Being a flight attendant involves more than jet-setting all over the world. While you’re basically guaranteed to fly anywhere for free, the job doesn’t come without sacrifices, especially during COVID-19. Becoming a flight attendant takes lots of prep work—as in weeks of unpaid training—and is likely putting you at a much higher risk of contracting the coronavirus on top of that.
Additionally, you’ll have to work multiple flights per day while getting by on a modest paycheck (which may take a dip due to the lack of travel right now). And your starting hours aren’t exactly desirable, so prepare to (temporarily) kiss those weekend plans goodbye. Luckily, if you stick around long enough to rise up the ranks, you might just find that your schedule and salary get much more manageable.
If you’re still set on flying the friendly skies, especially once social distancing restrictions start to lift, look no further. Cosmopolitan spoke to real-life flight attendants Kat, Maeve, Lauren*, and Rita to find out what you really need to know before spreading your wings during a global pandemic.
1. You need to wear an N-95 mask and gloves all the time on the airline, and there may not always be enough.
“Masks are mandatory on board, and flight attendants and passengers must wear them,” says Maeve, a flight attendant based in Dublin, Ireland. Her airline was more than stocked on gloves and antiviral wipes to clean any surfaces before the crew touches them, but other airlines have been running low on PPE since the beginning of the pandemic.
Lauren, a flight attendant based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, mentions that many other crew members took a page out of the supermarket toilet paper hoarders’ book and panic-stockpiled all the masks, gloves, and hand sanitizers from the crew base where they check in before the flights. Some of her coworkers bought their own supplies to feel safer, especially because they had to reuse N95 masks for weeks at a time. “I started to place a cloth cover on top of the N95 to protect it and maximize the length of time I could use it, as I didn’t know when I would be able to get another one,” Lauren says.
2. Passengers might not be 100 percent honest about where they’ve been traveling and what their symptoms are.
Most passengers have been extremely cautious about protecting themselves and others while flying during the pandemic, but others might try to mask (literally) symptoms of COVID-19 or be shady about where they’ve been and with whom they’ve come into contact.
The flight attendants will check to make sure passengers are healthy when they board, but it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s being overly cautious and who’s hiding something. Lauren says one passenger traveled without knowing they were COVID-19 positive. After that, Lauren was notified to self-quarantine for 14 days. “My colleague I was working with that day contracted COVID-19, but I was lucky in that I never got sick,” she says.
3. You need to reinforce social distancing on flights to keep passengers safe.
Maeve says her airline has been adhering to social distancing guidelines by slowing down the boarding process and allowing only five passengers to board at a time. On the flights she’s been working on, the airline has left the middle seat empty to make sure passengers aren’t seated too close together. Lauren’s flights have also not been booked to full capacity. However, passengers tend to reseat themselves wherever they prefer because of the fact that the flight is half empty, and the flight attendants often have to ask them to return to their original assigned seat so they can all be socially distant.
4. If you contract COVID-19, you might get stuck in a hotel wherever you are for a long time.
Lauren’s colleague who got sick from the passenger who was unknowingly COVID-19 positive had to quarantine in a hotel room for 14 days, having all her meals and medications delivered to her door. Then she had to stay in the hotel for another two weeks to make sure she was cleared of the virus and all the symptoms before returning home. “Luckily, her symptoms passed quickly and didn’t require her to go to the hospital, but it’s a scary thing to be away from home while sick with COVID-19,” Lauren says.
5. Since air travel is down, layoffs are definitely happening.
“We are very lucky to have been paid pretty much in full since the beginning of the pandemic, but we have seen a lot of airlines suffer with thousands of job cuts,” says Maeve. Lauren was still working at the beginning of the pandemic, mostly return flights to get people who had been traveling back home, but many of her flights were canceled because so few people were traveling to begin with. Unfortunately, she was laid off from a major airline in early June.
With leisure travel still restricted and many passengers too concerned to fly, it might not get any easier for flight attendants in the near future. “I wish I knew how something that seemed so small six or seven months ago would turn the aviation world upside down. It changes the way we will do our job daily and is a reminder that anything can change in the aviation industry overnight,” Maeve adds.
