A Day in the Life of a Flight Attendant

A day on the job. For a flight attendant that could mean…a trip to Paris…or an emergency landing. It can be fun, an adventure, or both…but is it work? I’ve found that working for a major airline this past year has been one of the hardest jobs I have ever had, and yet one of the most enjoyable. The schedule and the passengers challenge me in ways I never could have imagined. But nothing beats hanging out in Las Vegas for 24 hours with a company-paid hotel room and expense money. The thousands of us flying encounter many different experiences during the course of a day. This is a day (well, technically a trip) in my life…

5:45 P.M. Friday: The Assignment

In the airline industry, seniority rules. Mechanics, pilots, flight attendants, customer service agents–all of these employees enjoy pay rates, schedules and benefits based on their length of service with the company. Among flight attendants, seniority determines status as a lineholder or reserve. Lineholders have a flying schedule set at least one month in advance; they know when and where they will work and on what types of aircraft. The airlines use reserves to fill open flying time and to cover positions vacated by lineholders calling in sick or on holiday. If you are a relatively new flight attendant, like me, you can expect to sit reserve for a couple of years. Flight attendants often receive a set schedule (known as a block) after less than two years, but at some bases, flight attendants can sit reserve for more than ten years.

As a reserve flight attendant, my “work day” begins with a call from a crew scheduler. Each airline operates differently; at mine, schedulers call reserves on-duty to ask what trips they want to fly the following day. Trips are paid by the flight hour, from the time the aircraft door is shut to the time it is opened. And for every hour away from base, flight attendants are paid expense money. This particular Friday evening, when crew scheduling calls, I choose a four-day trip on the Airbus 319–one of our newer aircraft. It pays better than average and overnights in Raleigh-Durham, Washington, DC and Denver. Working what the airline labels the “C” position, I serve in the economy cabin and sit in the front, near the boarding door. With my trip set, I pack. I take a few extra pieces of my uniform and some clothes for the overnight. I go to bed early since I must check in early the next morning.

7:30 A.M. Saturday: Check-in

This morning, I go down to the crew room below the airport concourse in Philadelphia. Each base has a crew room complete with couches, computers and supervisors’ offices. Pilots and flight attendants also have boxes or folders there for company mail. Before starting a trip, a crewmember must check in for it. First things first, I use the computer to sign in for the trip. If you do not sign in an hour before the trip departs, you are liable to get written up by your supervisor. Since boarding begins 30 minutes prior to departure, there’s not much time to spend in the crew room, but I have a few minutes to check my box for memos and chat with friends. I head to the plane to meet up with the rest of the crew.

Communication between the cockpit and the cabin plays a vital role in maintaining a safe environment, and the crew briefings at the beginning of a trip set the tone. Once on the airplane, Becky, the lead flight attendant, briefs Mike and me on safety procedures, delegates announcement responsibilities and confirms that we have our emergency manuals. Afterward, the captain conducts his briefing, reviewing safety-related issues, flight time, weather, and what he likes to drink.


Ready, Set, Go: Inflight

About 30 minutes prior to departure, the agent working our flight comes down the jetway to begin boarding. Becky nods okay, and we finish checking our emergency equipment and catering supplies. From the forward galley, Becky and I greet the passengers and prepare drinks for first class customers. Mike hangs out in the back, monitoring the dwindling space in the overhead bins. Boarding tends to provide the biggest headache, especially considering I do not get paid until that door is shut. With a nearly full flight, it is pretty much guaranteed that space in the overhead bins will go quickly. Tensions mount, but bags need to be checked. Though the company no longer requires passenger counts, many pilots prefer to have them. When you see the flight attendant slowly coming up the aisle silently moving his or her lips, sometimes motioning his or her hands, that flight attendant is taking a count. As easy as it may seem, it often takes more than one count to get it right.

Once all the overhead bins are shut and the passengers are seated, the flight is ready for departure. I verify that the passengers seated in the window exit row are willing and able to assist in an emergency if necessary. Before shutting the door, the agent hands Becky a copy of the manifest, which lists first class passengers, passengers with special needs or meals, and gate connections. We arm the exits, enabling the slides to inflate if the doors are opened. After the safety video and a final cabin walk-through, the three of us strap into our jump seats and I practice my 30-second review, which includes evacuation commands and door operation procedures. It is still a thrill when we taxi onto the runway and the engines roar. You learn to recognize the strange (and initially scary) noises as just the lavatory toilet seat coming down or unused hangars banging in the closet.

