Essays & Confessions / Travel

Flight Attendant Confessions: How Much I Make, Rude-Ass Customers, & How Travel Is Changing Post-COVID

By Wednesday, May 26, 2021

“Everyone thinks we literally just serve chips and soda. Like no, we’re trained for real-life emergencies. If something happens, we help everyone on the plane survive…”

The life of a flight attendant seems glamorous. The traveling, the extended benefits to loved ones, and of course, the freedom to pick up and go travel around the world. Who wouldn’t want a job like this, right?

However, extra perks don’t mean perfect. We recently spoke to *Erin, 31, and a flight attendant of six years, about the pros and cons of her job, including how she got started (it’s practically a boot camp), how she’s doing, and all the COVID controversy. And while she didn’t skimp out on detailing all the highlights of her career, she didn’t shy away from the not-so-fun side of the job, either.

Check out her interview below.

On How Long She’s Been A Flight Attendant

I’ve been a flight attendant for about six years. I initially wanted to do it because, while it seems like a common answer, I really do like to travel. I have a close friend whose mother had been an attendant for 20 years and she inspired me to go for it. I just thought it was cool, like a lifestyle that wasn’t like a normal lifestyle. So I wanted to try it instead of having a 9-to-5 office job.

On The Process Of Becoming A Flight Attendant (From Applying To Hiring)

It took me a while to get in. I think I applied four times and the fourth time is when I finally got it.

When you apply, you either get denied on the spot or you get a continuation letter. From there, the company will either send you information stating, ‘We’d like to move onto the next step’ and that’s either a phone interview or a video interview. For our company,  we only do video interviews and you’re not talking to someone, it’s more so you recording yourself while answering specific questions. If they like that video interview, you move on to the next step, which is an in-person interview, and that could range from a few weeks or longer from the previous step. So it takes a long time. 

Now, when you get to the in-person interview, they watch everything from the moment you walk in there — there are eyes everywhere and you have no idea who’s watching you [do what]. You could be talking to one person and someone else is across the room, watching how you vibe and how you are with interacting with the other interviewers and people there. If you’re super standoffish, they may or may not take you. They like a person that’s social or outgoing — you have to interact with everybody.

“If you’re super standoffish, they may or may not take you. They like a person that’s social or outgoing — you have to interact with everybody.”

Then there are various [action] steps in that interview where you go to a station. They want to know if you’re able to engage in public speaking well, like make an announcement and read a [prompt]. It’s similar to the announcements we make on the plane while in flight. They want to know how do you present yourself and how do you project those announcements and things like that. And if I remember clearly, because it was so long ago for me, there is a fingerprint process too.

 There’s also a “Reach Test” and a “Jumpseat Test,” which’s where you sit in a jumpseat to determine whether you fit in it comfortably and how to use it. There are quite a few tasks and it’s an all-day event once you get to that stage of interviewing. 

For me, after these steps, within a few days, they asked to bring me on and whether I was available for training on a certain date. After you accept, training is about four more weeks. I actually had to fly to their training facility, [My employer] has their own school. There’s also lodging next door, t’s like a hotel for trainees but owned and operated by the company. Then the building next door to that is where all the simulators are for all of the planes we fly on, and where all the testing takes place. There are written tests and hands-on tests.

On The Challenges Of Being A Flight Attendant

Everybody often thinks we literally do nothing; that we just play attendance and serve sodas. It’s like, ‘No, we go to training for real-life emergencies.’ If something happens, we are trained to help everyone on the plane survive. We are not just there to give you soda and chips. 

Everyone also thinks we fly for free everywhere and it’s super easy. Nope! We actually fly on standby and only if there are seats available, are we able to get on. There could be last-minute changes where you’re planning a trip and to get there by a certain time, and you get to the airport and you can’t even get on the flight. So your hotel and everything is booked but you end up not going.

So sometimes it can be tough and challenging, especially if you have plans. That’s one thing they teach you from day one — to never make plans, especially at work. Never make plans because you may (or may not make it) to where you’re going. 

“Everybody often thinks that we literally do nothing; that we just play attendance and serve sodas and chips. It’s like, ‘No, we go to training for real-life emergencies.’ If something happens, we are trained to help everyone on the plane survive.”

On Whether Or Not They Actually Fly Everywhere Free

So the standby list [we’re on] is for people that are non-revving, which means non-paying customers. So let’s just say, for my company per se, our standby list goes by whoever gets there first — it does not necessarily go by flight attendants. 

For us, you’ve got to be on your “check-in app” at a certain time to be at the top of the list, to know that you’re first in line to get a seat. Now, if there’s a flight that might cancel or a customer changes their flight, that customer rolls over as a standby. And they’ll go ahead of you because they’re a paying customer.

That usually only happens during huge weather cancellations or something like that, where a customer will be ahead of you. But in terms of us, like amongst us other employees, it goes by whoever checks in first. I know one popular airline, they go by seniority. So if somebody that’s been there since 1993 comes in and kicks you out, they’ll get the seat before you. We don’t do that.

On The Biggest Perk Of Being A Flight Attendant 

Flexibility is definitely my number one pro. Our schedules and being able to work how much I want, whenever I want. Essentially, there are certain days off that you aren’t able to have, but I can work two days or two weeks in a row and be off two weeks in a row. You can adjust your schedule to how you want to live your life.”

Another pro is that the traveling part of the benefits is incredible! I can pretty much go wherever I want for free, domestically. I can also get on other airlines, but you have to pay a fee for them, like the taxes for an international flight and so forth. You just pay the little taxes on whatever that is. And that can range from like $20 to $100 or so, depending on where you dock. But traveling is definitely a pro. I can go home whenever I want and see my family or just hang out.

