Farewell to the 747, and Farewell to Me
I’ve been sitting on this post for a long time, because I hate breaking news to family and friends via the internet, but also because I needed to cool off. For a while, I was irritated with United Airlines for not being the dream company that could coexist with my freelancing ways and provide me with the ideal writer’s day job. I wanted a base pay which would allow me to be more selective regarding writing projects, but instead, I got an overwhelming lifestyle which demands your heart, body, and mind.
Now, I realize it was simply the wrong position for me, and for any potential fly-girls and fly-guys out there, it’s recommended my opinions be taken with a pinch of salt (as any opinion should be) and an understanding that some people (i.e., me) have gone too far down the path of self-righteousness to take attitude from “Mr/Mrs-I’m-A-Status-Member-Please-Give-Me-Your-Soul-Because-I-Pay-Your-Bills” without threatening to slap a passenger silly. I was a walking time-bomb, ready to make United’s next terrifying headline after finally breaking and verbally deconstructing every sexist 80-something who insinuated I only had the job because I “looked the part.”
With that in mind, feel free to read on.
Farewell to the 747, and Farewell to Me
For every article describing how to survive your first year as a flight attendant, there’s another describing why you should never even start a career in the airlines. You’ll be called at 3am to come into the airport, they say. Pass traveling isn’t what it used to be, the flights are always full, they’ll warn you. Even senior flight attendants lament over the days of walking onto nearly any aircraft, confident that you’d be able to arrive at your desired destination.
And though those statements are all true, I hope this blog post, written just hours after turning in my badge to United Airlines, falls somewhere between the two. If you are considering the airlines, by all means, give it a go. Below is just my own experience – nothing more, nothing less.
BUT, WHY DID YOU GIVE UPPPPP?
Well first, there’s the obvious. It was apparent and made clear to everyone (including the flight attendant who hired me) that I wanted to take this job to find fodder for writing. In the past, I had been successful working interesting jobs and pulling stories from my experiences. I assumed this position would be similar, albeit with excellent real-adult-job benefits, such as health insurance, and a 401k. Clearly, as the ten regular readers of my blog have noted, I haven’t been writing much. Half a blog piece about hiking the John Muir trail has been sitting in my drafts folder waiting for a final push since September.
So, why couldn’t I finish it? Let’s start with the big reasons.
The schedule is bonkers… and you spend a lot of time bidding for your preferred schedule, trading for days off, and then potentially selling your soul for the few you still need. (A lot of soul-sucking in this post, isn’t there?) A typical bid month for a new-hire consists of examining 20 variations of days ON and days OFF. You then dutifully order these schedules and input them into the bidding system around the 20th of each month. Around the 21st, schedules are released. After your schedule is released, you IMMEDIATELY (do not breathe, do not blink, just GO) open Facebook and begin bartering for trades with other flight attendants. If you’re lucky, you can turn a Monday/Tuesday line (yes – that means only Mondays and Tuesdays off) into a somewhat decent schedule with at least a couple weekend days off to see friends and family. You thank god for children during these times, because no self-respecting 20-or-30-something is trading you their Saturday for your Tuesday unless they absolutely must be at Darla’s volleyball game that week.
Researching and bidding schedules is stressful. You are quite literally asking for the style of life you want the following month. Line holders have many more lines to choose from, with actual trips, but I knew I wouldn’t hold a line for at least a year (more likely to be two, and following United’s completed flight attendant merge with Continental in October 2018, rumor had it that would be closer to five years before anyone could count themselves off reserve for good), and when holding a line did happen, it’d be a whole different ball game of bartering. Trading is stressful, and keeps you attached to you phone for days at a time, waiting, and watching. And if you DON’T have what you need by the time employee to employee trades go through (usually around the 25th) then you cross your fingers that you’ll be on the ground for the pool trade, which takes place at exactly 2pm MST. If you’re in the air during this time, you can beg a friend to try and trade your days after handling theirs, or you can accept your fate. Sometimes, the pool gives you what you need. Other times, it laughs in your face, spouts red letters of doom at you, saying “MINIMUM RESERVE” in all caps, and tells you that you’re working Halloween weekend.
