Behind the Scenes With a Flight Attendant
A former "glorified waitress" shares the highs and lows of the job: being threatened with her life because there was no more manicotti, dealing with members of the mile-high club, getting to know foreign cities like the back of her hand. After reading her story, you'll never look at a flight attendant the same way again
It was 1978. I was fresh out of college, 21 years old, sitting at a table with five women just like me. We all had Dorothy Hamill haircuts and shiny lipstick. We all had smiles frozen on our faces. The interviewer, who hadn't stopped smiling either, leaned forward and asked: "Would you rather give a party or go to a party?" "I love to entertain people and make them feel at home," I answered, even though the only entertaining I'd ever done was one candlelit dinner for my boyfriend.
Two years before I became a flight attendant they were still called stewardesses. Three years earlier, they were required to wear girdles. Ten years earlier they were forced to quit when they had children. But in 1978, more than half of the new hires were college-educated, and 30 percent were male. So what if we had weekly weigh-ins?Or if the dangle of our earrings and the height of our heels were carefully measured?Our starting salaries were higher than those of my friends who went off to jobs in banks and schools and offices.
More important, the small square suitcases we pulled through airports were packed for overnights in Cairo or Paris or San Francisco or Las Vegas. Rather than promotions or upward mobility, we had the lure of the whole wide world. "Breakfast in New York on a winter morning and lunch in Miami under palm trees is all in a day's work," read a line from How to Be an Airline Stewardess, a book I had studied as a girl. "Dinner could be in London, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Paris, or Rome. Could be?It is, every day."
While my college friends took classes in résumé writing and bought gray suits with floppy bow ties, I'd spent most of the spring of my senior year at airline interviews. The first part of the three-step process involved walking into a room and introducing myself while one of the interviewers looked at my legs and teeth. Three airlines brought me back for a group interview, and one for the third, final step: a three-day trip to its hub, where I had a physical, a uniform-fitting, psychological and drug testing, and still more group and one-on-one interviews in which most of the questions required some version of the answer "I love people and I love to travel."
With a degree in English and a 3.7 grade point average, I was certain that my six weeks of training would be a breeze. It didn't take long to realize how wrong I was. A typical day included learning how to apply makeup, identify liquor miniatures without their labels (they slide off in heat and dampness), fix a broken coffeemaker, serve caviar, administer oxygen and CPR, and evacuate a burning 747. Every morning someone failed a test and was gone by lunch. The night before a quiz on 300 three-letter airport codes, my roommate shouted in her sleep: "MCI, Kansas City! EWR, Newark! LHR, London!"
My first flight was from Boston to Los Angeles. The actor who played the teacher on the TV show Room 222 was on board, but I hardly noticed. As the junior flight attendant, I set up (and broke down) all the first-class carts; ran food from the galley below, up an elevator, to first class; helped serve the liquor in coach; and returned to first to serve warm rolls and second drinks. I did most of this in my stocking feet since my regulation pumps hurt so much that I had no choice but to remove them. I was forbidden to do anything that wasn't regulation, but the senior crew, long over their six-month probation period, had donned flats after takeoff.
That night, with my feet soaking in the hotel-room tub, I thought of all the things I wanted to see in L.A.—famous handprints in cement, the Pacific Ocean, the HOLLYWOOD sign. But none of them appealed to me like the big bed.
Each month a packet arrived with flight pairings—listing who was flying which routes—for the next month. Everything was based on seniority. As a junior flight attendant, there was a good chance that instead of a schedule you'd get "reserve" duty. On prescribed days you would wait by the phone until someone called in sick or forgot to show. Then you took their place, usually with about an hour's notice. My only alternatives, since I was based in Boston, were to fly Phoenix layovers—in summer—or to fly a red-eye from Boston to Newark to Los Angeles to San Francisco, where I would get a 30-hour layover.
I chose the latter, and for six happy but exhausting months I got to know San Francisco as well as I knew Boston. True, during my probation I was often surprised with spot tests, when a supervisor would check my shoes, jewelry, hair, and weight. (One of my six roommates was fired for gaining 15 pounds; she was later reinstated.) But the job grew easy quickly. For six or eight hours of hard work I was rewarded with a room in the Mark Hopkins and expense money. I started buying handmade cucumber soap and Peet's coffee. I learned to navigate the trolleys and BART. I had my first taste of crab Louis on Fisherman's Wharf and Irish coffee at the Buena Vista.
