Never Trust An “Easy Trip”: My Latest Flight Attendant Woes
Ahhh summer flying. It isn’t for the faint of heart.
My recent “easy trip” to San Juan was anything but. Delays and unexpected layovers, broken planes and broken plans, contract issues and bodily harm made this one for the books, and definitely one for the blog. I’m recapping this horrible trip and its silver linings, how it all shook out, and the lessons learned along the way. Buckle up, this will NOT be a smooth ride.
I mentioned in my last post that despite working a ton of hours, and despite US aviation being an absolute shit show right now, work was going pretty well for me. I had a couple delays here and there, but nothing major. Other flight attendants I’m friends with have dealt with far worse—long, drawn out delays due to weather, aircraft swaps due to maintenance issues, and getting stuck in places they didn’t expect due to pilot legalities, rest rules, or all of the above.
I was feeling lucky, and said as much in my Summer Updates post, but apparently, I had committed the cardinal sin of speaking too soon. As I finished writing that post, on my “easy princess trip,” things went south, and by the time it was published I was in a story-worthy situation. There were delays, broken planes, reassignments and surprises, plans missed, and lessons that I thought I’d learned long ago—nudging friendly reminders.
It’s all fine now, I lived to tell the tale, but the snapback to reality after my lucky streak came with annoying phone calls, unexpected expenses, and plenty of free labor. I’m going to talk about all of this in the post. My flight attendant friends can commiserate, and maybe learn from my mistakes. For you regular folks, this is a peek behind the curtain of what flight attendant life is really like. Note: It isn’t always pretty.
This trip wasn't pretty, but my new swimsuit was?
Y’all, I have been HUSTLING this summer, working a ton. And two weeks ago, on the day before my dad’s birthday, I decided to pick up one more little trip to boost my hours even more. A trip became available that was so easy, and fit so perfectly into my schedule, that I couldn’t not do it.
It would be the easiest trip: Work one leg down to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and then take a deadhead back to Boston. For those of you not in the industry or new here, a deadhead is when you’re on duty, taking a flight, but not actually working it. It’s when you get paid to sit in a seat and watch a movie, or as my plans were, to take a nap.
Deadheads make us feel like we’re getting free money, but the reality is we can be moved up to work the flight at any time. We are also still at work, helping the operation, and not at home. (Free indeed.) Still, it is nice to get a little break.
This trip was perfect because it would get me back to Boston at 9 am on Wednesday morning—late for a red eye turn, but early enough to take a solid nap before getting ready and meeting up with my dad for dinner. It was his birthday, and we were going to celebrate with pizza and cake.
With my hours for the month secured, my birthday plans with dad set, I headed to the airport, sleepy but chipper; a pep in my step for how beautifully I’d managed to work it all out.
Big plans to celebrate the birthday boy!
Things did not go according to plan.
The first red flag here was that my deadhead to Boston was on a different plane than the one I was working into San Juan. This means I would have to switch airplanes at the San Juan airport to catch my flight to Boston. It also means that if your first flight is delayed, things can get tricky. No big surprise here, that’s exactly what happened.
First up on the list of ways our trip was ruined was a maintenance issue on the aircraft. Believing the issue could be fixed, we began boarding as normal while our tech ops professionals worked on it. It was not a quick fix, though, and before you knew it, we were deplaning all the people who just boarded the aircraft. Not the best way to start off an “easy” trip.
It was determined the issue could not be fixed that night, and the aircraft would be taken out of service. A bummer for sure, but safety first!
We were getting into major delay territory here, and things usually get worse before they get better. Next up on our list of fun activities was waiting for a new plane.
The thing about airplanes is they are expensive. Like really, really expensive. So basically any time they’re not flying and making money, they are costing the company money. Because of this, airlines don’t just have a bunch of planes sitting around as backup. They should have a few in base cities, but what if they don’t? What if those few are broken, like our last plane? I can talk shit about the Operations department all day, but getting all the planes in a system to where they need to be, and coming up with backup plans—A, B, C, and D when things go wrong, is no easy feat.
And that will be my final sympathetic word for the remainder of this post.
We were told that we would be getting a new plane, but that it wouldn’t be landing for another hour or so. This puts us a couple of hours delayed and me at risk of missing my Deadhead flight. Yikes! My crew and I found a quiet spot in the airport to sit around and wait for our new aircraft.
