A Typical Atypical Day in the Life of a Flight Attendant

First and foremost, this post doesn’t reflect the views of the airline I work for. The various procedures and policies I mention throughout my post aren’t described with every detail involved and don’t make a complete picture, so it’s also important not to use this article as a description of airline rules and procedures in certain situations. Note that every airline is different.

A Day in the Life

When I started flying nine years ago, everything about the job was new to me. As flying became my norm over time, I nearly stopped writing about my job and turned most of my writing attention to the topic of hiking. Why would anyone besides my journal be interested in hearing about my day to day life?

But I’ve been hearing about the massive amount of flight attendant applications airlines are receiving, and it reminded me that there are still so many people that wonder what this job is like or are interested in applying.

So I picked a random workday and wrote about it. Way too short to be a novel yet way too long to be a blog post, I’ll just call it a story. No two workdays are the same, yet everything is very routine amid the chaos. The flight attendant job is the best of both worlds – the unexpected is expected. Atypical is typical.

If you’re reading this considering wanting this job, I’m about to take you through an entire workday from my perspective, just as if you picked a random day at your job to write about. This is just one of thousands of ways your life as a flight attendant could look on a given day, and it might surprise you. I didn’t choose to write about a workday with a glamorous overnight in another country at the end of it for this post, because I wanted to capture the mundane, the routine, the “norm” that I wouldn’t otherwise think to write about, as I invite you follow along inside my head for a day and experience it with me!

Sunday Morning

I drift out of a heavy sleep on a dimly-lit January Sunday morning. I strain my neck to peek at my bedside clock, proud of myself that I went another night keeping my cell phone in a completely separate room. 10 AM. Well, at least I didn’t sleep until noon this time.

I tell myself I have to work today. I just need to find something to pick up. That’s flight attendant lingo for logging on to the company’s scheduling system and seeing if any flight attendants have posted a trip that they are hoping someone else will pick up today, kind of like trading shifts.

Back when I got my January schedule last month, I was scheduled to fly today, but the trip was really not desirable. A three-day trip with the second night so short that I’d barely get any sleep, followed by a really long workday on day three? I’ll avoid it if I can. I had advertised it on our trade board in the computer system, figuring that if someone was willing to pick it up, I’d find something better to replace it. I got lucky, someone out there must have a better tolerance for too little sleep than I do and spared me.

When I checked last night, no one had posted any trip worthwhile enough to convince me that I should pick up the hours versus hiding away in my apartment being thankful I wouldn’t have a reason to step into the suburban winter air of Chicago. But upon grabbing my computer this morning to look again, there it is. A Houston turn, 5 PM checkin. Easy peasy, I have no excuse not to take it. This means I’d fly to Houston and back, getting home around 1 AM if all goes as planned. That’s a pretty standard five-something hours of pay for about an eight hour workday. I’ve embraced my night owl tendencies and know I need the hours, and the comment that reads “my son is sick, please take this trip” is the final straw that makes me click that “pickup” button.

Ok Fine, I’ll Go To Work Today

It takes me about a half hour longer of snuggling under my teal comforter to accept that I have to switch from off-day mode to work mode before I shuffle into the other room, turn the heat up and scoop some coffee grounds into the paper filter. Coffee on workdays used to be a strict no-no for me. I didn’t need any extra jitters added to the sometimes hectic work environment, but now that my new anxiety medication has settled into my routine rather well, I can handle the caffeine.

Having a different time that I have to report to work every single time I go to work means that I still have a solid pre-work routine as if the timing were always the same, but I do the math backwards.

Ok, 5 PM checkin. I need to leave the apartment by 3:55. So I need to be in the shower by 2:55. Start yoga by 1:55. Eat and make a lunch for my lunch bag (that will probably be consumed around 9 pm) by 12:30. Perfect, I might even have time for a to-do list task before I complete my ritual of picking out a “Yoga with Adriene” video to follow from the living room floor.

