What I wish I knew when I became a flight attendant

Whenever I tell people what I do for a living, it’s like I’m instantly teleported onto a talk show for a game of twenty questions.

Can you fly anywhere for free?
Do have have different boyfriends in different cities?
Marry me?

I’m a flight attendant, and as many of us as there are (the ballpark estimate for the airline I work for is 25,000), we seem to be very elusive. Many people have questions about the job and the lifestyle, which is fair enough. Here;s what I wish I had known before becoming a flight attendant.

Flight attendants are safety professionals first

Yes, I will smile as I serve you a beverage and listen to you complain about how uncomfortable your seat is, but my primary responsibility is to attend to “the safety of you and those around you.” We are trained for nearly two months on the safety equipment and functions of the aircraft and how to respond to just about every emergency scenario you can imagine. On my very first working flight I boarded the plane early with the other flight attendants, stowed my luggage, and as I looked around the plane trying to look busy I joked to one of my colleagues, “I could evacuate this plane with my eyes shut, but what am I supposed to do right now?”

It can be pretty hectic
Here today, gone tomorrow. Many of our trips have minimal layovers and sleep is the priority. Yes, every now and again I am stoked to find I have 17 or more hours to hang out in an awesome city. But more often we have 9 hours behind the hotel room door to wind down, sleep, get ready and do it again. As much as I fly around the world I would think I would be immune to jet lag, but let me tell you—jet lag shows no mercy.

Where you’re going and when changes all the time

We are assigned a new schedule on a monthly basis, but it is always susceptible to change. Making definite plans is like the kiss of death; doing so practically guarantees scheduling will call and assign you a four day trip with four legs each day and 8.5 hour layovers in Nantucket. It’s a delicate operation that can be disrupted by weather, mechanical issues, and runway traffic, to name a few basics. Flights delay, flights cancel, flights get rescheduled, which in turn affects our schedules and plans. Being new in an organization that is structured on seniority only adds to the struggle of finding some sense of regularity, as we newbies have very little leeway in building our schedules the way we desire. We always have a bag packed and ready because you never know when you’re going to get called or where you’ll end up.

Living near an airport is crucial

Flight attendants are required to fly out of the major hub cities of the airline they work for. If you are lucky enough to live in the city you are based in, that’s huge. I cursed my entire two hour drive to Los Angeles International Airport until I met flight attendants  who have decided they would like to live somewhere away from the airport they are based at. For some that means an hour long flight from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to work out of LAX. For others, that means an 18 hour flight from Shanghai to New York to fly out of JFK. These people have to go up against revenue passengers for an available seat, they have to pray that weather does not send them off course or cancel their flight to work all together, and they have to hope that the plane they are trying to get on is not transporting too much cargo to carry their weight. It’s a headache and a half to be a commuter, and I’m impressed that these people fly the friendly skies with a smile on.

It’s hard to maintain relationships

I was very surprised to discover my new job put strain many of my relationships. The lifestyle of a flight attendant is unique and can be very difficult to understand, especially for those who have never worked in the aviation industry. We have our own language, we often cannot make plans very far in advance or will cancel on you at the last minute, and we have a kind of skewed idea of what balance is. My priorities certainly altered when I started to adjust and adapt to this hectic lifestyle. Right out of training I was required to move to Chicago and fly out of O’Hare. My priorities looked something like this:

1) Work 100+ hours airtime to be able to afford my apartment (and maybe some food).
2) Visit family when I have time to go home.
3) Visit boyfriend when I don’t.

Hanging out with old friends became increasingly difficult, as trips home were always so whirlwind and I was rarely scheduled weekends off to host visitors. And if we did try our luck and make plans, I would get that call from scheduling:
“Flight attendant Jensen, we need you to go to Helsinki…”
Dang, right now…?!” “Guys I swear, I really would rather stay and hang out this weekend…”

It really can be a dream job

The job we do is not always an easy task, but we honestly do it because we enjoy it. While we are constantly adapting and adjusting, breaking plans and making new ones, it is a fun lifestyle and it is unlike any job I have ever had. It has given me the opportunity to explore the world, whether I sacrifice sleep on a layover to explore or fly someplace new on days off. It’s liberating, it’s unique, and it’s been enriching my life by providing incredible experiences. Adventure is out there, and I’m so grateful my job helps me pursue it.

Geri Jensen is a flight attendant and avid adventurer from Southern California. In her free time you may find her traveling to cities near and far, hiking mountain trails, cliff jumping, or taking photos off the beaten path. She blogs at https://breatheinandlive.wordpress.com/

[Image via Columbia Pictures]