John Hollywood writes about pop culture with a psychological twist; his articles are practical in nature with a "how-to" approach.
Welcome to the Experience of the Flight Attendant
Note: The information provided for this article was given to Mr. Hollywood in an interview from a flight attendant who wishes to remain anonymous.
Chances are you’ve had some interaction with an FA (flight attendant) before, but unless you’re an FA or know someone who is, you probably don’t know what really goes on behind the scenes. I've been a flight attendant at a major U.S. airline for the better part of 12 years and I've seen it all. I’m going to reveal some of the secrets of being a flight attendant; some stuff may surprise or shock you.
The truth is that the work we do may sound glamorous and exciting, and sometimes it is, but our jobs can also be exhausting and stressful. Is it worth the trade-off of traveling far and wide and meeting tons of interesting people? Some of us certainly think so, but I’ll let you decide for yourself.
1. We Work Harder Than You Do.
At many of the carriers, an average workday is between 10 and 12 hours, though it’s not uncommon for flight attendants to have 16-hour work days (which is the legal maximum). This can happen for a number of reasons, including airplane delays.
If you factor in the time it takes to commute back and forth to the base cities we fly out of, those numbers get even higher, even though they’re not considered part of our work day as per FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) regulations.
2. We Are Stronger Than You.
Our job is very physical. We’re on our feet almost the entire time, and pushing a fully loaded beverage cart is no joke. It can weigh up to 300 pounds! Add to that the heavy lifting that we do to help passengers with their bags, and you’ve got one buff crew.
Unfortunately, many of us have back problems because of the constant bending and lifting we do, though there is a pretty steep learning curve for understanding how to take care of your body for new FA’s since you can injure yourself by lifting luggage incorrectly. This is just another reason we have little patience for passengers with oversize carry-on bags.
3. We Look Incredible for How Tired We Are.
To give you an idea of just how crazy a flight attendant’s work day can be, it is not unheard of for crews working a transoceanic flight on a Boeing 777 to be scheduled for 16 hours. This could go up to 18 hours if there are delays. While we do occasionally have time to get out of the airport or hotel complex and see some sights, that’s not always the case. So if you think we are always able to squeeze in a quick beach trip, get a golden suntan, watch a beautiful sunrise, and then get enough shut-eye to be back in time for work, think again.
And if you’re wondering why we might look a little pale, dried-up, or sickly, it’s because we are constantly trying to keep up with the sleep, natural sunlight, and hydration that we lose by being an a plane for hours every day.
Just think of how you look after one transatlantic flight with your greasy face, rumpled clothes, and ashy skin, and multiply that by a million. Now you understand what a miracle it is that we look as put together as we do.
4. Sometimes We Just Tell You What You Want to Hear.
Like, "Yes, your bags will make your connecting flight" since I work on the ramp and know exactly how bags get passed from plane to plane. NOT. Our job is to keep you happy on the flight, and we’ll do whatever it takes, even if it means smiling and nodding when we actually have no idea what the answer to your question is.
On that note, we wish our smiles were genuine all the time but sometimes we are totally faking it in the hopes that they’ll make you stop talking and start smiling back.
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5. Dating Can Be Challenging.
The lifestyle of a flight attendant poses some unique challenges for long-term relationships. Much of our time is spent in transit with people we’ve never met before or only met a couple of times. This isn’t exactly conducive to building relationships.
Love can overcome everything, though! While an FA lifestyle might pose some obstacles, it’s certainly not impossible to have relationships and many people learn how to make it work (with the added bonus of being able to take trips with your loved one!)
6. Staying in Hotel Rooms Gets Old.
Sleep tends to be a hot commodity, and most of it happens in hotel rooms. Though having a standard sleep schedule is pretty much impossible, you do learn when and how to get your shut-eye.
