Ever since I was a kid, I always thought being a flight attendant was one of the coolest professions out there. They got to travel, interact with different people every day and were some of the most poised and well-groomed people I’d ever seen. Still curious about the job, I grilled my cousin David — yup, a guy — who started working for a major international carrier based in the USA last year. He’s talking about pay, his scariest moments on the job and what people get wrong about being a flight attendant.
Have you ever dreamed of becoming a flight attendant? Or maybe you’re just curious about what the day-to-day life is like?
Q & A with a flight attendant… my cousin!
Hi guys, so as I mentioned my male cousin is a flight attendant. I wanted him to speak freely, so sorry, no pics of David or his employer but he did provide the shots below. 🙂
Here are my questions and his answers. Thank you, David, for being so thorough in this flight attendant interview.
Q: Tell me what your job is all about.
My number one job is to make sure everyone arrives safely to their destination. Everyone thinks that we are only on the plane to serve drinks and collect garbage.
Yes, a large part of my job is to provide our customers with a pleasant experience, but we do so much more.
After receiving a conditional job offer, I was sent to training for six weeks to learn about a multitude of different situations that can occur on the job (basically everything from security issues and evacuating a plane to helping deliver a baby). Classes ran for an average of 9-12 hours each day, 6 days a week. Even on our days off, we spent most of the day studying for our exams. If we didn’t pass the exams each week with a certain score, we were removed from the program and sent home. We actually only spent the last two days of training on the topic of service. It was a lot of work just to be officially hired, but I am extremely happy to have that training.
Starting salary is around $27/hour and we get paid a minimum of just below 80 flight hours/month. Of course, if we fly more than the minimum, we receive more pay. I also receive a small, hourly stipend while I’m on trips away from home to help cover any expenses like food (or margaritas on the beach).
People don’t realize we don’t get paid until the plane door is closed and pushed back from the gate.
We actually get in trouble if the plane departs the gate even one minute late. Most flight attendants hate the boarding process because everyone wants to switch seats so they can sit next to their friends or family, but this delays everyone in the aisle behind you from reaching their seat. Just wait until the plane door is closed to make switches. Or… stay where you are, put on some good music or a movie, take a shot, and go to sleep. You’ll see your friend when we land.
Q: What are the best/worst parts of your job?
Both the best and worst part of the job is traveling. I am happily single with no obligations like children, so I don’t mind if I am gone from home for 6 days at a time.
There are two main types of schedules you can encounter while being a flight attendant. The first type of schedule is called Reserve. Basically you’re a slave to scheduling and on-call 24/7. When on Reserve, you have 8-12 designated days off throughout the month. The rest of the days you are on-call at all times. Scheduling can call me at any point throughout the day and give me a minimum of three hours to get to the airport and be ready for my flight. When on Reserve, I always have a suitcase packed and ready to go in the trunk of my car and my uniform pressed and close by. Basically, Reserve flight attendants fill in any open spots in the schedule in case someone calls out, gets stuck on another flight (I’ll explain this one later), etc.
I did get some awesome trips on Reserve like London, Lisbon, Hawaii, and Cancun, but unfortunately, you don’t know if or when you’re going to be called for a trip (let alone where you’re going), so making plans with people or making appointments is difficult.
The second type of schedule (which I currently have) is called a Line. For my company, I only have to technically work 40 hours in a month to keep active status. I’m still within my first year though and money is tight, so I work as much as I can. With a Line, I get to pick whatever trips I want to fly for the whole month, so I know exactly where I’m going and when.
Most of my classmates are on a Reserve schedule though, and went through breakups or have been threatened with divorce because of the job. They have partners and children who may not see them most of the time. Often, after visiting friends and family (or taking a personal mini-vacation somewhere), I am usually home only three days out of the month.
Everyone’s financial situation is different. Some people can afford to live with one or two roommates in a 2-bedroom apartment. Others rotate through 10-15 flight attendants in a three-bedroom. I prefer to crash on my friends’ couches the three or so days I’m in town to save money. I bribe them with chocolate, candy, or wine from other countries to crash on their couch for a night. 🙂
Q: We know flight attendants have to work their way up to better pay/schedule, but what are some of the perks of the job? Do you really get free flights?
The pay does increase by $2-$3/hour every year which is nice and tops out just under $70/hour which is awesome if I make it that long in the job (I sure do hope so). The job is totally worth it, though. I get discounts on cruises, hotels, car rentals, so many other things I don’t even know about.
Flights: Myself and one designated friend (and my parents) can fly anywhere domestically for free on standby. If I want to purchase a ticket to guarantee a seat though, I get a pretty great discount.
For international flights, each country and sometimes city has its own departure tax or fee. Most countries I can fly to round-trip for about $15-$60. The UK is one of the most expensive where a trip will run me about $130, while Dublin is around $25.
I also receive a few buddy passes every year. I get to have only a few people on my flight benefits for the buddy passes and they aren’t free, but they are heavily discounted tickets which for a domestic round-trip ticket can run $30-$100 on average. Still better than full price!
