Reporter Turns American Airlines Flight Attendant, Misses Old Job

Posted September 17, 2008 by Zak Patten

Flightattendant We in the travel media often criticize the airlines' policies, from checked-bag fees to the end of free onboard food. But we rarely take the time to consider those who have to enforce said policies. Well no more. Now that New York Times reporter Michelle Higgins has gone undercover as an American Airlines flight attendant—and lived to tell her story—it's time we all paid a little attention to what Higgins sees as possibly the least enviable and most stressful occupation of our time.

As this intrepid journalist points out, things weren't always so dire for the workers formerly known as "stewardesses." Back in the 60s, a flight attendant's career was filled with the glamour of exciting destinations, the prestige of flight (not everyone could afford a ticket when Southwest was still just a regional carrier), and the allure of "life in the air as a nonstop party."

Higgins' account of her short stint (just two days) as a crew member on American's New York-Dallas route is equal parts hilarious and depressing. The advice she gets from one fellow flight attendant to either water down a drunk passenger's drinks or make up a rule such as “I can only sell you one drink an hour" brings a smile to one's face, but tales of 4:00 a.m. wake-up calls, screaming toddlers, and obnoxiously drunk first-class flyers are sobering (pun intended). And when reading that "The average flight attendant salary today is around $33,500 a year," my sympathy level goes way up.

What about you? Do you feel for someone who has to "tell people that a two-and-a-half-foot-deep bag will not fit in a one-and-a-half-foot hole,” or do you think flight attendants need to adjust their attitudes in a more customer-friendly direction? Please let me know by leaving a comment below.

(Photo: The New York Times)

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Reader Comments

No question that many passengers arrive clueless and stay that way for the entire flight. I come from an airline family-I KNOW how hard it is. I fly 9,000 miles/month. However, it would be nice to have flight attendants at least START with a nice attitude. On my last flight: I popped my suit jacket in a light garment bag to keep it from get stained while running around the airport/city-- not a traveling suitbag--just a cover bag. When I got to the door I was met with "NO WAY! You need to get OUT of line and check your bag!" I was floored by the tone of voice. (same small o'nite bag as for the last 20 trips). She said the "suitbag" created a 3rd bag. When I pointed out I'd never had a problem before she said "Well it's like running red lights. You just haven't been caught yet!" AFter gate checking the bag, she refused to hang up the jacket saying I needed to remove the cover. BTW this was in First Class!!!

Posted on September 17, 2008 at 11:30 PM by Laura

I became a flight attendant at 43 about 3 years before 9/11. For the most part I had a blast. And then all of sudden I was looking at furlough, pay cut, benefit cut, fewer crew members per flight, and pay cut.

My biggest annoyance is the parent who waits until I'm at their seat before he asks the child what she wants to drink, and then takes 10 minutes to get it out of the kid.

Oh, there's one more. Sometimes the people who sit in first class, esp. the women become so taken with themselves that frequently they never look you in the eye when you take their order. And worse than that they get their male companion to order for them never giving any acknowledgement of my presence. Do you think I'm going to knock myself out to serve that person-think again.JA (retired and happy)

Posted on September 21, 2008 at 12:04 PM by Judith A.

One of the best ways to help them and all passengers is:
No carry ons. Faster boarding and esp. faster getting off the filled aircraft. Big deal another 10 minutes to get your suitcase when leaving.

Posted on September 30, 2008 at 09:47 AM by Bob Leonhardt

I can't believe for half a second that anyone has any sympathy whatsoever for some of the people I've encountered as flight attendants over the years (to be fair, I'm 30 and have flown over 750,000 miles). I've been physically assaulted (yes, I am serious, I had scars), yelled at, ignored, lied to, stepped on, had things thrown at, and all out of the total indifference of the flight attendants for the passengers. They act like the passengers don't matter at all. If I'm sleeping in the aisle seat because it's 2am and we've been sitting on the runway for 7 hours, don't yell at the person in the window seat about a drink such that you obviously wake me up - have some common decency and speak softly. If you want to play with your bag that you brought on board, move it out of the way so I can get to the bathroom - I'm the passenger and you're the service professional. It's your job to do everything you can to make my life easier. I couldn't care less about their personal issues - they should pop some pills and shape up.

Posted on October 15, 2008 at 07:30 PM by Lucy P.

The airline industry has changed dramatically. Hopefully we are more security aware, since lunatics decided to use planes for bombs, which so many Americans have already forgotten, well, those of us in the industry still see lunatics coming at us every day, which ones have the bomb, knife,and or detonator? When someone is screaming in your face because their vegetarian meal did not get on, or they may have to check the bag, or they forgot diapers, (you know this is all our fault by the way) I calmly take a breath and think of the thousands that died on 9/11 and realize how insignificant all these little issues are. What customers do forget is we are the ones that will get your *&#% off a burning airplane and we will put you before ourselves, because that is how we are trained so if you don't get that extra drink in the timely manner you are so accustomed to, maybe we're giving oxygen to someone who actually needs us, or we are checking to make sure you are in a safe environment. I personally appologize for any rude behavior on any stew's part and really there is no excuse, sometimes we just lower ourselves to that level when someone is spitting in our face about really insignificant issues.

Posted on October 16, 2008 at 12:17 AM by Karla

Bob, No carry ons? You obviously don't have children. And why would I check my jewelry and other valuables in a suitcase I am not allowed to lock? (not that that ever made a big difference). Bob I assume you have never had to carry tampons, sanitary pads, birth control pills and other essentials that come with being female. And are a healthy man who does not carry the medication of say a diabetic. Are you talking commuter flight or the long-haul 28 hour flight I take twice a year. 28 hours is a long time without deoderant toothpaste, some change of clothes and say a book. We're in this together so have a little patience.