Before I knew it, my probation was over, I was left alone, and my parents and I had free unlimited passes for as long as I remained a flight attendant. My high heels stayed mostly in my crew bag while I worked in loafers or, later, Doc Martens. On all-night flights I took out my contact lenses and put on my glasses. A bad month had me working a DC-9 from St. Louis to Louisville to Pittsburgh to Cincinnati to Pittsburgh to Providence, laying over for 10 hours, and doing the same trip back the next day. With flights like that, the job consists of boarding passengers, stowing bags, running down the aisle with drinks, and then deplaning, again and again and again.
Flying became as natural to me as riding in a car. And so I flew: more than a million miles in all, zigzagging across continents in the middle of the night, roaming foreign capitals through a bleary fog of jet lag. Sometimes I scored a coveted route for a month, and I would find a boyfriend, a hairdresser, a favorite restaurant in that city, making it mine for a small time. My closets and cupboards burst with duty-free bargains. I bought Dom Pérignon in Paris; perfume and Godiva chocolates in Brussels; gin, Waterford crystal, and Baileys Irish Cream in London.
"But the travel and glamour are not yours just for looking pretty," How to Be an Airline Stewardess had warned me. "They have to be earned." On a 747 I would have to help more than 300 people board, finding safe places for everything from cellos to TV sets. (My least favorite passengers were the ones who carried on oversize bags.) After takeoff, I had to roll heavy carts up and down the long aisles while waiting endlessly for passengers to move their crawling babies, nodding heads, and Wall Street Journals out of my way. Then I would walk through air heavy with smoke, and mix gin and tonics, scotch and sodas, and Bloody Marys—breaking my nails on the pop-tops, splashing Coke on my hands, running for more milk, hot tea, Sweet'n Low. And then I would push another heavy cart up another smoky aisle and ask three dozen, four dozen, five dozen times: "Chicken or beef?" After I picked up the empty meal trays, strangers' gravy under my fingernails and peas crushed under my heels, I would sell headsets, start the movie, and sneak up to first class to eat leftover caviar by the spoonful, baby lamb chops, the ends of the chateaubriand.
Of course no flight was complete without an incident or emergency. Sometimes passengers had to be taken off the plane by police, like the man who threatened to kill me because we had run out of manicotti. Sometimes people simply did shocking things, such as having sex under the blankets or in the lavatories. (Then there was the woman who breast-fed a cat in first class.) All flight attendants get their share of sexual remarks and come-ons, but I was more insulted by the man who, when I commented on how much I had liked the book he was reading, looked at me and said: "You read?"
A passenger from Pittsburgh had a major heart attack, and two of us performed CPR on him until we landed. He died anyway. The day our plane blew two tires upon landing and skidded off the runway in large, lazy circles scared me more than I can say. But the people I met stuck with me more. The man who had just learned of his brother's death. The parents bringing home a newly adopted daughter. The couple who got married on one of my flights because they had met on that same flight a year earlier. The father who left all his Christmas presents in the overhead.
"How does it feel," someone at a party always managed to ask through a smirk, "to be a glorified waitress?"
"It feels great," I would answer. Because it really was glorious to leave my apartment, take a taxi to Kennedy Airport, emerge at the sign that announced INTERNATIONAL DEPARTURES, and walk through the terminal toward some unknown adventure. I liked the way little girls watched me pass, their eyes wide at the sight of a flight attendant, uniformed and lipsticked and manicured, striding onto an airplane headed to Paris.
It has been more than 10 years since I last worked as a flight attendant, and the industry has changed considerably. I began my career when flying was still glamorous and ended it amid corporate raiding and declining service standards. I wish we could return, even a little, to the way it used to be. Still, when I tell people that I used to be a flight attendant, their eyes often grow dreamy. "What was it like?" they want to know. And I realize once again that I am not alone with my burning desire to fly.
Ann Hood is the author of seven novels; the latest, Ruby, was recently published in paperback by Picador.
10 Things I Learned About Flying That I Still Use Today
- Read the emergency card in the seat pocket and locate your nearest emergency exit. Chances are that nothing is going to happen, but you should know what to do if something does.
- Don't check your bag if you can help it. It saves time upon landing and forces you to pack smart.
- Pack smart. Always include a sweater and a bathing suit. You can't predict the weather. Include one dress-up item and comfortable clothes in basic black or khaki. Bring two pairs of comfortable shoes that match everything. Leave jewelry at home.
- In a smaller bag carry your toiletries, something to read, your tickets, and a copy of your itinerary. This bag goes under the seat in front of you; the other bag goes in the overhead.
- Bring and use moisturizer. Nothing dries out your skin like airplane air.
- Bring and drink bottled water. Airplane water is disgusting.
- As soon as you board, grab a pillow and blanket, even if you think you don't want them. You won't be able to find any after takeoff.