I suppose “living room floor” is a loose term, being that my kitchen, dining room, living room and family room are in fact all the same room in my cozy garden unit apartment, depending on which corner of the room I’m hanging out in, but it’s perfect for me to live somewhere simple and close to the airport.

It’s 4 pm and I’m warming up the car, eyeliner applied and long brown hair back in my clip, not because it looks good but because it’s the only thing I really know how to do with it that goes with my work uniform. We’re required to wear long hair pulled back and I have a definite lack of hair skills. I’m pretty sure my style ages me by a few years, but maybe that will help if I have a moment when I need a passenger to take me seriously.

The sun is in its first stages of setting, not that I can see it anyway behind the thick overcast sky that hasn’t changed in days. I enter the highway ramp, watching the drivers around me scurry to get home for dinner. This is one of those moments where I pat myself on the back for sticking with a job that lets me be free from that life, from an early morning alarm at the same time every single day, where I’d be forced to spend the exact daylight hours indoors in a building somewhere. Oftentimes going against the grain feels good, a hearty makeup for the times when it can be lonely.

Another Day at the Airport

I park in my usual section of the massive employee lot at O’Hare airport, vowing never to deviate from that section again after a walk-of-shame incident when it took me 30 minutes to find my car a few months back. I swipe my badge into the bus waiting area, breaking into a mini jog as I see the bus to the terminal pull up. Lucky day! Sometimes it takes thirty minutes.

I learned long ago to allow the extra time incase of a backed-up bus schedule. If I get inside early I use the time to freshen up and scroll my phone while plopped on a toilet seat in the employee bathroom, not necessarily using it for its intended purpose but taking advantage of the private oasis until the last minute possible when I have to head into the crowds one level up.

The flight still shows on-time, so off I go, reporting to the aircraft an hour before scheduled departure. That means my pay won’t start for another hour, as has come to the public eye in some news articles and comedy sketches lately. But I don’t even think about that. In my flight attendant brain, today’s pay is just “a five and a half hour trip”.

I zig-zag through the mobs of people, some of them already lined up in the boarding lane. Are these people silly lining up this early, or are they smart? I ask myself the same question each time but the answer will never be a steady one, directly effected by whether or not they have a polite demeanor upon entering the plane.

I walk up to a group of flight attendants who are probably working this flight with me, and introduce myself. They huddle near the counter next to the jet bridge door, chatting or scrolling their phones while waiting for the passengers from the previous flight to finish deplaning.

There turns out to be five of us flight attendants in total. The particular aircraft we’re working on only requires four, but we have a fifth who got re-assigned from his original trip and he was added to this flight to get him where he needs to go. Always frustrating for the person who is actually extra, but a secret victory for the rest of us, making the workload balance easier. I prioritize remembering the names of the two flight attendants working the economy cabin with me, always striving to know all four but proactively forgiving myself for the fact that sometimes it just doesn’t happen at first.

A Smooth Flight to Houston

The cleaners are swiping their final touches with the vacuum in the aisle as I board the plane and wait for them to pass before I head to the back. I know that passenger boarding is going to begin the second those cleaners are finished, but working in the back of the aircraft today gives me a little break. No one will be in my way while I stow my bags in the overhead bin and complete my safety checks. The flight attendants greeting at the boarding door tend to face more of a multitasking situation.

Onward the passengers come, at the same time the catering employees open the back door of the aircraft and a blast of cold air hits me. The flight attendant whose role it is to set up the galley tucks away in the back row of seats with a shiver as catering finishes up, while I head out into the aisle to close the overhead bins as they fill.

This boarding is easy. Uneventful. Just the way we, both passengers and crew, like it. If the most hectic part of the flight went by with a breeze, it’s a promising setup for our time in the air.

Mere minutes later, the aircraft reaches ten thousand feet, jumpseat harnesses click open and the seats snap up and out of the way with a gentle thud. I get to know my two fellow flight attendants a little better as we make casual conversation while setting up the cart for the beverage and snack service.

The flight attendant assigned the role of being in charge of the galley has already done most of the setup work on the ground, another box checked for a typical flight. Sometimes catering doesn’t finish up right until we’re about to close the aircraft door, causing us to have to do a lot of the setup work in the air instead of during boarding and in turn, causing more flight time to go by before we can begin our service.

