This is part 2 of my post about being a reserve flight attendant. You can read part 1 here!
Above is a morning sunrise from the airport parking lot – something that happens quite frequently on reserve if you’re not already in the airport!
Last time I wrote, I ranted about hot reserve, those lovely ten-hour shifts sitting on-call at the airport. Since that is what I’m currently doing, I’d like to make a quick side note about the best place to sit in Chicago’s O’Hare airport. When you enter terminal three (the American terminal) coming from the direction of terminal 2, you’ll find yourself in an atrium if you look up. There is a staircase and an elevator, and the second floor is full of green comfy chairs and tables, sunny windows and an urban garden. It is a fairly quiet, drastic escape from the rest of the airport. If you for some reason feel like doing yoga at the airport, it even has a yoga room. Check it out if you ever find yourself stuck here with time to kill (but let’s keep this place a relative secret the best we can ;).
So what do reserve flight attendants do on all of the other days that they’re not on hot reserve? We’re just on call, but don’t have to be at the airport. I’ve deemed it “regular reserve”. Regular reserve comes in twelve-hour shifts that generally start at 3 AM. It’s longer than the ten-hour hot reserve shifts, but feels much easier to get through because it isn’t so constricting. This also means that we have a longer call out period. They have to give us two hours to report to a flight rather than just a moment’s notice.
I think that anyone with an on call job would agree with me to some extent when I say that it’s an experience that is hard to fully understand until you’ve done it yourself. From an outsider’s perspective, it can absolutely look like a day on call is just another day off. It may be more of a day off than a day of flying if you don’t receive a phone call, but it is by no means true time off. Here’s why:
Scenario 1: Sometimes crew scheduling tells me about a trip I have the day before. If they don’t, I go to bed having no idea what I’ll be doing the next day. This means that I try to go to bed at 8 PM in the event of a potential 3 AM phone call, giving me 7 hours of sleep. The majority of the time, it feels near impossible to fall asleep that early, and I probably won’t fall asleep until 10. Let’s just take it even further and say that I don’t fall asleep until midnight, because this is what often happens as being on reserve never allows a regular sleep schedule to be established. The phone rings at 3 AM. They tell me I have a four-day trip, and I need to report at 5 AM. Running on 3 hours of sleep, I get myself together and leave for the airport by 3:45 in the morning and won’t be back for four days.
Scenario 2: The falling asleep situation remains the same, but no 3 AM phone call happens. Regardless, I begin waking up around 2:30 AM. Then 4 AM, then 5 AM, and that continues until I’ve received a phone call or have had enough of the restless sleep and get up. Knowing that the phone could ring just does something to the back of the mind, and it is near impossible to sleep soundly. The times that I do sleep through most of those morning hours, I just wind up having dreams that I’ve missed a call. So why don’t I just adjust my sleep schedule to falling asleep early and then waking up at 3 AM every time in case they call, you ask? See Scenario 3.
Scenario 3: The falling asleep situation and not getting called situation remains the same. That is, until about 1PM. They call me and tell me that I’ll be working a trip that evening. It starts around 6PM and ends around midnight. If I had actually gotten myself up at 3 AM, I wouldn’t last until midnight. Maybe I’d physically be there, and I could do it once or twice, but not repeatedly or my body would probably start to crumble. These are a few examples of the endless possibilities of a day on reserve, and they definitely cause some mind games to happen.
Aside from the sleeping irregularities, doing things like errands or going for a run are sometimes just out of the question during an on-call period. Two hours seems like plenty of time to get ready after a phone call, but a lot of that time is spent getting to the airport (and I don’t just sit around in uniform for twelve hours ready to run out the door after they call, because that would lead to insanity). If I get a phone call, I have about 30-45 minutes to leave the house. Sometimes I want to get things done in the morning but don’t in case I get a call, and then get a call for an afternoon trip. Now the whole day is gone. You can see why planning anything on a reserve day is difficult, because there is no guaranteed end time where I can say “I’ll be free after work at this time today.” The more time I spend on reserve, the more “risks” I start to take, meaning doing things like going for a run because I think they “probably won’t call right now” (reserve causing mind games again). Every so often, I get a reminder that the phone really can ring at any moment, whether I begin to think I somehow have psychic powers or not.
These are just some interesting factors to think about that come with an on-call job, and doing this has definitely given me an appreciation for doctors, nurses, firemen and too many more to mention that go through on-call situations to do things like keep us safe or save our lives. Thanks to all of them.