Figuring out my schedule took days of my life every month and turned me into a nail-biting worry-wart the likes I had not seen since I was studying for the ACT. It also gave me pimples.
The worst part of the schedule madness, is that should something happen that gravely affects the company and the number of reserves they have available, they can ROLL your days off. That means, during a hurricane or following a severe delay in Chicago with air traffic control, ops can decide they need you that Saturday anyways, and simply inform you that you will be working, and they’ll “return” your day off to you later in the month. Probably on a Monday. Thanks, you’re welcome, and goodbye. (Yeah, Harvey and Irma were REAL FUN.)
And it happens all the time. During summer flying, it’s unheard of to not at least be threatened with rolled days, with or without storms of epic proportions. The only thing stopping crew scheduling? If you’ve already worked 6 days in a row, they legally must give you a day of rest.
Maybe they realized if god couldn’t push people to work for seven days straight, day and night, then nobody could.
The Union is Your New BFF! Which brings me to my next point: airlines are corporations on crack. Take everything you might hate about working for a giant corporation, and then multiply by 100. Then add 300, then shove it in a crew member’s bag, shake it up in their to-go smoothie bottle, take it out, and give it a good, hard, stare.
A common saying of the airline is, “fly now, grieve later,” which means that if the airline is doing something that they have legally agreed not to do per your contract, the best way to protect yourself is to simply go along with it, and prove it was wrong later. The airline knows this, and uses it to their advantage. It becomes a part of your job as a crew member to then monitor if you are getting legal periods of rest, if you are due a hotel, if your hotel is up to standards, if crew scheduling has switched you to ready-reserve (24 hours on call) from your 8-hour call-out line more times than is legally allowed… etc. So, on top of doing YOUR job, you are tasked with ensuring scheduling is doing theirs. Sounds like perfect recipe for being mentally ready to smile at customers all day, right?
What happens if they’re proven wrong? From what I’ve seen, essentially nothing. They restore your call-out hours, or maybe they shoot you 6 dollars due to catering not providing you the meal you were promised while being stuck on a plane for 10 hours – pretzels and cheese for lunch AGAIN, guys? Then, they try and pull some other shit the next day.
I was on a first name basis with Denver’s union guy by week four. We knew the names of each other’s significant others by month four. I’m hardly exaggerating. Maybe the sane flight attendants let legalities slide. I like sleep, food, and having a hotel by the time I land in a new city, so I didn’t.
It doesn’t help that the pilots are given far more respect when it comes to rest and schedules. Yeah, we get it, they’re “flying” the plane. But here’s an insider tip: most of the time, they’re not. And who’s dealing with all the people uncomfortably trapped in the flying metal tube after 6 hours of sleep? NOT the pilots.
People are Petty! Some of this applies to the flight attendants themselves. Super senior flight attendants unhappy that our manual is now on an iPhone, management-level coworkers who eye-balled my light gray tattoo (of an OWL, come ON) looking like they’d rather slice it off than have a customer potentially glance the underside of my wrist, complaints about proper shoe wear and the constant uploading of pictures of messy galleys, heels that were deemed too high, skirts too tight, hair too rebellious onto Facebook in order to chastise peers – all of these were all common occurrences.
There are petty coworkers at every job, but when you hold the same position as 20,000 people, shit gets rowdy in the comments section.
I unsubscribed from many of the Facebook groups to ensure that I had some social media moments free of my job. Every flight attendant thinks they’re in the right, due to their adherence to company policy OR their pointed ignoring of it for whatever reasons they have deemed morally correct.
There’s even a strained relationship between the different factions of airline employees that are tasked with working side-by-side each day. Gate agents are accused of being power mongrels and forcing flight attendants to check bags, boarding passengers before the crew is ready, and rushing aircraft door closure when they know either the pilots or the flight attendants are about to hit their legal limits for length of work day. Ramp agents are accused of stealing bag tags and mishandling luggage. Pilots are given the proverbial middle finger when asking for their third bathroom break in the middle of a service, or for us to cook meals that, legally, we’re not required to touch.
And yet, most of the pettiness comes from passengers themselves. I realize that I have been incredibly privileged to have traveled, and learned airplane etiquette, from a young age. I also do not have the broad shoulders or lengthy legs of a 6’5 man, nor do I have knee surgeries that become painful at 30,000 feet.