This flight isn’t going to be memorable. That’s good. I’ll probably receive some odd requests from passengers but that’s such the norm with this job that most little interactions that could make funny stories later don’t even register with me as things to remember. I should probably pocket a few random stories though, so I actually have some crazy airplane tale to tell when it’s expected that I have this party trick at the next social gathering.

We finish the beverage service quickly. I figured we’d be going at a more leisurely pace after my parter on the other side of the cart told me about how she’d only been at the company for three months, but by the time we finish serving our final row of passengers I’m not surprised to find out that she’s already worked as a flight attendant for five years at a different company.

Our speedy beverage service means we have some extra time before we have to begin our final trash pickup in the aisle, something that can sneak up fast when the flight time is only about two and a half hours. I pull out my pink and orange lunch bag that fits perfectly disguised inside my black luggage, and open it to what resembles a fifth-grade school lunch, complete with a pb&j and carrot sticks. It really could use a ho ho or ding dong though. I’m not really that hungry yet and settle for a granola bar, even though I know I probably won’t have any more down time until halfway through the second flight.

We’re on the ground in Houston without a hitch. Since we’re a mixed crew this time, we’re all going to be heading our separate ways, some to a hotel and some to other flights. It’s likely that I won’t see any of them again for a long time.

I switch from my comfy in-flight flats to my mary-jane style high heels. The shoe change seems silly since I don’t have to walk far to my next gate for the return flight and will be changing them again as soon as I’m on the plane. Even though it’s the rule that we have to wear heels when in the terminal and during boarding, why bother? But I decide it’s not worth skirting the rules and then having some chance encounter where a supervisor passes me and decides to point out my shoe choice. In every job, there are random things that are done the “real way” vs. the “trained way”, but I often find it the easiest and least mentally taxing to just do what I’m supposed to do.

A Not-So-Smooth Boarding in Houston

I’m the first one at the gate with a few minutes to spare, and strategically stand close enough to the podium that I’ll be able to board the aircraft as soon as the gate agent arrives, but just far enough that no one will mistake me for a customer service representative that might have answers about seat changes or connecting flights. I think this is something we all learn pretty quickly after starting the job.

My new crew shows up around the same time the gate agent does, and I exchange names with them as we roll our luggage down the jet bridge and talk about what we’ve each done that day. There are only four of us this time, no extra flight attendant. The three of them had also come from Chicago, but had to sit in the Houston airport for three hours in between their first flight and this one. I have the better end of the draw with my trip. We’ll all be receiving the same amount of pay for this Houston turn, but they have a longer workday than me.

I be sure to memorize the name of the other flight attendant working in economy with me but try my best to remember all three as usual. She seems really nice and I have a good feeling about working with her. She takes to setting up the back galley right away, while I head into the aisle as passengers start to filter in.

I realize that this flight isn’t going to be like the last one. Boarding is different. It’s difficult. It’s “one of those”.

Right off the bat, two women have confusion about their seat assignments and it becomes apparent we don’t speak a world of each other’s languages. I take a look at their boarding passes and show them their assigned seats, but they still just won’t sit down, they don’t understand. I see that they’re making an international connection and try a few different languages that they might potentially speak on google translate, to no avail.

One of the women pulls out her cell phone, dials a number and hands it to me. I don’t realize what is happening at first, until I realize she is helping me solve our miscommunications. Her brother answers the phone, who speaks English, and he serves as our translator. There had been confusion because they had been sitting in first class on their connecting flights, but their brother lets them know that they aren’t in first class just on this particular segment of their travels.

As they hang up the phone and they take their seats after reaching an understanding, I noticed that a whole section of passengers has settled into their seats around us, and a gentleman is helping an entire group put their luggage in an overhead bin and helping them out with some questions they have. I see what’s happening and thank him. How many minutes just went by while I was trying to get those two people to sit down?

