Airline Crew Share Real Stories From the Sky

flight-attendantKathy Sweeney was a flight attendant for 12 years. She grew up in an aviation family; her mom flew professionally and her dad flew for pleasure. She grew up with airplanes but never had a desire to work for the airlines. However, after feeling burned out in the retail industry and having a friend recommend she give the airlines a try, she wrote a resume and landed the position out of dozens of applicants. The job she landed as a flight attendant at America West had some great travel benefits -- not only for her, but for family members and friends, as well. Sweeney's job allowed for a great deal of flexibility and the ability to start a second business (a resume writing business) while keeping her job as a flight attendant on the weekends.

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The challenges of being a flight attendant

But working for the airlines had its challenges. According to Sweeney, "flight attendants could be scheduled for up to a 13-hour duty day -- and sometimes extended up to 15 hours. Some overnights in cities outside of our main base were scheduled at eight hours, which was really more like six hours when you factored in the hour it took to get to the hotel after landing and the fact that attendants were required to be at the airplane one hour prior to departure. Five hours of sleep is not ideal for most people."

Sweeney notes, "while most of the passengers were great, there were some people who thought I was their waitress and treated me pretty rudely. Many passengers also felt that we were being control freaks when we asked them to stow their luggage or put their seat backs and tray tables up on takeoff and landing. What they don't understand is that flight attendants are just doing their job and following regulations the FAA has put in place to ensure the safety of everyone on the airplane."

Stories from the aisle

Recalls Sweeney:

  • I had a passenger in first class who decided to floss his teeth and throw the used dental floss right in the middle of the aisle. He expected me to pick it up. I wasn't going to touch it -- if there is any blood on it, it becomes a biohazard.
  • On one particular flight, some passengers who had never been in first class were offered hot towel service to freshen up. One of the passengers took his cloth and blew his nose in it.
  • On a flight out of Vancouver, I noticed that the two men sitting in the emergency exit row were conversing in another language. It is a requirement for all flight attendants to brief exit row passengers. When I asked them the question whether they were comfortable assisting in an emergency, one man said yes and the other just nodded. I asked if they both spoke English. The man who spoke English started yelling at me, saying that I was discriminating against them because they spoke in another language. I explained that it was an FAA requirement that passengers seated in an exit row needed to be able to speak, read, and understand English, However, he continued to get hostile with me, actually threatening me and poking my shoulder very hard with his finger. I requested assistance from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and had the passengers removed from the aircraft.
  • We were about to land in Phoenix and we had a woman go absolutely crazy on us. She was yelling and screaming that someone was going to kill her. I tried to calm her down, but she started fighting and hitting me. It took me and two other passengers to hold her down until we landed. The police were called and she was arrested. It turned out that she was schizophrenic and had been off her medication.
  • One of the great moments that really stands out for me was about two weeks after 9/11. We were flying from Orlando to Phoenix. As you can imagine, people were still very frightened to fly. I had a group of 25 senior citizens on the flight who were particularly scared. Throughout the flight I kept checking in with them to see how they were doing. They really appreciated the extra attention I provided them. As they were departing the aircraft, each of them hugged me, gave me a kiss on the cheek, and thanked me for making them feel safe. It was something I'll never forget.

Sweeney's opinion of Steven Slater's recent actions on JetBlue

"While I don't agree with Steven Slater endangering passengers by 'blowing a slide' (let alone forcing JetBlue to pay about $10k to repack the slide), I can see how he snapped," Sweeney notes. "Many people don't treat flight attendants very well and they don't listen to the safety instructions. That, coupled with long duty days and little rest is a cocktail for disaster. The very thing Steven was trying to prevent (a bag falling on someone's head) happened to him. I had a passenger do the same thing on one of my flights. We were just about at the gate, and this man got up and opened the overhead bin to retrieve his luggage so he could be the first person off the aircraft. We told him to stay seated, he ignored us, the plane stopped abruptly, and the luggage hit another man on the head causing him to have to get stitches.

"I just hope the story brings to light the importance of safety on the airplanes and that flight attendants aren't just asking people to comply with rules for no reason. Flight attendants can be personally fined by the FAA if the cabin isn't safe and secure. Steven was just doing his job. But, he took it too far with his subsequent actions. While I don't know Jet Blue's policies, I would have notified the captain and had the flight met by the Port Authority Police to deal with the passenger."


