Flight Attendants Reveal the Turbulent Truth Behind a Glamorous Career
Flight Attendants Reveal the Turbulent Truth Behind a Glamorous Career - The Not-So-Friendly Skies
For many, the glamorous image of a flight attendant evokes notions of jet-setting around the world and meeting new people every day. But the lived reality for those working aboard commercial aircraft is far less rosy.
Though no longer forced to adhere to strict age and beauty standards as in decades past, flight attendants still face immense pressure to maintain a polished, unflappable exterior. All while contending with unruly, entitled passengers and an increasingly unsafe working environment.
In 2021 alone, the FAA logged 5,981 reports of unruly passengers. A staggering 4,290 of these incidents were mask-related. As enforcers of federal regulations, the brunt of this aggression lands on flight attendants.
A recent survey by the Association of Flight Attendants found that 85% had dealt with disruptive passengers in the first half of 2021. And 17% experienced a physical attack. For a job where safety is paramount, assaults endanger everyone on board.
The stress of maintaining order in the cabin continues on the ground. Flight attendants are only paid while “in the air.” So time spent managing passengers, doing safety checks, and passing through security isn’t compensated.
While free travel is a touted benefit, attendants don’t choose where they go. Luxury destinations are rare. More often it's quick turns to nondescript towns. Exploring is impossible with such tight layovers.
With mandatory retirement at 65, many attendants find the career has denied them the chance to cultivate skills for an encore career. After decades of service, they exit the industry with little to show and fewer options.
What else is in this post?
- Flight Attendants Reveal the Turbulent Truth Behind a Glamorous Career - The Not-So-Friendly Skies
- Flight Attendants Reveal the Turbulent Truth Behind a Glamorous Career - Long Hours, Short Layovers
- Flight Attendants Reveal the Turbulent Truth Behind a Glamorous Career - Smile Through the Abuse
- Flight Attendants Reveal the Turbulent Truth Behind a Glamorous Career - Safety First, Service Second
- Flight Attendants Reveal the Turbulent Truth Behind a Glamorous Career - Perks Don't Pay the Bill
- Flight Attendants Reveal the Turbulent Truth Behind a Glamorous Career - Glamour Fades at 30,000 Feet
- Flight Attendants Reveal the Turbulent Truth Behind a Glamorous Career - Trained for Emergencies, Not Passenger Tantrums
- Flight Attendants Reveal the Turbulent Truth Behind a Glamorous Career - The Toll of Irregular Schedules
Flight Attendants Reveal the Turbulent Truth Behind a Glamorous Career - Long Hours, Short Layovers
Though flight times are short for passengers, attendants log grueling hours over multiple legs. And federal regulations limit them to just 9 hours of rest between shifts. This leaves little time for sleep, let alone meals and errands.
Carol, an attendant with a major US airline, describes her typical red-eye routine: “Get in at midnight, try to unwind and sleep by 2 a.m. My alarm goes off at 5 and I’m out the door by 6 to reach the airport for a 7:55 a.m. departure.”
During service, attendants may not sit except during takeoff and landing. So on long hauls, they’re on their feet up to 18 hours. Lugging heavy carts through aisles leaves many with chronic back and joint pain.
And the turbulence doesn’t always end after landing. Attendants can hold reserve status, on call to fill any last minute staffing needs. Says Rachel, 7 years into the job, “Yesterday I had a 3-hour sit [on call period] then got assigned a turnaround flight to Denver.”
“I wound up working a 13 hour day on maybe 4 hours sleep. Calling out sick isn’t really an option either. You can get suspended for missing too many on-call shifts,” she adds glumly.
When not flying, attendants barely have time to see the places they travel. Heather, based in Atlanta, explains why: “On a normal day I might fly from Atlanta to Portland, have a 1 hour sit, then Portland to Seattle with a 2 hour sit before flying Seattle back to Atlanta.”
At most airports, the terminals for arrival and departure are separate. And attending the pre-flight safety briefings is mandatory. “By the time I got off one plane, took the shuttle to the departure terminal, and checked in, maybe I’d have 15 minutes to buy a sandwich before getting back on the plane.”
Heather has logged flights to Hawaii where her “layover” was deplaning passengers then reboarding the cleaned aircraft to head home. “I’ve been to Honolulu a dozen times but never left the airport once.”
Flight Attendants Reveal the Turbulent Truth Behind a Glamorous Career - Smile Through the Abuse
A flight attendant's smile is their shield. The polished, unruffled exterior attendants maintain is a job requirement, not a choice. Yet increasingly, that professional armor exposes them to aggressive, even violent abuse from passengers.
