A year ago I had a shiny new pair of wings pinned to my chest. Since then, my office has been at 30,000 feet in the air, and my home is where ever my head hits the pillow. It’s a lot more than wearing pressed clothes and smiling, and yet often times passengers don’t have a clue as to what the career really entails. Being a Flight Attendant is commonly described as less of a job and more of a lifestyle, and I’m here to clue you in on what it’s really all about!
Join me as I embark on the series Flight Attendant Secrets Revealed, where I will invite you into my world of jet-setting. You’ll find answers to everything travel-related, as well as catch a glimpse of the aviation industry and how it all works.
Question #1: What are your normal routes?
Probably the first and foremost thing to be known about a Flight Attendant’s career, is that there’s no “normal.” I’m asked this question frequently, often when I’m flying someplace I’ve never been before. The aviation industry is built and runs on the seniority of its employees, which offers the opportunity for more freedom and regularity the longer you have been with the airline.
To dive in deeper, I first must explain the difference between being a Reserve and a Line Holder. Reserves work on an on-call basis, where they have days on and off that they may be brought in to work a trip. The trips Reserves are assigned are anything but consistent, and can be to any destination in the world. When you hold a line as a Line Holder, you basically are assigned your trips for the entire month. Because there are more freedoms associated with being a Line Holder (elaborated more in Question #2), those schedules go to more senior Flight Attendants, and it takes months to years for Reserves to finally graduate into holding a line. When you become a Line Holder, you are more likely to fly specific routes because of that increased control.
Question #2: What’s your schedule like?
Every month each base (airport that Flight Attendants are assigned to and trips are created out of) releases a list of international, domestic and reserve lines, or schedules. There are always a specific number of each available, and Flight Attendants bid every month in hopes of getting their first picks. To me it feels like I’m putting in for a class schedule, a responsibility that haunted my college years. It’s a little bit stressful, but worth it all if you can get the desired trips or days off you want.
To elaborate a little bit more, the international and domestic lines are made up of specific trips varying in length, with the flights and hotels already established. Reserve lines do not have this however, and just provide days you will be on call.These schedules vary in consistency, however none of which provide the Monday through Friday 9-5 so many of us are used to. Being a Flight Attendant means sometimes that your Monday is on a Thursday, or that you will have an entire week off in the middle of the month. Once again, nothing in this world is by definition “normal.”
Question #3: How do you get compensated?
Our pay is not based on a salary like other careers, but is actually based on the amount of time we work. When assigned a trip, from the moment we check in before the flight we are getting paid a small amount called a per diem (comparable to what a waiter gets paid at a restaurant without tips). When everyone has boarded and the aircraft door closes, our pay rate goes up exponentially for the flight. After landing when the aircraft door opens again however, we go back to that per diem. During layovers that per diem continues to be allotted as long as we are away from our base (the airport we started our trip from).
The pay rates (per diem and while flying) both fluctuate some between international and domestic, with the international pay rates being higher. If a Flight Attendant works as the Lead or Language Speaker on the flight, they also get added compensation per hour. These rates raise for Flight Attendants every year they are with the airline, and are based off the individual’s amount of time at the company. Other factors of pay rate include rewards that differ between each airline, and are usually dependent on performance reviews.
Question #4: Do you (and your friends) fly for free?
Seemingly yes to some degree, but not exactly. Travel benefits are obviously a big pull for people interested in entering a career in aviation, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Overall, it’s important to know that although we do get discounts to purchase tickets, our “free” flying is always on standby. If unfamiliar with the term, this means that you are placed on a list (ordered by seniority of course), and only get a seat if there is one unoccupied after all the paid passengers have boarded. The likelihood of catching a flight on standby is always different depending on the time of year, day of the week, time of day, etc. So if you’re willing to fly standby, you’ve got to be willing to be lucky.
Along with our unlimited benefits, we receive the same primary benefits for our parents, grandparents and children. There is an option to enroll a spouse or primary friend (intended for a significant other), that has access to unlimited flying as well. Flight Attendants are also given an allotment of buddy passes every year. These passes actually do come with a cost, and are still standby tickets. That, along with varying taxes make our travel benefits not all that they seem. So while it can be a spectacular money saver, it absolutely comes with a risk.
Question #5: Do you have a permanent residence?
Of course! All Flight Attendants have a home in some form or another. I personally live near my base airport in a house with some of my flying partners. While many live near their base airport, a lot of New Hires (term for junior Flight Attendants, mostly Reserves) and others that commute live in a crash pad. These are houses or apartments with several beds in one room, that rent specifically to Flight Attendants and Pilots. Because the tenants spend so little time at their crash pad, it works to have a larger number of people in a space paying less in rent. In my opinion, it’s similar in a way to living at a summer camp.
I mentioned that there are Flight Attendants that commute to their base. One of the unexpected perks of this career is the ability to truly live anywhere you would like. I am based in New York City, and know many people that commute here from all over the country and world. Although you still have to make it to work on time, you really can live where ever you please.
Question #6: Where do you disappear to in between flights?
