What It's Like To Be A Flight Attendant

A travel reporter for the New York Times spent two days working as a flight attendant on American Airlines, flying between Dallas and New York City and shadowing the real flight attendants as they dealt with drunk passengers, supply shortages, and travelers who are already fed up and tense before they even board the plane.

“Who would have thought, after 30 years, that we’d be a flying 7-Eleven,” Becky Gilbert, a three-decade veteran of the industry told me during a break in our training session in Fort Worth.

The author, Michelle Higgins, captures the dramatic shift from what was once a career loaded with perks—free travel, flexible schedules, plenty of time off, and even a bit of cachet—into a job that puts you on the front line of the war most airlines are carrying out against their paying customers.

At the start of one flight, for example, the crew is told the plane is moving to a shorter runway, and they have to carry out a quick count of the number of children on board to see whether the plane meets the suddenly-reduced weight limit—otherwise they will have to kick off passengers. (And those passengers will hopefully write to The Consumerist.)

We’ve no doubt that there are bad employees in the skies—the bigots, morons, burn-outs, and despots who provide us with so many infuriating stories—but it’s revealing to see the level of stress that today’s good flight attendants have to deal with, and something worth keeping in mind the next time you fly and want to reach out and hurt the person telling you there are no more blankets or cookies, or that you’ll almost certainly miss your connecting flight.

“Flying the Unfriendly Skies” [New York Times]
(Photo: FaceMePLS)

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  1. Flame says:

    Notice that this one doesn’t have many comments yet…..It’s hard to feel sympathy for someone who is telling you no, you can’t do that……

    • Nate425 says:

      @Flame:

      They’re just the mouthpiece for the idiots in charge. It only makes things worse to take it out on them unless they are being completely unreasonable and not using common sense.

    • Parting says:

      @Flame: Well, that proves rude people are like spoiled kids.

      Try smiling next time and be nice. Flight attendant are not used to nice people. Even if most flight attendants I’ve met, were professional and nice.

      For everyone else, rude people are randomly everywhere. Starting within consumers ranks ;)

  2. DrGirlfriend says:

    My father and stepmother were/are flight attendants for many years, and I have been hearing their work stories since I was little. They got exponentially worse after 9/11, probably because flying turned from a sometimes-stressful event to an always-stressful one.

    I’ve also been a frequent flyer for most of my life and have seen firsthand what the FA’s have to deal with. I know that FA’s are virtually reviled by commenters on this site, and I know that in some cases, there are some FA’s who may seem to overstep their bounds. However, I think in the majority of cases FA’s are just doing their jobs under very stressful circumstances.

    I read that article the other day and was struck by one particular line, because it’s one I have thought for years: “People check their brains when they get on an airplane.” Actually, my line has always been “IQ’s drop by 20 points whenever people are within the confines of an airport.” Flying has become very stressful and I absolutely believe that there are passengers who vent their stress on flight attendants, and that just sets the tone for the entire flight. However, I have yet to meet a flight attendant who, no matter how frazzled they are, isn’t helpful if I approach him or her in a low-key and courteous manner. And if FA’s now feel that they are at least in part responsible for the safety and lives of everyone onboard , then it’s not surprising that some may seem really pushy when trying to enforce rules.

    I think everyone on a plane needs to take a deep breath before boarding, honestly. Crew and passengers alike.

  3. nicemarmot617 says:

    Of course most flight attendants are reasonable people. It’s just that they have a job crappy enough that it could get to anyone. I wouldn’t want to be a waitress on a flying boat either. I always treat flight attendants well, anyway.

  4. 12-Inch Idongivafuck Sandwich says:

    When you stick stressed and frustrated passengers in a confined space with stressed frustrated flight attendants, you are just asking for trouble.

    I wasn’t around for flying 30 years ago (however my mother was a flight attendant those days), but back then, flight attendants were paid and treated well, so they were less stressed and more capable of handling stressed and frustrated passengers. Also back then, passengers didn’t have to deal with the crap they do today with fees and security and everything else, so they were less stressed and frustrated…just a better situation all the way around.