Posted on November 15, 2008 at 09:22 AM by Patience please

On a Northwest flight after boarding, we were stranded on the plane without taking off for 5 hours due to a broken cargo door. We were then told the problem could not be repaired and to go to a hotel and come back the next day. Fine, but WHY leave us on the plane for 5 hours before deciding this? But the WORST of the situation was the flight attendants. They did NOTHING but sit in a group and gossip for 5 hours. What were they talking about for five hours? Sharing "rude passenger" stories? They could have at least passed out water.. It was pathetic. The above poster stated they are not butlers/maids. True, they are flight attendants. They do have a job to do which includes the "indignities" of serving people. They are not slaves, they actually sought out the job. I have heard flight attendants complain that passengers should show more respect because if the plane goes down, they will be responsible for saving the passengers. Good grief, on the off chance that happens I am grateful for the assistance, but in the meantime, they did sign on and are paid for and receive some pretty good perks for kindly performing some other less heroic duties. I don't want to hear her chattering about her hot date to the other flight attendant as she sloppily plops my meal on my tray, sans eye contact, ignoring my existence. Of course I am talking about American carriers. I've flown Japan, Singapore, UAE, and Malaysian carriers to name a few. The flight attendants have impeccable manners, professional and polite. I have watched them handle problems/complaits with a class and professionalism that is often (not always) lacking on American carriers. And their demeanor seems to alleviate the situation...whereas being spoken to rudely or ignored by the flight attendant on a flight one has paid $1000.00+ for...will always exacerbate the problem. And customers WILL be lost.

Posted on November 15, 2008 at 04:06 PM by Frequent Flyer

Hey guess what? Flight attendants don't get paid for time on the ground during delays. Would you feel like working when you're not getting paid? Didn't think so...

Posted on January 07, 2009 at 12:07 AM by Arianna

I have been a flying customer
for the past 40+ years. Back
in the early days the Stewartesse were friendly, curtious and helpful. Now its as if we are the enemy and they can't even give a friendly hello. It they hate their job's and the passenger why not get another job. As
a nurse, I have never been rude, unfriendly,etc to any of my patients and some of them have been unreal, but I
chose this field, and will always have a smile, a kind word, and do my very best to make their time with me the very best that they could want.

Posted on February 18, 2009 at 03:49 PM by J.C. Brown

Try boarding 160 passengers with a smile on your face to not get more that 5% of them actually acknowledge that ur standing there..
As flight attendants we wish every single pax a "good morning" 0r "hello sir" to get a boarding card(that u cant board without by the way) thrust at us as if we've just asked u to run a sodding marathon.. The clue is in the title i believe.
By pax number 158 of being ignored patience starts to disappear..What happened to simple manners?

Posted on February 23, 2009 at 09:53 AM by H Searle

I appreciate probably 98% of the stewards/stewardesses and do not want their job.

I have a job as "operations officer" for 140 people in a nice office. They are my customers and they are mostly nice but a few have attitudes, feel superior or at times I am their maid or slave. I try to learn as much as I can about their life so I can see that what gets directed at me is really frustration with the rest of their life. A flight attendant only gets that insight with a few of the repeat passengers. I try to take whatever I need to be self sufficient for a 4-6 hr trip and go to the restroom as the last thing I do before boarding so they can concentrate on the 5% of difficult passengers. I can have an attitude but a plane is not the place and would come out only in support of a stewardess in peril and most of them don't need the help. PS: I support the new oversize passenger extra seat rule.

Posted on May 28, 2009 at 06:11 AM by Da

I keep hearing from the FA that they will be the ones to help us evacuate in the event of an emergency and we should appreciate that- this would be statistically a rare event. However, for the here and now, they have to attend to our needs, primarily the dreaded food cart. Eliminate that, please, and have the pax get their food from a kiosk before boarding. As for pay and benefit cuts- it is happening to all of us. Welcome to the real world of 2009.How much pay does someone who is essentially a waitress get? I am not knocking waitresses- I receive better treatment from them than FA. On my recent trip on AA to Fla- I did not receive a greeting from the flight crew as I entered the plane. They seemed over tired, unsmiling and grim. Many jobs are hard, including healthcare,law enforcement and the military. Please FA stop playing the victim or get another job.

Posted on November 15, 2009 at 02:29 PM by dana thompson

I am a Flight Attendant and have worked for a major Airline for over 20 years. I am sick to death of hearing stupid people say that we are "essentially waitresses"! I HAVE evacuated a plane, saving 67 lives. Several of my Flight Attendant friends have evacuated planes as well. It is NOT a rare event, all evacs do not make national news. Mine made the local news. How many Waitresses evac a restaurant?
We all have gone through 6 weeks of training that is ALL emergency training, no hair or make-up at all. We also go through 2 days of training and testing each year to qualify. Do you do that at your Job?
I have had to use the onboard defibrillator 4 times, each person survived. I've assisted in at least 4 onboard medical emergencies each year, of over 20 years. I've assisted in reviving passengers and even helped insert a saline iv drip. We are trained with all the emergency equipment on the plane. This is normal, I am pretty typical.
Please treat us with the same respect you would like to be treated. We DO risk our lives every hour we work, we are not paid enough and not credited for all we do. I make less money than I did before 9/11, though the job is harder.
I do love my job but hate it when uninformed people do not respect my profession.

Posted on December 23, 2009 at 09:44 PM by Bob

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