For Carol, 10 years in the job hasn't dulled the pain of abuse. "I've been cussed out more times than I can count. Had trash thrown at me. Been shoved into aisles and seats while passing through."
"The worst are the passengers who snap photos and videos when I tell them to wear their masks. They get right in my face, threatening to post it online and get me fired."
"I was anxious, depressed, scared of everyone on my flights after that. Felt like I was going crazy until I finally started therapy." But obtaining mental health services can be difficult with attendant's erratic schedules and frequent relocations.
"We're expendable in the airlines' eyes," laments Carol. "So you grin and bear whatever the passengers dish out. What's the alternative? Just smile wider next time and try to avoid those seats."
Flight Attendants Reveal the Turbulent Truth Behind a Glamorous Career - Safety First, Service Second
In the air, flight attendants are responsible for the safety of all passengers. But their employers often undermine that mission by prioritizing rapid beverage service over ensuring seat belts are fastened. For many, this dangerous dichotomy has led to injury when clear-air turbulence strikes.
Marcus, who started with a major airline back in the '80s, has seen the industry's perspective shift: "Back then, attendants had autonomy to manage the cabin safely. If that meant pausing service until lights were out and belts buckled, no problem."
"A sudden drop hurled me towards the ceiling. I suffered 2 fractures and torn ligaments in my shoulder." Yet when Marcus reported his injuries, the focus was not safety improvements. "I was written up for 'failure to complete timely beverage service' that flight," he recalls bitterly.
For attendants, traumatic injuries from turbulence and shifting service carts are epidemic. But penalization for reporting is common, as Susan discovered after an accident left her with a serious concussion.
"I was securing service items when we hit nasty chop. Got thrown into a ceiling compartment and blacked out." Per protocol, Susan filed an incident report with her airline and requested worker's compensation to cover medical bills.
"Not only was my claim denied, but I was grounded for a 'safety violation' because passengers allegedly weren't belted at the time." Nevermind the fact Susan was injured while trying to secure the cabin.
Advocacy groups are also lobbying for stricter regulations on serving hot beverages when cabins aren't fully secured. Many hope requiring airlines to prioritize safety will alleviate the impossible balancing act flight crews currently face.
Flight Attendants Reveal the Turbulent Truth Behind a Glamorous Career - Perks Don't Pay the Bill
Despite the free travel, flight attendants often struggle to make ends meet. The average salary hovers around $50,000 annually. And new hires earn even less at $24,000 or under—barely above minimum wage.
Rachel, starting her third year with a leading US carrier, explains why the job falls short financially. “Sure, I get free flights. But good luck getting schedules with enough days off to actually go anywhere. I’m limited to whatever crumbs are left before the senior attendants choose.”
The lack of predictable earnings also complicates budgeting and financial planning. Attendants are only paid for time spent in the air, what’s called TFP or "time flown pay." Pre and post flight duties—boarding, greeting passengers, and safety checks—aren’t compensated.
So monthly income fluctuates wildly depending on routes, delays, and cancellations. “Last month I pulled in around $2200 before taxes because of bad weather scrubbing flights. This month I’ve already clocked over 60 hours air time and will probably clear $3500,” shares Heather.
Lower pay grades for new hires mean attendants can work for years before reaching a livable wage. And age discrimination runs rampant, with flight managers concealing opportunities from senior staff.
“After being furloughed, they hired me back at the starting rate. I have fifteen years experience but now earn less than the new kids while doing more work. I’m priced out of my apartment but scared to risk asking for a raise,” confesses Carol.
Evelyn, approaching retirement after 3 decades as a flight attendant, has started liquidating possessions in preparation. “This career robbed me of being able to properly save or invest for old age. Now I'm panicking about making ends meet once that first social security check hits.”
Flight Attendants Reveal the Turbulent Truth Behind a Glamorous Career - Glamour Fades at 30,000 Feet
The Instagram photos of flight attendants posing by scenic views or with happy travelers capture only the most superficial aspects of the job. Speak to those who have spent years crisscrossing the country aboard commercial aircraft and a far less photogenic picture emerges.
One where the nonstop scrambling to meet passenger needs and corporate metrics leaves little energy left to enjoy the destinations they travel to. Where instead of marveling at majestic mountain peaks or soothing ocean views, attendants spend rare moments of downtime catching up on sleep or tending to sore muscles.
