What It's Really Like to Be a Flight Attendant

"I've had my butt grabbed a few times on the plane. Most of the time, the other passengers don't notice."

Amanda* grew up in a small town in the South. After graduating college, she wasn't sure what direction she wanted her career to take when a family friend who was a flight attendant suggested the job. Amanda got an interview with an airline and was hired in 2001.

Amanda had six and a half weeks of training, where she learned everything from wine pairing to self-defense. When she finished training, she lived in an apartment with seven other flight attendants while working domestic flights out of a city on the West Coast.

She then transferred to another city for several years before being assigned to New York City, where she's worked for more than a decade. She's one of the many flight attendants who commute to work, spending the day before her shift flying to New York from her home in another part of the country. She shares what it's really like spending her career in the air.

As part of our training, every flight attendant goes through what we call "Barbie Doll Boot Camp." We're required to wear lipstick and mascara when we come to work, and our hair color has to be something natural and pulled back if it's long. You have to be perfect every day. [During training,] managers would actually follow you through the hall and put lipstick on you and put mascara on you if you didn't have enough. Guys go through their own [requirements]: Their hair has to be above their collar, they have to be clean-shaven, their uniform has to be perfect, they have to have the right shoes, the right belts.

Our uniforms are really dated — I literally had to cut shoulder pads out of my jacket when I got mine. When we're hired, we have to pay for our uniforms. I bought a dress, a pantsuit, a skirt suit, and probably four or five shirts, which cost about $800 in total — it might be higher now. They take $25 or so out of your paycheck every month until it's paid off. [After that], we're given a point allotment of 12 to 15 points every year that we can use to get new items; a shirt is, like, two points and a suitcase might be 12. I typically have enough to last me the whole time I'm on a trip, but if you're a new hire and you don't have enough, it's your responsibility to get your uniform cleaned.

The hardest part of our job is probably the boarding process. The gate agents have a lot of pressure to get flights out on time, so they're just getting people on the planes as fast as they can. No one wants to check their bags, and we're out in the aisles trying to find places for all these pieces of luggage, making sure that any pets are put underneath the seat, that there's no baggage blocking the aisle, making sure there isn't someone sitting next to the emergency exit that doesn't fit the criteria to be there, while everyone is boarding and asking a million questions, like if they're going to make their connection. While all this is happening, you're also listening to the overhead speaker for cues that tell us we're halfway through boarding, so we know we really need to speed it up.

You get to know each route and the people that fly those routes. If you go LaGuardia [in New York] to Chicago, you get tons of business people who travel a lot, so they're usually no trouble at all. In the summer, you get people who fly once a year for their vacation and they're completely confused. And there are certain airports, like Newark, where people are wealthy or entitled, and they expect you to do every single thing for them. We work in coach and first class, and you can definitely tell the difference between the passengers. When [someone who usually gets upgraded to first class] doesn't get their upgrade and they have to sit in coach, they're usually so demanding and pissed. They're used to getting more service, like hot towels or hot food for free, which you usually don't in coach unless it's international.

If a passenger for some reason becomes mad and irrational, we're trained to remove ourselves from the situation and get a different flight attendant. I try to be funny and cute and just deflect the situation. But you can only be cute and "Barbie" for so long, and it's not always a situation where you can deflect, because sometimes people threaten you physically. One time, we were stopped in Chicago and a guy wanted to get off the plane, and I told him if he wanted to get off, he would have to bring all of his luggage with him for security reasons. When he refused to take his luggage with him, and I said I was going to have his luggage removed, he got really angry and he told me he was going to shove his iPod up my ass. I had him escorted off. Another time, a lady physically attacked me. I had to tell her to turn her cell phone off before the flight three times. She finally turned it off and I went back to the jump seat. She waited until the end of the flight and jumped on me and knocked me to the ground and was trying to hit me because she felt I had disrespected her. That violates federal law, so she was arrested.

We do food and beverage service on most flights. Usually on flights that are over three hours, you have to do two beverage services, and you also have to walk through the cabin every 10 minutes just to make sure nobody needs you. The airline used to provide us free meals, but they don't anymore, so I usually bring my own. When we have longer trips, like 72 hours or more, we get money for food. After service, we usually sit on the jump seat and read trash magazines and gossip. We call it "jump seat therapy." If one of us is going through a breakup, we're talking about it.

