Perspectives: Amber Smith, Flight Attendant
Written by Amber Ripp Smith   

So you think you want to be a flight attendant? My name is Amber Smith, I’m an American Airlines flight attendant based in Chicago. I’ve been with American for 4 months and was with American’s regional sister American Eagle for 5 ½ years. I’d like to share some of my insights on the job, and the life, of a flight attendant.

A common misconception is that all new-hire flight attendants are recently out of college, and just looking for something to do until they find a “real” job. Well, that is how some people come to be flight attendants, but look at a new-hire class at any airline and you will find people from all walks of life, and many varied backgrounds and life histories.

How I Got Started
I personally was a 20 year old college dropout when my mother saw an ad in the Wisconsin State Journal for flight attendants for American Eagle. I figured, hey, what the heck, I’ll go to the open house, why not. A week later I was in Dallas/Ft. Worth for a second interview, and in training two weeks after that! There are retired bankers, former police officers, stay-at-home moms whose kids are now grown, 19 year-olds who have never even been to college; the flight attendant work force is one of the most diverse in the world. What the airlines are looking for is at least a year, preferably two, of customer service experience or college. College degrees, even any college at all is not required, but does help with the experience factor. You do, however, need a high school diploma or equivalent. I recommend possessing a valid passport before you interview, it is not required, but most airlines will make you get one anyway, so it’s just as well to have one before you interview.

Choosing an Airline
The next step is to decide what kind of airline you’d like to fly for. There are the major airlines of course, like American, United, Delta, Northwest, Alaska & Continental, which are all great places to be. But there are other options. Don’t discount the regional carriers, like American Eagle, Comair, Mesaba (Northwest Airlink), Continental Express etc.

At the regional carriers you will build up seniority much quicker and get off reserve sooner than you would at a major. The pay is not as much as the major carriers though. There are also what are known as “national airlines”, these airlines don’t fly international, but they do fly all over the United States. Airlines such as Southwest, Midwest Express, Frontier, JetBlue & Midway are examples of national airlines. If the scheduled airlines aren’t what you want, you could fly for American Trans Air, Ryan International, World Airways, or another such “charter” operator. These airlines are a great way to fly international right away, without waiting at the bottom of a 15,000 number (or greater!) seniority list at a major! If more personal, one-on-one service with your passengers is what you want, you could be a corporate flight attendant.

Outfits such as Executive Jet ( fly small private jets that are chartered by individuals or corporations. Some larger corporations even own their own private jets. Corporate flying is different from airline flying, you are often on call all the time, and will never really have a “set” schedule. You will also be providing a very high level of service to a small number of people. Corporate flying pays fairly well, but you don’t get the “non-rev” travel privileges that you get flying for an airline. Every flight attendant, regardless of his/her place of employment, is part of a very special and unique group of people!

Getting the Job!
Once you’ve decided what type of flying you’d like to do, now you need to get an interview. The best place to start looking is the internet. Every airline has a website, and usually under the “corporate information” section of the website is a career opportunities section. Just get on the computer and hunt away.

Each airline does their interview process a little differently, some airlines you have to call a 1-800 number and pre-qualify, others let you pre-apply online, and others want you to send a resume directly to the airline. Either way, eventually you’re going to meet face-to-face with an airline recruiter. Sometimes these recruiters are actual flight attendants on “special assignment” to do hiring, and sometimes they are the airline’s human resources personnel.

Every airline’s interview is slightly different, but I can give you some general hints on how to be successful at your interview. First, get yourself a good looking, good fitting navy blue or black suit. (Except if you’re interviewing with Southwest Airlines, their dress code is a little more relaxed.) I know you’re thinking, ugh, I don’t want to look like a carbon copy of everybody else there! Add your own personal touches with a colorful scarf, tie or pin. You do NOT want to go to an interview in a skintight red miniskirt suit, I don’t care how good it looks on you! Yes, I have seen it done, no she did not get hired.

Be prepared to tell stories about your service experience. What sort of problem customers have you dealt with, what conflicts have you solved. Have stories and be specific, recruiters want to know exactly what you have done. The number one rule of a flight attendant interview is to never stop smiling. I know it sounds corny, but it is true. The recruiters and other employees are watching you, even when you think they’re not! Make eye contact with the interviewer, but don’t stare them down. If you are interviewing with Southwest, have a clean joke to tell. Be friendly, personable, and interact with the other candidates you are interviewing with. Not only are the recruiters watching your ability to be part of a group (you will be flying with other fight attendants after all) but you may see these people again in training class, and it makes it easier to start training recognizing a few faces in the crowd.

