They are not all pneumatic babes, they're not called stewardesses any more and, no, they don't want to hear about your cockpit. Flight attendants are both male and female, they vary in appearance, age (age restrictions were recently abolished) and ethnicity, and they can make the difference between a comfortable flight and a nightmarish one. And while you may think that getting your bag of pretzels is of paramount importance, the primary responsibility of a flight attendant is the safety of the passengers.
Tested and trained
Flight attendants are trained and tested professionals: they undergo weeks of (often unpaid) training; most large airline companies require them to pass a grueling exam that tests them on every nut and bolt of the aircraft on which they serve. In the wake of the September 11 hijackings, many flight attendants have also undergone training in self-defense.
Flight attendant training lasts about four to six weeks, during which trainees learn emergency procedures, such as how to operate an oxygen system and give first aid. Trainees for international routes get additional instruction in passport and customs regulations and terrorism coping techniques. The training is rigorous and not all trainees pass their examinations. The lure of free travel to exotic locales attracts applicants, but the often unglamorous process of being cloistered with a hundred other trainees at a budget hotel in Houston or Cleveland weeds many would-be flight attendants out of the group.
At home and away
The hours for flight attendants vary widely, and many flight attendants work at night, on weekends and on holidays. They spend about 75 to 80 hours a month on the ground preparing planes for flights, writing reports following completed flights, and waiting (just like passengers) for planes that arrive late. In-flight work can be strenuous because of demanding passengers and crowded flights. Attendants are on their feet during much of the flight and must remain helpful and friendly regardless of how they feel or how obnoxious their passengers are. As a result of scheduling variations and limitations on flying time, many flight attendants have 11 or more days off a month. Attendants can be away from their home base--often the hub city of the airline they work for--a great deal of the time, and are compensated by the airlines with hotel accommodations, meal allowances and, of course, discounted or free tickets for both themselves and their immediate families.
It takes a patient, extroverted personality to become a flight attendant. It also takes nerves and a sense of duty. In the event of an emergency, they must take into account the passengers' safety before their own. This can entail anything from simple reassurance to directing passengers during evacuation following an emergency landing. Though the chances of a plane crash are small, flight attendants must be undaunted by the prospect of disaster.
After they complete initial training, flight attendants are assigned to one of their airlines' bases. New attendants are placed on "reserve status" and are called on to staff extra flights or fill in for attendants who are sick or on vacation. Reserve attendants on duty must be available on a moment's notice. Flight attendants usually remain on reserve for at least a year; in some cities, it may take five years or longer to advance from reserve status.
After time spent as a reserve, attendants graduate and bid for regular assignments. When bidding for assignments, attendants are staffed based on seniority. Because of this system, usually only the most experienced attendants get their choice of base and flights. Advancement as a flight attendant has become slower because attendants are staying in the profession longer. Because of the long career path, some attendants transfer within the company to become flight service instructors, customer service directors, recruiting representatives, or one of many other administrative positions.
Although flight attendants for national airlines get to fly around the world, they often only stay overnight "and hardly leave their hotels." Entry-level flight attendants "get all the red-eye assignments" and the "pogo stick assignments--short hop flights." As one contact puts it, "It is damned hard work." However, this all-travel, no-fun lifestyle is not always the case: attendants occasionally enjoy day trips and shopping excursions, on which "sometimes even the pilots come along."
Of the pilots, insiders say that they are "generally terrific," but that "there are plenty of egos in the cockpit." There are also complaints of the occasional unruly clientele--the "Friday afternoon businessman crowd going home after a tough week." Explains one contact, "They all think they are exactly the kind of guy that a young woman like me really needs."
Flight attendants are "constantly worried about economic hardships and layoffs." However, for those with senior status, job security is not so much a concern; those attendants with hard-earned tenure also have "first pick at the Bahamas trips."
Great travel perks; Flexible schedules
Long hours; Irregular schedules; Low pay
Friendly; Outgoing; Fastidious; Cool under pressure
Aggressive; Impatient; Shy
Average about 150 per month including 65 to 75 hours of flight time
Median salary: $53,780; Median starting salary: $15,849; Compensation for overtime as well as night and international flights
High school diploma; Flight attendant training