Airline Flight Attendant Q&A with FareCompare

The flight attendant interviewed below is a real person who has been flying for United Airlines and other carriers for more than two decades.

He agreed to an interview with FareCompare on the condition of anonymity, and we honored this request, because we believe the issues he airs are important and should be discussed.

FareCompare: What do you hate about your job?

Flight Attendant: [Sighing] It’s not that I hate my job. I no longer love it, that’s for sure. How could I? There’s just so much negativity in the cabin these days, from both passengers and crew. It’s difficult to rise above, or to stay positive. It gets you down, you know? I think most of us [flight attendants] are beaten down these days, but the difference is, some of us are just better actors is all.

FareCompare: What’s a big problem on planes these days?

Flight Attendant: You want me to narrow it down to only one? [Laughing] The carry-on bags. They’re a hot button for a lot of passengers and crew. People abuse the policy, pushing it over the limits, because they don’t want to pay the checked-bag fees. I understand, but now so many people carry much heavier bags. Per company policy, we are to “assist” with these bags, not stow them ourselves.

“They just dump [their bags] at my feet and move on…”

And I know what you’re thinking, big deal, it’s just one bag – but it’s not one bag. I may work three flights in one day. That’s three boardings, each with hundreds of passengers, and hundreds of bags. We never have enough storage, and the battles begin. Moving bags, lifting bags, assisting passengers, all takes a toll on your back, believe me. With my pay cuts since bankruptcy, I cannot afford to injure myself and risk being out of work. It’s that simple.

FareCompare: Are some passengers worse than others?

Flight Attendant: If I say, your bag is too big or too heavy, it has to be checked – well, everybody wants to argue. “I carried it on my last flight” doesn’t cut it. I wasn’t there, and it doesn’t matter. Or some customers don’t even ask for help with their bags. Instead they just dump them at my feet and move on, expecting me to take care of it. I cannot. You pack it, you stack it.

Some of our passengers with disabilities need extra help. This is where the waters get a little murky. I want to assist as needed, but sometimes I am pushed over all limits. Where do I draw the line? With minimal staffing, and minimum boarding time, I may not always be able to assist as needed. Some of our “high-yield” frequent flyers abuse the policies, and we’re expected to look the other way.

“We can be a very compassionate bunch.”

FareCompare: Are “nice” flight attendants a thing of the past?

Flight Attendant: We can be a very compassionate bunch. I remember one elderly gentleman with clearly too much carry-luggage holding up the boarding process. Now, many, myself included, would accuse this passenger of breaking the “policy” with too many pieces.

But something told me this was a special case, so I approached him with caution, saying, “Sir, you are well over the limit for carryon bags. Are you traveling with someone? And carrying those bags for them?” He dropped his bags and with tears welling in his eyes, he spoke softly, saying “Yes, I mean no. I’m carrying my wife’s bags. She passed away while we were on vacation. I can’t let them go. I have to get them home.”

I will never forget my feelings of sadness, and will never forget this moment, a big reminder for me to not rush to judgment, and to be compassionate. Of course I assisted him with his precious cargo. Ask any flight attendant, and they will tell you that boarding is the worst part for us. This departure was no exception. As “greeter” I had a lot going on. So I called upon an off-duty flying partner commuting home from a working trip. I explained the situation and she sat next to this special passenger, chatting and comforting him for the entire flight.

FareCompare: When things get to be too much, do flight attendants hide in the galley?

Flight Attendant: We can’t, really. Our galley, cramped as it is, is our home away from home, office, and jump seat therapy center.

“Passengers help themselves to our food…even drink from our water bottles.”

But if we’re away from it, or our backs are turned, passengers will help themselves to our personal reading material, our own food brought from home, and even take a drink from our own personal water bottles. There is this weird “entitlement” thing. We have no personal space. With flights being more crowded, real estate for staff is minimal at best.

One time, I was standing in the galley eating and a passenger came to the back and he said “Is it okay if I sit here for a while?” pointing to my flight attendant jump seat (which was folded into the wall). Not only is this our ONLY place to sit on a full flight, passengers are NOT permitted to occupy these seats at any time during a flight, per the FAA.

The reason is simple: If we were to experience some type of sudden catastrophe during flight, or even severe turbulence, the crew needs to immediately strap into the nearest jump seat and respond/prepare for whatever is taking place at that moment, without first displacing someone. We’ve got to have immediate access to the telephone attached to the jump seat.

“He starts to rant, telling me I have a bad attitude…”

Anyway, it had been a long day. I was tired and responded to the man with a simple “no”. This wasn’t good enough for him, and he began to challenge my response. Why? I explained that ‘no’ is good enough. He asked a simple question, I gave him a simple answer. But he starts to rant, telling me I have a bad attitude, and requests my name and badge number, etc. I had to walk away. I had to walk away from my own workspace.

FareCompare: What do you miss most about the “old days” of flying?

Flight Attendant: [Laughing] Eye contact. I feel like I used to give so much to passengers because I enjoyed it so much, and I used to get back – now I give, give, give and I get nothing in return. You can only give so much, without getting something in return.

“Air travel is tough. What’s to enjoy?”

When I am greeting passengers during the boarding process, there may be a hundred passengers coming on board, who are walking within inches of me. Out of that one-hundred, I’d say maybe only ten to fifteen of them will acknowledge me or simply have any eye contact. I’ll say hello, and get nothing back. Now I don’t say hello until I at least have eye contact.

Look, I get it. Air travel is tough. What’s to enjoy? They’ve made it this far, finally, on the airplane where they expect more but are receiving less. Some are tuned out, or just fried from their travels. We are all tired. As a flight attendant, I really have to go deep to rise above it. I try, really I do. Every flight. But some days I’m able to go deeper than others.

Author:

Published: May 10, 2010