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How Flight Attendants Work

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Drawbacks of Flying for a Living
Flight attendants watch as baby orangutans, that were smuggled out of Borneo, are returned first-class on Garuda Airlines to Jakarta from Bangkok. Flight attendants have to be prepared for all kinds of situations.
Flight attendants watch as baby orangutans, that were smuggled out of Borneo, are returned first-class on Garuda Airlines to Jakarta from Bangkok. Flight attendants have to be prepared for all kinds of situations.
Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty Images

Even the most plum positions have their pitfalls. Some of the drawbacks of life as a flight attendant are obvious. Hours are typically long (up to 14 hours a day), with night, weekend and holiday work virtually guaranteed. Until you've gained significant seniority, the pay is usually not going to support your Jimmy Choo habit. In 2012, the median annual salary for flight attendants was around $37,000, with seniority playing a major role in higher wages and benefits [source: Bureau of Labor Statistics]. "Right now airlines are doing great, so we're getting pay raises and profit sharing," says Kellie. "But there are times when we have to take pay cuts and keep the company afloat."

At United Airlines, the hourly rate for a first-year attendant working domestic was $21.23 in 2014 [source: Flight Attendants Academy]. And that only applies to flight time. You know the period right before takeoff where the attendants are walking the aisles, prepping the cabin for departure? Yeah, they're not getting paid (much) for that. They do receive a small per diem for these tasks (United's is $1.95 per hour), but they don't start making their full wages until the plane actually pushes back from the gate. As a result, delayed flights actually cost them quite a bit of cash, so try not to get too snippy the next time you're stuck on the tarmac! Attendants don't like it any more than the passengers.

Another drawback is dealing with ultra-cramped work spaces, including the areas where attendants prepare food and beverage carts, the bathrooms and the aisles, which always seem to be junked up with errant feet and carry-on items. Mild turbulence and dry air, which can seriously wreak havoc on sensitive sinuses, are other annoying, but usually manageable environmental work aspects [source: SkyWest].

Although most flights go off easily enough, the occasional passenger makes life tougher on flight attendants. Bruton recalls a particular incident in which a passenger was served a problematic quantity of red wine before boarding the plane. "He was underage, unbeknownst to us, and he eventually did vomit all over the lavatory," she said. "We actually gave him clothing and washed his clothes out for him, and then one attendant walked him out to his parents and explained what had happened." That is quite literally a case of going above and beyond the call of duty. No one gets paid enough for that kind of cleanup!


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