Want to Travel While You Work? Here’s How to Make it as a Flight Attendant
Everyone has an image in their mind of what it’s like to be a flight attendant, almost all of which seem based around the same handful of tropes, just arranged in different ways. Depending on whom you ask, the job is assumed to be glamorous; exploitative; sexist; adventurous; lonely; a Dream Job; underpaid.
It’s of course all of these, to one degree or another, but the flight attendant job is also one that’s evolved considerably from those kinds of dated stereotypes. Today, it’s largely a union gig. Because of that, there are vastly fewer discriminatory policies around appearance. The pay, while still relatively low, is improving. “It’s such a cyclical industry, but right now there’s a lot of hiring going on and it’s a really good time to get involved,” says Association of Flight Attendants President Sara Nelson, whom you might remember as the woman who essentially ended the government shutdown at the beginning of this year. “Unions have really turned this from a job into a career.”
It’s finally sustainable to work as a flight attendant for decades. No one will know the best airline hacks as you do. Is it for the faint of heart? No. There are all those incredible flight attendant horror stories, and if you’ve ever been on a plane you’ve seen how annoying your fellow passengers can be. The first year is notoriously rough, and it’ll be a minute before you have any real control over your routes and schedule. One flight attendant at a major US airline told Thrillist it takes around 12 years to get to the top of the pay scale, and that they spent their first few years mostly flying to Arkansas and Ohio. “I’m from a small town so I enjoyed seeing the States those first few years,” they said. “Now it’s Paris and London and Rome, baby!”
So yes, it’s worth it. If you’re a US citizen looking to become a flight attendant, here’s what you need to know about what it takes, how to apply, and what you can expect your first year on the job.
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What are the requirements for becoming a flight attendant in the US?
Vision: You will need to be able to pass a vision test and demonstrate 20/20 or close to it (contacts or glasses are fine).
Age: You’ll need to be at least 18 year old to work at any major airline, though many of them, like United Airlines, have minimums of up to 21. However! That’s all calculated based off what your age will be when you complete training, so you might still be able to apply and enroll even if you’re not quite old enough yet -- as long as you will be by graduation day. There is, thankfully, no longer any maximum age cutoff.
Height: There are height requirements -- both minimum and maximum -- but they differ by individual airline. For the most part, the bottom line here is whether you can reach everything you need to and move about the cabin efficiently. Broadly speaking, if you’re between 5’2” or above 6’2” you’re probably in the clear; outside that range, it varies.
Weight: Indeed, there used to be weight requirements. No longer. If you can do your job, you can do your job.
Will there be a physical exam?
Yes, so no lying about your height.
Drug testing? Yeah.
Is there a background check?
Yes. Most will look into the past 10 years, potentially more. Unfortunately, a felony conviction will still prevent you from being hired. Misdemeanors aren’t necessarily disqualifying; it’ll just depend on the circumstances.
Do I need a college degree?
Nope! You will, however, need a high-school diploma or GED. Being multilingual will almost always give your resume an edge. Customer-service experience, particularly in the travel industry -- cruise lines, etc. -- definitely doesn’t hurt.
Okay! I’m ready to apply. What now?
You start your application online, on the website of the airline to which you’re applying. For instance, you can apply to United Airlines here or JetBlue Airlines here. This website tracks airlines that are currently hiring.
You’ll need a polished resume and a classy headshot. Yes, you can apply to multiple airlines. When one is interested, they’ll contact you for a one-way video interview -- questions will appear and you’ll answer them verbally, but you won’t actually be speaking to a real human person. The questions will probably follow something along the lines of the STAR format: Situation, Task, Action, Result, i.e. asking how you’d handle different scenarios. If you’re not selected the first time around, don’t be discouraged -- you’re allowed to keep applying, and it’s extremely common to do so.
If things go well, this will be followed by an invitation for in-person interviews at headquarters. Politely confirm with your interviewer that the airline will be covering your travel costs for this; you can expect that most will do so, but it’s not a given. If that interview goes well, you’ll be given study materials and enter their training course, which will usually take a month or two to complete. There will be exams both written and oral, plus physical drills. You’ll learn security protocols, First Aid, evacuation procedures, how to use in-flight equipment, how to prepare the food and drink carts, how to interact with passengers. There will be a final exam and a test flight, and only then, after you are certified, can you hope to be formally offered the job.
