4 Hard Lessons Every Flight Attendant Must Learn
There are certain lessons every flight attendant must learn. And despite being warned in advance, most of us end up learning them the hard way. Today I’m going to share these universal truths of aviation. If you’re a regular person these might surprise you, but if you’re a flight attendant you will undoubtedly be nodding in agreement. If you get to the end and feel there is something I’ve missed, be sure to let me know in the comments. Without further ado, let’s get into it.
Heed these warnings or learn the hard way. <3
4 Hard Lessons Every Flight Attendant Must Learn
1. Pack extra undies
From the first day of training flight attendants are told “Pack extra clothes—you never know when you’ll have an unexpected layover.”
And yet, there will come a day in every flight attendant’s journey when the advice is not heeded. Welcome to learning the hard way.
Just because your schedule says you’re going home, does not mean you’re actually going home.
Everyone who flies, airline professional or not, has experienced a flight cancellation or delay at some point. These issues, caused by weather, airplane maintenance, or crew staffing issues, can lead to a trip being extended beyond its scheduled time and an unexpected layover for the crew.
Flight attendants must always be prepared with extra items in their suitcase for just this reason. Fresh undies being the most important, IMO. A flight attendant should also consider throwing in some extra layover items that don’t make sense for the trip but could be useful. Maybe one cold February day you’ll be flying from New York to Cancun and then up to Boston to lay over. You’ve probably packed your coat, sweater, and scarf for your cold layover, but what if the plane breaks and you get stuck in Mexico?
If you’ll be touching a warm destination at all it is worthwhile to pack a swimsuit, and if you are breezing by a chilly place, you’d better pack some just-in-case layers.
I learned this lesson the hard way after I considered myself a seasoned flight attendant—in year four. I always packed extra underwear and tights, even if it was an easy day turn (one flight to somewhere, then right back). But when I was doing evaluation flights a few years ago, working with our new hires to make sure they were ready for the job, I fell into the age-old trap of believing my trip would go as it was supposed to.
After a series of delays due to weather, deicing, and pilot timeouts, after boarding and deplaning the aircraft twice, after hours on the ground with a plane full of increasingly agitated passengers and still responsible for the newbie at my side, we got ourselves a 4am Uber to the hotel for our unexpected layover.
I had packed nothing. Some food to eat during the day, my iPad, badge, and passport. The uniform on my back. No tights. No underwear. No toothbrush or paste. No facewash or makeup.
Luckily the hotel had toothbrushes and toothpaste for us. They even gave us some makeup remover wipes which constituted my face washing. (Note this lesson, too. Hotels always have the necessary items—toothbrush, toothpaste, razors, etc.—usually for free at the front desk.)
I told the newbie I was charged with that she was lucky. She had gotten a real taste of what being a flight attendant is like. She would start the job with considerably more experience than her counterparts who had a “normal” evaluation flight. And after this I have never flown without an extra pair of undies, a toothbrush, and deodorant again.
No matter how light (or heavy) you pack, extra undies are a must.
2. Don’t Make Plans
The next hard lesson every flight attendant must learn is Don’t make plans on your layover…unless you want those plans to get cancelled.
There is something that happens, some powerful force from the universe that ensures whenever you make plans on a layover, some mayhem will occur, and you won’t get to where you think you’re going. Want to hit a concert on your layover? Fat chance! Family dinner? Think again! Date night? Yeah, right!
It is a common thing for us flight attendants to try to make the most of our layovers by squeezing things in like leisure activities, visits with friends, family time, or even dates. We’re on the road so much that it feels like this down time we have in the hotel is something we should make use of. The problem is once a delay or cancellation happens—many of which are not weather-related and can’t be predicted—you are simply out of luck. When you’re on company time, you go where they say you go. Womp, womp.
Flight attendants on reserve will also learn this hard lesson about making plans on reserve days. Reserve days, for anyone new around here, are the days when flight attendants are “on call” for work. They pack a bag, get ready to go, and if the company calls, you have a couple hours to show up to the airport and work a trip. There are systems and software and sites we can check to try to predict whether we will get called in to work. And after a while of doing this, you start to feel confident in your predicting abilities. You start making plans on your reserve days, because, you know, “There are four reserves before me and I’m not legal for anything”.