  5. Gopher bond says:

    How come no bus attendants?

  6. oneandone says:

    There never seems to be anyone else representing an airline who you can talk to if there are problems (delays, cancelled flight, missed connection, etc). So they get an unfair burden – and I definitely agree that even very well-mannered and usually calm people can get extra frazzled in airports. The constant TV noise from ‘CNN airport edition’ always puts me on edge.

    There should be a way for customers & flight attendants & other airline employees to together highlight how certain mindless policies are making everyone miserable, and putting customers & staff into unfair situations.

  7. Etoiles says:

    I would imagine that “flight attendant” is a dreadful job. (Then again, despite my frequent flying, I hate the sensation and have panic attacks from heights. So, you know, not suited.) Working in the service industry can be bad enough — my last retail job was actually great but you know how those customers are — but I can’t imagine having to compound that with the Idiot Factor in airports. (Yes, friend, the 47 signs about liquids apply to YOU, too.)

    I’ve met two nasty flight attendants / airport service agents in the last three years, and dozens who were doing the best anyone possibly could under the same situation. I’m more than willing to give the majority of them the benefit of the doubt. (Especially the one who brought me a ton of napkins when my boyfriend knocked over the mini-bottle of white wine he thought would “calm me down” on a horribly turbulent flight from JFK to Vegas. JetBlue lady, you win! Especially for sneaking me a free replacement bottle!)

  8. snazz says:

    what did an airline ticket cost in the 60s? (accounting for inflation)… i would imagine ticket prices were very high and could accomodate the ‘old school’ lifestyle of FAs. but as with everything in america, people want everything cheaper and cheaper but are not willing to take cuts in service or quality to get it. ultimately we get it cheaper, but we dont get what we really want

  9. drftjgoj says:

    I do feel sorry for them, since they kind of get it from both ends… Airline cutbacks affect them as much as the customers they’re trying to serve.

    It would be interesting to see this writer try to be a CSR for a day…

  10. Thanatos says:

    Ive only flown twice but i always try to be nice and courteous to the flight crew cause if figure my flight will go alot smoother if i do and its one less thing for them to worry about. I do not envy them having to deal with that many people on a daily basis. Now security screening, dont get me started on that.

  11. dopplerd says:

    The thing that I don’t get is the weight limit due to the runway. What were they flying in a Cessna 150? So on a modern passenger jet the few hundred pounds from 11 kids instead of adults makes a difference? A Boeing 737 with passengers and fuel weighs in well north of 100,000 pounds so we are talking about less than 1%.

    • veronykah says:

      @dopplerd: Yes it does. There also assume a certain amount of weight in baggage for each passenger.
      Its amusing to me that so many people think pilots and flight attendants do things like, oh calculate the weight of an airplane for takeoff, just to fuck with the passengers.
      I lived with a pilot for 3 years. There are a lot of PROCEDURES that HAVE to be followed. If it inconveniences passengers, so be it. They are in place for your safety.

      • theycallmetak says:

        @veronykah:

        That’s funny, because that’s what operations is there for. Flight attendants and pilots aren’t there to figure out weight and balance. They may have to take a head count but they’re not qualified to do the load calcs.

    • Elvisisdead says:

      @dopplerd: Well, and it’s directly related to how long of a runway you need to get your heavy ass in the air.

      • British Benzene says:

        @Elvisisdead: I was on a flight with a bunch of other guys on a trip to West Virginia in a tiny turboprop (maybe 20 seats?). The flight attendant came up to one of the guys I was with and said “Sir, I need you to move to the back of the plane for the flight to Charleston.”

        Of course, he was the only black guy on the plane.

        He gave her a look, and said “It’s gonna be like that, is it?”

        She immediately realized what he was thinking and said “We need to balance the plane; if one of you gentlemen could move to the back, it would allow us to take off.”