Once we level-off at 10,000 ft, I head to the back and help Mike prepare for the breakfast service. To no one’s surprise, we serve the staple of the skies: omelettes and French toast. In the back galley, we brew coffee, cook the meals in the ovens and set up the carts. Since the beverage cart comes stocked with cans of sodas and juices, we just add a few things on top such as some cream and sugar for the coffee. Once the meals finish cooking, we begin serving from the front of the cabin to the back. It turns out we are short a few meals and have to ask the company employees traveling on the flight to go without a breakfast. I hate doing that, but they do not seem to mind. Space is undeniably tight on the beverage cart, and accidents are bound to happen. I am no exception on this leg, knocking a can of soda on a passenger as I reach for it. Not much spills, but he is still peeved. I give him a sorry form to get his pants dry-cleaned at the airline’s expense. Finishing the service, I settle in the back row with a book, assisting in the cabin as needed. Passengers occasionally bring cups and other trash back for me to dispose of as they head to the toilet, but the remainder of the long flight is a coffee break of sorts for us.

Service in first class is usually more involved. With 12 or fewer passengers on the smaller jets, it also tends to be more intimate. No carts are needed, and food and beverages are presented in china and glassware. Various types of people fly first class, but that cabin mostly fills up with business people and other frequent flyers. Celebrities occasionally make an appearance. A friend served Sissy Spacek once, and another flew with the members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

During the flight, a problem arises, which is relatively common on longer flights. Sitting in the back, I notice the smell of cigarette smoke coming from the lavatory. A passenger exits and it is obvious he has been smoking. There is no sign of the cigarette in the trash, but I advise him that smoking in the lavatory is a violation of a federal law and comes with a large fine. There are set procedures to deal with situations like these and paperwork to complete.

We cruise through the rest of the day with little problem, except when I smash Mike’s finger in the overhead bin as we both try to close it. He’s okay, though he is quick to point out the tiny white scratch on his fingernail. An extra flight attendant joins us in Denver for our next leg to Charlotte. She notices a pregnant woman sitting in the exit row, and the four of us discuss whether the passenger is qualified to do so. Since no regulation explicitly excludes pregnant women from those seats and the passenger insists she is both willing and able to assist in an emergency, we decide to let her stay there. The last leg of the day is the easiest. Since the airline needs us in Raleigh-Durham, but does not need us to work from Charlotte, we deadhead on another crew’s flight.

Gas, Food, Lodging: The Layover

We arrive in Raleigh-Durham at 8:00 P.M. I take Mike and Becky to the restaurant where I once waited tables. My old boss gives us dinner on the house, certainly a welcome treat on our first-year salary. We have an early start again the next morning and there is not a whole lot to do near the airport in Durham, so we don’t stay out late.

On an overnight, the airline provides each crewmember with his or her own hotel room. Long layovers (at least 15 hours off) land you at a decent hotel downtown, near the beach or some sort of shopping venue. For shorter layovers, you will usually stay at or very near the airport. My crew, both the pilots and the flight attendants, stay together the entire trip–layover and all. Some airlines work a little differently, putting flight attendants and pilots in separate hotels. The airline also covers meals, if you count the expense money paid for the trip.

12:40 P.M. Tuesday: Check-out

The next few days of the trip are surprisingly uneventful. The video system on the Airbus, sophisticated as it is with its automatic preprogramming, occasionally malfunctions. Threatened with having to do the safety demo the “old-fashioned way,” we manage to play the video manually. At the end of day two, as the plane pulls off the runway at National Airport in D.C., I persuade Becky to spice up the arrival announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to our nation’s capital,” she says, instead of the scripted “Welcome to Washington, DC.” I cannot tell if anyone notices. By the end of the fourth day, most of the giddiness has been replaced with exhaustion.

At the end of the last leg, we land in Philadelphia. The trip is now over. I am released from duty 15 minutes later. This rest period lasts at least eight hours and is guaranteed to be free from phone contact from schedulers. Leaving the airport, I head out to the employee parking lot, pick up my car and head home. Back in my room, I unload my bags and unplug the phone.

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Every day, aspiring air hostesses ask to describe some of the benefits of a flight attendant career. Outlined below are ten of the most appealing aspects of the profession.

Enjoy a great deal of time off (8 to 10 days off per month; roughly 3 months off per year!).

Get free or reduced-cost travel benefits for yourself and immediate family, covering air travel, lodging, car-rentals, and cruises.


