So You Want to Become a Flight Attendant by Stephanie Shaw

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.

These are just a few of the not-so-enticing aspects of the job. As a flight attendant, you must:

Endure 4 to 7 weeks of typically unpaid initial training, a portion of which takes place on nights and weekends.
Buy a uniform at a cost of approximately $1,000 (automatic bi-monthly payroll deductions are available to help ease this financial burden).
Endure a 6 to 12 month probationary period during which you will be under scrutiny and
required to report to work at a moment's notice.
Demonstrate remarkable strength and agility (for example, move a 200+ pound beverage cart through cramped aisles or lift heavy suitcases over passengers' heads into tightly packed overhead compartments).
Remain courteous and professional despite sometimes abusive passenger behavior.
React quickly to stressful in-flight medical emergencies.
Endure occasionally violent air turbulence (sometimes without a seatbelt if assisting passengers).
Experience short periods away from home (usually from 1 to 3 nights at a time).
Work long hours (up to 16-hour days; no more than 8 hours in-flight).
Work many weekends and holidays throughout your career when most of your friends and family have days off.
Attend mandatory annual recurrent training.
Work occasionally in the presence of prisoners who are escorted by armed guards to court trials or prisons in other cities.

For friendly, outgoing, and patient individuals who can tolerate these negative aspects of the job, a flight attendant career can be very rewarding. Flight attendants do work hard, but they also enjoy many extraordinary benefits. For example, as a flight attendant, you get:

A great deal of time off (13 to 17 days off per month; roughly 6 months off per year!), up to 10 days at a time.
Free or reduced-cost travel benefits for yourself and immediate family, covering air travel, lodging, car-rentals, and cruises.
A lucrative benefits package, often including health and life insurance, credit union membership, employee stock options, and a 401(k) retirement plan.
Unmatched variety - Forget the predictability of 9 to 5 cube life!
Maximum scheduling flexibility - You are not limited to weekends off like the rest of the world!
The opportunity to see the world.
The opportunity to meet new people, including many celebrities.
A sense of pride and accomplishment (especially when you help an unaccompanied minor or handicapped passenger safely reach their destination).

The Number One Priority: Passenger Safety

Many people have lost sight of the fact that flight attendants are onboard an aircraft for one primary reason: passenger safety. Did you know that every U.S. flight attendant crew is capable of completing an entire passenger evacuation in less than 90 seconds? (every new-hire must accomplish this feat during initial training). Furthermore, flight attendants are required by law to to be fully trained on safety for every type of aircraft in an airline's fleet

Indeed, flight attendants are much more than waitresses in the sky. Flight attendants know how to manage and prepare hundreds of passengers and crew in the event of catastrophic events, such as hijackings and land/sea disasters. They know how to fight fires, operate and troubleshoot the oxygen system, open emergency exits, care for the sick, apprehend unruly passengers - even apply first aid and administer CPR.

Stephanie Shaw is a flight attendant with over 23 years experience with a major airline and a staff writer for For more information about a flight attendant career, visit Flight Attendant Jobs

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