But let’s talk about where we stay. The hotel you stay at is dependant on the airline and what the carrier and union determine (if you have a union). Airlines are always trying to save a buck so the hotels they put us in are not necessarily the Ritz (though they can be nice), and occasionally they are downright nasty. I’m talking about hotels with creepy-crawly things like roaches and even bed bugs. Usually bookings like that happen in a city where most places are full for some reason or another, or on international travel.
Life in hotels has its perks (like gyms and free breakfast), but it also has its downsides, like the monotony and . . . other hotel guests. Sometimes we get put in a room that has people partying next door to us, making it nearly impossible to sleep. Thus we can get pretty crabby, particularly during long trips.
7. We Don’t Necessarily Have More Sex Than You (but We Might).
Many people believe that flight attendants have lots of sex, that we’re always sleeping with sexy pilots, other flight attendants, and even the occasional passenger in whirlwind romances that take place in exotic cities. Though that sounds steamy, the truth is (as usual) a little more balanced. Some nights we’re so exhausted, the idea of picking anyone up sounds terrible. We look like crap after being in the air all day and we just want to be alone.
When you are tired as all hell and look like death warmed over, sex really isn’t something you want. We're just not feeling horny. The only thing we want to "hook up" with is a shower. In fact, there’s a term for FA’s who tend to keep to themselves during layovers. They’re called slam-clickers, or “slam-and-click” flight attendants, for the sound a hotel door makes as it’s shut and locked.
Then again, on other nights, you go out with your crew or maybe your passengers or whoever you met on Tinder and have a hell of a night (and yes, it could be in an exotic location). It’s impossible to make a hard and fast rule about this one since there are so many different kinds of people who are flight attendants. Suffice it to say that you can find people on both extremes and at different points in the middle. Sometimes people even swap extremes!
8. And We Definitely Don’t Have Sex on the Airplane.
Would you have sex in your office? With all your other co-workers there? Locked in with no escape? Within inches of people who could hear you? Not only is it pretty unappealing, but this would be a serious offense that could cost us our jobs.
9. If We’re Strapped in, You Should Be Strapped in.
If your flight takes off and the captain informs the flight attendants to “Please remain seated” until further notice, chances are that you’re in for a hell of a ride. Get ready for turbulence!
That chime you hear a few minutes after you take off indicates to FAs that the aircraft has reached 10,000 feet, which is typically when we get out of our jump-seats and start getting the service carts ready. If the captain ever tells us to remain seated however, we know it’s going to get ugly.
The same holds true if the captain tells us to suspend beverage service. The rough translation of that is, “Tighten your seatbelts!”
10. We Get Scared Too.
When you look at us with fear in your eyes because it’s getting bumpy, you should know that we are freaking out inside too. We just hide it from you with a nice, broad smile.
11. We Are More Pissed off Than You Are About Delays.
The ugly truth is that we don’t paid until the door to the aircraft is shut by the gate agent. We are only paid for trips, which start from the moment we pull back from the gate and end when the trip is completed. The clock for a trip does not start until that aircraft door shuts which means we continue to go unpaid as you’re lazily walking through the jetbridge or dragging a huge-ass rollaboard behind you that’s guaranteed to not fit into the overhead bins though it is guaranteed to make us late. This is also why you hear many of us telling you to sit down over the PA so we can get the flight underway.
That said, we do get an expense allowance for some trips called a per diem that pays $1.00 or $2.00 an hour from the second we check into the airport to the time we come back to our domicile (home base). Trust me, though, it does not add up to much. So let me speak for my fellow FAs (and all airline passengers everywhere): Please, get yourself onto the plane, put your bags away, and sit down so we can shut the door.
12. We’re Not Drunk on the Plane but . . . Sometimes We Just “Edge the Line” With Alcohol.
Flight crews, which include the pilot, the co-pilot, and the FA, sometimes go out together during long layovers and sometimes drinking is involved but here’s the thing: The FAA has an 8-hour requirement of "no alcohol" for pilots before a scheduled flight. Most airlines have their own rules requiring 12 hours of abstinence before a flight and FAs are under the same rules as pilots at most carriers, which means no drinking 12 hours prior to the flight.