Q: What do people get wrong about being a flight attendant?
If we ask you to do something, especially more than once because you haven’t done what we asked (like stow your tray table or put your seat upright for takeoff or landing), we aren’t trying to be rude or annoying.
The FAA requires compliance on certain things like I mentioned for your own safety or the safety of others around you.
People don’t understand why I ask them more than once to put their seat upright for landing. The thing is, though extremely rare, most accidents occur during takeoff or landing for a variety of different reasons. If your seat is leaned back and something goes wrong, the person behind you risks snapping their neck.
Something else people don’t realize is we’re not always doing the same routes with the same people. Let me explain. I mentioned above (while describing a Reserve schedule) that flight attendants may get stuck on a flight and a Reserve may be called in to take their place. It’s confusing, but say I have a four-day trip. On the second day, I am supposed to fly from Cancun to Los Angeles to Boston to Tampa (yes, we often have more than one trip a day), but I get stuck in Los Angeles because my flight was canceled due to bad weather. Unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do about the flight from LA to Boston, but we will save the flight from Boston to Tampa if we can by filling my original position with a Reserve. It’s because of this reason it’s highly unlikely that we have the same routes unless we specifically choose those flights over and over again, but that’s boring.
Most people think that we fly the same routes with the same crews when in reality, I have most likely just exchanged names with the flight attendant next to me for the first time.
I try to put on a good face, but sometimes it’s more difficult than others. I’m eligible to fly up to 16 hours in a day with about 9 hours of rest. The 9-hour break sadly begins when I open the plane door and people are getting off the plane and includes time exiting the airport, waiting for the hotel shuttle, hotel check-in, etc.
I may be running on little sleep with a 16-hour day ahead of me, so when I try to crack a smile on my face at 4am to welcome you onto a flight, it really does mean a lot to get a smile back.
Now don’t get me wrong, some of my layovers are insanely fun and quite lengthy as well!
Q: What have been your scariest/funniest moments so far?
People don’t really think about it, but some of the scariest moments for me have been waking up in a hotel and you don’t know where you are, you think you missed your flight, or you don’t know what time zone you’re in. I had one trip where I flew from Honolulu to Washington, D.C., and the next day I was in Europe. I wake up at least twice a month in a panic because I have no idea where I am or what time it is.
I did have one incident though in the air that legitimately scared me. When a plane flies across the jetstream or between air currents that move at two different speeds, you can have what we call “clear air turbulence.” Basically the plane drops without any warning.
Most of the time, we can predict when a plane will encounter turbulence – storms, mountainous regions, etc.
With clear air turbulence, the plane can temporarily drop a few feet to dozens.
This is one of our biggest fears since we are walking around the plane unrestrained. My plane dropped enough that the trash cart and I flew up into the air before crashing down on the floor once the plane caught itself. Luckily, almost everyone was in their seats with their seat belts fastened. I’ve heard stories of 30+ people hitting the ceiling, the beverage cart (which weighs 200-300 pounds) landing on someone’s leg, people breaking limbs, etc. It is an extremely rare occurrence, but it does happen.
The best advice I can give is to have your seat belt fastened whenever you are in your seat, even when the seat belt sign is off.
Funniest moments? It all depends on what you consider funny. We are a very twisted group of people and find things to entertain ourselves.
I will have school trips with just a few chaperones to watch 50 children on flights. The adults fall asleep and expect us to take care of all the kids for them. I feel bad for the kids because I know what long flights are like — I get bored and I have a better attention span than them (most of the time). I will talk with them and give them snacks so they don’t get hungry, but before we land, I give the kids a ton of soda and candy so they are wired for the adults when they leave the plane.
There are other things flight attendants may think are funny, but the general population may not notice at first.
People used to get dressed up to fly. Now, it seems to be a game of what-is-the-most-hideous-thing-I-can-pull-out-of-my-closet. It’s amazing what people wear and it seems that all common sense gets left on the jet bridge as soon as you step foot on a plane.
There was one incident that we all thought was funny though. I had a dog on the plane and he crawled under the seat in front of him and licked the woman’s foot in the middle of the flight. She didn’t know there was a dog seated behind her and she had a pretty bad freak-out until she realized what happened.
Q: Any tips to score the best plane food? Or a better seat?
Sadly, not much help in the food department. Having a tier of status with the airline’s frequent flyer program can definitely help you in First Class though to get your first meal choice.
In regards to a better seat, I will often go to the gate agent and just be friendly with them. Talk to them if they aren’t busy and ask them about their day. They are people too. Hell, give them a small gift like some chocolate or something! They get blamed much more for delays and cancellations than we do as flight attendants. If you bring a gift, flight attendants are always appreciative. You can give it to any of the flight attendants. We always share and we make sure you get credit in the form of extra snacks and drinks as I mention below.