Get a lucrative benefits package, often including health and life insurance, credit union membership, employee stock options, and a golden handshake retirement plan.

Enjoy unmatched variety – Forget the predictability of 9 to 5 cube life!

Enjoy maximum scheduling flexibility – You’re not limited to weekends off like the rest of the world!

Meet new people, including many celebrities.

See the world.

Feel more independent.

Feel more responsible.

Feel a sense of pride and accomplishment (especially when you help an unaccompanied minor or handicapped passenger safely reach their destination).

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Aviation Industry was stormed by the concept of no-frills, low cost airlines per se is more than two decades old. It was pioneered in the USA by an airline called Peoples’ Express, which was followed by South West Airlines. Both were eminently successful. Later, the concept was adopted in Europe, with Ryan Air emerging as the leader. Ryan Air alone commands 5% of the market share which is more than that of British Airways and has sustained profit levels of 20% or more. Today in the USA, there are a number of airlines structured on the low cost model that together corner 32% of the market share. Emerging on the scene a decade or so later than in the USA, low cost airlines in Europe initially registered a rapid growth of trafficAir Hostess Training image that was as high as 30% annually.

Traditionally, in India, air travel has been the privilege and preserve of only the upper segments of society who were pampered by the over priced state owned airlines and more recently, by a couple of successful private airlines. I realized that in our country we have a huge middle class who are an intrinsic part of the ongoing economic boom and who need to undertake business related travel to reach their destinations in the shortest possible time and at an affordable cost. I could see clearly a huge market potential inherent in this situation and so it was that I decided to launch an airline structured on the low cost model -that would provide the facility of air travel without frills at less than half the fares of a regular airline. You will appreciate that this has opened up avenues for large segments of society for whom affordable air travel in an environment of perpetually climbing fares, had only been a distant and fading dream. As for the other considerations, airline business is undoubtedly capital intensive but is only as risky as any other venture with similar investment. Also, I would like to clarify that I am not competing with the regular airlines and I do not aim to wean away passengers from the big players. I am competing with rail and road travel. The majority of my clients are those who normally have not been traveling by air only because it is too expensive. As my passenger profile is radically different, I actually face no competition from the regular airlines.


All forms of transportation are inexorably linked to the level of economic activity- In India, the elaborate and extensive road and rail network have been the arteries of the economy. In a slow and lumbering economy, even with notoriously inefficient rail and road transportation systems, demand for air transportation continued to remain depressed and hence its contribution to the economic well being of the nation was peripheral, in fact irrelevant. Stifled with a complex system of controls, the rate of economic growth in India, since independence, fell short of the aspirations of its people. However, with the wide ranging reforms that began in the 1990s and the globalization of the Indian economy, there has been a profound impact on the rate of economic growth. The benefits of the growing economy are permeating rapidly through the society elevating prosperity levels of the 300 million plus middle class, a population approximately equal to that in Europe. Apart from the metropolitan cities, the ripple effect of the economic boom has engulfed the large numbers of smaller cities and towns spread across the vast expanse of this country. Riding the wave of economic growth and the consequent rising affluence, there is a powerful surge in demand for speedy travel at low cost, factors that are critical in any financial equation wherein time and money for business enterprises are both precious and scarce. Low Cost Airlines aim to capitalize on the emerging scenario wherein the business driven need of the middle class to travel saving both time and money offers a virtually limitless market potential. Civil Aviation in India has thus acquired an important role in the economic growth of the nation and in my view the process is irreversible. Spiraling demand and exponential growth in business volumes will offset rising cost of inputs. Rising expectations of passenger comfort would be adequately compensated for by fares that are low and easily affordable. The future for the low cost model on the Indian scene is therefore quite secure.

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Though some changes in the management of airport infrastructure have been initiated already, we still have a long way to go. The Indian Govt needs to display the necessary sense of urgency to ensure that airport infrastructure keeps pace with the burgeoning demand. Enhancement of additional capacity at existing major airports as well as modernisation of all other domestic airports needs to be carried out on priority. But let it be clearly understood- there can be no improvement unless the monolithic management structure of AAI is broken up and separate entities formed to manage each major airport group on a regional basis. India’s Air Traffic Control (ATC) system also leaves much to be desired as it is definitely not at par with international standards. Since air traffic Air Hostess Training imageis expected to grow at 20-25% annually, smooth flow of traffic assumes paramount importance. This aspect too needs immediate attention As regards pilots, we have already witnessed the most unedifying spectacle of inter-airline poaching of pilots. The industry needs to exercise self-discipline if this trend is to be arrested. The Govt, on its part, can enhance the scope for commercial pilot training and substantially increase the output of the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Academy, the major source of trained civil pilots in India.

