Airline Crew Share Real Stories From the Sky
Kathy 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.
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
- 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."
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
- 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."
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?
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."