HOWEVER. I don’t care if a 7-foot, obese, first-time flyer with more metal in their body than actual bone comes onto the flight I’m working. NOTHING gives anyone the right to act as if they own the plane, demand privileges they did not pay for, or to yell at me for the effects of consumerism which we PASSENGERS created. We wanted and rewarded ever-decreasing ticket prices, so we got smaller seats and less free food (thanks, Spirit). Where did we think the money was going to come from if the demand for cheap, cheaper, and cheapest was met? The captain’s paycheck? There’s already going to be a pilot shortage due to the incessant demand for air travel, so good luck demanding twice as wide seats, a full meal, and the passage to a place halfway across the world for $100 if no one is willing to operate the plane. Somebody must continue paying the pilots their eventual six-figure salaries, or none of us will be going anywhere.
Ninety percent of the times I was yelled at for the minuscule seat width, the lack of window seats, the ridiculousness of having a middle seat at ALL, it originated from the mouths of the very people who paid the absolute minimum price they could to step onto the plane.
Then, to top it all off, passengers would end the conversation threatening to never fly United again. I had to refrain from saying what I can now, which is, “You must seriously be delusional if you think other airlines don’t look at the exact same numbers, and make nearly identical sales decisions as this one. Also, we ALL know you’ll be back as soon as our cost is lower than the other guy’s, because that’s how we all got here, into these tiny seats, in the frigging first place.”
Boredom leads to serious problems. For many flight attendants, the job itself is anything but boring. They’re a level of social creature that I will never be, who truly enjoys engaging with 200-300 people each flight.
I learned that I am not one of those people, and that’s okay. I’m an introvert, as stated before, and it takes exertion of energy for me to interact with people. Talking makes me tired, and with strangers, I prefer to do it solely to exchange information. I’m not the flight attendant you want to corner and chat up while you’re bored on the flight. I don’t want to chat. I want to use this break time to read my book, or maybe craft something… quietly.
I also learned that for a job that tends to attract employees looking for less day-to-day routine, there is a lot of fucking routine. Service on an airplane follows a pattern, and for good reason. We want passengers to know how it all works, so that they’re not surprised when I arrive with beverage items or a dinner choice in first class. That way, everything goes more smoothly. You know what you want, you get what you want, and I move on to get the next person what they want.
It takes 6 weeks to train a United flight attendant, and only one of those weeks is spent on learning how to perform the daily tasks that will consume most of our time. I’m not going to lie, pretty much anyone can learn the order of service and pour drinks. Dealing with horrible people and a rough schedule is one thing, but the actual inflight tasks of the job? Easy.
I thought this was good, because in all reality I was getting paid to pop cokes and inform people when it was time to put their tray table back up.
I was wrong, and I started knowing this about month three, when the routine had settled into my bones and even the complaining customers began to blend in with their predecessors. Your seats the same as his? Sure, let me see your tickets. A premier passenger has ruthlessly snatched your overhead bin? Sure, I’ll move some others around. That seatbelt doesn’t fit? Must be a malfunction, here’s an extender, I’m sure it’s just that one belt. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Challenge was a truly unique customer coming aboard, like a life-threating peanut allergy who needed to wipe down the entirety of the plane, and no offense everyone else, your airline problems are nothing new. I’m not shocked that your seat was changed without your knowledge when you had only requested an aisle instead of paying to guarantee one, nor am I surprised that your connection became incredibly tight after you left yourself only an hour between flights (because nothing ever goes wrong with airplanes, right, lol). In fact, I’ve probably already dealt with that same issue twice today.
There’s a repetitive nature to many positions - I am not so naïve as to think otherwise. But most positions, if done well, involve an increase in challenges, a change in pace, a new client with different needs, or a new project which differs from the last. As a flight attendant, there is very little change, and what change that does come, comes slowly, and usually involves the type of food we’re boarding. If you have a clean slate with the company, opportunities might arise to work as a supervisor in one of the bases, or to switch over to the corporate side versus inflight. First, though, you must slog it out as a flight attendant for a few years. Then, the positions offered are unappealing to the very type of people who wanted to be a flight attendant, because they are 9-5 office jobs, which for many crew members is the equivalent of being trapped in a fish bowl for the rest of your life.