On international flights, especially on bigger aircrafts, there is usually a bunk in the roof of the airplane. There's a set of stairs, usually in the back of the plane, behind a door that you'd probably think leads to a bathroom. Those stairs go up to the top of the airplane and, depending on which plane you're on, there are six or eight bunk beds up there. If you're going 17 hours to Japan or China, you may have two three-hour breaks or three three-hour breaks. But if you're just going to London from New York, you may just get one two-hour nap.

Layovers vary depending on the length of the flight. Sometimes our international flights are only down to Miami and then to an island an hour from Miami, so you might only have 10 or 12 hours to rest there and then go back to the plane. If you're going to London, you get 20 to 33 hours. You try and stay on your normal, home body clock as much as you can and not adjust to any time changes. You take a nap and explore, and then get in bed and try to sleep when you normally sleep, even if it's in the middle of the day.

The funny thing on international flights is the people who sleepwalk after taking Ambien. Some people are weird and we have to calm them down, but most of them we just have to try to get back to their seats because they're wandering the plane or rambling incoherently. Once there was a lady in coach who got into bed with a man in business class. He was shocked and didn't know quite what to do because she just got into bed with him. I told her she had to get up and she was like, "I'm Russian, I do what I want."

We're trained to try to spot [drunk or drugged-up people] on the ground so we can remove them before the flight. In the air, we try to keep count in our head how many cocktails someone's had, and if they start acting weird, then you cut them off. But those situations are always very unpredictable. I've had my butt grabbed a few times on the plane. I've had a big butt my whole life, and it's been grabbed inappropriately so many times that I usually just wag my finger at them and smile and say something like, "Don't do that again, that was your one shot!" Then they'll look around and pretend like they didn't do it, or if they're really trying to flirt, they'll do a shy smile. Most of the time, other passengers don't notice it.

There are so many men that watch porn on the airplane. I'm just like, Really? I've only really said anything to anybody if they're sitting next to a woman and she's uncomfortable. If it's a guy sitting next to him and no one says anything, I'm not going to say anything. I'm not going create an awkward situation if I don't have to. Same thing with the "mile-high club." If you are gross enough to go into a public port-a-potty and do that, I'm not going to bother with you. Go for it. The only way I'll stop it is if there's a long line for the bathroom; then I'll knock and tell them it's time to come out. If it's in public, I'm going to put a stop to it. Especially in New York, you always see very distinguished older gentlemen with very scantily clad women sitting in their laps and making out. In situations like that, I'll usually tell them it's not appropriate because a kid might walk by. Or I'll call the captain and I'll ask him to turn the seatbelt sign on so I can tell them they have to sit up and put their seatbelts on.

People usually think it's so cool to be a flight attendant. They ask you all about your route, your layovers, and hotels. It's funny, because it's so different when you're on the ground. When people get on the plane, they don't treat you like it's such a cool job. People have an air of condescension. They're generally nice, but there is definitely an air of "you're just a waitress."

When we choose our schedules every month, we're able to trade our shifts around to get a schedule that works for us. Before I had a baby a year ago, I would work six days straight, come home for a week, and then do six days again. Someone that lives in New York might drop her kids off at school, do a short domestic flight to and from LaGuardia, and be back in time to pick her kids up from school.

The flexible schedule works for my family. I work in sets of four days now, so I'll be gone for four days and then have a week off and then do four days on again. My parents keep our son when I'm gone, because my husband works nights and sleeps during the day. My parents take great care of him while I'm gone, so it's not so emotional for me, and I think that's healthy for me as a mother to have my own time. It's actually an extremely healthy thing for my marriage. My husband has his alone time and can hang out with his boys when I'm gone. And I go off and I have my time to be by myself. But that's my personal experience. Not everyone marries the perfect person; some people have trust issues in their marriage, and some people do sleep around on layovers.

I think a lot of people assume flight attendants are uneducated, that we haven't gone to college or that we don't do other things. So many flight attendants that I fly with love to fly and do it to pay their bills, but they also pursue their dreams on the side. I know artists and fashion designers, and I do photography on the side.

I fly for free and so does my family. Knowing I can jump on an airplane anytime I want is an amazing feeling. Going to all these cities and doing all this stuff has taught me independence. I can go to a movie by myself, or go to a restaurant or a bar by myself. I don't know if I ever would have learned that if I hadn't gotten this job. I probably would've just stayed close to home.

*Name has been changed

By Kate Beckman  |  Cosmo Politan



eZineInsider.com Career: What It's Really Like to Be a Flight Attendant
What It's Really Like to Be a Flight Attendant
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