        I went ahead and moved and he and I both got free drinks.

    • Samuel Chun says:

      @dopplerd:

      [en.wikipedia.org]

      Here you go.

  12. erratapage says:

    This makes me hate the airlines even more. Pay these people more money. Make their work conditions better. It’s a matter of my safety. And my safety isn’t furthered when a low paid, stressed out flight attendant can’t communicate her needs in a way that I understand (so that I don’t end up getting arrested for using the john).

    Honestly… I get that the companies aren’t profitable enough. Maybe it’s time to build a better airline!

    • proskills says:

      @erratapage: There was a better airline, it was called ExpressJet. They did everything right, low prices, non-stop flights, gave you food even on short flights, let you choose your seats without restriction, and had great customer service.

      But they failed in the wake of huge oil prices. Too bad.

  13. MissPeacock says:

    I’ve actually found that the Flight Attendants have always been the best part of the flying experience for me, and some of them have been downright kind and generous. It’s the gate agents and ticketing folks who’ve made it hell for me in the past.

    • @MissPeacock: I ♥ flight attendants too. Never had a problem.

      Also I firmly believe that if the government would abandon the ridiculous security bullshit, demand for air travel would shoot through the roof and all this crap would pretty much go away.

      Unfortunately, neither party in this country would take a break from the paranoia long enough to even consider that.

      • ShizaMinelli says:

        I guess people remember that silly little 9/11 thing from the last time security got a little less stringent.

  14. emington says:

    @ Dopplerd: airlines calculate the exact amount of fuel for their weight. if the weight is higher, then the calculated amount of fuel will not be as sufficient as if the weight was at the calculated level.

    • Hector Z says:

      @emington:

      Actually, in this case, the greater the weight, the longer the take-off run. The aircraft’s flight management system calculates the maximum take-off weight using a runway of a specified length, based temperature and wind conditions. If they are even 1lb over, company rules (and for taht matter FAA regulations) dictate a no-go. “Counting babies” is a common practice to reduce the estimated weight from passengers (estimated at 170lbs per pax). Don’t ask me if they count sumo wrestlers too.

  15. jrobie says:

    I do understand that these people are just doing their jobs, that the policies they espouse are not their fault. Nevertheless, it is hard to resist the urge to ruin the day of the person who’s the smiling, unhelpful face of the company ruining your day.

    I do not envy these people.

  16. Overheal says:

    i dont know about anyone else but i thought the plan all along was to stay upbeat while traveling? I mean a couple years ago I was the chipper one going home for christmas and it was the staff that were absolute pricks (understandably, it was xmas eve) but could you imagine what would have happened to me if I got bitchy with the security guard that spot-checked my carry-on? I dont even want to think about it. For the love of science do not portray anything but sincere respect and gratitude when you travel if you want the best experience (even if you feel like shit)

    • snazz says:

      @Overheal: unfortunately there are too many entitled assholes out there….

      your comment makes me think that you worked some sort of customer service job for awhile? i got a great perspective on the service industry after having worked computer tech support at a retail store. made me look at how i treat others VERY differently. i shutter think how i behaved in my teens years (fortunately i dont recall any particularly terrible outbursts from me).

  17. blainer says:

    What’s with the upskirt shot, Consumerist?

  18. catskyfire says:

    That was a wonderful article. Thanks for linking to it.

  19. lannister80 says:

    I have no problem with flight attendants at all! It’s the ticket agents/gate agents that are usually surly and evil.

  20. Much respect to flight attendants. They have to crawl through those cramped aisles, breathe in stale recycled air, put up with drunk, abusive assholes, and be at everyone’s beck and call. I wouldn’t last 5 minutes as a an FA, mostly because I would strangle all the assholes on the plane.

  21. rpm773 says:

    Interesting post. I’ve been wondering about this a lot lately: When compared to other industries, what has gone wrong with the airline industry? Why was flying 25 years ago so much better for the consumer than today. Where’s the natural progress of it – better, faster, cheaper? It’s not like the market has disappeared. It’s not like flying has become obsolete.