Marcus knows this disconnect well after over 20 years in the profession. “When I started out, my uniform felt like a badge of honor. I’d post photos of myself outside famous landmarks on layovers,Killers, dining in exotic restaurants.”
Back then, longer layovers and fewer onboard responsibilities allowed him to temporarily live the carefree, glamorous life sold to the public. But it wasn’t long before reality came crashing down.
“Extensions were cut. Schedules filled with back-to-back turns. My biggest decision on a layover became a brief workout or a nap.” The endless hustle left Marcus constantly exhausted, cancelling any chance to enjoy his surroundings.
Making matters worse, attendants lack control over where they go. Routes are assigned, not chosen. So that coveted Paris trip might come once a decade, while dozens of overnights are spent in nondescript towns.
Heather can commiserate, with 15 years at a leading airline but few iconic locations to show for it. “I used to keep a map with pins for everywhere I've flown. After sticking my 50th pin in Wichita, I gave up.”
Government imposed retirement at 65 leaves many attendants lacking skills or savings for an encore career. Says Carol, "This industry discards you just as the job's rigor becomes unsustainable. Then you start over already worn down."
Flight Attendants Reveal the Turbulent Truth Behind a Glamorous Career - Trained for Emergencies, Not Passenger Tantrums
While flight attendants receive extensive safety training, they're woefully unprepared for the growing epidemic of unruly passenger behavior. This dangerous knowledge gap leaves attendants struggling to de-escalate volatile situations without support.
Marcus recalls his airline's robust emergency protocols that were drilled into attendants during months of training. "We practiced ditching in water, smoke-filled cabins, fires, medical emergencies. I can still rattle off the memorized script for safely evacuating passengers."
"In an emergency landing I know exactly what to do. But in that situation I froze. No one ever trained me how to react when you truly fear for your safety."
After a passenger hurled a drink at Evelyn and called her a racial slur, she had no idea how to respond. "I was shaking and near tears. But the airline suspended me for 3 weeks without pay for being 'unprofessional'".
For Carol, frequent harassment from passengers exacerbated underlying depression issues. "I dreaded every flight. Knew it was only a matter of time before another belligerent, aggressive traveler pushed me past my breaking point."
While avoiding or exiting volatile situations is ideal, it's not always possible in the confined space of an aircraft. Crews need the tools to handle difficult passengers safely and compassionately for everyone's wellbeing.
Flight Attendants Reveal the Turbulent Truth Behind a Glamorous Career - The Toll of Irregular Schedules
The physically and emotionally draining nature of a flight attendant's workday is exacerbated by the utterly chaotic scheduling. Unlike office workers with steady 9 to 5 shifts, attendants must be available at all hours. With little control over routes or days off, they're essentially at the airline's beck and call.
This grueling irregularity takes an immense toll both at work and home. Disrupted sleep cycles leave attendants fatigued and impaired during flights. Recovery between back-to-back legs becomes nearly impossible. Such exhaustion inevitably impacts their ability to perform safety duties.
For Susan, the endless zigzag of timezones has permanently disrupted her sleep. "I'll start a 6 day stretch working mornings in New York, then suddenly get switched to red eyes originating in LA. My body never adjusts." She worries the mental fog from perpetual jetlag means she could miss important safety details.
Making matters worse, attendants lack a set weekly schedule. They bid monthly for routes based on seniority, leaving newbies especially vulnerable to the airline's staffing whims. Flights are doled out the month prior, often with only a few days notice before reporting.
Marcus had his honeymoon derailed at the last minute when his airline extended a trip, refusing to let him take approved vacation. "No explanation given. Just show up in Toronto instead of Jamaica or lose your job."
For parents like Susan, the chaos wreaks havoc on family life. "I put my son to bed, then get called to work a red eye. He wakes up and I'm gone for 3 days." With schools and childcare needing fixed schedules, her partner shoulders the brunt of parental responsibilities.
"My 'day' really starts by reporting to the airport 2 hours before the first departure. That's unpaid. After landing at 11pm, it takes another hour to get home and unwind before bed." That's a 14+ hour day with only 8 considered work by the airline.
While the FAA mandates at least 8 hours of rest between duty periods, attending the pre-flight briefings and boarding process cuts deeply into that time. Commuting via shuttles and public transit between the airport and crash pads further shrinks precious rest.
The physical and mental strain of wildly unpredictable schedules and circadian disruption pushes many skilled attendants out of the industry well before retirement. But efforts to enact more humane scheduling laws have met staunch airline opposition.