“I used to be a flight attendant, it’s no problem”, he says quietly as he takes his seat. Flight attendants stick together.

Before I can even move out of the row of seats I’ve cornered myself in, two passengers present their boarding passes to me and tell me that people are in their seats. I take a look at both sets of boarding passes and both couples have the same seat numbers assigned. In airline lingo, it’s a seat dupe.

“It’s ok, this happens sometimes when the gate agent has moved some seats around, I’ll look up everyone’s names and see where they’ve updated you to sit,” I reassure them.

But somehow it turns into a domino effect. I now have at least six different people with seating confusion, and one of them telling me that he doesn’t want to take his first class upgrade because he would have to be separated from the person he is traveling with. I really need a gate agent’s help, so I open up my company device to the chat room with the customer service representatives who are up at the podium scanning tickets.

While typing out my explanation of what is going on, I notice that they’ve asked me how the overhead bin space was looking. I reply that we still have plenty of space. Then I realize that no one is coming on the plane with large bags anymore and the agents have taken it upon themselves to start checking passenger bags based on their own count so that luggage doesn’t pile up in the aisle of the aircraft with nowhere to go.

We probably have space to fit about fifteen more bags in the overhead bins, and I can tell by the disgruntled look on some of the passengers faces that they are pretty sure their bags could have fit alongside all of this air in the overhead bins. I understand both ends, the proactiveness of the gate agents and the frustration of the passengers. Regardless of our miscommunication, proactiveness isn’t exactly helping me out as I stand front and center in the aisle deciding if I should close overhead bins so no one else notices the space and gets angry, or simply let it be what it is at this point and take the complaints.

By the end of the boarding process, multiple groups of people have managed to sit in the wrong seats and I call to the front of the aircraft asking if a gate agent can come onboard and help sort this out, as they have much more detail when it comes to seat assignments than I do. What is going on? It’s not always like this.

It all comes down to one couple who was supposed to be seated together in the exit row, but after the debacle with the seating, there are somehow two seats left open on the plane, not in any way next to each other like their boarding passes indicate. I try my best to play tetris while dealing with the time pressure over my shoulder coming from other employees that the door needs to be closed or we’ll be delayed, but everyone around me seems to be traveling in pairs and my rushed mind just can’t seem to come up with a solution.

Someone comes up behind me and gives the official word that everyone just needs to be in a seat at this point, and takes control of the situation for me by saying everyone just needs to sit down. The kind couple doesn’t want any more attention and proceed to take the two empty seats, and off we go.

It might be silly, but I realize that this one is going to stick with me. That couple was just so nice to me while they awaited a solution during boarding. They were in the right. Their seats were supposed to be next to each other.

Two days later, when I’m laying in bed at night trying to fall asleep, I’ll probably keep replaying the snippet where I was standing in the aisle trying to process how I could move people to make it work, and keep thinking I could have done it. This couple isn’t outwardly angry, but something about how genuinely bummed out they are about this whole situation that isn’t their fault is sticking with me. These little things do that sometimes, and get filed in the mental archive so that when the situation arises again on another flight, I can handle it in a different way.

A Not-So-Smooth Flight to Chicago

The safety demo comes and and goes, but the ease I experienced on the previous flight never shows up. As I scan the rows making sure everyone has their seatbelt on, a woman asks me for a glass of water. The girl next to her asks if she can have one too, if I was bringing one out anyway. Ok, no problem. Another passenger stops me. The buttons that control her seatback entertainment aren’t working. I know full well that nothing is going to make them work during the flight, but I make a mental note to report it, or as we say in lingo, “write it up”.

A sweet eyed gentleman waves me over, he can’t find the outlets. I get it. Something makes me feel like the person who designed this outlet layout never actually sat in one of these seats themselves and tried to locate an outlet behind their legs without being able to bend forward because the seat in front of them invades their personal space so much. I reassure him that people ask me this all the time, yet when he still can’t locate it after a few seconds, I have to move on to continue to prepare for takeoff.