I always find this question funny, because it makes me feel like some sort of secret agent. In reality, if we have a lengthy amount of time between flights at we are at a base, we can go to the airport’s crew lounge. It may seem fancy, but it’s really just an area with supervisor offices and a front desk that works as a control center during the day. Every base’s crew lounge has different amenities, but always includes seating, computers and a trusty coffee machine. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a lounge that has a cafeteria, sleep room, or comfortable couches to rest on.
To access these areas, there are codes to get through the door or elevator. These codes change frequently to prevent break in, and only allow Inflight staff to enter. It’s nice to have a place to decompress away from the concourse, especially during long days. And if I’m being completely honest, I do feel a bit like a secret agent going through an unmarked door.
Question #7: What do you do when flights are delayed or cancelled?
We do the same thing you do mostly, we get frustrated. When things don’t go according to plan (which is all too often in a traveling career) we have to wait alongside the passengers for our work day to continue on. Often times, delays cut into the amount of time we have to layover, or even prevent us from catching our commuting flights home. So don’t worry, you’re not the only one annoyed by a late inbound aircraft. We wanna get where you’re going too!
The one difference is that we have a contract (and often times a union) that upholds our work rules. Usually our schedules allow some flexibility for changes, but when a flight is delayed dramatically or cancelled, there has to be an adjustment. We are only allowed to be “on duty” for a certain amount of time before we go illegal, or have extended past our duty day. In this case, we must be accommodated by scheduling to either layover at our present location, or we are allowed to return home if still at our base airport. So regardless of the situation, and however often things are up in the air (literally), we are covered by our contract to some extent.
Question #8: Is it hard to become a Flight Attendant?
The short answer is absolutely yes. Truly, a lot of it has to do with the timing. When you send in the online applications for airlines, some may be hiring every week and others haven’t for years. Pursuing a Flight Attendant career is extremely competitive, and the odds of landing the job are close to a 2 percentile. So take advantage if you’re lucky to move forward in the interview process, because you never know how long the window will be open!
The actual requirements (varied by airline) are pretty basic. You need to be older than 21 and have a high school diploma, GED or equivalent. One of the most biggest obstacles however actually has to do more with your past than anything else. When you become a Flight Attendant, you must be able to fly anywhere. That means you must be legally allowed in and out of every country, and for Canada specifically, misdemeanors in the States count as a felony and prevent you from entering. The background screening process is extremely thorough, so make sure you’re squeaky clean if you plan on pursuing a career in aviation.
Once you jump through all the interview hoops and get hired, your position with the airline is still contingent on your successful completion of training. This process is different between airlines, but consists of testing and practice for several weeks. Since the unfortunate attacks on September 11th, the role of a Flight Attendant has become primarily a safety and security position. Trainees are drilled on being prepared for all kinds of situations, ranging from performing CPR on a passenger to evacuating an aircraft. The training is stressful and all-consuming, but really prepares Flight Attendants for anything they might face out in the real world.
Question #9: Let’s be real. Do you really think this is a career?
I think more than any other career I’ve come in contact with, being a Flight Attendant is what you make it. I find so much purpose in safely delivering hundreds of passengers to their destinations, all the while getting to experience a variety of places and culture. For me it’s more than a career, it’s a threshold in which I can become what I’ve always wanted to be. Free. I’ve never really been good at focusing all my energy on one thing, so being a Flight Attendant has provided the flexibility I need to pursue my other passions (like writing), all the while having a steady career.
For others, you see things all over the spectrum. I will fly with Flight Attendants that have been flying full-time for over 40 years, and wouldn’t change a thing. One of the greatest parts about seniority, is that the job will always get better, more flexible and accessible in providing the exact experience you want. Some only work part-time to raise children, own businesses, have other professional careers, or travel magnificently. This is absolutely a career, but it gives you more control than other professions. For some that’s daunting, and for others, liberating.
Question #10: What is the biggest misconception about Flight Attendants?
I think one of the most common misunderstandings about Flight Attendants, is that passengers think we aren’t on their side. Let me be the first to tell you, we are! There has never been a scenario in which I didn’t want for the person what they wanted for themselves.
The only stipulation is that, in a metal tube with 200+ other people, we simply don’t have the resources to make everyone happy all the time. We are well aware (and constantly reminded) that it can be frustrating to not receive what you expect, or be told no when you’re in the middle of a hectic day of traveling, but we are doing our best. I can speak for myself in saying that I will do everything in my power to assist a passenger and make them comfortable, but it is also important for everyone to understand the limitations we are working with.
Bonus Question: Are you a member of the Mile-High Club?
No. Absolutely not. Love that you asked. Because of all the places in this world, one of my least favorites will always be an aircraft’s lavatory. I’m convinced that they keep getting smaller too!
Have any more questions about a Flight Attendant’s world? Feel free to comment or reach out to Miss All Over the Place directly, and you may just see your question in next month’s post! I hope you enjoyed the first of the series Flight Attendant Secrets Revealed – stay tuned as I will continue to dive even more into the aviation world to provide answers and advice for all things travel!
Nice article! Great look into the pros, cons and details of the flight attendant life.
Sorry… You can talk about a aviation career only if you speak more than one language. As long so many Americans FA just speak one, it is more a job requiring training but not skills.