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8 Surprising Truths About Flight Attendant Life—According to a Flight Attendant

A mighty thank you to those who serve.

They’re the friendly faces of the skies. With coordinated style, a typically kind demeanor, and knowledge of nearly every inch of the cabin, flight attendants make sky life look easy. However, a single day in their shoes might include delivering a baby at 36,000 feet, traveling cross-country multiple times, and somehow managing not to spill a single ounce of Coke Zero for the lady in 12B. Here are eight truths you might not know about flight attendant life.

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It’s Real Work

While this may seem fairly obvious, a common misconception about flight attendant life is that there’s little-to-no “hard work” involved, but this is far from true. In addition to serving passengers beverages and snacks and assisting people with finding their seats, flight attendants have quite a bit of responsibility in the skies. Aside from the routine services associated with flying comfort, flight attendants are also responsible for all facets of passenger safety.  

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The Training Is Extensive

Unlike most jobs, flight attendants don’t just get “on-the-job” training; their first day isn’t even close to an airplane. Flight attendants undergo pretty rigorous training that looks a bit like boarding school. For several weeks, flight attendants go away for training, where they learn everything from federal flying regulations to how to respond in the event of an emergency and how their specific airlines expect procedures to be carried out. Ironically, one of the smallest portions of their training is related to serving guests food and beverages. There are even tests during training and, yes, they must graduate in order to begin work.

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It's Not as Glamorous as You Might Think

A common idea people have about flight attendants is that their lives are somehow glamorous, exciting, or movie-like. Thanks to TV shows like The Flight Attendant on HBOMax or movies like Catch Me if You Can, it’s easy to imagine glitz and glam. One might envision a flight attendant ending the workday to quickly change clothes and head off to explore a new country every day. That excitement isn’t always true. Depending on the route, the glamorous night out you’re imagining could look more like a nine-hour overnight in a small town somewhere in Idaho. Sure, flight attendants do get to travel, but that travel isn’t necessarily a trip to the Maldives or Paris every other day. While the career is rewarding and can be exciting because of the people they meet, it definitely isn’t always glamorous.

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They Look out for One Another

About six months into my sister becoming a flight attendant, we went on a trip. On our way to the gate, she stopped and ordered some muffins and juice. “It’s for the flight crew,” she said. When we boarded, she chatted with one of the flight attendants, and they appeared pretty acquainted to me. She offered the snacks; it immediately delighted the crew that was working. Later, I asked how she knew the crew. Training or a previous flight, perhaps? She laughed and said, “I’ve never met any of them. I just know how it feels to fly all day and maybe not get a chance to eat. People have done the same for me.” Because few people know what working in the skies is like, flight attendants typically support one another in ways the average person might not think to.

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They Don’t Get Paid During Boarding (Mostly)

One of the lesser-known parts of flight attendant life is that their pay is determined by the status of the plane. “Wheels up” pay and on-the-ground pay rates are not the same. Most flight attendants on U.S.-based airlines, with the exception of one, don’t get paid during the boarding phase at all and don’t actually get “on the clock” until the door is closed and the plane has left the gate. The next time you need help with your oversized bag or want juice before takeoff, be sure to keep this in mind.

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Crash Pads Are Part of the Experience

Crash pads–temporary or stopover places to stay–are essential to many flight attendants. Each flight attendant is assigned a base where they begin and end all their trips. This airline-assigned base is not guaranteed to be in the same city or even state the flight attendant actually lives full-time. For example, if you become a flight attendant and you live in Charlotte, North Carolina, your base could be in Detroit, Michigan. This means you might need temporary housing in Detroit in order to get to Detroit’s airport on time for your trips. Crash pads are common options for flight attendants because they offer a convenient place to say if their base is away from home.

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Flight Attendants Are First Responders

Ever wondered who’ll help if someone begins choking or needs CPR in the air? What if someone goes into labor? Has an allergic reaction? The flight attendant crew is tasked with responding to all of it. They have a legal obligation to assist passengers in case of an emergency or other in-flight disturbance. If you’re feeling unsafe or need help, alert a flight attendant and trust that they’ll know what to do next.

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Yes, They Fly for Free

This isn’t exactly “surprising,” but it’s still a noteworthy part of the job. Flight attendants typically fly totally free on their employer airlines, aside from taxes or point-of-entry or exit fees. Free flights are one of the most exciting perks of being a flight attendant. This benefit allows them to see some of the world for a fraction of the price that the average passenger would.

MicheleHassing November 3, 2022

The 4th one about needing to give snacks to the starving sky stewards ... guess it depends on the airline! I recently flew TAP Air Portugal Rome to Lisbon, and while much of it was lovely and at a great price (under $400 round trip EWR to Rome with layovers in Lisbon), by the time they got back to my cheap seat rear of plane I was told they were all out of any meals they could sell me and I would need to settle for chips or other small snack foods for sale. BUT the flight attendants had fed themselves the meals! I definitely saw them eating the sold out airplane meals I couldn't buy. On my next flight Lisbon to EWR, all the food was available again and free  this time, but the lack of food Rome to Lisbon had me overpaying for airport food while I waited six hours for my connection home.

martlesby November 2, 2022

The last one is not quite accurate.

jimobeldobel8269 November 1, 2022

No surprise on any of these.

jugador October 31, 2022

very useful, thanks....!!!