So what can sometimes happen is that a flight crew will go out and have a few cocktails, during an international trip for example, the evening before a scheduled flight leaves the next afternoon, so technically they are within the limit but are juuuuuuuust edging the line on the 12-hour rule.
I am not saying that any of the flight crew are drunk when you are on your plane. Flight crews are subject to random alcohol and drug testing by the government and by the airline. These tests for alcohol can happen at any time and are demanded on the spot, usually through a breathalyzer or urine sample. The flight crews know this and are mindful of when they can and cannot consume alcohol to be in compliance.
13. We Are All (Pretty Much) Broke. The Flight Attendant Life Pays in Life Experiences, Not $$.
I know we look professional in our uniforms, but the unfortunate truth is that most of us are not rolling in the dough. In fact, after pay and benefit cuts at some of the major carriers, some FAs even qualify for food stamps. This might seem unbelievable, but it’s true. FAs have even been fired for revealing this.
A lot of us live with other airline employees (five, ten, or even fifteen other people!) out of a base city to cut down on housing costs. To make a few more dollars, we try to pick up "extra trips" if the carrier can dole them out. However, it's all based on seniority so newer flight attendants have more competition. Healthy lifestyle stuff like eating right and working out also have their own challenges: FAs have to make a real commitment to making time for these things, or else they would never happen. Luckily, most hotels have a gym and sometimes that’s all there’s time for: eat, workout, sleep.
Other FAs cut down on costs by making food for four days at home and bringing it with them on trips (you know how ridiculously expensive airport food is), or snagging extra bananas and muffins at breakfast at the hotel.
The lifestyle can be wearing, and I don't know how some of the older flight attendants hired in the 70's can still do this. The average seniority at some of the major airlines is 15+ years. Take a look at us when you are flying. A lot of us are overweight, botoxed out, and have faces caked with makeup to hide the bags under our eyes. Count yourself lucky if you get served coffee by some young, hot thing! That's what many of us used to be.
14. We Work in a Petri Dish. Sickness Happens.
We travel for a living and are exposed to hundreds of people from around the world each day. The truth is that we often get sick but continue to work because we have to – not because we want to.
Some of us simply can’t afford to take time off. Airlines also have very strict attendance rules, though they do have sick day policies and FA’s are encouraged to use them. That said, if we are late for a flight check-in or call in sick at the last minute, airlines have little compassion and we can get docked pay.
Many FAs have found themselves in deep trouble because they thought they could call in sick a few times during the year, only to find out there were major consequences like getting written up or fired. It all depends on the airline of course and what the union has worked out.
However, if you have a head cold of some kind, you definitely don't go to work. Colds and altitude don't mix and you can seriously damage your ears!
15. We Might Not Want to Eat What You’re Eating . . .
An aircraft galley (where the FA’s hang out) is an extremely hectic place that, depending on the aircraft, is often cramped. This doesn't happen often, but once in a blue moon we do drop food on the galley floor, like a bread roll, and then brush it off and serve it to you.
Many of the airlines have cut back so much on service that what little food we have to offer (if any) must be served carefully. There are usually no “extras” to go around on a lot of trips. When we drop food on the galley floor due to turbulence, we can't replace it.
No flight attendant will come out and admit this but it does happen (though some FA’s never see it because it’s fairly rare). We would rather feel guilty about serving you something we dropped instead of having you write a letter to the airline, complaining that you were not fed. Those letters go into our file and can cost us our job.
16. We Have Nicknames for Everything, Including Those Blue, Pink, and Yellow Lights
Have you ever wondered what those blue, pink, and yellow lights mean inside of the cabin, towards the front of the plane? You know, the ones you see from your seat when you look down the aisle? Whenever you hear a chime, usually one of the lights becomes illuminated, which is an indication that the FA needs to see what's up.