“Flexibility is definitely my number one pro. You can adjust your schedule to how you want to live your life.”

On The Cons Of Being A Flight Attendant

So in the beginning, when you are first hired, you really don’t have as much flexibility. It comes with time and seniority. And that in itself is definitely a con. Being on, what we call, “reserve” (similar to on-call or standby) in the beginning, is a con because you don’t know how long you’re going to be on that type of schedule.

So when I first started and I was on reserve, I was on reserve for five months and I almost quit. It was the worst. You would get called whenever. You’ll be on call from like, 2 pm to midnight or 2 pm to 10 pm. And they’ll call you whenever, like, ‘Oh, we have a trip for you to go here.’ And you’re like, ‘I thought I was going to be off today.’ 

You always have to have a backpack ready because you have a two-hour call out and you need to make it there on time. You could be on reserve for a month, you could be on reserve for two years. It all depends. And because of COVID, a lot of new hires have been on reserve for about two years because they stopped hiring for the last year. So the more people they hire, the quicker you’ll get off of reserves because your seniority will go up. 

On The Job’s Impact On Relationships

Another con is the job’s impact on relationships. So depending on the type of person you are and if you have a partner,  it’s hard in the beginning because you’re going to be away from home a lot. I tell people that there is always a way to make things work. If you want it to work, it’ll work. If your partner wants it to work, it’ll work. You’ve got to have a lot of communication, especially if you’re away from home as much.

Some relationships or friendships won’t work out. You’ll probably lose a lot of friends and connections with other people that you used to be close with because you’re not around like that. Everything is so unexpected and unpredictable. Everybody has to be on the same page and just understand that being a flight attendant is not a regular job. I don’t go home and come back every day. You might make plans and I might get stuck somewhere. That’s why they say don’t make plans. You can make a plan with your husband for tonight, and might not even make it. 

“If you want it to work, it’ll work. If your partner wants it to work, it’ll work. You’ve got to have a lot of communication, especially if you’re away a lot.”

It’s also lonely sometimes. Not a lot of people understand that. And in the beginning, when you’re new, it’s new to the people around you, too. And when you try to explain certain things to them (your absence, for example), it won’t always make sense to them.

On The Biggest Misconception Of Her Job

A lot of people don’t think that what we’re doing is a job. And they always see us on vacation. It’s like, ‘Uh no. I’m working. I might be on a beach right now, but I’m working!’

On How COVID Changed Her Industry

When COVID initially started, for the first six months I didn’t even work. I took leave because they needed a lot of volunteers to take leave in order to save the company, with money and things like that. So I missed out on working the first six months of the pandemic. But when I did return back to work, the airports were empty. I have never seen the airport so quiet in my life. There was nobody around, there were barely any flights and no one was going anywhere. It was empty and quiet. It was crazy. The planes were empty. There were 30 people on flights. Some even had as few as six people.

So when I did get back to work, the flights were scarce.  It was a ghost town at every airport. Some of the airports were even shut down. You would see a lot of planes parked. It was so weird driving up to the airport and all the planes were just parked and literally going nowhere. Then when I started working again, a lot of people did comply with wearing masks.

“It was a ghost town at the airport. I took leave because they needed a lot of volunteers to take leave in order to save the company, with money and things like that.”

And then once we started picking back up, to about 60% capacity, and adding more flights and going up to 80% capacity and so forth, we’d have to fight with people to wear the mask or tell them, ‘You’ve got to cover your nose and mouth,’ and a lot of back and forth. It was like babysitting. And a lot of people would fight and argue with you about it but it’s like, ‘It’s been a year. I’m pretty sure you get it by now.’ 

Now, if they don’t want to comply and wear a mask, either they’re getting escorted off the flight or they’re getting arrested when we land. Or they’re going to get fined or banned from the airline. So it was a lot of back and forth with some people when it came to that. 

On Traveling In 2021 (It’s Gotten Worse)

It’s even worse now because everyone will tell you, ‘I got vaccinated. I don’t need a mask.’  No honey. As it turns out, for public transportation, you still need a mask. So it’s getting worse where a lot of people just don’t care anymore. 

For some public spaces and establishments, I think [the CDC] said you don’t have to wear a mask or something like that. But as of right now, the CDC does state that if you are flying, you still have to wear your mask – period.

“It’s getting worse because a lot of people just don’t care anymore.”

On The Unique Pay Of A Flight Attendant

You get raises annually and it goes by seniority. Right now, I’m making about $50/hour and that goes up every year.

Remember, we don’t get paid 40 hours a week, so it may or may not come out to six figures at the end of the year. It depends on how much you work. So there are people that work part-time at 35 hours a month and that’s it for the whole month. It just depends. 

Also, you can work up to like 150 hours a month and it doesn’t go based on weekly hours. It goes based on the hours of the trip. So it could be a one-day trip. You go and come back or you could be on a trip for two days, three days, four days. Your hourly is based on the actual (flight duration) not your actual time away from home or on the trip.

You also get per diem, for layovers and stuff like that. We also get supplementary pay and we get differential pay for working overnight. You may also get paid for being bilingual, like if you speak Spanish. Actually, Spanish speakers have to actually be on wo Spanish-speaking flights a month. We also get paid a fixed rate twice a month.

So it’s a bit different from most jobs but the benefits are great and it’s worth it.

*Names have been changed upon request

Image via Unsplash

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