The whole process could be completed within just a couple of days or last as long as a year. Most likely, it’ll take three or four months.
How much control does my employer have over my appearance?
There will be preflight appearance checks, so you need to either have the constitution of someone who always looks put together or be able to fake it without running out of steam. Visible tattoos and piercings will be an issue, and some of you might be required to wear heels, but many of the discriminatory or unsustainable standards have been relaxed in recent years. You can have facial hair, so long as it’s short. Makeup is no longer required for women, but might not be permitted on men.
“This is a job that has traditionally been thought of as a woman’s job, and frankly that’s what’s kept pay and benefits low and what we’ve had to fight through,“ Nelson said. “Overall, we’re still experiencing discrimination based on gender, and identity, and frankly race.” Airline industry management is still heavily male and white, and bias against Black flight attendants with natural hair is still about as common as you’d expect. But these days, you don’t have to face it on your own.
How much money will I make?
The first thing to ask yourself before we can talk salary is whether you’re willing to relocate for this job. If not, you’re looking for either your regional airlines, or national airlines that have a crew base in the city nearest you. Most flight attendants are based in the West Coast, Midwest, or Northeast, with other hubs including Colorado, Texas, and Florida.
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For the most part, flight attendants at the mainline US airlines -- that’d be United, Delta, American, Alaska, and Hawaii -- make approximately 45% more than their counterparts at regional airlines. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average US flight attendant salary in 2018 was around $56,000.
At the mainline carriers, the common starting salary today is around $24,000 or $25,000 per year -- meaning it doesn’t hit the $15/hour rate, or anything close to a living wage for lots of people. “You do step up fairly quickly in the scale, and you also have the ability to work more under some contracts,” Nelson said. “We’re in the middle of a big fight right now because a regional airline, Air Wisconsin, those [first-year] flight attendants make as little as $15,000 and change a year.”
Payment is based on flight hours, i.e. you’re only getting paid when the cabin doors are closed. You might spend 14 hours on the job, but have your hourly rate only reflect six of those. Different airline union contracts help protect their respective flight attendants by guaranteeing them a certain number of flight hours per shift, or guaranteeing at least one paid flight hour for every two hours you’re on duty.
Okay, so back up -- what was that about the first year being rough…?
You’re probably living with a bunch of other flight attendants, somewhere very close to the airport at which you’re based. You’re probably doing a lot of your sleeping not just in hotels, but in your airport’s crewmember lounges, not unlike doctors on call at their hospitals. Do you get any say in your schedule? Not … really, no.
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As a flight attendant, your work schedule isn’t a daily 9-5 thing. You’re on a cycle of a few days on followed by a few days off, usually working between nine and 20 days -- 70ish to 100ish hours -- per month. So you need to be mentally prepared not just for red-eye flights and jet lag, but to A) be away from home for long stretches and B) also to have a lot of time on your hands when you’re not working.
“I always tell people that when you first start, you should really plan on the first year needing to live near the airports that you’re flying out of -- y’know, very, very flexible,” Nelson said. “You’re not gonna be choosing your routes, you’re not gonna be having a lot of control over your schedule. That is a pretty good rule of thumb, that you should go into it thinking that the first year it’s gonna be difficult for you to. You’re gonna be learning a whole new culture, a whole new work life -- just getting your air legs underneath you takes some getting used to. You’re gonna build up those antibodies, because it’s a little bit like having a kid in preschool -- I mean everybody brings everything on the airplane. But, you’ll be superhuman by the end of that year.”
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Will I really have time to myself to explore? That’s why we’re doing this, right?
You will. Maybe not right away, but stick with it and yes, you will see the world (or the country, depending on your airline). The flight attendant from the big US airline told Thrillist that when they fly to Europe now, they have a 24-hour layover.
Also, duty-free discounts.