The flying public was appalled when a Southwest passenger assaulted a flight attendant, knocking out two teeth, in spring 2021. Travelers were shocked again last October when a man broke bones in a flight attendant’s face on an American Airlines flight. The violence continued last month when a man was caught on video punching an American Airlines flight attendant in the back of the head.
Set aside those extreme examples, and the past few years have still not been kind to the profession. Furloughs early in the pandemic, hostility over the federal mask mandate, the operational incidents that canceled thousands of flights this summer: The job has been a far cry from the glamorous, jet-setting stereotype that dominates popular culture.
“It’s been a bit of a roller coaster,” said Susannah Carr, 31, a flight attendant since 2015. She lined up a job as a bridal consultant by the time she was furloughed in 2020 and returned to flying last year. Once she came back, she said, “I was nervous to come to work,” because she had seen how poorly her colleagues were being treated by some passengers.
And yet, thousands of would-be cabin crew apply for a fraction of the positions when they open up, even now. Why are people still clamoring for the job?
Adventure and flexible schedules
Current and former flight attendants say that they love getting to meet people at pivotal moments in their lives, and they appreciate that not every workday is the same. Plus there’s the draw of seeing new places, even if just for a little while.
“They have a passion for helping people, and they also have a desire for adventure,” said Abbie Unger, who flew from 2006 until 2011 and now owns a company called Flight Attendant Career Connection, which coaches aspiring cabin crew. “They’re looking for a place where they can help other people — make an impact — and also want work to be dynamic.”
According to a 2019 census conducted by the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, 45 percent of union members had at least an undergraduate degree. But airlines only require a high school degree or an equivalent, so new hires don’t have to start out saddled with student debt.
Carr graduated from college and worked a corporate job briefly before deciding to make the switch. She wanted to travel and thought she’d become a flight attendant for a couple of years before pursuing a master’s degree and returning to an office job. About eight years later, she’s still flying.
“I’ve always appreciated a good preppy uniform, so I was totally down,” she said. “The key takeaway early on is that I’d have an opportunity to travel, get paid while doing it and [have] health insurance.”
Sara Nelson, international president for the AFA, said the job is empowering, describing the plane as “an unsupervised workplace.”
“When you go up there, it’s your plane,” she said. “You get to set the tone. You don’t have a manager breathing over your shoulder. You’re wearing a uniform with stripes on it that show leadership.”
Every once in awhile I wonder if I’d have a good time workingn as a flight attendant, then I take one (1) three hour flight & realize I could absolutely never— kelly (@LouderVisuals) September 20, 2022
Nelson acknowledged that cabin crew members still experience sexual harassment, but said the “vast majority” of passengers are respectful and look to flight attendants as leaders.
Once flight attendants have reached some seniority, Carr said, flexibility becomes a huge perk. They can pick up extra hours for more pay, work fewer hours to spend more time at home and have more say over when and where they fly.
And flight attendants can often fly free, even when they’re not working — although that depends on seat availability, which is not the greatest in an era when flights are packed.
The median wage for flight attendants in mid-2021 was $61,640, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The lowest 10 percent made less than $37,020, while the top 10 percent of earners took home more than $81,400. Crew at regional airlines make significantly less than at big-name carriers such as American, United, Delta and Southwest.
A glut of applicants
Airlines say they receive a flood of interest for open jobs.
A favorite industry saying is that it’s harder to get hired as a Delta flight attendant than it is to get into Harvard, which had an admission rate of about 3.2 percent this year. The airline even put out a web series called “Earning Our Wings” about the training program for flight attendants, calling it “one of the most coveted jobs in the world.”
Delta expects to graduate nearly 4,300 flight attendants — which it describes as a historic amount — between the third quarter of last year and the end of this year. Next year, the airline anticipates graduating between 4,000 and 6,000 flight attendants “from a pool of several hundred thousand applicants.”
United said in an emailed statement that it receives “thousands of applications whenever we open up a requisition, and are only able to keep it open for a few days due to interest!” Interest has been higher than before the pandemic, the airline said. It’s hiring 4,000 new flight attendants this year and expects to hire the same number next year.
And Southwest said it has hired and trained more than 3,000 flight attendants this year, a record, bringing the total number at the airline to more than 18,500. That’s more than were on staff before the pandemic started.
“It still is very competitive even though the basic qualifications are fairly low,” Unger said.
Reasons for burnout
Despite the demand for jobs, the downsides are real.
Starting pay is low, and it continues to be fairly low at regional carriers. Early-career flight attendants have little control over their schedules.
“A lot of newbies come in and think it’s going to be amazing,” said Nas Lewis, a nine-year veteran of the job who founded an organization to advocate for flight attendants’ mental health. “They get culture shock: ‘I don’t really have a life. Do I love the job that much that I’ll put in the years and the time to get to seniority?’ ”
Nelson said the first year of flying can be difficult as workers adjust to the physical demands of the job, get used to the pressurized air in the cabin and deal with illnesses such as inner-ear problems, airsickness and respiratory ailments.
“Everyone gets sick their first year on the job,” she said.
Even for seasoned workers, there can be pitfalls.
Thousands of flight attendants, including Carr, picketed last week to demand airlines address operational disruptions. She said staffing shortages among schedulers at her airline meant some had to wait hours to get a hotel on a layover, cutting into their time to rest before returning to work.
“The first time you’re cleaning up someone else’s vomit or you have to … make the lavatory inoperable because of who knows what, some of the glamour goes away.”— Abbie Unger
“It was incredibly difficult for a lot of our flight attendants this summer,” she said.
Unger, who stopped flying professionally when she had her first child, said there’s a thrill that comes with putting on a uniform and doing the job.
“But then the first time you’re cleaning up someone else’s vomit or you have to … make the lavatory inoperable because of who knows what, some of the glamour goes away,” she said.
On the front lines of travel chaos
Flight attendants also have to have a thick skin, Unger said, because they’re often the stand-in for an airline that has made a passenger very unhappy. Loneliness can also be a major issue, because flight attendants find themselves away from friends and family for extended periods of time.
Lewis — whose organization, Thairapy, offers a crisis text line for flight attendants who need to reach out to peers — said many new workers send messages about being lonely. With anonymity guaranteed, users complain about burnout, irregular operations and depression. It grew out of a Facebook group she started in 2019 for flight attendants to talk about mental health.
“A fire was lit under me in 2020 when I saw my colleagues suffering and I felt like nothing was being done,” she said. “It makes me feel emotional.”
Now, she hands out buttons promoting the text line and volunteers to respond to messages that come in.
“I still love being a flight attendant; I love people,” she said. “And I think a lot of us love people and we love service, we love the destinations that we fly to and we love the flexibility that comes with it.”
The job has been difficult, she said, but “I think a lot of us are holding on to the hope that things are going to get better.”
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