Someone asks me for a set of headphones, even though we have just passed them out. Another mental note. Then someone lets me know that their seatback entertainment screen is not working. I know there’s nothing I can do at the moment, but maybe if enough of them aren’t working, I can have the captain re-set the entire system once we’re in the air. I silently envy the trips where I work on some of our widebody aircraft and can re-set individual screens. Why can’t they have that on every plane?

I make it to the back galley, where a young man is hanging out in a black sweater with an ID badge hanging by a lanyard around his neck. I hadn’t noticed him before, but he’ll be sitting in one of the extra jumpseats on this flight. This means he’s also a flight attendant but he’s traveling on his own time, and there were no seats left on the plane. There will be a lot less workspace for us now, but it’s ok. He has quiet, chill vibes about him, and there’s a mutual understanding that we all just do what we have to do.

My mind goes into a frenzy after we introduce ourselves and make small talk, remembering I have things to do.

Shoot, someone asked me for water. There were two. They probably think I forgot by now. Well, I guess they wouldn’t be completely wrong. Now who was it that asked me for the headphones? There were a few people that were having problems with the seatback entertainment and I said I’d help them. I wish I made better note of their seat numbers but I guess I’ll find them later, maybe they’ll just ask again. Oh, on my way back from dropping off the waters I should ask that guy if he found the outlet, I told him I’d check on him to see if he got it to work.

I’m handing off the first glass of water when I hear “flight attendants be seated for takeoff”. Well, the rest will just have to wait.

Someone Gets Sick

Within five minutes of being in the air, a man bursts into the back galley. The captain has already asked that the flight attendants remain seated a little bit longer than usual after takeoff because we’re going to be having some turbulence on our climb out of Houston. So naturally, the other flight attendant and I have a simultaneous response, causing a jumble of words trying to convey that we just took off and it’s not even safe for the flight attendants to unbuckle our seatbelts yet.

He can barely get words out as we begin to understand his motions – he’s going to be sick. The lavatories are locked during takeoff for safety reasons – we wouldn’t want those doors swinging around in an evacuation scenario, or realize that someone went in without our knowledge so that we couldn’t let the pilots know not to take off.

After having seen several scenarios in the past when someone got sick right before making it to the toilet, we reach around and unlock the door as fast as we can. Nothing comes up, and as the man transitions to saying he can’t breathe, we realize this isn’t just going to be something that can be helped with an extra garbage bag and a ginger ale.

He is nearly hyperventilating, unsure of what is happening to him, as he repeatedly says that he needs some air. We open the air vent on the ceiling above the jumpseat in the galley, the same kind as is above a passenger seat, to let him stand under it. We ask him some questions. I’m no expert, but having both seen and experienced panic attacks, my hunch is that this is what’s happening.

Regardless of what we think it may or may not be, there is a procedure for everything, and this is no exception. We’re going to do everything we can to get to the bottom of this and get him help. Although it’s after 10 PM and the flight is quiet, I flick on the lights and make an announcement asking if there are any medical professionals on board. It’s a good life tactic to explore all resources, especially on an airplane.

One call button goes off, and my fellow economy flight attendant goes to talk to this person. A registered nurse comes back and starts talking to the man as we continue to follow various procedures. I get her any equipment she needs. One flight attendant starts taking information down about the man and his symptoms in our checklist and another flight attendant lets the pilots know what is happening. The pilots contact doctors on the ground that are staffed specifically to answer medical calls from aircraft.

Minutes go by. Then half hours, then hours. He’s fine, he’s ok, we’re doing everything as instructed from both the nurse helping us and the doctors on the ground. But his symptoms persist. Our nurse knows exactly how to talk to him. We fan him, keep him cool. The nurse monitors his vital signs and helps to make decisions about treating him.

Someone in the last row of seats motions me over and tells me that her seatback screen is not working. I tell her I’ll be with her in a minute. Truthfully, I forget. It won’t be until I’m home that I remember.

Our ill passenger gets better, then worse, then better again, over and over. Our focus is solely on the situation at hand, when we take a step back and realize that a normal beverage service is simply not going to happen. Our back galley space is dedicated to a new cause right now and there’s no way we can pull everything out to set up the carts for a service.