    And now we hear from the inside that it’s the same thing; the job itself is a lot worse than it was 25 years ago.

    I can’t imagine that the industry is non-self sustaining. However, with a few exceptions, it certainly has seemed to trend that way over the last few decades.

  22. jblaze1 says:

    Do you respect that SWA flight attendant who shipped the Indian doctor to jail?

  23. screwtapeletters says:

    See, this is why I’m so bothered when I meet a genuinely awful flight attendant.

    I fly constantly and without a doubt rude flight attendants happen to be the exception and not the rule, so it’s all the more shocking when they scream at your otherwise resilient 16-year-old sister until she cries.

  24. Outrun1986 says:

    This article seems to be a reflection of pretty much every service industry. Low paid people who have to take all the heat from angry customers. Guaranteed being a flight attendant is probably a lot worse as you have to deal with these people in the air, they can’t just leave the store and go somewhere else, so you have to try and calm them even when they are severely stressed. Add to that that a lot of people are stressed in their jobs as it is to begin with even before they get to the airport, and if they are traveling for work you will get work stress on top of normal airport stress. I have never been on an airplane but I can’t imagine what it would be like, and frankly I don’t want to go on one until the industry improves and is more customer friendly. I can only imagine how stressed I would be if my flight was late and that was causing me to miss my connecting flight. I would also be so concerned about lost luggage and something being stolen from my bags that I don’t think I could ever bring myself to get on a plane. I simply can’t afford to lose anything I own.

    I try to be as nice as possible to the cashier at the register or the CSR because they take all the heat, I even take a min to chat if there is no one in the store because it can be boring at times. It would take a lot to get me to explode, a lot.

  25. Eoghann says:

    Ever tried being friendly and nice to a FA? You get treated like a number and told what to do. Thanks for flying. meh.

  26. philipbarrett says:

    The article reinforces the fact that being a FA is a young person’s game. This isn’t an ageist statement, other professions have areas similarly stacked against aging bodies & minds (mine included). Knowing when to get out is part of the business, on your feet for 12 hours is OK when you’re 26 but sucks at 46, let alone 56!

  27. bbagdan says:

    I’ve never experienced any nasty flight attendants. On the other hand, like the Soup Nazi, I never say or do anything untoward.

    I nearly got into words when an attendant (illogically) made me remove my earbuds, even though my ipod was turned off, before takeoff. But thought better of it and did what she wanted, stupid or not.

    Attendants are like cops: buddy-buddy as long as you don’t do anything to question their authority. Any faux pas with either results in you getting cuffed or worse.

    • DrGirlfriend says:

      @bbagdan: My guess is because they FA’s don’t have time to inspect every ipod to make sure it is turned off, so they ask that people remove the earbuds as a visual cue to them. I mean, yeah, you could still have it turned on with the earbuds off, but in general earbuds on leads you to believe someone is listening to their device.

  28. shiwsup says:

    Hot, pleasant-smelling towel service at the beginning and end of the flight would go a long way toward chilling people out.

  29. Islandkiwi says:

    You want happier passengers, then treat them like people and not cargo. Don’t sell me a drink, offer me one. Offer me a bag of chips. Add the dollar cost of this amenities-fest to my ticket, I’m not going to notice.

    What I do notice is getting nickeled and dimed when I’m on the plane. Here’s a tv show you don’t get to watch. Here’s a snack you could buy, but we don’t have change. On American, a flight from Dallas to Honolulu does not have meals, but you can buy a snack. That’s a nine hour flight!

    Is this the flight attendants fault? I’m saying yes, it is. Why? Because they’re not protecting their own job when these services are cut back. Much like the automated checkout lines at grocery stores, you take away the services and then you don’t need the people. Flight attendants who aren’t providing a service to the passengers are essentially taking up space on the plane, so it is in their best interests to provide those services.

