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A Primer For Would-Be Flight Attendants

Fifteen years ago, when I had my wings pinned on my flight attendant uniform for the first time and was sent straight from the graduation ceremony onto a plane to start my new career, it was an adjustment to a whole new world. Not so much the obvious stuff – frequent travel, different time zones, conflict management – but there were some changes I had to make to my life and perspective, and fast. I was open to the challenges of my new career as cabin crew, and while it wasn’t without some stress or even tears at times, I found that I was well-suited for the job.

I was hired just after 9/11, at a time when no other airlines were hiring – in fact, most of them were downsizing. But these days, many are clamoring to bring on more and more flight attendants, especially as the holidays approach. I frequently have friends and family ask me about getting hired, and I always reply honestly that it’s not for everyone. But for those that are equipped to do it, there’s no better place to be. Here are some things to keep in mind when considering a career in the skies.

You will work holidays and weekends

So many people are eager to claim on their resumes that they’re willing to work holidays just to get a foot in the door, or maybe because they expect it might not be the case. But it will be.

Flight attendants as well as pilots all work in a seniority-based system. The most senior get to cherry-pick their schedules, and understandably the most sought-after days off are the holidays. But this shouldn’t discourage people, especially if they don’t have young children at home. One of my favorite Thanksgivings, for instance, was spent in Los Angeles reconnecting with an old friend and joining her friends for dinner. That Christmas was spent sipping piña coladas on the beach in Puerto Rico. Flight attendant families learn to adjust their festivities to accommodate their loved ones.

As for weekends, I’ve learned to prefer working them. I have more fun on my layovers when I can go out on a Saturday night, and then I am not facing grocery store gridlock or restaurants that don’t have a table free when I’m home winding down.

You’ll be hanging by the telephone

“Reserve.” That’s usually a word with a good connotation, right? It denotes exclusivity; something saved just for you.

In this case, you, as a new hire, are what is being exclusively held for the airline. Not such a great sounding word anymore, is it? Your schedule is dictated by their operational needs, and not your own (barring a family emergency or anything along those lines). It may sound cruel, but everyone starts by paying their dues and getting called in with short notice to cover sick calls, replacing misconnecting crews or whatever else they might need you for.

There are two different types of standby – at home or at the airport. Generally, airlines require their reserve flight attendants to be able to reach the airport within two hours of their call, so one could feasibly stay asleep or watch a movie…just keep that bag packed and ringer on! Most airlines give their reserves 15 minutes to respond to a call, or else it’s looked at like showing up late, or not at all, to work.

Whereas home reserve is usually for a window that can be between 12-24 hours long, reserve at the airport is shorter, but paid at a better rate because it involves being ready to go at a moment’s notice and waiting at the airport – which is why another term for this is “flying the couch.” If you like watching paint dry, you’ll love it!

Your body clock will be as warped as a Dali painting

Remember what I said about covering sick calls and unpopular trips? Those would be the ones with report times so early that your friends are still out at the bars. You’ll also be pulling all-nighters on the redeyes, watching people sleep and reading the same issue of People magazine over and over again as your eyelids get heavier and you long for the comfort of your bed. Those initial days of being a flight attendant do a real number on your body, but the good news is as long as your airline keeps hiring, you’ll soon be senior to someone who is getting those gnarly trips instead of you. Sorry!

You will forget how to sit and eat a meal

At work, we tend to hide in the corner of the galley and shovel food in our faces out of passenger view and in between services. You will start doing the same at home, facing the kitchen wall eating your dinner in ten seconds flat. Learn to stop doing this – no one is going to ask you to take their dirty tissues mid-meal or start doing a downward dog in your spaghetti bolognese when you’re at home.

You’ll share a bedroom with 10 other people

This only applies to those who don’t live in their base city. Crashpads, the apartments shared by flight attendants and pilots when they’re away from home and in between trips, are a weird world. If you have to fly to work, you’ll need to rent a bed in one. They can be beautifully maintained or flophouses, constant drama or a group of great new friends. With so many people under one roof, tensions can flare from something as simple as a dirty spoon left in the sink. A bad crashpad can make work unbearable. Be choosy where you rent.

Flying is a lifestyle more than a career, and for the uninitiated the adjustment can be very jarring. Keep an open mind (and schedule) and it’ll be an amazing trip.

[Photo: Shutterstock]

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