It’s the same old story: It works until it doesn’t. Until you find yourself in the car on your way to a hot date and are intercepted by Crew Scheduling calling to ruin your plans. Hopefully in your hubris, in believing you could predict your schedule, you have not left all your work belongings behind. The stress of being called to work when you’re out and about is bad enough without having to add the time to go home and pack a bag, too.
Of course, this is just a cheeky headline. Missing plans is part of the gig of being a flight attendant, but I do not condone giving your life over to work and never making time for fun. Make those plans. But use the following tips to minimize the sting when things do, inevitably, go awry.
1. When it comes to layovers, make all the plans you want. *If they’re FREE plans*. Dinner with an understanding friend who doesn’t mind if you cancel? Yes. But skip the concert tickets, museum admission, Broadway tickets, etc. You don’t want to throw your money away. I often rent cars on layovers, but I always book a free cancellation rental (ie: pay later). Get yourself as many plans and reservations you want, but don’t pay up front.
2. If you are on reserve, bring your work stuff EVERYWHERE. It sounds funny, but flight attendants know this is no laughing matter. If you’re going to try to make plans, bring your packed suitcase, lunchbox, and uniform hanging in the back seat of your car. Don’t have a car? Throw it in the Uber, the driver won’t mind. And whatever your big plans, do not go farther away than it will take you to get back to the airport. In our company, the call-out time is three hours. This means if you can’t stand sitting in the house waiting on a call, then go about your business. Just don’t find yourself more than 2.5 hours from the airport. Ya dig?
3. Dating at work can be…messy
Ahhhh, dating in the workplace.
We all giggled at our orientation when the woman from HR started her spiel about a respectful workplace with: “There is a lot of love in this company.”
We get it now. This is a social industry. The lines between personal and professional can blur easily when you finish a workday with your crew and follow it up with happy hour. Add to this the fact that the work roles in aviation are still heavily gendered in a traditional fashion, and voila, cupid-fueled mayhem.
When I say pilot, many of you will think of a man. (And he’ll be white, but that is for another day.) And when I say “flight attendant” your brain might jump to pretty young women. (This, despite the fact that the median flight attendant age is 48. Again, for another day.) Perhaps you think of the sassy male flight attendant strutting down the aisle, whose searing wit will both charm you and crush your self-esteem. There is a whole lot more nuance in our work groups than this, but because these stereotypes of WHO is working in aviation do have some merit, it makes an environment ripe for…love…or something.
Dating other flight attendants or pilots can be wonderful. They understand where you are coming from after a long day. They speak your language. Actually, I wrote a whole post about this called The Pros and Cons of Dating a Coworker: Aviation Edition, which details airline romances. If you want to know more about this seedy underworld, click the link and check it out.
But for all the good that can come from dating someone who gets it, there is also the other side. What happens when things go bad?
Spoiler alert—they can go really bad.
Imagine being stuck in a metal tube with your ex all day long. Imagine if you had to stand in the cockpit with them while the other pilot uses the rest room. Imagine having power over WHEN they use the rest room. Imagine working in the back galley side by side with your former flame, having to use teamwork to diffuse customer issues. Ick, yuck, no f*cking thanks.
And it may be uncomfortable even when you’re not together. You might have a lot of memories tied up with this person and with work. The intersection, difficult to sever, can cause Pavlovian depression just by walking through the terminal. Or anger, sadness, disgust, whatever your emotional poison. There looms over you the possibility that ANY DAY could be the day they get reassigned to your trip, you will round the corner to see them walking in the airport, on a layover, with their new lover. Cringe.
The thing about dating someone you work with is that they have probably dated someone else they worked with in the past. Or maybe you’re the first. But you won’t be the last. (You’re no different, by the way, out here dating your coworkers. But I’m strictly on your side, so we’re talking about them right now.)
How emotionally mature are you? How will it feel to work with a fun flight attendant on your trip, only to find they are dating your recent ex? How will it feel to know you’re one of many—or even of a few? The notch on the bedpost, link in the chain, and other such metaphors come to mind.
This was my biggest problem with dating in the industry. And choosing losers, lol.
