The Flight Attendant III: Job Downers
Financially, starting out as a flight attendant is tough. But salaries increase, the number of vacation days increases and you get better trips as new flight attendants are hired. According to the APFA-AA 2001 Collective Bargaining Agreement, the contract between American and its flight attendant union, a flight attendant with three years' experience will likely earn $26/hour on domestic flights and gross $24,960 (actual pay is a little higher with overtime, various bonuses and expense money), with 10 days vacation. But a flight attendant with 15 years' tenure will earn an average of $52,800, flying about 80 hours per month at $55/hour, with 25 days of vacation.
Other challenging aspects of the job include being on call 24 hours a day and seven days a week, long and tiring days, pushy management, and abusive or unpleasant passengers. The most important factor in dealing with these elements is your seniority--when you were hired, and who was hired after you. Everything from trips worked to when you get vacation to whether you're on reserve to what position on the airplane you work depends on seniority. And taking a leave of absence or flying limited hours can make you lose seniority (relative to other flight attendants) and there's no way to get it back.
Reserve is something of a drag. "Have you ever been an intern in an emergency room? I'd take that over reserve any day!" one American Airlines vet says. This is when you don't have any flights scheduled for the month. You have a few planned days off, and the rest of the time, you're tied to the phone waiting for the company to call with your next assignment, which could be in two hours or two days. You have little or no choice in taking the trip, and if you're called for a trip at 3 a.m. and you don't answer the phone, it's as bad as missing the trip altogether.
Unions control your work rules
Another downside is determining if you're being worked beyond rational limits. The unions usually negotiate every aspect of your work life, from how many hours you can be on duty to how many vacation days you get to what types of delays you are and aren't paid for. But you don't have a say in the matter. If the workforce is unionized, which is the case at almost every major airline except JetBlue and Delta, you have to join the union and you have to pay your union dues. Being behind in paying your dues may be enough to get you fired. But if you find yourself falsely accused of something, if you have a bad performance record or have a bad run-in with a passenger or supervisor, the union can go in and fight to keep your job. It's very difficult to fire a union member in all but the most extreme cases. The unions also spend millions each year in negotiations preparations to get the best contract they can for you, so that you continue to have better pay, a lot of days off, good vacations and a decent uniform. If you don't work for a unionized workforce, your company will typically give fair work rules to discourage its workforce from unionizing. But be aware that those work rules can always change with little or no warning.
No more weekends
And if you're used to having weekends to hang out with friends or visit relatives, there's no such thing working for an airline. The days start to run together as you work Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday this week and Saturday-Sunday-Monday the next. In the airline business, remembering what month it is can be hard enough, let alone what day (or time zone) it is. You adjust after a while, but it's never easy. Obviously, passengers play a big part in how your job goes. As security has become a bigger issue post-September 11, passengers are becoming increasingly supportive and helpful. That doesn't mean it's any less annoying when the 50th passenger asks for the 20th (and last) blanket you had. But the reality is that there are still a lot of people who think that by buying a $150 ticket, they're contributing to your paycheck, and should be treated accordingly.
The passengers do, to some degree, depend on the airline. No-frills carriers target a leisure market, and get a fair amount of inexperienced flyers. The major airlines like Delta, United, and American focused on business travelers until economic realities forced even them to compete more on price and less on amenities. Amenities still vary somewhat when one compares domestic to international flights, but the level of service tends to correlate to the length of the flight, across the board. Some international carriers have been slower to eliminate in-flight services, so a larger meal is still given in coach and a fancier service in business or first-class, but it's a cat-and-mouse game of cutting costs in the service while maintaining a competitive edge.
Delays: broken planes and broken plans
You can't do much about what passengers you get, and you also can't do much about changing schedules hence the importance of flexibility. Perhaps there will be a four hour mechanical delay on the first leg (a 'leg' equals one flight, or more specifically one take-off and landing) of your trip. Perhaps an older passenger forgot their heart medication in their suitcase and is having a medical problem, so you have to make a decision with the captain about whether to divert the flight to get the passenger proper medical attention. While it might not happen every day, it's more likely than not that you'll have at least one delay a month.
Even if you don't have plans, you can bet your passengers do. Business travelers who are taking a 45-minute flight to another city for a two hour meeting turn livid when they're stuck on the runway at La Guardia (and missing the meeting). The unaccompanied child bursts into tears because her daddy might not know she's late and will leave her behind at the airport if she's not there on time. Sometimes heart-wrenching and other times annoying, how delays affect you and how you deal with them is a big part of being a crew member. And when the delay is caused by mechanical difficulties, the passengers are looking to you for reassurance that the plane is safe (even if you're looking for reassurances yourself).