- Dress comfortably. I always wear a T-shirt and a long black cotton skirt or loose pants. The temperature on a plane changes frequently, so the trick is to layer. Wear short sleeves, even in winter, and comfortable shoes that you can slip on and off easily. Then pack socks and a sweater in your larger carry-on, even in summer.
- In your suitcase, pack an empty bag that folds up nice and flat for souvenirs and other purchases you'll want to bring home.
- The most indispensable item to have with you when you travel?Ziploc bags. They hold wet bathing suits, smelly socks, seashells and sea glass, brochures and menus and newspaper clippings, rolls of film, bars of soap — everything and anything you can imagine.
Survey Results: What Flight Attendants Really Think
Flight attendants are a mysterious bunch—you know they know all sorts of secrets about flying, but it's hard to get them to talk (they're usually just too busy). T&L and the Association of Flight Attendants conducted a survey in a recent issue of the union's newsletter. Here's what the F/A's had to say.
F/A: Flight attendant
Jump seat: Where F/A's sit during takeoff, landing, and turbulence
Gate room: The passenger waiting area inside the terminal, near the gate
Common-sense injection: What most pax need
What's your favorite destination?
In the U.S.:
2. San Francisco
4. New York
5. Las Vegas
4. New Zealand
Best airports: Pittsburgh and Denver
Worst airports: JFK, O'Hare, LAX, Atlanta, Dulles
Which segments are the most exhausting?
1. Anything to Australia
2. Anything to Asia
3. Anything with New Yorkers or Floridians on board (most of these responses specifically mentioned Palm Beach)
The vast majority of F/A's use Travelpro suitcases, especially the Rollaboard. (Most domestic airlines issue it to all crew members.)
How many colds do you average each year?
Five or more: 10%
Flying seems to help build resistance. Several attendants replied, "Used to be five or six, now just one or two."
Do you eat airline food?
Sometimes (includes "if desperate" and "first class only"): 33%
Who's the most widely read author these days?
1. John Grisham
2. Tom Clancy
3. Patricia Cornwell
4. Whoever Oprah recommends
What's your best recommendation to passengers for keeping safe?
Ninety-two percent say we need to stay in our seats with seat belts fastened. A few did mention that it's wise to listen to them: "We ask you to do things for your safety, not because we feel like it."
What's the most common passenger habit that creates a dangerous situation in the cabin?
("Poking the flight attendant for attention," jokes one F/A. "You're liable to be killed.")
1. Walking around while seat-belt sign is lit: 39%
2. Storing carry-ons improperly: 25%
3. Not wearing seat belts while seated: 15%
4. Boozing: 11%
5. Sticking limbs and bags in aisle: 10%
Seventy-four percent of F/A's have worked a flight during which a passenger interfered with a crew member. What happened?
- "A man was going to punch his wife, but missed her and nailed the F/A."
- "Pax tried to open door at 35,000 feet."
- "A woman doctor brought five carryons. When told she had to check three, she went and hit the pilot."
- "A man exposed himself while I was doing a seat belt compliance check."
- "A female passenger who appeared to have taken drugs in lav started ripping hair out of F/A's head."
What's your favorite brand of moisturizer?
3. Oil of Olay
4. Mary Kay
5. Prescriptives Flight Cream
It's nearly unanimous: To combat airline skin, drink plenty of water and use plenty of moisturizer. Other suggestions: Keep clean, spritz face, sleep a lot, don't drink alcohol, go light on the makeup.
How do you deal with jet lag?
1. Get plenty of sleep
2. Drink water
4. Adjust to new time upon landing
5. Take melatonin
Sixty-seven percent of F/A's have encountered extreme turbulence. What happened?
- "I got to a jump seat in time to see the wings flapping like a goose's."
- "F/A went up in the air, flipped, and came down on his head."
- "I've hit the ceiling with my back twice."
- "Flew out of Kansas City through hailstorm that literally stripped paint from the plane."
- "I flew around the cabin like a PingPong ball. I fractured my skull, eye orbit, and jaw. I'm lucky to be alive."
If you could change one thing about air travel, what would it be?
1. Eliminate carry-ons, 28 percent say. Some F/A's think there should be a smaller limit; others believe stricter enforcement of rules at the gate would help. Everyone agrees that "more carry-ons = more delays."
2. Twenty-one percent would ask for more space for passengers. Whether it's legroom, space between pax, or an area to stretch, attendants see how crowded we are and feel for us. It's more than one F/A's theory that cramped conditions lead to air rage.
3. Bring back manners, say 11 percent—or "a common-sense injection in the gate room prior to boarding." And while you're at it, 2 percent would love to see better-dressed passengers. It may be naïve to assume there's a correlation between manners and appearance; then again, it may not.