    What I’m saying is, passengers behave better and they’re nicer if they feel they’re being treated decently. It is in the best interests of the airlines and the flight attendants to provide these services.

  30. DavinaArtimus says:

    In 2007 inflation adjusted dollars he average fare for one flight segment was ~ $240 in 1980 and in 2007 it was ~ $137.

    http://www.airlines.org/economics/review_and_outlook/annual+reports.htm

    Airlines now offer more service to more destinations for a significantly cheaper price than 30 years ago. If fares went back to 1980 levels, passenger demand would also fall. Less flight service, less jobs. Airlines could afford to offer better customer service to the passengers who still fly, but at the expense of the many who could no long afford to travel. I guess my point is, be careful what you wish for, everything has trade-offs.

  31. crazypants says:

    Lets just give the flight attendants guns and badges and be done with it.

  32. vastrightwing says:

    I’ve cut my flying way back. I just can’t take the stress of buying the ticket (dealing with the fees), the drive to the airport, parking, the long slow lines of checking in, the kiosks that don’t work, the security hassle, the crowds @ the airport, the canceled flights and having to rebook, weather delays, cramped seats, no food, crying babies, etc.. I just avoid flying as much as possible. I used to love flying… a long time ago.

  33. Bad_Brad says:

    As an ex-airline management guy, I would agree that Flight Attendants have it pretty rough any more. Not as rough as the gate agents, but still.

  34. noodleman says:

    If flying is so stressful for FAs nowadays, why don’t FAs on airlines like Singapore Airlines, et al. also complain?

    I think some of these problems are found more often on American carriers, and may have something (or everything?) with the fact that an airline like SIA will only employ FAs for a few years while some American carriers (e.g. NWA) have FAs who are approaching 20-years experience. In this case, more “experience” doesn’t necessarily mean a better-trained FA; it could mean an employee so thoroughly cynical or embittered by their long years of abuse by a carrier and passengers?

  35. DrGirlfriend says:

    @Islandkiwi: How can they provide services they are not able to provide? You think they should comp you food or drinks and go against the rules of their job?

    • Islandkiwi says:

      @DrGirlfriend:
      No, I’m not saying they should provide the food/drink themselves. I’m saying they should fight to reinstate those amenities. Passing out those amenities increases their own job security.

      Passengers are happy when they get things (they think) are free. It’s relaxing to be offered a drink, it’s not relaxing trying to find your purse/wallet and seeing whether you have enough for a snack.

      • sixseeds says:

        @Islandkiwi: As I understood it, an FA’s primary function is NOT server but safety officer/passenger supervisor/assistant. As the article and other posts have pointed out, a lot of FAs have already taken pay and benefit cuts to ensure the security of an increasingly crappy job. On top of all that they’re supposed to nag their stingy and panicky employers to give you free pretzels?

  36. Haltingpoint says:

    I feel sympathy for these people, I truly do. But you have to wonder what kind of masochistic personality they have to continue to work in this job. Yeah, we ALL have job stress, and it varies greatly person to person and job to job.

    Bottom line is though…if something is too stressful for you, quit. Especially if you’re in a service industry job as you can ALWAYS find another one given the low requirements.

    So again, I feel bad for them, but when I hear them whine I don’t know what else to say besides “get a new job?”

  37. 3drage says:

    All flight attendants should ban together and stage a walk-out until conditions are better. Oh wait, we’ve been conditioned to believe that jobs are valuable and you have to suffer in them.

  38. fairywench says:

    My daughter was a flight attendant, and I have two schools of thought on this one:

    1. My daughter said that most of the other flight attendants she worked with were complete bee-otches, and were rude and arrogant and catty.

    2. Those Air Marshals that ride along undercover on flights are taught that in case of trouble on the plane, they are to shoot through the flight attendant. I think that would make anyone stressed if that were their working conditions…knowing they could be shot at any minute.