Here’s the inside scoop on what they mean and how we remember them:
- Blue = A passenger needs us. It’s the color we want your face to turn cause we're tired of you hitting the call button.
- Amber = The lavatory light that goes off if you hit the call button while you’re peeing. It’s easy to remember because it’s the color of urine.
- Pink: Another FA or the Captain is calling us on the in-flight phone.
Some flight attendants call the blue light the "Passenger Bother Light.” I won't tell you what we call the amber light but it starts with a P . . .
On some aircraft, there is a also green light. This could mean a number of things. It could mean that we can’t enter the cockpit because we haven’t reached a certain altitude or it could also be a signal to the FAs that we are approaching a gate. Again, it depends on the carrier and aircraft type.
17. Airplanes Are So Nasty Dirty, We Can't Believe You Just Took Off Your Shoes and Touched the Floor With Your Bare Feet.
Airplanes, though they might seem sterile, are not operating rooms. If you look around next time you’re on one, you’ll notice how dirty it is. Planes are supposed to be cleaned on a regular basis but since they they are frequently rotated around the system, deep cleaning does not happen as much as it needs to. FA’s usually do a quick cleaning during a fast turn-around but often there is little time to do it well.
Some of the planes that we work on and you fly might even have roaches or bed bugs, though this is rare. Always make sure your carry-on bags are zipped up and closed, otherwise you may be helping a creepy crawly hitch a ride to your hotel or home.
You should also know that the water we pour from the pitcher or coffee pot may taste okay, but that does not mean it is clean. Water is housed in a special tank on each aircraft which is supposed to be disinfected on a regular basis by maintenance. Again, however, many airlines outsource this kind of work to companies that are less than reputable, so the tanks are not disinfected as much as they should be.
If you ask for tea or coffee, chances are the water came from the tank of the plane. Many FA’s consider it to be gross, and if we do . . . then you probably should too. If you ask for a cup of water, always insist that it is poured from a bottle.
18. We Fart on You.
Like I mentioned, the galley is a cramped space. It would simply be impolite for us to fart on each other back there, so we engage in a process called “crop-dusting,” whereby we walk down the aisle and fart as we do so. Take note that the terrible smell you’re experiencing might very well be the person sitting next to you, but it could also be the FA.
19. We Talk about You and Have Code Names for You.
Anything interesting that happens on the plane is instantly discussed in the galley. If you’re rude to us, you can be sure that all the other FA’s are going to know about it. There’s also some code words we might use to describe you, like Bob, which stands for boyfriend on board. This is when a certain flight attendant takes to a certain man and makes sure that he’s doing fine throughout the flight. You might hear FA’s ask how Bob is doing, just checking in to make sure the relationship is going smoothly.
20. We Can Save Your Life.
Even though you don't need a college degree to be a flight attendant, we're highly trained to worry about your safety so you don't have to and you can (and do!) trust us with your life. Just remember that before you bitch us out about missing your connecting flight in Dallas.
21. This Job Is Better Than Your Job.
Many flight attendants do this work because it is in our blood. We've said we would quit a thousand times, only to show up at the next check-in for our pre-flight debrief. It’s because all those things that you think are great about being a flight attendant, like getting to travel and meet lots of interesting people, really are great.
Our job gives us the chance to have adventures and take chances, which is something many careers don’t provide. Plus, the friendships we make with other employees last a lifetime.
If you are thinking of being a flight attendant, great! I hope this article was helpful for you. Feel free to share it with anyone who’s thinking about being a flight attendant. If you’re a passenger, I hope this information was helpful for you too! Now you know a little bit more about what goes on behind the scenes and in the galley.
And finally (especially) if you are one of those pushy frequent fliers who thinks you are God because of the special "status" you’ve attained with all the miles you've flown, keep what you read here in mind. The last thing we need is to put up with your arrogance or your carrying on about how you didn't get upgraded. I know we’re smiling, but we really don’t feel sorry for you.
See you on the next flight!
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© 2013 John Hollywood