It was too much for my ego to handle. We all have pasts, but to feel like you’re swimming around in your partner’s past can be a real lot.
The other thing is that flight attendant breakups can cause greater rifts than just the two who split. Friend groups feel forced to choose. The rumor mill and gossip mill go into high gear. A couple at work knows double the coworkers that one flight attendant (or pilot) would. By association with one another, they’ve expanded social circles and now more people have opinions and interest in the ordeal.
This is not a reason to not follow your heart. You get one life, and you need to do what makes you happy. But proceed with caution and know that things could get messy.
Dating at work can be...messy.
4. Your Company is not your Friend
Despite corporations adopting paternal corporate speak, “We’re a family”, they are decidedly NOT your family.
Your boss is your boss, and a large company’s goal is to maximize shareholder profit. Many of us were drawn to the particular airline we work for by the perceived sense of values and mission-driven work. Something “different” about them. And this is the same for many of you in the corporate world outside of aviation. We look at charitable giving, the ranking on Forbes’ Best Companies to Work For, opportunity for growth, and fringe benefits that sound so cool. (Cornhole in the office, anyone?)
Yet often the view from the front lines is very different. In some cases, the celebrated benefits, and charity work, and culture of a company can look to insiders like public relations and nothing more. Sometimes there are genuine good and noteworthy benefits given employees, but ones that do not make up for the overwork and underpay they’re subjected to. Sometimes there are really awesome things that make you love your job, but they’re balanced by some things that make you feel totally neglected, disrespected, and taken advantage of as a labor-level employee. This is especially true, I think, the longer you stay with a company.
Over time, as a company grows, inevitably things will change. The familial culture, if ever there was one to begin with, will fade in favor of corporate structure and layers and layers of management.
How can we squeeze more profit from the same number of customers? Cut labor costs. Increase worker output while paying the same wage. Cut benefits—there’s a good one. No one in America cares about health anyway! Perhaps we could make one worker do the job of three different departments. (Nurses, teachers, I am looking at you here. Consider yourselves seen.)
I can’t hate on growth or success. (Although I do believe that growth for the sake of growth is an inherently flawed idea.) But this pursuit by large companies of growth above all can leave us frontline employees feeling let down by our employer. We may have believed some things were sacred, baked into the cake by our founders, core values here to stay. Maybe we really wanted to believe in it all. Waking up to see that you are just a cog in a wheel of the corporate machine can be tough.
But it can also be freeing.
Your company is not your friend. Your CEO is not family, no matter how many union-busting fliers would have you believe otherwise. The goal is profit, and you are a tool. Once you understand this, you can be free to take care of yourself when you need to. The guilt instilled in us for taking a day off—when we’re sick or when we’re not—can fade away like an industrial-revolution themed dream.
You can advocate for yourself without guilt or shame. You can ignore the messaging that you “have enough” or are “greedy” for desiring better working conditions. You can unsaddle yourself from the notion that YOU can make or break this company. You can’t. So take the day off when you need to. Push for better working conditions and higher pay. Sign your union cards and become educated in your rights. Feel the freedom of cutting emotional bonds with your employer—a feeling that was never reciprocated to begin with.
This is business, baby.
These are the 4 Hard Lessons every flight attendant must learn. If you have not already learned them the hard way, take heed. Your time will come. The good thing is it usually only takes one slip up—a layover without clothes, a non-refundable ticket wasted, a bad breakup, or an unfortunate event with your employer—to make the lesson stick.
I hope you guys enjoyed reading this. I would love to hear from any non-flight attendants—what are the hard lessons in your profession? And flight attendants, let me know if there is something I missed that you think belongs on this list. Write in the comments below, @ me on Instagram, or send an email to say hello.
Here’s wishing you all a safe, happy, and lesson-free weekend!
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Thanks for stopping by. I’m Toni and I run the show here at A Wheel in the Sky. Here, we talk all things travel, flight attendant life, and personal development. I hope you liked reading about the hard lessons every flight attendant must learn. If you’re interested in more flight attendant content, try some of the posts below. And don’t forget to click Subscribe to catch all the latest travel tips, insider secrets, and juicy stories.
#4!!! 👏👏👏 another great piece Toni
#4 is a BIG lesson. Thanks Meag!! <3