With existing airlines expanding their service routes and new ones trying to wriggle in, there is a pressing need to decongest crowded airports. Each of the major Indian carriers has to be encouraged to develop one airport as its hub. To this effect, the AAI has already initiated steps in this direction by asking airlines to shift their base to smaller cities instead of putting pressure on Delhi and Mumbai alone. As a result, Air Deccan plans to shift to Chennai, Air Sahara has accepted to relocate itself to Hyderabad, Jet Airways will set up Ahmedabad as a major base whilst Kingfisher will use Bangalore as soon as the Bangalore International Airport comes up.

The new startups, as well as existing airlines, need to ensure that the present aviation boom does not meet the same fate as did the ‘dot.com’ boom of yesteryear. The new airlines, particularly the LCCs, must appreciate that the greatest saving in operation costs is not just cutting frills like hot meals, etc but by improving overall efficiencies. Airlines will have to rationalize costs and optimise revenues.

The verdict on the birth and subsequent maturity of low cost carriers (LCC) still has its jury out on a limb. However, most industry pointers are positive and it appears inevitable that air travel in India is poised to become as commonplace a culture as is the case in the US. But it is important that we temper this exuberance with the slew of challenges that confront domestic aviation in India. On its part, the Govt needs to recognise the constraints under which these airlines are operating and to adequately address their requirements if we are to avoid a repeat of the early 90’s when all private airlines except for Jet went under. It may not be possible however to avoid a bloodbath and there will be failures when the Indian low cost phenomenon plays out in the coming years. But we can draw comfort from the fact that the’ cut-throat competition, existing and potential, would also provide the impetus to considerably improve the efficiency of the industry to a large extent. The biggest beneficiary then would undoubtedly be the Indian customer.

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Aviation market of India is one of the least explored aviation markets in the world. However, a few significant factors unique to the Indian environment could determine the fate of the new domestic carriers. Firstly, the price of Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF), which accounts for approximately 30% of the operational costs, is disproportionately high in India. The situation has been addressed somewhat by lowering of excise duty on ATF recently but that is clearly not enough. Again, the landing and parking charges in India remain far higher than international rates in spite of being lowered to some extent recently. Although, the Govt has now given the green signal to an FDI hike to 49% in private Indian airlines from the present 40%, no direct or indirect equity participation by foreign airlines is still allowed. The high passenger traffic and the growing number of airlines and aircraftAir Hostess Training image have already had an adverse impact on the existing aviation infrastructure. Airlines have been complaining of traffic congestion in the air, while landing and take off, besides lack of adequate parking and ground handling space at major airports. The four metro airports (Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata) which together account for 2/3 of total passenger traffic & 4/5 of cargo traffic are beginning to face capacity constraints. The projected increase in the number of aircraft and airlines flying from these airports will further strain the existing fragile infrastructure.

Some attempts are underway to modernize the existing metro airports and to create additional capacity. It is planned to substantially increase parking bays at the four metros in addition to creation of additional taxi tracks and installation of a vastly improved satellite navigation sys tem. Privatisation of the major airports (Mumbai and Delhi initially) is also on the anvil. Two new Greenfield airports are to be constructed at Bangalore and Hyderabad. Expansion work is also under way at Vishakapatnam, Pune, Bhopal and Indore. Apart from this, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) has decided to modernise 30 non-metro airports to world class standards in phases. The remaining 50 odd airports will also be taken up for improvement. Domestic and foreign investors including NRls have been invited to participate in the development of infrastructure support at select airports. According to broad estimates, the total investment in the airports sector would be to the tune of Rs 40,000 crore (US$ 9 billion). “Unfortunately, we have been lagging behind in upgrading our ground infrastructure. The kind of investments that need to be made in airports could not be made in the last many years. We have now embarked on a very ambitious plan to upgrade very rapidly major airports of our country,” says Mr. Ajay Prasad, Secretary, Civil Aviation Ministry. He estimates that in the long-term, these metro airports would become state-of-the-art entities before the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

The gathering manpower problem is one that India cannot escape, what with almost 500 additional aircraft on the way. Engineers take more than five years to train and need at least three years of experience. Whilst pilots need around five years to qualify for small aircraft, a 747 pilot requires 10 years by comparison. Most of these planes will be here in India much.

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