Moving on

Sweeney left the airlines after 9/11 due to safety concerns. She always ran her resume writing business when she worked for the airlines, so is well known throughout the industry. She is sought out by pilots, flight attendants, maintenance technicians, and even individuals working in internal operations or corporate positions to write their resumes because she understands the business. Sweeney reflects, "once you have worked in the airline industry, you forever build a bond with other aviation employees, whether you worked with them or not -- because you understand the job, the pressures associated with it, all the regulations, and the job duties of just about everyone who works at an airline." You can find Kathy at The Write Resume.


Going the private-jet route

Mary Hanson has been a flight attendant for corporate air travel for four years. The job actually found her. She was contacted by a well-connected friend who knew a pilot that needed a flight attendant to go to Europe for a couple weeks. According to Hansen, "having been bit by the travel bug early on, I was thrilled to go even though I didn't have any experience or training as a flight attendant. As I was lying on beaches of the Mediterranean on one of my days off, I came to the conclusion that this was right up my alley, and what I wanted to do as a career."

Hansen says, "the thing I love most about my job is obviously the travel, taste of culture, diversity, language.. also my extreme eagerness to host and make sure flights are an experience, that it doesn't have to be just point A to B. I also have an extreme interest in culinary arts which is what I wish to parlay into after my run is over with flight attending."

However, she says, there are downsides to the job. "The aspects I least prefer are the long hours, and time changes. It can take a toll on you physically, especially in my line of work, since there isn't a real set schedule. This isn't always the case; but with the jobs I've had it's get up and go on a whim, which can keep you on your toes. Also you miss your loved ones back home, if gone for long periods of time; which is often."


Stories from the aisle

Hansen says:

  • On one trip I was forced to babysit very expensive caviar for about a week. I kept in on ice religiously about three times a day. That was certainly interesting, but it made it and I served it on the next flight.
  • Mainly there are just some extravagant requests; the people who can afford to own or charter private jets are usually accustomed to a certain way of life, and can be quite demanding, and god forbid you forget something for catering... because there aren't any 7-11s at 40,000 feet.

Hanson's opinion of Steven Slater

" I think we have all felt this way," she says, "especially when you are in a confined space such as an aircraft, and you just have times where either you, the crew, or passengers aren't having a pleasant day, and you just have to ride the wave and make sure you do what you can to provide great service and make their day better when possible."

Hanson goes on the say, "a simple 'thank you' goes very far; manners are sometimes forgotten; and an occasional nod from someone to let you know you are doing you're job well, make a huge difference."


Moving on

For her -- for now -- the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks: "All in all, I enjoy my job and the perks it entails. It's definitely not for everyone. Since I don't have kids and am not married, it seemed like a great opportunity for at least a few years, until the next step. I honestly would not want to be a 10-year-plus veteran, and had no interest in ever becoming an airline stewardess. For now, it suits me and my lifestyle."


What about the pilot's job?pilot

Philip Lee has been a pilot for 15 years. He dreamed of being a pilot since he was a kid. He enjoys his job but misses his family during the long stretches away from his home. While most people enjoy getting away from home and going to a new destination to relax, Lee enjoys coming home to relax with his wife and children.


Stories from the cockpit

Lee recalls a few hairy incidents on the runway and in the skies:

  • On one occasion, the tower was telling us before pushback to expect minimal delays. We then had to sit on the taxiway for six and a half hours on a short domestic Newark to Boston flight.
  • On another flight, we had to make a diversion out over the Atlantic to Iceland at night due to a medical emergency.

Lee notes that the best moment in his career came when he helped bring the body of a fallen soldier from Iraq to McAllen, TX. He remembers, "The parents of the soldier met the flight and thanked us for not leaving their son's body behind. It made my heart hurt to hold back the tears."


Lee's opinion of Steven Slater

"I don't condone what Slater did, especially exiting the aircraft the way he did. But I understand why he did it. He only did what a lot of us always thought about doing because of the frustration this job brings. Of course, we usually think better of it."

Next: Ten Top-Paying Jobs in Aviation >>


Filed under: Confessions
Barbara Safani

Barbara Safani

Editor

Barbara Safani, owner of Career Solvers, has over fifteen years of experience in career management, recruiting, executive coaching, and organizational development.

Barbara partners with both Fortune 100 companies and individuals to deliver targeted programs focusing on resume development, job search strategies, networking, interviewing, salary negotiation skills, and online identity management.

She is the author of Happy About My Resume: 50 Tips For Building a Better Document to Secure a Brighter Future and #JOBSEARCHtweet and her award-winning resumes are featured in dozens of career-related publications.

