Flight Attendant

Flight Attendant

Experience, survey, discussions. Much of this study is based on my own personal knowledge since I have been a flight attendant for nine years.  My observations and discussions with my flying partners and friends are also included. In addition, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), AFL-CIO, of which I am a member, conducted membership surveys in 1985 and 1990 in conjunction with a non-profit organization specializing in polls of labor unions and labor issues.  Approximately 850 flight attendants were interviewed for each survey to assure proper representation of all concerns facing major and small air carrier members.  Finally at our Local level of AFA, we have a communication and education committee which is activated when opinions and/or education of the membership is necessary.  Hopefully, I will be able to “meld” all the information available into a coherent and logical report!

Getting hired, the hardest part. Flight attendants are on board the aircraft to ensure passenger safety, not just to look nice and serve food and beverages.  Perhaps the hardest part of becoming a flight attendant is actually going through the hiring process.  UAL receives 1,000 applications per month for this position.  There are two interviews –one held near or in your hometown and one held in Chicago – and a physical/medical review.  At UAL, job qualifications and requirements include Age (at least 19 years), Height (5’2” to 6’0”), Weight (in proportion to height), Vision (glasses and contacts acceptable if uncorrected vision with glasses does not exceed 20/100 or with contact lenses 20/200. Correctable vision must be 20/30 or better), Education (high school graduate. Prefer two years of college.), Work Experience (Preference given to applicants who have worked in customer services positions).

Initiated into “real world” flying. After an individual has been notified of his/her acceptance, a seven week training program must be completed.  Classes are instructed by former flight attendants and include instruction on emergency procedures, inflight services, scheduling rules, union contract, passenger relations and appearance counseling.  In addition, trainers are required to work flights on the weekends to receive “hands on” experience.  It is during these weekend excursions into the “real world” of flying when trainees are “initiated” into the flight attendant subculture. Senior flight attendants show the trainees how to work a “real” plan versus training book procedures (then they are reminded to “forget” what they were just taught on the plane till they are out of training!).  Plus the pilots like to tease the new hires by asking them to do something they know a “seasoned” flight attendant wouldn’t even consider (i.e. asking for a half a cup of tea with half of a cream and half of a Sweet-n-low.  I would tell a pilot if she/he is that picky, the galley is available for him/her to help thyself!).

Becoming a “line holder”. After training, each flight attendant reports to his/her domicile city where he/she will be based for his/her flying assignments.  When a flight attendant is new, he/she is on reserve status due to his/her low seniority.  Being on reserve means the Company assigns the flight attendant to all trips; the flight attendant only bids what days he/she will be available to work.  As the flight attendant amasses seniority over the years, he/she will eventually become a line holder.  Being a line holder means a flight attendant now can bid actual trips and fly on days he/she would prefer to work.  Obviously, all flight attendants want to become line holders as quickly as possible so they have control over what they fly and when instead of the Company having the control

I do not punch in on a time clock. Being a flight attendant means I am one of the least supervised employees on United’s property.  I do not punch in on a time clock; however, I do know that I must meet my flying partners one hour before our flight departs for our briefing. The briefing consists of meeting your flying partners, assigning of safety/job duties, what the service consists of, how the service will be accomplished, sharing of relevant “extra” information (i.e. passenger count, special meals, unaccompanied minors, departure gate, etc.) and the sharing of “jump seat gossip”.  When the kitchen does not supply the galleys properly, a flight attendant must be flexible enough to adapt – when something isn’t available at 35,000 feet in the air, a store just isn’t around the corner!  And when dealing with the public, a flight attendant must have a sense of humor.  Flight attendants must be in control of all situations;  even though a problem may seem small and inconsequential to a flight attendant, to a passenger it is a major ordeal.  Plus the flight attendant is the most “visible” employee of an airline; therefore how a flight attendant presents and conducts him/herself in the public view is very important.

Types: Superstews, Flakey/Flighty, and Professionals. Teamwork is practically a mandate for a flight attendant. How smooth the meal and beverage service flows, how organized the galleys and carts are set up and even how orderly passenger boarding is accomplished revolves around teamwork. From interviews, it appears that there are three general categories used by flight attendants to describe work patterns and how the way flight attendants are perceived by their peers.

