- Courtesy of Annette Long
The life of a flight attendant isn’t for everyone.
“People think there’s glamour associated with this job, and there is to some extent when you’re talking about, ‘I just got back from Beijing, and I know the best shops in the Pearl Market,’ or ‘I spent Chinese New Year in Hong Kong,’ or ‘after spending the day at Ipanema Beach in Rio, we went to a fabulous churrascaria,'” says Annette Long, a flight attendant with 13 years of experience.
“But the job itself is far from glamorous,” she continues. “Even if you’re working in first class or business class, it’s not glamorous at all.” Many flight attendants don’t realize just what the job entails until they’re doing it, she says.
This includes early wake-up calls and sporadic hours; flight delays and cancellations that will nix plans; weekends and holidays spent working; and often dealing with difficult or ungracious people.
But while the job isn’t as glamorous as many people think, being a flight attendant does come with its own unique set of perks, among them the ability to travel the world at little cost and the flexibility to arrange your work schedule.
Because of this, the competition among flight attendant candidates is so fierce that, for certain airlines, applicants compete with thousands of other applicants. It has even been said that it’s harder to get invited to certain flight-attendant training centers than to get into Harvard University.
“It’s very competitive, and people get passed over all the time,” Long says about becoming a flight attendant.
To find out what makes the job so appealing, we spoke to Annette about what it’s really like to be a flight attendant. Here’s what she said:
- Courtesy of Annette Long
Getting the job
“This is like a second career to me. I was in sales before this, working for a cruise line doing business development and management, and after September 11, I lost my job. After September 11, for anybody in the travel business, it was a long time before we got jobs.
“I was coming back from a job interview in Chicago, and I saw this older, plumper flight attendant from a regional jet airliner with a trainee badge on. I had always wanted to be a flight attendant when I was a little kid, and the regionals were hiring, so I came home and thought about it and decided I was gonna go for it.
“I started applying for a regional airline in 2003, and when I got the job, I took a huge cut in pay – but it was bigger than unemployment was paying.”
“You can earn a nice middle-class living, but you’re never going to get rich doing this job.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, flight attendants earn on average $46,750 a year, while the bottom 10% earn around $26,000 and the top 10% earn more than $70,000 a year. Pay varies depending on seniority, flight hours worked, and airline.
- De Visu / Shutterstock.com
“My best friend works for another airline, and we travel a couple of weeks a year. We’ve done a week in Beijing, a week in Shanghai, a week in Buenos Aires, and Prague.
“The biggest cost, aside from hotels, is generally airfare, and I don’t have to worry about that so much. Of course, we go when it’s cold and no one else wants to go there. And since employees are the bottom of the barrel, we have to fly on standby, and we don’t have priority.
“Probably a secondary big perk like travel is the way we can arrange our schedules. You can find people to work your trip – you don’t get paid for it, but you get time off. You can bid schedules that are day trips, so if you want to be home most nights, you can. There’s so much schedule flexibility once you get a little bit of seniority, you can make your schedule look as great as you want it to be.”
- Flickr/MIKI Yoshihito
Hours and scheduling
“Domestically, my airline won’t schedule you for more than 8.5 flight hours. Other companies could be different, but this is pretty close to what every other airline does.
“However, things can happen: There could be some incidents, having to circle an airport before you land because of weather, or you might get diverted to another airport.
“Your flight time is from when the doors close to when the door is opened again. So duringall that boarding time, that’s not paid time. If you go over 8.5 hours of flight time, the airline has to give you a certain amount of rest. They give us 16 hours domestically.
“Internationally, you’ve got duty time. We cannot be on duty for more than 20 hours, and once I show up at the airport, my duty clock starts.
“A recent flight to Beijing was delayed, and the airline knew the day before that it was delayed because the plane that we were going to be taking was broken and they were fixing it. So they called me the day before and said, ‘Your flight is delayed 2.5 hours.’ Then they called me again the next day and it was delayed a little further. The reason they do that is to make sure I don’t show up at the airport before it’s necessary and start my duty clock.
“Every other month, most of us are on reserve. You could work six days in a row, and you can have one of those schedules that nobody wants to trade one of their reserve days with you so you get six days when the crew desk can fly you. We have limits within our contract to how many hours they can fly you and how long your layover has to be, but our minimum layover is 9 hours and 45 minutes. So you can go several days in a row flying multiple legs a day and having basically a short layover. And you get home for one of those days, and next thing you know, you’re right back out again until you’re done for six days.”
- Courtesy of Annette Long
“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 on a 747 and are hidden mid-plane on some other aircraft, 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.”
Most desirable flights
“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.”
- Flickr/Stanley Wood
Recovery after long-haul trips
“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.”
- iStock/jean-marie guyon
Hardest part of the job
“The toughest time is boarding for us. When the passengers are putting their bags up, they tend to not be situationally aware because they’ve got their own little world that they’re dealing with right then, and – especially for people who don’t fly often – it’s all new. It’s all weird. It’s uncomfortable, I think.
“While they’re all in their little worlds, we’re trying to get everybody on the same page, get the door closed, and get you outta here so we can go to Denver on time. It’s pretty stressful trying to get everybody’s bags up quickly, and if you do that three times a day, that’s three hours of heavy-duty stress for flight attendants.
“It’s not heavy-duty stress like if there’s an emergency situation on board – it’s just normal, everyday, higher stress than what you’d like it to be.”
- Flickr/Jena Fuller
Strangest on-the-job experience
“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.”
