you bring chocolates, individually wrapped ones are good because we have to share. It’s nice that somebody recognizes us with that, but I can’t upgrade you.”
- Jacquelyn Smith/Business Insider
What if someone takes a seat that’s better than the one they have that they see is empty?
“It happens a lot. We have the two classes in economy – there are the seats that have more legroom and the seats that have less legroom – and people a lot of times will try to move up forward of the exit row. And we have to charge for that. Otherwise I have to move you. It’s what I’m required to do.”
What’s an obscure airplane rule that not many people know about?
“According to my training, the emergency exit shades have to be up because flight attendants are required to assess the conditions outside before they open the door. If there’s fire, deep water, or rocks outside that exit, that would make it unsafe for us to go through there, and the flight attendant would have to make that determination fairly quickly.”
How does the job affect your relationships?
“I think when you become a flight attendant you kind of have to give up big holidays with your family, and you find other ways to celebrate them. I haven’t spent many Christmases at home with my family because that’s the month I’m on reserve. I have to go wherever the company is going to send me.
“You miss a lot of holidays and you miss a lot of big things, like graduations. My family is kind of used to it. They don’t even expect me.
“My kids are in Virginia Beach, which is 3.5 hours away from me. So for Thanksgiving this year I drove to Virginia Beach and I got there in time for dinner in the afternoon. A few hours later I was driving back to Washington, DC.
“You do what you have to do.”
Is it hard to date when you’re a flight attendant?
“If you start dating someone who doesn’t’ know what the business is like, I think there could be a lot of opportunities for jealousy.
“When you say, ‘Oh yeah, I went out with the crew and the pilots picked up the check’ – I’m just using this as an example because it usually doesn’t happen that way – a guy could get jealous.
“In general we hang together, we do things together. But we’re just a family for the three or four days we’re working together and that’s it. We’re done.
“It could be difficult I think trying to explain your job, your schedule, and what going out means. It’s really not going to the nightclub. It’s going out to dinner, maybe getting a cocktail, and then to bed.”