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March 10, 2009

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A noticeable characteristic of the job is the amount of down time, even while ostensibly working. Flight attendants are very busy during boarding and the beverage service, but have a lot of free time during the flight, before landing, or on the ground in between flights. And flight attendants are very social creatures. Chit-chat starts from the time everyone introduces themselves before the flight and continues throughout the day until getting onto the hotel van (or employee bus to the parking lot) at the end of the day. Some flight attendants continue their conversations from both ends of the beverage cart, but almost all flight attendants pass the quieter moments of the day talking about their kids, their cars, their homes, their days off, or the new contract. When someone is breaking up with her (or his) boyfriend, you'll hear about it. When someone needs advice on what color to paint the pantry, you'll hear about it. A typical beverage service takes 30 to 45 minutes. A dinner service should take under two hours. On international flights, that means there's about another several hours before you land, and the best way to fill that time is with galley gossip.

There's a pretty strict unwritten code about how to treat your fellow flight attendants (more adhered to, even, than how you should treat passengers!) Flight attendants starting out a trip are expected to exchange names and a few mild pleasantries, no matter what. The good side of that is the camaraderie it builds, the sense of flight attendants looking out for each other, even covering for each other if one can't pull their weight that day because they're hung over or sick, but didn't want to call in because they're out of paid sick time. On the other hand, if you're grumpy before you even get on the plane, the others are less likely to look the other way if you're slow on the other side of the beverage cart. Then you'll be the one they gossip about on the next flight. This social aspect can be taxing when you'd rather be left alone, but it's part of the job.

Almost every flight attendant carries a little album, whether it's filled with images of their cats, their spouse, or their kids. Some of the older flight attendants love to carry pictures of themselves when they were thin, young and gorgeous.

Beware, too, of the rumor mill. The rumors might concern airline policy ("My girlfriend just had the union president on board, and he said X"); other flight attendants ("He slept with Y"); or other airlines ("At Continental, they're giving 50 percent raises"). In the business you might hear someone use the term "Tell-a-phone, Tell a Flight Attendant" to describe the non-factual basis of some of these rumors.

But there is also a lot of fun to be had. Particularly when an airline starts flying to a new destination or there are a lot of new hires on a trip, the whole crew will meet for dinner and go explore a city. And then there's the nightlife. South American layovers are beloved for the cheap drinks, low cover charges and inexpensive taxis. Even flight attendants from other airlines staying in the same hotel will often get together to go out dancing and explore the nightlife. In London, entire crews will go see a West End show together. In Tokyo, everyone gets together to go to a sake bar for sushi and drinks. Even without a pair of boots, a bunch of people will go two-stepping in Texas. And the really friendly crews might go hot tubbing on the layover in Vail or Palm Springs. On Vegas layovers, everyone is seemingly required to drop at least twenty bucks in the casinos together while getting free drinks and $3 steak dinners. Caribbean layovers are great for getting the more daring colleagues to head out for midnight skinny-dipping, and even some of the senior flight attendants will get a little gutsy and audacious. There's also a hallowed tradition of making Crew Juice on the way to the international layovers. In Europe and South America, the drive time to the hotel can be over an hour, so the leftover champagne and orange juice might happen to make it into an empty water bottle for mimosas along with some cups and napkins just so long as the company never finds out!

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues
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