Flight attendants must ensure the passengers’ comfort as well as safety. The quality of their service is crucial to the success of an airline’s bottom line. On average, there is one flight attendant for every 50 passengers on United States’ airlines.
An hour before the scheduled departure, flight attendants attend a safety briefing during which the captain relates weather or other concerns, reviews emergency procedures, and the emergency equipment is checked. Before passengers board the plane, flight attendants verify that the cabin is clean and an adequate number of meals and beverages are on hand. They then assist any passengers who need help locating their assigned seats or who have trouble storing their baggage. Flight attendants serve food and beverages, provide reading material, pillows, blankets, headphones, and attend unaccompanied minors.
As part of their duties, flight attendants brief passengers on emergency equipment and procedures. They must remain calm under all circumstances, and in an emergency landing, flight attendants are expected to stay behind and help the passengers safely deplane in advance of the crew.
Rules vary but most airlines provide flight attendants and their immediate families with free or reduced ticket fares. Flight attendants can often get reduced fares on other airlines. Paid holidays and vacations, sick leave, stock options, career-related tuition reimbursement, retirement plans, medical, dental, and life insurance are among the benefits flight attendants can expect to enjoy. In addition, flight attendants often have from 10-21 days off per month.
Flight attendants must enforce FAA or Transport Canada rules and regulations. They also provide a buffer between passengers and the captain. As the ultimate legal authority on board, the captain may intervene with passengers in extreme cases, but it must be the exception and not the rule. The pilot needs to fly the aircraft without disruptions or distractions. This means that flight attendants must be self-sufficient, knowledgeable, and authoritative. At the same time, airlines expect flight attendants to fulfill the demanding needs of passengers.
Flight attendants must be able to reach the overhead baggage compartments and to lift bags up to the maximum allowable weight. In the case of seating arguments among passengers, it is the flight attendants’ responsibility to settle any disputes.
Flight attendants may be away from home a third of each month. During at least the first year on the job, they’re on reserve status (on call), and may have to work on short notice. Reserve status can last as long as five or ten years, depending on the airline and employee turnover. It’s not unusual for only the most senior of flight attendants to get the schedule of their choice.
Because flight attendants work closely with the public in a confined space, airlines look for men and women who have excellent social skills and who can stay calm in difficult or emergency situations. They also must have good speaking ability.
For most airlines, candidates must be eligible to work in the United States, and be willing to relocate to the airline’s choice of location. A valid passport is necessary, and applicants will have to pass a drug screening, a 10-year FAA background check, and additional security checks including fingerprinting. Vision must be correctable to at least 20/30 and have an uncorrected vision of at least 20/200.
Other requirements may include a high school diploma or college degree, an age minimum of 19 or 21, sufficient height and strength to place heavy bags into the overhead bins. Proficiency in at least one other language is often required for crews on international flights or airlines. Many airlines give preference to candidates with a secondary education in disciplines such as communications, education, or psychology.
Appearance is considered important and airlines generally prefer candidates who are weight and height proportionate without any visible tattoos or body piercing and should have traditional hairstyles. Men should be clean-shaven and shorthaired.
Most airlines have their own flight attendant training program that usually lasts from three to eight weeks. Some airlines charge the trainees for room, board, and school supplies while others do not. Until or unless a trainee completes the training and passes any required tests, he or she is not considered an employee. Throughout the training process, trainees are tested and may be dismissed if they don’t pass.
The training curriculum includes emergency evacuations, equipment, and other emergency procedures such as what to do in the event of a hijacking or terrorist act. Conflict resolution is taught as is airline policies, weight control, and personal hygiene. Additional training in applicable international laws may be provided for those who will be working outside the country. Practice flights are held near the completion of training. Those who pass the course and are hired by the airline must attend periodic training and pass a safety exam in order to retain their currency.
After initial assignment to an airline’s base of operations, new flight attendants are usually on reserve status (on call) and must be willing to work holidays and weekends to fill in for more senior flight attendants, often on short notice. On average, flight attendants spend 50 hours a month fulfilling non-flight duties such as completing paperwork or completing pre-flight preparations.
This varies by airline, but typically, a purser is a flight attendant assigned by the company to oversee his or her fellow flight attendants on the aircraft. If there is more than one purser assigned to the flight, one will usually be designated the Aft Purser.
Many flight attendants working for major airlines in the United States and Canada are unionized. The Association of Flight Attendants-Communications Workers of America (AFA-CWA) represents 46,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines. The Transport Workers Union of America (TWU) represents 8,500 fight attendants at Southwest Airlines. Other unions, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, represent flight attendants at smaller airlines. The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) represents 8,750 flight attendants.
Salary and Compensation
Salaries for flight attendants vary by airline, experience, and amount of responsibility.
Flight attendants earn the same pay increases because they’re based on a pre-established scale. Most airlines offer higher pay for flight attendants who work nights, holidays, or as crew on international flights. They also guarantee 65-85 flight hours per month, with the possibility of working extra hours. Pay is based on flight hours only.
Flight attendants must purchase their uniforms though some airlines will provide a stipend for cleaning and maintenance costs. In addition, flight attendants are paid a ‘per diem’ for meals when traveling.
Assuming that a September 11-type tragedy isn’t repeated, the health of the aviation industry should continue to improve. Additionally, as more fuel-efficient aircraft are added to fleets, operating costs should decline which will further boost the industry.
Flight attendants represent one of the largest job categories in the airline industry. Airlines in the United States currently employ approximately 100,000 flight attendants. It’s expected that an additional 7,000-15,000 flight attendants will be hired annually through the year 2017. These jobs are some of the most coveted positions in the travel business. For this reason, those who have the edge are college graduates with work experience involving the public. In addition to the larger commercial airlines, commuter, charter airlines, corporations, and private individuals also have need for flight attendants. These aircraft are typically smaller with a fewer number of passengers but the job standards for the flight attendants may be higher.
When the airline industry isn’t doing well, many employees can expect to be laid off, or furloughed, until the airlines begin hiring again. This can be true for all levels of seniority. On average, flight attendants remain in their jobs for at least seven years.