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adviceamy

" Flight attendants can be personally fined by the FAA if the cabin isn't safe and secure." This is untrue. I've been communicating with an FAA Pr person on this for a piece I'm writing.

February 15 2013 at 9:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
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October 11 2011 at 5:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mike1979

I think all of the negative, confrontational posts on here are indicitive of the problem - passengers with very little to no respect for flight attendants and flight attendants with an axe to grind who take out their bad attitudes on passengers. I am a flight attendant, a job which I love, and I make it a point to show up everyday to work with a smile. Whether I had a long, restful layover or a short, abbreviated layover with 5 hours of sleep, I choose to make the flights I work enjoyable for myself, my crew and my guests. Yes, flight attendants do serve food. Does that make us "waitstaff"? No. But it is the primary function we serve on a daily basis. I just look at it as an opportunity to interact with the guests and create a memorable experience for them. Despite serving food & drinks for most of our career, the main reason we are there is for guests safety. The passengers tend to forget that because they don't see us evacuate planes or tend to ill people everyday.

I love my job. I have a master's degree and a previous career, yet, I wouldn't want to be doing anything else. I wish that passengers could remember to be respectful towards us and what we do (and most passengers are), and I wish that flight attendants could get over their angry, bitter personas and not egg the passengers on. If they are that angry with life, they should move on to another career and not make work unpleasant for me or the passengers.

It all boils down to respect for one another, which unfortunately is in short supply in our society, not just on planes.


August 28 2010 at 8:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sherri gray

Get over yourself. We DOMESTIC flight attendants do the same job as you do. We evac airplanes and are safety professionals. Some f/a's have no choice but to fly DOMESTIC due to schedules, kids, elderly parents, etc. Get off your high horse. You are NO BETTER than any other f/a. In fact, your attitude is a disgrace to the rest of us that value the profession.

August 28 2010 at 1:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to sherri gray's comment
rachelo

If there is anyone here who needs to "get over yourself", it's sherri gray. Your attitude is the reason why there are so many people with negative flight attendant experiences. Is it common for you to refer to paying customers as "the stupid" or "not real smart" as you have here? I sure hope I don't fly on your airline anytime soon.

September 01 2010 at 1:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joe

I thought it was a crime to assault or even spit on a flight attendant

August 28 2010 at 10:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Joe

Oh yeah Kathie, some of those so called "wait staff" (as you referred to them)
are nurses working part time as a flight attendant.

August 28 2010 at 10:21 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
southern flyer

KathieM, you certainly aroused the ire of the wait staff. They do tend to be a rather sensitive, and often surly group. I still believe that steward / stewardess delineates their responsibilities very well. It doesn't appear that many of the FAs have consulted a dictionary for the true meaning of attendant, ie: to go or stay with as a companion; one who attends another to render a service; an employee who waits on customers. Regardless of what they think,12 weeks of training does not make anyone a professional. It is painfully obvious by the responses to your post (and aboard the aircraft) that at least 2 of those weeks were spent on ego inflation. Of course one only needs to look at the sentence structure, grammatical errors, and misspellings in the responses to realize we aren't dealing with the sharpest tacks in the box. Before you jump to quickly, I am a quiet, courteous, professional business person who logs 100,000+ air miles per year; and have endured more than a fair share of scowls, frowns, and curt aloof service from rude F/As. If you don't like your jobs, please move on and take your miserable attitudes with you.

August 28 2010 at 6:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Brian

I haven't worked for a airline, but I have had jobs in customer service. Mary Hanson is absolutely right that "a simple 'thank you' goes very far." I might be having a lousy day because of customers or my bosses; or I'm just in a bad mood. But if one person says 'thank you,' or gives me a smile, that makes a big difference. :o)

August 28 2010 at 5:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John A Donohoe

I live in Sydney,Australia, and fly to Melbourne in our Southern State and also Tasmania, that little speck off the bottom of Australia ( LOL) I only ever fly Virgin Blue, and I love their F/A's they7 are always smiling and friendly, and they have a joke with you when they are greeting you on and off the plane. Never have I had a grumpy one. I have had a grumpy one or two when I have flown QANTAS our national airline, and their offshoot Jetstar, but giver me the happy smiling Virgin Blue anytime.

August 28 2010 at 4:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
juli

To Kathy M...I enjoyed a career as a F/A for 11 years... employed by a major US airline. No
need to elaborate on your ridiculously absurd statement...the commentary from others says it all!!

August 28 2010 at 3:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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