‘We’re not just waitresses in the sky.’
It’s easier to get into Harvard than it is to become a Delta flight attendant.
When the airline announced earlier this week that it has 1,000 flight attendant openings for 2018, more than 125,000 hopefuls applied for the job. Yet less than 1% of them will be chosen – compared to a 5.1% acceptance rate at Harvard in 2016 – and that comes after submitting an application, conducting a video interview, coming in for face-to-face interviews and completing eight weeks of rigorous training at Delta’s Atlanta headquarters.
The airline is even documenting the struggle with a new YouTube miniseries, “Earning our Wings,” on Mondays and Thursdays over the next 10 weeks, which follows five new hires through training so that job candidates and airline passengers alike can get a better understanding of why this is such a tough gig to land.
— Delta News Hub (@DeltaNewsHub) October 23, 2017
“We’re not just waitresses in the sky,” Shawn Kathleen, a former flight attendant for a major U.S. carrier, told Moneyish. She was an EMT and a police officer before earning her wings at 38, and had to draw on her first aid and peacekeeping skills constantly at 35,000 feet.
“We’re not just there to pour your soda,” continued Kathleen, now 48, who chronicles bad in-flight behavior on the popular Passenger Shaming Instagram feed. “Our first priority is to keep you safe, and that’s what those weeks of training are for: Learning self defense, and how to take care of violent passengers, and how to do CPR if someone’s heart stops. Being a flight attendant was 100% harder than being a cop. And they have to hire people who can handle it.”
Shannon Kontalonis, 33, who spent 11 months as a flight attendant for ExpressJet, a regional airline that did flights for United, Delta and American, agreed. “People should be glad they only know about 10% of what flight attendants are able to do,” she said. “If you see them doing the other 90%, that means your flight is in trouble!”
They're not winging it. https://t.co/mhEmWEcY9a
— Moneyish (@Moneyish) October 27, 2017
And Cheryl A. Schwartz, another former flight attendant, rattled off a list of skills to separate candidates from the pack, including: “A college education, speaking multiple languages, attractive and well groomed … engaging and a good conversationalist with excellent verbal skills, some background in customer service, basic computer literacy and math competency … willing to relocate and miss birthdays, holidays and family.”
Oh, and able to push a 200-pound beverage cart up a hill.
New hires with lofty ideas of jet-setting for free to exotic places are quickly grounded by the reality of the job. So a few former flight attendants shared the most surprising things they learned about their positions with Moneyish, along with the perks that made dealing with the occasional drunk and disorderly passenger worth it.
The airline puts you through boot camp. New hires undergo up to two months training for every worse-case scenario that could happen 35,000 feet – including crash simulations in grounded planes that actually shake and fill with smoke. Kelly Payne, 34, who worked for Maxjet Airlines and US Airways, did six weeks 11-hour training days learning emergency procedures, self defense and memorizing the layout of each aircraft. “There were tests every day that, if you failed, you were kicked out and couldn’t be a flight attendant,” she said.
The schedule is crazy. Flight attendants are often “on call,” when they have to be available to get to the airport in two hours or less for a flight. “If you did not answer your phone on an on-call day, or return the call within 15 minutes, you would receive a strike against you. Three strikes and you’re out!” warned Kontalonis. Or you sit “ready reserve” a couple days a month, which means you’re in full uniform, packed and waiting in the airport crew lounge in case you’re needed to fly. You bid for days off, and Kontalonis said, “you don’t typically find out what you were awarded until about the 27th of the month prior. So if I wanted to attend a baby shower on Nov. 3, I wouldn’t know if I could make it until Oct. 27.”
You need a crash pad by the airport. “If you don’t live in the city you’re based in – like you’re living in Ohio, but based out of Laguardia Airport in New York – you often rent a house or an apartment nearby for $250 with other flight attendants for the four days you’re on reserve,” explained Kathleen, who made $18,000 to $20,000 a year. But more senior flight attendants who’ve been on the job for decades can pull in $70,000 – and they get first dibs on schedules.
You’re only paid once the flight doors close. Flight attendants are paid by “flight hours,” which don’t begin until the plane’s cabin door is closed. So your attendant is not cashing in when your flight is delayed, or during pre-flight safety checks in the cabin, or while he or she is helping you board the plane. They’re not on the clock until that flight door is closed. Kontalonis noted that a typical day where she’d work two flights over 10 ½ hours, she was only receiving 5 ½ hours pay at about $17 per flight hour.
The free flights are awesome – when you can get them. Every flight attendant raved that the free flights (a.k.a. “non-revenue” or “non-rev” flights) were the best part of the job, but they come with caveats. You’re flying standby, and paying customers get priority. So you’re probably not scoring a free seat at high-traffic times around Thanksgiving or Christmas. But when it works, it’s the greatest perk. “Usually the only empty seats for international flights these days are in first class – not too shabby!” said Kontalonis, who flew to Dublin for free.
Passengers will proposition you. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that we like when you flirt with us, or that we want to go home with you!” said Kontalonis, who was often invited to stay in someone’s hotel room. Once an elderly couple even invited her to join them in their hot tub. “People hold on to this notion of Pan Am stewardesses from the 1960s and that we are there to look pretty and serve the passengers,” she said.
Or passengers unload on you emotionally. Kathleen was surprised by how often she would be a counselor for someone who was flying to say goodbye to a dying parent. “You will find that most flight attendants are very empathetic and understanding, and they are going to try to make a passenger as happy and comfortable as possible,” she said. “We do enjoy most of the passengers … but then, you will find yourself having conversations with adult human beings about why it’s not OK to watch porn on a flight.”
Mini-vacation layovers are rare. Kontalonis said most overnight layovers for regional carriers are between 10-18 hours, which means you’ve got just enough time to grab dinner with your coworkers and pass out. “But sometimes you get 24 hours off in a city, which is nice!” said Kontalonis, who was able to explore Toronto and Quebec in Canada, and Monterrey, Mexico, during a few layovers. And since most of Payne’s shifts were 15-hour flights were to and from London, she was usually given a couple of days to rest and see the sights.
It gets hairy up there. Kathleen was working a flight that was already descending toward the airport when the fire alarm went off. A man had set his hair on fire while smoking crack in the bathroom. No, really. She got him back to his seat, checked there was no fire burning in the lavatory, and reported the incident to the captain. Security whisked him off the plane as soon as they landed. “You’re confined in this metal tube in the sky, often with only one or two other flight attendants – because the FAA calls for just one flight attendant per 50 people – so you can’t call a manager or 911 if someone is belligerent or violent or having a medical emergency – it’s on you,” she said. “It’s a lot of responsibility.”
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