Now is a good time to remind everyone that flight attendants and pilots are paid for *flight hours*. When the airplane door shuts and the brake is released, that’s when my hourly pay begins accruing. So, this additional hour of waiting in the airport, after the hour on the aircraft doing security checks, boarding and deplaning, was free.99.
The hour we would spend on the next plane, once it arrived, trying to fix the maintenance issue it had, would also be for free. And, of course, when the tests were done, over and over, and the part got replaced, and the log book updated, it was time to board the plane of 162 customers. And this would be free as well.
If you think this is messed up, please take a moment to sign the petition to get flight attendants paid for boarding at paymeforboarding.org. As you can see from the above scenario, we spend SO much time at work not being paid. Boarding is a time during our shift when we are working a lot. Helping people find their seats, assisting with bags, taking care of medicals or all the thirsty people who have been stuck in an airport for hours, looking up connecting flights and trying to help make arrangements, managing the cabin climate, looking for drunk people or those with bad intentions, looking for able bodied persons just in case we need them, preparing the galley for the flight, checking water and waste levels, making announcements, and more. It is MINDBLOWING how so much work can be done without pay. I wrote extensively about this topic in a blog post called Pay Me For Boarding: Why Flight Attendants Must Fight For Fair Pay. Please check it out if you want to know more, and send it to your friends so they know the deal, too.
Okay, that’s the end of that soapbox. Getting back to our “Easy trip”…
Sometimes flight attendant life looks a lot like this.
To recap, we have now boarded and deplaned a broken aircraft, sat in the airport for an hour waiting for a new plane, and then found the new plane to have a maintenance issue as well. Resets were done, tests were run, and eventually a part was replaced. It was turning into a long night.
Being tired is one thing, but I had a totally different concern. What about my flight back to Boston?
That flight was still showing on time. Now I was going to be landing an hour after it departed. I doubted the flight would wait for me, and I was correct. It didn’t. This led to me being reassigned to a layover in San Juan with a new deadhead back to Boston later in the day, after my mandated 10-hour rest period. I would get back to Boston at 12:30am, instead of 9am. 15.5 hours and a layover later than expected, and 8 hours after my scheduled birthday plans with dad.
But don’t worry, I had an idea.
There is a neat trick we flight attendants can do, and it’s called “Self-deadheading.” When we request to self-deadhead or “self” it means that we are agreeing to get ourselves back to where we need to be. This might be back to our base (the airport we work out of) or it might be to our homes, if we happen to be off the next day. When we “self,” we still are paid for the flight, we just take a different one that is more convenient for us. So, although it would be a much longer night than anticipated, I figured I could still salvage birthday plans with my dad by self-deadheading on an earlier flight.
I began furiously listing for every flight on Thursday that would get me to Boston before 2pm. There was a 6am, looking less likely this far into our delay, a 7:40, an 11 am, all on other airlines. One of them was bound to have open seats. This would take away any chance of sleeping I had, but perhaps I could sleep on the flight up to Boston. It was worth the risk, as far as I was concerned, to not have to break my plans.
This all would have been perfect—well, working the trip, on time, as planned would have been perfect, but this would have been an acceptable plan B—but it hinged on us getting out by a certain time, for me to get a certain amount of legal required rest on my layover.
You can probably guess, that didn’t happen.
By the time the airplane was fixed, the people were boarded, and the plane took off for my first flight, we were landing a total of four hours late, making my newly scheduled layover too short and under minimum rest requirements. I would have to be reassigned again, to a new deadhead flight even later into my day off. Or so I thought.
In fact, I would be reassigned to WORK a flight the next day, on my day off, after laying over. My trip would end more than 24 hours later than it was supposed to; from a quick overnight turn into a 3-day trip, just like that.
I know this sounds illegal to non-airline folks, and honestly it sounded like bullshit to me, too. But there it is in our contract, spelled out in black and white, the additional compensation we are entitled to for working a reassignment that goes into our day off. I could have refused the reassignment (I can do this once per year) but the result would have been me fighting for a standby seat on a flight that day, not sleeping, and still most likely missing my plans with Dad. And if I missed these flights, I would not have a hotel room in San Juan to go back to.
The additional pay is great for pilots who get reassigned and it is laughable for flight attendants working into their days off. All in, I made an extra $400 or so dollars. If this sounds like fair compensation for a day’s work, keep in mind it was a day I hadn’t agreed to work. I should have finished at 9am on Wednesday, instead I arrived in Boston at 12:30 Thursday afternoon. Consider the additional expenses I incurred as a result (more on that later). Or the fact that my plans were ruined.
