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Perspective: The Real Life of a Flight Attendant

If you’re a fan of travel, you have surely wondered what it’s like to live the life of a flight attendant. After all, how many jobs pay you to fly hither and yon? Put you up in nice hotels between workdays? And throw in even more travel, for free, as a leisure-time perk?

Here’s an unflinching glimpse of the nitty-gritty of the job submitted by one of our readers, who happens to be the significant other of a working flight attendant. It will probably cure you of any aspirations you harbor to join the ranks of the airlines’ beleaguered flight attendants. And even if you’ve never aspired to the high life, it’s a perspective worth having as your travels inevitably bring you into contact with the crewmembers whose job it is to make your trip safe and pleasant.

There’s been so much conversation about how lousy the airlines are these days, I thought I might offer some comments on one side of the issue that I’ve learned over the past 15 months: How flight attendants (FAs) are viewed and (mis-) treated. Not so much by us passengers, but by their employers.

You see, I met my (now) fiancee in 2014 who has flown for a well-known “Ultra Low-cost” airline for over 11 years. Have my eyes been opened! I can’t believe how they are compensated, treated, and viewed by the company.

Compensation: They are required to check in one hour prior to their flight, and are not dismissed about 15-20 minutes after the passengers debark. However, they are ONLY paid while the doors on the aircraft are closed! (This is called “Block Time”). If there’s a mechanical or other issue that prevents them from closing the doors on time, they are not getting paid, even though they are responsible for, and attending to a plane full of passengers! (They do get a little ‘extra’ pay on days when they have to de-ice, or get delayed in the air.)

Scheduling: she’s often gone for over 70 hours and paid for 20, or 48 and paid for 16. This includes a redeye or two, and is away from home for 2-3 nights. —a little hard on family life! Then there are days where she commutes 65 miles to DEN for one round-trip flight, and may be paid for as much as 5 hours. Oh, and the schedule changes every month. So she never knows what she’ll be doing a month from now.

Her airline no longer employs (at DEN and most airports) “rampers” (luggage loaders), gate agents, or cleaning crews (except at the end of the day); those are all contract labor (which means they have no vested interest in PR or how the airline is doing). The FAs are now responsible for cleaning the plane in-between flights. (You may have heard a few extra pleas to “put your trash in the bag the FA will bring by, look in the seat-back pocket, and leave anything else on the seat when you leave.”

Layovers: minimum ‘on the ground’ time of 8 hours (FAA). However, if the plane’s late getting there, the next flight out is not delayed (which means less sleep). Not sure how this is legal. Oh, and then realize that’s from the gate, … wait for the hotel van,…check in at the hotel,… and finally get to the room. Reverse this process in the morning, and there’s no way these FAs are getting 8 hours of sleep!

To save as much money as possible, the airline often finds a barely decent hotel in some cities. Quite often, no refrigerators in the rooms so you can’t believe what FAs have learned to subsist on! Carrying their “lunch” in a small soft-sided cooler, they’ve even learned to make (and I’m not kidding!) grilled cheese sandwiches with a clothing iron!

So why does she, or the other FA’s do it? “Livin’ the Dream, Baby,” as they say. Free travel? Well, kinda. Always on Standby, FA’s are never senior to pilots or airline executives. And with the increasing load factors (especially summer) the planes are often full and/or over-sold. Would you want to leave home 3 hours prior to departure to find out you don’t get to go? And, often there’s only one flight per day to the desired destination; you end up just chucking it and going home. (Last week, in order to get home from St. Louis, she had to take a different airline to Dallas (Love Field), get a cab across town to DFW, and finally a flight back to Denver!)

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still good when it all works and you (and a family member) can grab a flight! It’s just that it’s becoming much less glamorous than the old days.

Treatment: So why does her company treat their employees like they are dispensable? Well, this carrier (and several others) is owned by an “investment company.” (They are gearing up for an IPO, so it’s all about the bottom line!!!) And if my FA doesn’t like it, well they’d rather she quit so that they can hire a newbie at a lower hourly rate. Her Union? Well they’ve proven to be of little help with anything except making sure you pay your dues on time…

Jump ship (like to Southwest)? She’d lose all seniority and start over on “Reserve” (on-call, never knowing when you’ll get notified to be at the airport within 2 hours). —not a very attractive option.

Okay, Enough ranting. I just feel so frustrated at the way she’s treated by her company (and too many passengers). FA’s deserve better!! (And unfortunately, passengers are also getting the short end of the stick with tired, under-appreciated, grumpy flight attendants!)

PS – Don’t get me started on the menagerie of “comfort animals” she’s had on flights, or the story about the woman breast-feeding a cat!

Breast-feeding cats? That’s a story I’d like to hear. But as far as the FA job goes, I’ve heard more than enough. Enough to know it’s not for me. And enough to have considerably more sympathy for the next harried attendant reminding me to buckle up for landing.

Reader Reality Check

Is this a job you would want? Is it a job you’d encourage your kid to apply for?

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