Hold up, though, flight attendants are AMAZING. None of this is to say that flight attendants are dull, dim-witted, or anything but some of the most interesting, intelligent, and caring people I have ever met. I was not unique for having multiple degrees. Others had more. Some came from high-level positions in finance or tech and a huge number were prior medical personnel who were unhappy with the stressors of those jobs. I’ve watched skilled flight attendants diffuse a possible drag-you-off-the-plane (and I can say that now - hehe) situation with a subtle joke and smile that I will never master, or accomplish a service by carrying three drinks per hand while simultaneously addressing a seat swap issue and making a PA about large electronic devices. This was their art, and my art is elsewhere. I did not find it interesting creating new techniques to better the service. My head was in the latest book I’d picked up from Hudson Booksellers, or with the newest idea for a rec company's blog that would have to wait until I could take out my laptop. It wasn’t in the clouds, smiling with my customers, and it definitely didn’t want to deal with the sassy-pants in 4D who couldn’t believe I was unable to whip up a quick eggs-benedict in my airplane oven for breakfast (also not an exaggeration). Mentally, I was very much grounded.
Being a flight attendant is the most difficult easy job in the world. Because for every moment of “this is so easy, why would I ever quit?” there is an equal and distinct moment of being routinely screwed by crew scheduling or corporate. And the anger that arises during those moments is fierce, especially when it comes at a time that forces you to recognize that as long as you are willing to jump through all the hoops necessary to keep your job, you do NOT have control over your life. They do.
No REGrAts, though, broskis. In fact, it’s the opposite. This job allowed me to move to Denver, which I love so much that it contributed to my frustration in the position. Ten days off a month seems like plenty, until you realize that the other 20 you will hardly be home, and making plans on any day other than those ten days off is asking for crew scheduling to assign you a 4-leg trip trudging back and forth between LA and Denver.
United also made me hustle. I mean, really hustle. Getting up at 3am for the third day in a row when it’s technically 1am Denver time? No problem. Working on minimum sleep? Okay. Living on less pay than I’d had since I graduated with my bachelors four years ago, while paying off student loans? Doable, if not ideal. And I’m not saying I was Emirates level perfection when I showed up to my job, but you bet I plastered on a smile, my hair was combed, and my uniform was 80% wrinkle-free.
I’d never had a job that demanded so much from me physically, and this is something I say having led multiple 6-mile kayak tours daily on the Chicago River for two summers straight while also training for the Chicago marathon.
Ingraining this much hustle into my being was a double-edged sword. You begin to realize how much you are capable of, and, for me, this led to some serious questions. IF I was so physically spent that I would come back from a trip and sleep for 14 hours, and then somehow I was still finding a way to aggressively bid and trade schedules, take every advantage given to me by the company to manipulate the job in my favor, and create a life within this crazy lifestyle… then why the hell wasn’t I channeling that energy into the one thing I had been most desirous, but most afraid, of doing? Was I so afraid of failure that I was going to remain in a job that made me unhappy, in order to avoid potentially admitting I couldn’t hack it elsewhere?
It suddenly seemed so stupid. And so wrong.
I knew the end was coming. Meanwhile, I headed to Cincinnati for my Aunt Lisa’s funeral. She’d had a successful career in HR, and had always been one of the biggest supporters of new endeavors. She was phenomenal at advising those who wanted to recreate themselves, and as I listened to others speak of how positive she was, how much she brought to charities like Melanoma No More, how she seemed to run on batteries that never needed a recharge... I knew waiting any longer to take a chance on myself was impossible. I drew from her what I could, and if ever I am feeling like I can’t push any harder, I will remember how constant her energy was, even while battling cancer, handling remission, and battling it all over again, and I will continue.
So, despite whispered warnings that maybe I need a better fall back in case it all blows up in my face, I turned in my badge, walked through the regular security lines (fuuuuuck, that part sucks), and reentered Denver officially a writer again.
And if I fail, then so be it. Onto the next move!
…Unfortunately, quitting without giving two weeks’ notice meant I can’t get a recommendation to return to United Airlines as a flight attendant.