Also, if it is a fairly empty flight, you can always offer to assist in the exit row if needed (which always has more legroom).
Flight attendants actually have little to no power to upgrade your seat. We can actually be fired for upgrading you, so please don’t yell at us.
We can give you extra snacks and drinks though! I’ve given out a free drink or extra snacks because you’re cute, because you came and struck up a conversation with me (wait until I’m not busy as hell like in the middle of a meal service please), or you just seemed nice and a lot of fun. Being nice can go a long way.
Q: What’s the worst thing(s) a passenger can do to piss off a flight attendant?
We do understand travel is expensive and can be difficult to time properly, but some…most of the complaints we get are COMPLETELY out of our control.
I get complaints all of the time when we have to delay or cancel a flight due to bad weather. I get yelled at all of the time for this and honestly, we really do feel bad, but yelling at me because the airport closed due to a blizzard or hurricane is not helping either of us. Yelling at me about the wifi on the plane going in and out will not get me to climb on top of the plane at 35,000 feet to see why it’s not working. Yelling at me because you decided to pack half of your house in a carry-on suitcase that we now have to check because it can’t fit in an overhead bin will not make the bin larger or your bag smaller. Also, don’t yell at me because you didn’t plan for your trip and you ended up with a middle seat because that’s all that was left and you booked a ticket last-minute.
Besides yelling at us for things we can’t help, there are a lot of little things that I’ve seen get on a flight attendant’s nerves.
During a beverage service, one or two drinks is totally acceptable, but you’re annoying the flight attendant and all of the other people seated behind you if you start ordering 4-6 drinks at once. This is not your last drink EVER and we will be more than happy to bring you more if you finish and just kindly ask.
Better yet, if you finish your drinks, it’s good to stretch your legs and walk the few rows to the galley and ask us for one there. Most likely we’ll just give you a can or two of soda since we aren’t trying to serve the whole plane anymore. I usually walk through the plane every 5-10 minutes and ask if people need anything. Ask me then! Also, don’t use your call bell every three minutes to get our attention.
Don’t hand me your baby’s diaper or your bag of vomit. Ever. Get up and throw it out in the lavatory.
Q: What’s the best thing(s) a passenger can do to make flight attendant’s job easier?
Honestly, board the plane with a smile, sit down, order a drink or two, come talk with us, and go to sleep. Also, dress for the occasion. If you’ve EVER flown, you know planes are cold. Just like movie theaters. Bring a blanket or a jacket. Don’t wear flip-flops, a tank top, and shorts while complaining to me for five hours that you’re cold.
We don’t ask for much. Mainly, if you’re pleasant to us, we will take good care of you.
Q: Do you have any secrets or tips about traveling you can share?
Plan your vacations any other time than in the summer. Summer is the most heavily traveled season next to the period of time between Thanksgiving and the New Year.
The end of September through the beginning of November is always my favorite time to travel because flights and hotels are often cheaper, the planes are less full, bad summer weather isn’t as frequent and it’s before the snowstorms hit.
If you’re looking for some of the cheaper flights and less crowded planes, Monday through Thursday is a good bet, but ideally Tuesday through Thursday.
If you’re looking for a fun vacation but have no idea where to go, plan for the time off, show up at the airport, and fly standby. You can find some RIDICULOUSLY cheap flights to great locations. (Diane’s note: Call the airline ahead of time to get the most up-to-date details. Not all airlines will allow you to be added to the standby list unless you already have a ticket. But sometimes, if there are empty seats on flights and you are flexible with destination and timing, you can offer to fly standby. There’s more about flying standby in this article.)
What should you pack? Pack a few pairs of socks and underwear, comfortable walking shoes, a pair of jeans, and maybe one dressy casual outfit. You can probably wear half of that on the plane.
If you are traveling for only a week, challenge yourself to pack only a carry-on suitcase! Almost anywhere you go, you have access to a laundromat or something. Most airlines will allow you one carry-on and one personal item like a backpack. You’d be surprised at how much you can fit in that much storage space.
Pay the money to get TSA Pre-check! It is TOTALLY worth it!
If you are traveling and you have a connection, make sure you leave enough time in case your first flight gets delayed. I usually aim for 2-3 hours for connections and I always check my other options in case the first plan fails. Don’t scream at the flight attendants and please don’t scream at the gate agents if you are going to miss your connection because you planned a 20-minute connection.
Finally, if you see your flight is quite full, you can always ask the gate agent if they are looking for volunteers to forfeit their seats. I’ve seen up to $800 in flight credit offered and a guaranteed seat on the next flight out. If the next flight out isn’t until the next day and you are able to wait until then, I’ve also seen restaurant and hotel vouchers included in the deal if they desperately need your seat. Don’t expect this every single time though. I’ve seen as little as $200-$300 in flight credit, but that’s still very good to only wait a few hours until the next flight. Go get a drink at the bar and start planning your next vacation!
A big thanks goes out to my cousin David for taking the time to answer everything!