What I Learned From 20 Years as a Flight Attendant
You know all those images you have of sexy flight attendants in cute outfits jet-setting all over the globe, sipping Champagne, most likely on the arm of a handsome pilot played by Leonardo DiCaprio? Forget them. All of them. That's about as close to reality as you having passionate sex in an airplane lavatory or there being actual snakes on a plane.
Yes, flight attendants are jet-setting all over the globe, but only after standing on their feet for 15 hours serving YOU Champagne. So, no, it's not nearly as glamorous as that short-lived show Pan Am made it seem. Although it is entirely educational, or so says Madeleine Doyle, a 20-year veteran flight attendant who has served two 10-year stints traveling both international and domestic routes. Below, she schools us on the life lessons she's learned from flying the sometimes not-so-friendly skies.
Being a flight attendant is NOT a lucrative job
"When I started flying for the second time, 10 years ago, I qualified for food stamps. Starting pay is abysmal. The new kids that start out [today] are broke and live 24 to an apartment. We get paid by flight time, meaning only from when the captain releases the brakes to move the aircraft to when we land. If they close the door at the gate and we sit for 30 minutes, we are not paid for that. Nor are we paid for the hours before the flight when we have to be there."
The travel perks are great, but they're not THAT great
"Every airline is different, but after you pass your probationary six months to a year, you do have flight benefits. And while the flights are greatly discounted -- you mostly just pay taxes -- there has to be an empty seat on the plane to take advantage of them, since you're essentially flying standby. Also, there's a pecking order based on hire date and status: the first level is for employees, the second is for retired employees, the third is for friends & family, and the fourth is for buddy passes. My hire date this second time around was 2006, so anyone hired before 2005 gets an empty seat ahead of me."
But when they work, they're actually pretty great
"It can be such a privilege. If I have three days off, and my daughter has three days off, I can say, 'Want to go to London?' and off we go."
A flight attendant's commute is always worse
"Seventy percent of us commute, because we can't afford to live in the hub cities. In fact, it can actually cost me to go to work because I have to fly in the day before [my scheduled flight] using my travel perks and get a hotel room. But what if the day before there's a hurricane, for example, in Los Cabos and they are bussing people to San Diego to re-route them? They are paying customers, and I get bumped. If you don't get to the hub city on time to make your shift, it’s really bad. I've driven from San Diego to San Francisco before in an emergency situation, just so I wouldn’t miss my flight. I love my job, I just hate going to work; commuting is the most stressful part. When I’m walking down my own concourse, life is fabulous. But getting there is the worst."
You're never too old to sleep in weird places
"While I usually sleep in the lounge or the crew room when not in a hotel, many flight attendants have crash pads. It used to be eight of us in a single hotel room, and we each had a single bed. Although I've been in others that have two double beds (so you could be sharing with someone), or you could be in a bunk bed, or could have the whole room to yourself -- you never knew, based on the schedule."
When it comes to the Mile High Club, some bathrooms are better than others
"Yes, it IS possible to join the Mile High Club, but I just don't understand why anyone would want to. That said, every Boeing 777 has a handicap bathroom that must be big enough for a wheelchair. Each airline configures their planes differently, but there has to be one somewhere onboard. On our planes it's over the wing, and it's called the "Princess Potty" because it has a full-length mirror. You could have a party in there. Then again, there’s usually a line up the aisle. Be considerate, people."
Sleeping pills aren't always a good idea
"I'm terrified of Ambien because I've seen horrible things. I don't know if it's poor management by the user, or maybe they didn’t read the directions, but I've seen people taking their clothes off, running up and down the aisle naked. A woman once took Ambien and got up claiming she really needed to use the lavatory. It was occupied so she had to wait, and she peed all over herself."
Turbulence is worse at the back of the plane
"The plane is built like a teeter-totter, and the most stable part is over the wings. Turbulence is worse in the back of the plane -- it's much bumpier. If you think you’re going to be sensitive to that, sit over the wings. Also, the plane is not going to fall out of the sky because of turbulence. Planes are meant to bend, not break. Although the first 10,000ft and the last 10,000ft make or break a flight, the rest is pretty much cruise control."
We all hate serving coffee
"I'm not sure why this is such a thing for flight attendants, but it is. For all the things that set flight attendants off, it's passengers changing their minds about how they take their coffee. First they say they want it black, so we hand it to them black. Then they say, no, they want cream and sugar. It's all bad coffee anyway, what does it matter how you take it? Also, it would be nice if you told us you wanted ice in your beverages."
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Meagan Drillinger is a contributing writer for Thrillist and will now be legitimately terrified during the first and last 10,000ft. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at @drillinjourneys.