Change of plans: We're staying in San Juan.
(A Word on Labor Unions)
Throughout this process, unfortunately, I had to fight for some really basic things—namely that my trip on paper should match the reality of the situation. That I wouldn’t make my flight to Boston, that I needed a new flight to replace that one. It seemed like such a basic thing but it was incredibly difficult to get someone to do this. Part of me thinks everyone is new and no one knows what the hell they are doing. The less generous part of me thinks the company just hates us and has trained the scheduling reps to act accordingly.
Whenever there is an incident like this, when we are forced to choose between spending hours on the phone fighting for our work rules, or working something potentially illegal or beyond the scope of what is required, the issue of our contract comes up. It is a shit contract to be sure. And beyond the shittiness of it, it is not even followed with consistency. “You’ll have to grieve it later,” flight attendants are told, before being sent off on illegal assignments or when a provision of our contract is “interpreted” differently than the words on the page. It’s infuriating, honestly.
Still, in these situations, I can’t help but think “Thank god we unionized”. This is not to exalt an imperfect union, or an admittedly poor contract. It is simply to acknowledge that if the company is pulling these tricks with a union and contract in place, then one can only imagine what could be done with no protections for labor whatsoever. Some people believe the company has retaliated against us for unionizing, that things were better before, that the union, and our contract, is the cause of our woes. To them, I’d say this: Boundaries are hard, they are imperfect. But someone trying to bend or break your boundaries does not mean you shouldn’t have them.
As frontline labor, we need “boundaries”—protections that ensure our health and safety is taken care of, that our work rules are humane and honored, and that we are compensated fairly. Unions are imperfect, but they are one of the only ways to achieve this in the US.
This is corporate America, baby, and corporations gonna corporate. Under capitalism, within the structure of the American corporation, and the landscape of laws and tax codes that support it, profit will always trump people. (Unless those people are shareholders, amirite?) Lots of companies start out humanitarian, making waves for treating employees well. But fair treatment is not the ultimate goal and this changes over time. It is not individual evil-doing, the shift away from being a “great place to work”, but a natural part of the growth cycle for a system built around unfettered growth and (short-term) profit above all else.
To be clear, I’m not hating on my company. I don’t think my company is the worst, or even in the top 50%. Overall, within this system of American capitalism, it’s a good place to work. But man, this system.
``I love to fly, I love to fly, I love to fly...``
If you are going to be stuck on an unexpected layover, this is the place to do it.
The trip reassigned, my plans cancelled, all I wanted to do once we arrived in San Juan at 7:30am was sleep. But I wouldn’t sleep the day away. I would spend the day at the beach and in the pool. I would eat mofongo, one of my favorite Puerto Rican dishes, and I would listen to the waves console me for missing my plans and feeling like the world’s worst daughter.
The most ironic part of this whole debacle was this:
The two previous nights, on my redeye turn work trips, I’d been lugging my heavy, full suitcase to and from the airport. Hoisting it above my head, straining my neck and shoulder to pull it off the bus, up the hill on the 10-minute walk to my crash pad. Since this was my last turn (a there and back flight), since I’d be back at the crash pad in the morning to sleep and shower and nap, and then to get ready for my birthday dinner date with Dad, I figured I didn’t need so much stuff. I downsized.
Out came my swimsuit, my denim shorts. Out went my sunblock, my sports bra, my sandals. All the things necessary for a layover in San Juan were stuffed in a plastic bag, in the closet of my crash pad in East Boston.
So, what was in my suitcase when I arrived for my long layover in San Juan? Toothpaste, thankfully. Clean ‘just-in-case’ underwear, a pair of leggings and some sneakers.
I have been working as a flight attendant for more than nine years. This was NOT my first rodeo. I have been stuck before, in various places at various times throughout my career. As a flight attendant, you learn to expect the unexpected. You learn to pack more food than you need in case of delays, to pack extra tights for when your fingernail punctures through the ones you’re wearing. And you learn to pack a bag, just in case. ESPECIALLY in destinations where you don’t want to sit in your room the whole time.
Maybe I’d gotten overconfident in my lucky streak. It seems I’d forgotten this lesson, learned so many times in my flight attendant past. It was a good reminder.