Flight Attendant Training
After you’ve passed the airline interview and medical, you will be invited to start new hire flight attendant training. These unpaid (yes that’s UNPAID) training classes can last from 4-7 weeks, and will most likely be at the airline’s training center in their headquarter city. If you go to American or Eagle, you’ll train in Dallas/Ft. Worth, Delta new hires will go to Atlanta, Northwest classes are in Minneapolis/St.Paul.

The airline’s website will probably have information on where training classes are held. Get used to the idea of training, after you complete new hire school, you will have to go back for recurrent training every year. New hire class is very stressful, especially if you are new to the airline industry. You will be introduced to new ideas, such as evacuation procedures, medical/first aid, and serving meals from a galley. You will probably learn a whole new computer system. There is so much new information presented, expect to feel overwhelmed. However, remember you are not in this alone, you have your classmates and instructors to help you. The instructors want you to pass, they want to see you be successful and earn your wings. If you ever have any questions, any problems at all, go talk to one of your instructors. They are they to help you, and want to see you out flying! Remember that although there is a lot of information to learn, it is not rocket science, you CAN learn this stuff! Thousands of people before you have passed, you can too! Study at night, review what you learned in class. Most of all stay prepared, preview what you will be going over in class the next day, and pre-read the material, it will make more sense to you that way when the instructors talk about it in class.

Do not pack your entire house to take to training with you. You will more that likely be sharing a small living space, such as a hotel room, with someone you’ve never met before. You will need business attire for class, and maybe one or two going-out outfits. (You will not have as much time to party as you think you will!) Don’t forget sleepwear! Keep in mind that you will probably be assigned to a new base city that may or may not be your home city. The less you have with you, the less you have to worry about when it comes time to relocate.

Your First Flight Attendant Base
At some time during new hire training comes the second most important day of training (second only to graduation of course!) and that is the day you receive your base assignments. Some people will jump for joy at the city they are going to, others will cry, and some will even leave training if they don’t get the city they want. Rarely are you guaranteed a base city before you start training. At some airlines you will know where you are going, but more than likely you will not know where you will be based when you leave home to go to training. It’s important to fully understand and accept that you may not get to go where you want! Think of a new city as an adventure, after all, you can transfer bases after you complete a period of time at your first base. Some airlines let you put in for a transfer right away, others make you wait up to a year. All base transfers are assigned in seniority order, that is if another flight attendant who has been at your airline longer than you wants a transfer to, say Los Angeles, that flight attendant who has been working for the company longer will get the transfer first. It can take a while to get to some of the more “senior” bases.

When I started with Eagle in 1995 I was assigned to Chicago. I had never even been to Chicago before, and I was scared silly. 6 years later, I’m still here! I was lucky when I went to American last March, I was able to get Chicago as a base right away. So no matter what base you get, please give it a chance, you may end up liking it, you may not, but please give your base a chance.

New Flight Attendant Schedules
Now you’re a flight attendant in some strange city, having the time of your life, your question is, what kind of a life is it? Well, when you first start out, you’re going to be on “reserve”. Reserve means you are available to the airline to fly trips that for whatever reason are not covered. If a flight attendant who holds a regular schedule, also known as a “line” calls in sick, for example, a reserve flight attendant will be called to fly that trip. It depends on the airline how long you will be on reserve. As an Eagle new hire I sat reserve for 9 months. A new hire United flight attendant may sit reserve for 7 years in Chicago. At American we do an on/off thing. For our first three years we sit reserve for a month, then hold a regular schedule (line) for a month. After three years its one month on reserve, three months with a line. Reserve means you either sit at home waiting for your phone to ring, or you carry a cell phone or pager. The usual call-out time, that is the time scheduling gives you to get to the airport is usually about 2 hours.

Each airline has their own rules about reserve specifics. You will know your days off, but on your reserve days you will not know what kind of trips you will be flying. Once your seniority is able to hold a “line” you know your schedule for the entire month. You know what days you’re working, what flights you are flying, and where your overnights are. You can expect to fly anything from day trips (out-and-backs or turns where you leave your base city in the morning and fly to another city and fly back) to 3 or 4 day trips. And everything in between. The variety is amazing, and no two days at your job are ever the same! You see new people, new places all the time, and your family and friends love to call your cell phone just to ask “So where are you now?”

It’s a fun and exciting life, but it can be trying. Such as when delays and weather happen. You learn to deal with these situations as best you can, always keeping a sense of humor about you. Your friends and family will need some adjustment time to get used to your new schedule. Try not to lose contact with your friends from the “real world”. The rewards of this job far outweigh the difficulties though. When you look out the airplane window and see the sun rise over the Chicago skyline, or the sunset over Los Angeles, or the smiles on the faces of the kids that you take to Disney World, this job is truly amazing. You can really make a difference in someone’s day. The UM’s or unaccompanied minors (kids traveling alone) are sometimes very scared, a kind word, and attention from a flight attendant can make all the difference between that poor kid being terrified or having the time of her life.

