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May 26, 2017

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Flying secrets

The real ups and downs of being a flight attendant

Air travel is not what it once was. In the Golden Age in the ‘50s and ‘60s flying was a privileged way to get from A to B reserved largely for the business and leisure classes. In 1965 fewer than 20 percent of the population had ever flown. Routes and airfares were regulated. Whether you were flying to Toronto or to Tokyo the price was the same regardless of what airline you chose. Instead of competing on price, airlines used perks and service to entice customers on board.

Consider this airline ad from back in the day. After touting the luxurious decor of the leather-lined walls of the “separate ladies lounge and men’s dressing room” it highlighted “memorable oven-fresh full-course meals and delicious between-meal snacks” and invited passengers to “step down the spiral staircase to a beautifully appointed built-in bar, horseshoe-shaped couch and circular table.”

On board, the seats were wide, drinks were cold and meals were hot. Most flight attendants were female, many had nursing backgrounds and all were hired on the basis of weight — 54.4 kilos maximum — and good looks. Compulsory retirement came at age 32.

Deregulation works

The big changes began with deregulation in 1978 when airlines were freed to compete on fares. The intention was to lower ticket prices and so increase passenger loads. It worked. By 2000 almost half the population took at least one flight a year. In 1974, it was illegal for an airline to charge less than US$1442 in inflation-adjusted dollars for a one-way flight between New York City and Los Angeles. Theses days you can fly from Toronto to Los Angeles return for less than $550.

Of course, today’s flight experience is not quite what it was 40 years ago. Flying in 2015 is one of the more stressful public events in which you can take part. In most cities, the tension starts when you leave for the airport. Traffic snarls are so pervasive, you worry if you’ll make the flight.

Once you’ve checked in, you face the physical and emotional stress of passing through security. Going up in the air to travel in excess of 700 kph in a large metal cylinder with a couple of hundred others is fear enough for many, add to it the possibility that the plane may be blown out of the sky by a terrorist bomb and it’s a wonder that anyone flies at all.

Next comes the carry-on crisis. Will they allow you to take your bag on board or will you have to check the thing and risk loosing it? Once on board, with any luck, you’re seated in a window or aisle seat, if not you’re crowded into the centre with a stranger on either side. The struggle begins. Six elbows do quiet battle for three armrests, a skirmish that often continues, on and off, until landing. There’s so little legroom you say a silent pray the person in front will not put their seat back.

Here comes the FA

Cheer up, there’s inflight service. Before long someone will come down the aisle and offer you a beverage and, perhaps, a bag of peanuts, pretzels or cookies. Meet the flight attendant; she or he spends their entire working day breathing the recycled air, walking up and down those narrow aisles all in the cause of keeping you and your 200-odd seatmates happy, mostly by dispensing drinks, picking up trash and answering questions — many of which would test a Zen master. These include: Why are we delayed? What are we flying over? Am I going to make my connection? Will they hold the plane? Will my bag make it?

Why would anyone do this for a living? “It’s the travel, stupid,” as frequent flyer Bill Clinton might put it. Working on airplanes is not at all like working in an office. You live out of a suitcase, and given flight schedules and the weather, you’re never quite sure where you’ll be sleeping next, but as you gain seniority and more control over your schedule, the world really does become your oyster.

It’s addictive. Airline employees have a lower turnover than those in other jobs. “It’s a career, but it’s also a lifestyle. We have friends all over the world,” Glenn, a flight attendant with a major US airline told AFAR magazine recently. Many of those friends are fellow employees, but they’re not the same as those you might work with in an office. Says Curtis, one of Glenn’s colleagues: “…you fly with different people everyday. You have a different office and a different crew and different passengers every day.”

And you get to travel both on the job and on holiday — and so does your family. Airline employees receive generous discounts not only on their own airline, but on most others too. Contra-deals between airlines means air travel at 80 percent off with special promotions that often include hotels in some of the most popular destinations on the globe.

The downside to living high

On the flipside, the route to becoming a flight attendant can be an arduous one. For the first five years most are “on reserve” which means you are at the beck-and-call of the airline 24/7. You may live in Toronto or Vancouver and be told, on a few hours notice, to report for duty on a flight leaving from Halifax for Winnipeg at 6am. If you want to keep your job, says Glenn, “You adapt.” Pets, kids and marriage are a poor fit with this kind of demand. Even deciding on a place to call home can be a challenge. Many flight attendants share “crash pads” where roommates come and go at all hours depending on their flight schedules. You never know quite who you’ll find in your bed.

And another thing, the pay’s not very good. Starting salaries are around $20,000 for 120 hours a month and can climb to around $40,000 after ten years. Not too shabby for a 30-hour week? Guess again. The time clock only starts at take off and stops on landing. It’s not unusual to spend as much time getting to and from your flight and on layovers as you do in the air. Once everything is factored in, you can make a case that the pay is not much above minimum wage.

And one more thing: the passengers. People are people and flying can put them through the wringer and leave them exhausted, hungry and angry. Even as passenger loads increase, in-flight staffing drops. Airline employee moral is low. “Air rage” is real. Flights are diverted to off-load inebriated passengers, personnel can be and are physically attacked, hot coffee is thrown, nasty things are said.

The in-flight atmosphere is generally worsening as airlines try to wring every dollar out of flights from reducing legroom to cram in more seats to up-charging for everything from carry-ons to seats in exit rows. Despite low fuel costs and record profits, it emerged in July that the four major US airlines may be colluding to reduce the number of seats available on given routes in order to boost passenger loads.

And yet… and yet… there remains something undeniably romantic about being an airline insider and the remarkable access it gives you to the entire world. After all, somebody has to do it.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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