I could have taken this lack of stuff as a green light to sleep all day, spent the full 20 hours inside my hotel room, and truly my body would have thanked me. But I’m stubborn, and if I’m stuck against my will in San Juan, ruining all my plans, then I am at least going to make the most of it.
Shopping spree anyone?
Making the Most of It
I got a quick nap, then caffeinated, and off to Marshall’s I went. A new swimsuit, shorts, tank top, and sandals. All the things I needed for my San Juan layover and a few things I didn’t. The “treat yourself” mentality really goes into overdrive when you’re stranded at work on your days off. So, for good measure, I also treated myself to a latte from the Starbucks in the resort’s lobby.
New swimsuit on, liquid treat in hand, I headed to the beach.
Among the long list of good fortunes about this layover (I can see silver linings) was that it happened to be in one of our nicer San Juan hotels. A resort in a good location with a private beach and an intricate system of pools, complete with swim-up bar and large padded platforms for lounging. The type of place you need a wrist band to hang out at. The rooms are nice, the lobby is pristine, and there are plenty of food, drink, and shop options nearby.
I dropped my stuff on a chair and walked straight into the ocean. In many parts of San Juan, the beach can be rough. A long, straight coastline allows the wind to whip and the waves to grow, making it an excellent place for kite surfing. But this resort is built into a cove, its little beach protected from the wind and waves. The result is bathwater—warm and gentle, a refreshing dip that requires no fight, no effort at all. I’d spent all my energy the night before. And slipping into this serene, captured sea felt like a cleansing of my palate. I was grateful. Content.
In my own world, still quiet, shaking off my sleep, I emerged from the sea and walked along the water’s edge. I was taking in the families and couples enjoying their vacations, the palm fronds, green and vibrant, swaying in the breeze, the sounds of muffled music and laughter drifting from the pool area. I was immersed in this moment, thinking how things had really turned around, when I felt a stinging sensation in the bottom of my foot. I lifted it, and a small bee fell to the ground and began crawling about.
Yes, that’s right. We added injury to insult this time, with a bee sting on the bottom of my foot.
The sensation burned through my arch, and I walked back into the water, figuring the salt would do it some good. The pain faded, but my foot was swollen for the three days following my layover in San Juan.
The rest of the layover passed uneventfully, and I even had some fun. I met a coworker at the pool, and we talked shop and life. When it got cooler, I sat in one of the three jacuzzis and felt my chill melt away, along with the drama of the night before and my guilt about missing Dad’s birthday.
For dinner, I hit up one of the resort’s restaurants and ordered vegetarian mofongo with creole sauce. (Try it and thank me later.) I found a quiet spot to sit outside and looked over the blog I was working on, in between savory bites. After dinner, I hit up the hotel’s sweets shop and was so excited about my homemade ice cream cookie sandwich that I forgot to ask for the airline discount I was entitled to. No regrets, it was worth every penny.
A day at the pool,
and a nice dinner to round out my unexpected layover.
In the End…
In the end things worked out fine.
I got some pool and beach time in San Juan, and a new wardrobe to boot. I spent more money than I would have liked, but sometimes you have to say F*ck it and go with the flow. I slept like a baby in my hotel bed, and in the wee hours of the morning, I opened my sliding balcony door to let the tropical air and the sound of the waves be my coffee time companions.
The flight back to Boston was easy, a consolation prize for my troubles, and I got back with plenty of time for my new, updated plans.
Dad was understanding about things, and we celebrated his birthday the following night with pizza and cake. With my latest flight attendant dramas, I had more to talk about than I would have otherwise. And it ended up being a nice evening, despite what it took to get there.
It is annoying when this happens, but the reality is it’s just a part of flight attendant life. You will miss plans. You will arrive late. You will have unexpected layovers and airport dramas. It is not a life for everyone. For many people, this encroachment into personal time is a Hell No. I don’t love it when it’s happening, but for me it still feels worth it—the flexibility, the travel benefits, and yes, even the thrill of the unexpected.
This little not-so-easy trip served as a good reminder for this long-time flight attendant. Expect the unexpected, build buffers into your schedule, and for god’s sake, pack a bag.
Here’s wishing all my co-workers the best luck and the easiest trips. And to the people in my life: Thanks for putting up with me, my ever-changing schedule, and this wild lifestyle I’ve chosen.
May the end of summer be good to you all.