  39. johnfrombrooklyn says:

    I fly 60,000 miles a year more or less including 10-12 r/t NYC to LA. I never have problems on flights. I get to the airport well in advance of my flight – usually 2 hours; always 1.5 hours. I pack light. I have snacks and water and a good book. I don’t booze before or during the flight. I book the earliest flights possible so there’s little delay. I don’t expect the flight attendant to do anything for me. Fly like me and you’ll be trouble free. (catchphrase trademarked).

  40. dantsea says:

    In the past 25 years, I can only think of one problem that was caused, then further exacerbated, by a flight attendant. And as a frequent flyer on the flight it happened on, I have to say that the airline (American, for those keeping score) handled it appropriately — I never saw him on another flight.

    Officious gate agents, well, that’s another story entirely.

  41. Pop Socket says:

    Not to be ageist, but those flight attendants are 56, 45, and 50. I’ve never seen a foreign run airline with FAs over 35. Union seniority must be great.

    • richcreamerybutter says:

      @Pop Socket: I still don’t get your point. If anything, the older ones are great for reassuring nervous passengers after traumatic air pocket drops.

      I like to bring a few bags of chocolates and candy for the crew. They seem to both love the confections and the fact that someone is thinking of them. I’ve definitely received free drinks, but the thought that maybe a crappy route was improved somewhat brings me great joy.

  42. Justifan says:

    riff raff and cheap tickets gets you this.
    the stewardesses on the concord supposedly had it pretty nice. but even thats over

  43. duker99 says:

    Ok… most of us don’t hate flight attendants for telling us there are no more cookies or juice. Most reasonable people understand that sometimes things are not planned well.

    The reason we occasionally (and more and more frequently) hate flight attendants and airline workers because they treat us with such contempt. It’s the ATTITUDE!

    If there are no cookies, how about nicely and patiently saying there are no cookies? If someone doesn’t have their shoes on because it’s clear they’re running to the gate (duh… most likely from security), then have a little empathy. I’ve seen a few in-flight issues in my time, and most of them have either started or have been exacerbated by the “I’m the boss here so f*ck you” attitude of flight crew, when simply patiently and calmly explaining the situation would have probably avoided most of the incidents.

    But the problem is that so many people in this industry are in a position to simply sh*t on their customers with no ramifications, and they therefore get God complexes.

    If there was a restaurant that spit all guests coming through the door (except for the first class customers, of course), people would avoid it. We have no choice when it comes to flying, except not to fly.

    Advances in technology are making it easier for many people not to have to fly for business all the time. I for one will cheer when more airlines go broke. Except for JetBlue and Singapore Air :-)

  44. RedwoodFlyer says:

    Random comment, but if you want to make a FA’s day, buy a box of cheap BIC pens and give them to the purser – you wouldn’t believe how many pax ask for one and never give it back…

  45. calchip says:

    I’ve gotten to the point where I absolutely cringe when I have to fly any airline other than Southwest (and maybe JetBlue). While there’s the occasional thoughtful and helpful flight attendant on the dinosaur airlines, most of them are rude, rushed, and sometimes downright hostile.

    On the contrary, flying Southwest (which I fly on probably a 20:1 ratio with every other airline), I can count on one hand the negative experiences I’ve had with *anyone* at Southwest, gate agents, baggage agents, ticket agents, and FA’s combined.

    I really believe that the whole problem stems from management. The dinosaur airlines care about padding their top management’s salaries, and employees feel disempowered. Policies come from “on high” and FA’s are stuck enforcing policies they weren’t asked about and don’t like.

    If other airlines followed the Southwest model (OK, so the bitch that hassled the urologist excluded), then I think the experience that we passengers (as we’re called on dinosaur airlines) or Customers (as we’re called on Southwest) have would be completely different.

  46. Anonymous says:

    I fly about ten times a year and have never encountered an airline /airport employee that was rude to me, some tsa agents are a bit curt but then again they are not there to ensure I have a wonderful day, I would probably be a raving B if I had to deal with all the morons going through security. I mean how many signs do they have to post about taking your shoes and jackets off etc….