SUPERSTEWS. They do the little extra things: Those flight attendants who come on board before passengers arrive.  They have all the overhead bins open, all pillows and blankets pulled out a bit so passengers can get them down.  There is coffee ready to go in first class, even if it is not required.  Superstews never sit down to relax and don’t take time for themselves.  They will even take equipment or supplies from one plane to the next to make sure there are enough supplies for passengers.  Superstews do the little, extra things.  They usually make other flight attendants feel uneasy.

FLAKEY/FLIGHTY. Fixing their face more than doing their job:  Those flight attendants who think of themselves as glamorous or handsome. Their flying partners can usually find them in the blue room fixing their face more than doing their service responsibilities.  Their major purpose is to find a mate.  They are considered space cadets, never sure of what to do next or what time their next flight is.  They may be flippant with passengers because they don’t want to work too hard. Their flying partners feel as though they are training them each time they fly together. Fortunately there are not too many of this type of flight attendant!

PROFESSIONALS. Responsible, dependable, and modest: These flight attendants take their job seriously without being too serious.  They see their work in terms of a career.  They feel a part of the team and believe it is really important to work together. Some times they make mistakes, admit to being tired, slack off once in a while, but for the most part are responsible, dependable, and modest.

Even if only one flight attendant “slacks” off, the others must pick up the slack. Once on the aircraft, the first responsibility a flight attendant must fulfill is that of his/her safety checks. It is mandated that an Inflight Handbook is to be carried by all flight attendants.  This handbook tells what each flight attendant is supposed to check (i.e. jumpseat assignment, safety demonstration position, safety equipment checks, etc.). They each flight attendant prepares for his/her own job responsibility (i.e. setting up the galley/carts, greeting passengers, closet duty, ticket taking, etc.).  When ready to begin the inflight service, once again teamwork is very important.  Generally, the service is worked toward the galley, so in coach the galley is in the back of the aircraft, hence the service is started at the beginning of the coach cabin.  Service procedures dictate that the meal cart be in front of the beverage cart by only four rows.  By doing so, this enables the passenger to receive his/her meal followed by receiving a beverage within three to five minutes.  In the mean time, the first flight attendant, after completing first class responsibilities, begins to pick up the trays from the front of the cabin so those passengers do not have the trays in front of them too long.  When all the passengers have their meals and beverages, two flight attendants begin to pick up trays where the first flight attendant dropped off and one flight attendant begins second coffees. After second coffees/beverages are completed, all flight attendants are picking u trays, cups, etc.  Hence the teamwork and work ethic are very important attributes to a flight attendant.  Even if only one flight attendant “slacks” off, the others must pick up the slack.

The flight attendant community. A flight attendant’s work cycle consists of a monthly flight schedule.  On or about the 12th of each month, the bid packages are available for the following month’s flight schedules.  Each flight attendant then goes through the bids deciding what days to fly, what aircraft to fly, what position (i.e. first class, first class aisle, coach, pit, etc.) to bid.  Depending upon the flight attendant’s date of hire, seniority will ultimately dictate the following month’s schedule. Bids must be entered into the computer by the 17th of each month; bids are awarded by the 20th of each month.  Relief lines (lines of flying covering those flight attendants who will be on vacation the following month) are available for bidding around the 23rd of the month and awarded by the 25th of the month.  Flight attendant paychecks are available on the 1st and 16th of each month.  It is truly amazing how three or four dates per month impact an entire employee community.  Flight attendants come out of no where – people you haven’t seen in months it seems —on the day paychecks are available and when bids open and close.  The camaraderie, cohesiveness, and general kinship among the flight attendant community are very apparent.