One of the flight attendants working first class jumps into action, and as soon as the first class service is finished, she takes the beverage cart out into the economy cabin and begins to serve the passengers with what we have in it, despite not having all of our supplies set up.

As we feel the plane begin to descend, the man finally starts to feel better. We take a series of steps to monitor him all the way through parking at the gate, making sure he won’t be alone. He hugs us. We thank our nurse. She just volunteered herself the entire length of the flight to help us. My mind starts to drift to new thoughts, but is still going a million miles an hour as a result of the events of the last several hours.

Wow, it’s after midnight already? When was the last time I ate? Hm, I think it was that granola bar hours ago. We’re about to land. Did this flight even happen? Did I just go an entire flight without serving a single drink?

We land, and when someone is sick on a flight, suddenly that twenty minute taxi to the gate is eliminated and we’re there in what seems like less than a minute. I’m sure the passengers are happy about this, the bulk of which are likely unaware of what just took place throughout the entire flight.

The man is ok, yet our nerves are still wired. The four of us flight attendants catch the employee bus to the parking lot after recounting to a supervisor what happened once all of the passengers deplane. Since the passenger was fine in the end, we can joke now. I’m so tempted to go to McDonalds on my way home so I can shove as many calories in as I can to make up for what I didn’t eat today. I talk myself down from it outloud, while one of the other flight attendants across the bus laughs that she’s certainly going to McDonalds on her way home and I should too.

I can’t do this every time I have an eventful flight. Eventful flights are part of the norm of this job. I can’t use it as an excuse to make unhealthy choices every single time, like I always find myself tempted to do.

Heading Home

I officially silence my McDonalds dreams as I walk through the 1 AM January wind whipping from the tarmac across the parking lot, and barely let my car warm up before driving off.

I’m tired, but I’m so awake. I blast some Tool to distract me from my hunger for my fifteen minute ride home, deeming my carrots separated from me by a bag within a bag are not worth the effort to extract. Carrots aren’t appealing in the middle of the night. When will I just accept that instead of being hopeful my mind on the matter will change one day?

The parking lot at my apartment building is full and quiet, just what I like coming home to. There are very few people getting home from work this late and I don’t have to feel guilty for feeling too tired to get caught up in small talk, because it won’t happen.

I scour my freezer for the most indulgent snack I can find. I tell myself I deserve it since I didn’t go to McDonalds and had good intentions when I packed carrots today. That’s probably not how it works. I throw some Walmart-brand taquitos in the oven and change into my sweatpants, pondering whether or not I should worry that the oven-needs-to-be-cleaned scent at 1:30 in the morning could be enough to wake the neighbors.

When I get in bed, my mind doesn’t stop. Forget my “no phone in bed” rule that I’ve been doing so well with. I need some random youtube videos to mellow me out. I fade in and out of sleep all night, half continuously going through the events of that entire second flight without really meaning to. I know my mind will put it to rest once I write the report, but there’s no way I’m doing that any sooner than tomorrow morning.

And So It Goes

Morning turns out to be about noon. Well, I might as well get right to it. The coffee brews and I work on the report I’m required to submit of last night’s events as my 1 PM breakfast cooks. I told myself I’d pick up another trip today, to keep making up the hours for that three-day trip I originally had over these days before I chose to advertise it for someone to pick up.

I’m not really feeling it, but I glance at the list of trips posted for today in the computer system, just incase looking at one of them makes me suddenly more motivated to decide to go to work when in this moment I have the day off. I know there has to be one fellow flight attendant out there who will laugh at this. I know they understand.

There’s another Houston turn posted by a flight attendant hoping that someone else will pick it up.

Nah, I’ll pass. I think I’ll avoid Houston for a while. How much do I really need those five hours of pay? I’ll make up the hours next month. And on and on, my mind justifies the day off I’m about to let myself have with all of the excuses.

A week later, I forget about all of it, and work another Houston turn.

And so it goes. 🙂

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