So, I’m sure you want to know how much money you’re going to be making while you’re jetting off around the world. Pay rates are set (usually by company/union negotiated labor agreements) and are based on seniority (Do you see a pattern here with the seniority thing? Seniority is everything at an airline.) You will not be able to ask your supervisor for a raise, nor are raises performance-based.

Flight attendants are paid by what is known as “block hour”. That is from when the airplane door is closed and you leave the airport gate, until you park at the gate in the arrival city. You will be performing job duties, like emergency equipment checks and the boarding process, when you are not technically “on the clock”. Its just a part of airline life. You are given a monthly hourly guarantee, that is a minimum of how many hours you will be paid for in a month, regardless of flight delays or cancellations. (Keep in mind if you willingly “drop” a trip, that reduces your monthly guarantee!) Most airlines average around 75 hours a month guarantee.

You do not have a 40 hour workweek anymore! Although the guarantee is around 75 hours, depending on which airline you fly for, most flight attendants will actually fly around 80 hours per month. Average starting pay right now is about $18.00 per block hour. Again keep in mind you will not be getting paid $18.00 per hour for 40 hours of work a week! You will also get what is called per diem, or time-away-from-base pay. You are paid about $1.60 per hour from the time you sign in from your trip, until 15 minutes after you “block in” on you last flight of the trip. So if you have a 4 day trip, you will be getting paid $1.60 per hour, every hour of every day of that trip until you finish your trip on the last day. And this per diem is not taxable! Except if you fly day trips, if you do trip where you finish a trip the same day you start, that per diem IS taxable. (Tax codes, I don’t understand them either.) Anyway, all of this averages out to about $1200.00 - $1400.00 per month, take home pay, after taxes. Of course this will vary depending on what state you live in, and so forth, but that is about how much you can plan on taking home every month.

The Perks
Nobody is in this job to get rich. However one of the perks of being a flight attendant is your “travel card”. After a set amount of time of employment, determined by the airline, you will get your non-rev (non-revenue) travel card. Some airlines like Northwest don’t make you wait at all to get your card, some make you wait six months. Either way, never forget non-rev travel is a benefit of employment, not a right! When you travel for personal reasons you will fly ‘standby’, you will get a seat on the airplane after all the other revenue passengers are boarded. If the flight is full, you do not get to go! However, being a flight attendant has a little privilege over a non-flying airline employee, and that is a flight attendant jumpseat. On every airplane the working flight attendants sit in jumpseats, little fold down seats near the exits. There are usually more of these jumpseats than there are working flight attendants. In this case, if the flight is full, you as a flight attendant are qualified to ride in an extra flight attendant jumpseat! Pretty cool eh?

Is This Job for You?
The position of flight attendant has a long and distinguished history. The first “flight stewards” ever employed were men over in Europe who served coffee and cold chicken sandwiches to their 3 or 4 passengers while dressed in stuffy white suits. PanAm employed stewards on their flying boats to the Caribbean and South America. A lady named Ellen Church thought passengers would feel safer and more at ease if there was a female registered nurse on board. So in 1930, Boeing Air Transport (an ancestor of United Airlines) hired 8 women to be the first ever “stewardesses” on their Boeing Model 80-A’s. It was a hit, and men did not return to the profession until the 1970’s.

Over the years there have been many changes to the job, especially the demographics of the individuals hired to be flight attendants. During new hire school, our union rep talked to us, and asked us all to stand up. She then told all the men to sit down. Next anyone over 30 had to sit, of the young ladies left standing she said anyone who has every been told they’re cute, but could stand to lose 10 or 20 pounds had to sit. Out of my 57 member class, there were 5 of us left standing. 40 years ago the 5 of us would have been the only ones graduating. Thank goodness times have changed! There was a lady a class ahead of me who was an American Airlines re-hire. She had been a stewardess in the early 60’s, and had been forced to “retire” when she got married. She got married, had her kids and a career, and came back to American in 2001 as a flight attendant! She had even gone through stewardess school at the Stewardess College, which is the same building in Dallas/Ft. Worth (now known as the American Airlines Training and Conference Center, or Flagship University) where new hire American Airlines flight attendants still receive their top-notch training. She even pointed out the room at the top of the stairs that she had shared with 7 other girls!

I could go on for hours about this job, it has so much to offer, and so many rewards, both personally and professionally. There are also many books out there you can buy that will give you airline names and addresses, and career advice. Again I recommend starting with the internet, it’s free. Best of luck to you, and we’ll see you out there!