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So You Want to Become a Flight Attendant

So, you want to become a flight attendant. Or, more specifically, you think you want to become a flight attendant. Most aspiring flight attendants are eager to jump right into the application process without first thoroughly researching the career. Here's a look at what to expect.

Then and Now

United Airlines was the first commercial airline to hire a female flight attendant in 1930; her name was Ellen Church. She and seven other single women comprised the "original eight" stewardesses. Their primary role was to provide comfort to the traveling public. Minimum qualifications were such that the applicants had to be single, registered nurses. Marriage, pregnancy, or weight gain meant instant job termination and most stewardesses were forced out of the profession by age 32 due to "old age."

Thanks largely to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, airlines can no longer discriminate on the basis of race, sex, age, or marital status. This legislation helped transform the job from a short-term endeavor - strictly for young, single women - to a long-term career option for virtually anyone.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a large influx of men into the industry, which created the need for a non-gender specific term to describe the position. Hence, the term flight attendant was born.

Today, there are approximately 100,000 flight attendants in the United States; 70 percent are female and 30 percent are male (this gender gap, however, is narrowing and it is not uncommon to see all male crews on certain flights). The average age is 25 to 35 and 50 percent are married. Over one-third have a college degree (although only a high school diploma is required); common majors include Communications, French, Spanish, and Geography.

Pay averages around $16,000 for the first year and up to $50,000 after 14 to 15 years. The turnover rate is high (especially among new-hires), but job satisfaction is equally high among those who manage to survive the first year. Average seniority is 10 years.

Successful flight attendants describe themselves as friendly, outgoing, patient, flexible, reliable, and punctual (there is absolutely zero tolerance for being late) - unsuccessful ones as aggressive, temperamental, impatient, and inflexible. Typical concerns include job security ("Is my airline going to downsize or go out of business?"), long hours, and low pay.

Perception vs. Reality

When you see a flight attendant walking through an airport terminal, what is your perception? Do you envision someone who serves a few drinks, chats with amicable passengers, and enjoys frequent layovers in exotic cities?

Historically, the public perception of the career has not matched the reality of the job. Today's flight attendant is very different from the stereotypical stewardess portrayed in movies and on television. To a certain extent, some of these myths were born out of the "old days" when stewardesses were elegant nurses who worked on spacious airplanes with relatively few passengers. In 1978, however, airline deregulation changed everything.

The government no longer controlled fares and route structures as they had in the past. This created bidding wars and turned airlines into cost-cutting machines. Today, it is nothing more than a numbers game where more passengers equals greater revenue. The result: planes are now overcrowded, creating cramped conditions and a culture of hostile passengers. This leaves flight attendants in a rather unenviable position.

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