6. You get paid only for the time you spend in flight. You know how it takes a gazillion hours to get through security, board the plane, cram your luggage into the overhead compartments, sit through the safety instructions, and taxi on the runway before your plane finally takes off? Flight attendants don’t make a dime during any of that. They also don’t get paid during layovers or when flights get delayed—so while you’re agonizing about having to wait, flight attendants are too. They’re paid hourly based on actual flying time. The clock starts once the cabin doors are closed and ends as soon as they’re opened. That means you might work a 10-hour day but only get paid—Rita, a flight attendant based in Los Angeles, makes $27 an hour—for six.
7. Weeks of training are required before getting your wings. Kat, a flight attendant based in New York City, recalls training for five weeks after being hired as a flight attendant. However, some programs, like United’s, require seven weeks of training. The programs are safety focused, meaning you’ll learn things like CPR, the Heimlich maneuver, and, most importantly, how to evacuate an aircraft. While training is typically unpaid, most airlines offer complimentary lodging with some meals or a stipend provided.
8. People will treat you like a glorified waitress, but you’re actually an aircraft expert. Rolling the beverage cart up and down the aisle is the easy part of the job. Most of what flight attendants learn in training is related to safety, not service. You need separate qualifications for every single aircraft you’re going to be working on, which means understanding the insides of the planes and exactly how they operate. You have to memorize seating charts, know where all the emergency equipment is stored, learn how to operate all the doors, and pass both written tests about the technicalities and physical drills inside models of the airplanes. Sure, flight attendants can also make a mean Bloody Mary from canned tomato juice, but if shit were to hit the fan, the most important thing is knowing how to get everyone out of the plane safely.
9. Seniority is everything. Your rank as a flight attendant determines what your working schedule will be like. The longer you’ve worked for an airline, the pickier you can be about your shifts. As a newbie, you’re expected to take trips that are less than desirable. When you’re starting out, working on weekends is par for the course. The trips that you’re booked on could last days and require multiple flights per day. Once you pay your dues, you have more say in your schedule—and you’re more likely to have your pick of trips.
10. Your hours can be insanely flexible, but there’s a catch. Every other month, Rita alternates between a set schedule and an on-call schedule, which means you have to be near the airport and ready to head into work on short notice if you’re called in. Flight attendants have the ability to drop trips, pick up other people’s trips, and move schedules around a lot, which means they can give themselves time off or work more. Of course, there’s a trade-off. During on-call months, you’re guaranteed to be paid for 75 hours, whether you’re working or not, but that’s a really small paycheck. Flight attendants also get paid a per diem rate when they fly, which covers meals and travel incidentals, so you lose that chunk of money if you’re not working. Even though you could take off a ton of time, most flight attendants pick up extra trips to make enough money to get by. The only exception to the schedule flexibility is, of course, the holidays.
11. Don’t plan to spend the holidays at home, ever. Unless you’ve been working as a flight attendant for a decade and have seniority, you will be working on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, guaranteed. Winter holidays are especially tough, since you’re more likely to have weather delays: While the passengers are pissed off about wanting to get home to be with their families, flight attendants are pissed off about being stuck on the airplane during the holiday! “I’ve learned to work around it for Christmas—we can have a big Christmas celebration on the 23rd and it’s not a huge deal—but it’s trickier for holidays like Halloween or the Fourth of July,” says Rita. “It’s not like you can take your kids trick-or-treating on the 30th, and you won’t see fireworks on July 3rd.”
12. Get used to sleeping in strange places. When you’re taking two-day trips, your layovers can be as short as 10 hours, which gives you just enough time to sleep at a hotel near the airport between flights. For longer international flights, like Los Angeles to London, you get short sleeping breaks during the flight. The large aircrafts have an area above the passenger cabin, which is about 4 feet tall and 40 feet long, with eight bunks on each side. Each flight attendant gets a sleeping shift during the flight, about two or three hours, where they lie in one of those little cots and sleep. They’re not the most comfortable beds, but it definitely beats sleeping in a passenger seat in coach!
13. It’s easy to let this job wear you down. Even if you aren’t strained by the low salary or working at odd hours of the day and night, the job can be extremely grating. You’re sleeping in strange places, away from your friends and family, eating crap at the airport all the time, and constantly stressed. Anxiety and depression are extremely common. Some flight attendants have even ended up in the hospital from exhaustion from the job. It’s so important to take care of yourself—physically and emotionally—to survive. Taking off as much time between flying as you can, eating as healthfully as possible when you’re home, and getting lots of sleep are key.