- Consumerist Dot Com/flickr
Biggest pet peeves
“We’ve seen people clipping toenails. 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 bother flight attendants, when you get into our little space.
“People sometimes come on plane and hint for a free drink: ‘The plane was delayed 10 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.”
The job’s effect on 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.
“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.”
Best on-the-job experience
“My best one was the first time I went to China. I was flying with all these very senior people, and they’ve all done the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, so they didn’t want to do it again. They wanted to do their shopping and their massages.
“So I hired a driver for the day, and he took me out to the Great Wall, which was about an hour away.On the way back, there were all these fruit stands, and I said, ‘Do you mind stopping so I can get something to eat?’ My driver suggested I try a farmer’s market in the area, which was inside of a warehouse building. I’m very strange over there to them, so everybody was showing me their stuff, and I was taking pictures of their beautiful fruit and stuff. When we went back to Beijing, he showed me around some of the sights, like the Olympic Village, Bird’s Nest, and Water Cube, and he dropped me off in the Pearl Market.
“I had a layover by myself, and it was just absolutely fantastic. I can’t put it into words how fantastic it was. I did what I wanted to do, on my schedule, and I saw these amazing sights that I didn’t know when was the next time I was going to see them. So that’s the great thing about this job.”
- Delta Air Lines
Uniform and grooming requirements
“We are issued our uniforms during training. The airline does a fitting and orders them, and we receive and start wearing them usually during the last week of training. We have a small deduction taken out of our paychecks to pay for our uniforms. I think the amount is generally $800 spread out over a couple of years.
“The uniform standards are very precise at most airlines, and some airlines – not mine – have a physical check-in, where a supervisor checks the flight attendant and points out uniform infractions.
“Our black pumps, which we choose and purchase on our own, cannot have any sort of visible stitching or decoration on them. Heel height must be between 1 inch and 3 inches, and the heel must be separate, meaning no wedge shoes. Previously not allowed, we can now wear black patent-leather shoes and Mary Janes. Crazy, right?
“Many flight attendants, females especially, have what we call ‘concourse shoes’ and ‘in-flights.’ Most of us wear high heels and then change into comfy, airline-approved flats before we start our in-flight service.
“For years, we were also only allowed to wear tights in the wintertime, but now we’re allowed to wear them when we want to. While pantyhose are thinner and less opaque, tights are thicker, and you can wear them a thousand times and they still look new. We want to wear tights because of how many pantyhose you go through – on certain the aircraft there’s Velcro, and you walk past it, and you just ruined a pair of $15 pantyhose. So when we got the tights all year round, everybody was pretty excited about that.
“Our name bars and wings have a specific place to be on our uniform.
“At my airline, there are several different looks of our uniform. One may be wearing the dress, which is one color, and another flight attendant may opt for the blazer, white blouse, scarf, and skirt look – and if you didn’t know already, you couldn’t tell we were from the same airline.
“I get asked frequently if the different looks means something – like whether one is more senior than the other – and the answer is no. We can all wear whatever combination of our uniforms that we want to.
“There are certain phases of flight when we wear certain components of our uniform. Some opt to wear the serving jacket, which is different from our blazer, on an international flight, and some do not. Most wear the apron during service in the main cabin, and we would never wear either one during boarding or deplaning.
“We can never wear our uniforms in a bar, but we can have a meal in a restaurant that serves alcohol. And, of course, we are not permitted to drink alcohol while in uniform.
“If my hair is below my shoulders I have to pull it back. Your nails need to be neat and clean – no jagged edges. For women, I believe we’re required to wear lipstick – at least some sort of color on your lips.
“The men have grooming requirements with their beard: They need to be close to your face. They used to not allow beards at all.”
- Courtesy of Annette Long
“Tattoos must be covered up. We cannot chew gum in uniform. Nail polish cannot be extreme, like blue or black.
“Most airlines issue our suitcase and tote bag as part of the uniform package.
“When traveling as a crew member, we are exempt from the TSA liquid restrictions that passengers have. When traveling on my own, I comply with the same rules as passengers. In some countries, their version of the TSA is tougher than ours. We have a separate area for crew to pass through in London Heathrow, and the rules there are very tough. In addition to the liquid requirement, you have to take out your laptop like we do in the US, but also your phone and tablet. There, if you forgot to put your lip gloss in your quart-sized plastic zip bag, they will tear your bags apart in a search. If you forget to take out your iPhone, they will go over your bags with another fine-tooth comb.
“Our suitcase and tote bags count as one bag plus one personal item. When working, we can have a lunchbox, too. All of it must be black, and we can’t have flashing wheels. We are not supposed to have any extra shopping bags, but how else was I supposed to bring home my newfound stash from my recent trip to Beijing?”
- Adnan Abidi/Reuters
“It’s very competitive, and people get passed over all the time. A lot of flight attendants are interviewed three, four, five, six times. You’ve gotta do everything perfectly.
“When you make that first impression, you’ve gotta do it perfectly – you don’t get a second chance.”
- China Photos/Getty Images
“It’s pretty stressful, and I think it’s designed to be that way.”
- Courtesy of Iberia
“I wish I had become a flight attendant earlier because I’m so junior and this is where I’m supposed to be. I always wanted to do this since I was 12 years old, and I never thought I was ever pretty enough or thin enough or smart enough. I remember back in the ’70s, the airlines had all these restrictions about weight. I wish I was qualified to do this earlier.”