Full loads, crying babies, and luggage up the ying yang: Stress and the calendar. The time of year also impacts the flight attendant work patterns.  The busy cycles of the airline industry consist of Easter/spring break, summer travel, Thanksgiving, and Christmas/New Year’s. With Easter/Spring break, the typical passengers on the aircraft are high school kids on their senior trip or college kids off to Daytona, Cancun or Palm Springs.  The summer crowd brings the families, unaccompanied minors traveling between divorced parents, grandparents and a lot of first time flyers.  The Thanksgiving traveler is usually the families going to grandparents for turkey.  They over Christmas/New Year’s the unaccompanied minors are traveling again back and forth and the home-for-the holidays crowd.  I refuse to work over Thanksgiving break because it seems the airlines insist on advertising tickets very cheaply over that particular weekend; they the passengers shop the Friday after Thanksgiving and insist on bringing all their bags into the cabin with them. I take vacation? Summer is another dreaded time of the year for most flight attendants.  This past summer was no exception.  The airlines again insisted on selling tickets extremely cheap; therefore, the Simpsons, Clampettes and all their relatives were on the airplanes this summer.  When flight attendants are faced with full loads (even going to Paduca) on every flight, crying babies (and sometimes adults), carry-on luggage up the ying yang, children running the aisles, call buttons going off, first time fliers getting sick everywhere.  Well, stressed out is not the word.  United’s flight attendants had an increase in sick leave this past summer of nearly 30%.  Then add in the PMS cycles of a workforce of a majority of women and the picture can get pretty ugly.

Some never speak to or meet their supervisor.  The organizational structure of the Inflight Department within United is unique.  I am based in Chicago along with approximately 4,000 other flight attendants.  There are currently 38 supervisors for the flight attendant population.  The ultimate goal of management is to have 100 flight attendants assigned to one supervisor. A flight attendant “meets” his/her supervisor generally when a problem arises.  This problem could be in the form of an “onion” letter received by the Company from a disgruntled passenger, an emergency within the flight attendant’s family, dependability issues (i.e. late/no show for a trip, sick leave abuse, etc.).  However, there are a number of flight attendants who finish out their 25-30 year careers never talking and/or meeting their supervisors due to the informal and unstructured setting of the job.  After the supervisors, there are three managers of inflight operations who oversee the supervisors and ultimately the inflight manager.

WE versus THEM, Flight attendants and ‘real people’. Not only do flight attendants have jealousies from fellow employees to contend with, but it seems flight attendants also have a difficult time maintaining relationships with “real people” – people who are not connected to the airline industry, people who have their feet on the ground. “Real people” do not understand the lifestyle differences – how I live in Sandusky, Ohio, and work out of Chicago, Illinois – and variable work schedules – I’m off this weekend, but fly next Saturday, Sunday and Monday.  When at a party or just out with friends, I always end up having to explain what my job and life is like. These “real people” just see me as flitting off to San Francisco for dinner and shopping and coming home three days later. In addition, flight attendants have a tendency to identify airline relationships versus non-airline relationships as WE versus THEM.  In one study, the flight attendants felt “the gap was so wide between the flying life and  ‘real life’ that sometimes it is not worth the stress encountered to try to remain close to non-airline people.

Iles Minoff received his doctorate in anthropology from Princeton University. He taught at St. Xavier College in the Chicago area and taught a class in the anthropology of work at the George Meany Center for Labor Studies in the 1990s. He worked for the labor movement for 28 years, first with the Human Resources Development Institute in the early 1980s where he worked on retraining programs for displaced workers, and later for Union Privilege where, for over 20 years, he developed benefit safety net programs for union members and their families. He has a wonderful and amazing wife, three great daughters, and two, soon to be three, of the cutest grandchildren on the face of the earth.

One Response to “Flight Attendants – Amy Grubbe 1992” Subscribe

  1. Bert Proper April 20, 2015 at 3:04 pm #

    I’m actually looking for a Sara that lives (or based), in Chicago. I was on a flight from Germany to Saudi Arabia. It was an all military flight as we were going to war. The date was November 1990, (or December). She wrote me a couple times, but the letters were left (along with her wings), when I was injured, and he’d to take an emergency military flight out. I think of her all the time, as this could’ve been “the one”. Any help would be great!

Leave a Reply