14. Looking put-together is part of the job description. Every airline has slightly different grooming standards, but they’re all really specific and extremely strict. “We’re told what color our pantyhose has to be, how we wear our hair, what type of makeup we wear, and how tall the heel on our shoes is,” says Rita. “Our uniforms need to be neatly pressed each day. Our nails and lips have to be in neutral muted colors, like pink, peach, nude, or, occasionally, classic red.” Your hair has to look natural, which means you can dye it to another natural-looking color, but you can’t have any roots showing. Airline unions fought to remove the weight restrictions on flight attendants in the ’90s, but every year, attendants are evaluated to make sure they can fit through every door, emergency exit, and the aisle of the smallest aircraft, which means they can lose their job if they’re too big to fit. Some airlines also have height requirements, which are supposedly to make sure you can open the overhead bins.
15. Make sure the airline you pick is a good fit. Because seniority is so important, Kat advises that you stick with whatever airline you start at. Therefore, it’s vital to research what airline is the best fit for you. “You can find a lot of information on Glassdoor,” suggests Kat. Perusing YouTube can also be a big help. “There are a lot of YouTubers, like FlyWithStella, who discuss all kinds of things,” Kat says.
16. Some airlines pay more than others. What you get paid as a flight attendant depends on experience and which airport you’re based in, but it can also vary from airline to airline. If you’re just starting out, you can expect your salary to range anywhere from $21 to $28 an hour. According to information on Glassdoor, starting flight attendants at Spirit make $23 an hour, while flight attendants at American Airlines make $27 an hour. United’s starting salary for all flight attendants is $28 an hour. Because the base pay is pretty low, many flight attendants pick up additional trips in order to earn more.
17. Choosing an airline to work for has a lot to do with union preferences. The biggest difference between the major carriers in the United States is whether they’re unionized. United and American are unionized, for example, while Delta is not. “I know people who have turned down Delta because they wanted the protection of a union, and I also know people who didn’t want to be in a union and chose Delta specifically,” says Rita. Working for a unionized airline, in general, offers some great protections, like negotiating annual bonuses and regular raises.
18. A customer service background comes in handy. In terms of qualifications, flight attendants typically need a GED or high school diploma. College coursework isn’t a requirement, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Those who have a year or two of customer service experience are ideal. “[Airlines] definitely appreciate people who have had customer service jobs of any kind,” says Kat. “They’ll ask you a lot of questions about that in your interview.” Being bilingual is also an asset, but there are some flight attendant jobs that require it. As a bilingual or language-qualified flight attendant, you may receive additional pay and you’re likely to travel to places where your second language is spoken, like Europe or South America.
19. The perks of the job make up for your paycheck. While being a flight attendant isn’t the highest-paying job, you’re almost always guaranteed to fly for free. Flight attendants can ride in coach for free or fly with a companion for about 90 percent off plus tax and fees on international flights. Additionally, you’ll receive benefits, like health and dental insurance. Whether you make “good” money can be relative. “It depends on the lifestyle you’re used to,” says Kat.
20. You’ll learn everything about your coworkers—and then never work with them again. When you fly with another flight attendant for a three-day trip, you’ll know their entire life story by day three. It’s also known as “jump-seat therapy.” You sit together on the plane, you stay in the same hotel, you go to the bar together during your layover—basically, you’re attached at the hip for a few days. “It’s kind of like sorority rush, except oftentimes, you’ll never fly with that person again,” says Rita. There are hundreds of flight attendants for each airline, so you end up getting to know a lot of people really intimately and then not seeing them for months or ever again.
21. Most airlines are based in big cities, so be prepared to stretch your paycheck. “I know a lot of new hire flight attendants go to San Francisco for United, so that’s kind of hard because it’s super expensive,” says Kat. Other flight attendant hubs include pricey cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Miami. To make it work, lots of flight attendants live in “crash pads,” which are essentially dorms where they share a bedroom with a handful of other flight attendants. Everyone crams into one room with a bunch of beds. It works out because you’re flying most of the time (especially at the start of your career to earn a decent paycheck), but it does feel a little like freshman year of college.
22. You’ll learn to appreciate places you’d never visit. It’s not just the layovers in Hawaii or Sydney that make this job so cool. “Recently, I had a long layover in Oklahoma City, and I had such a great time there,” says Rita. “I wandered around by myself and strolled around the riverwalk. I would’ve never visited Oklahoma City otherwise, but I’m so glad my job took me there.”
*Name has been changed.
You Might Also Like