Tea Keep Your Hands Where I Can See Them
The rude passengers, the good time gal stereotype and the air sick bags some things about the flight attendant’s life never change. Thanks to my frequent jaunts to the coast or the interior, air travel still holds an aura of sophisti asics trainers cation for me on short flights. There’s no need to worry about being comfortable enough to sit or sleep for hours on end, so there’s no call for Lululemon. I’ve even been known to wear a skirt and heels and masquerade as a legitimate businesswoman. Short flights are all about stacks of delicious reading materials and mini bottles of Chardonnay. They are a bit of lovely escapism. Usually. On this particular trip, however, after sitting for four hours on the floor of the less than grand Kelowna terminal, watching in frustration as my flight was delayed again and again until its inevitable cancellation, I knew that whatever route my journey home in the morning entailed, I would be encased in full on Luon and sporting a scowl. That’s the thing about air travel: all traces of elegance and charm fly out the window at asics trainers the first sign of distress. Unless, of course, you are part of the flight crew.
For flight attendants, scowling is not an option. Neither is yoga gear. No matter what the flight duration, or how long they themselves have been delayed or inconvenienced, it’s their job to deliver service with a smile, often to passengers who, frankly, don’t deserve it. Anyone who’s ever waited tables will attest to the fact that biting your tongue through an hour long meal when guests are behaving rudely is tough. Now imagine having to cater to them for 18 hours in a confined space at 30,000 feet en route to Australia.
Popular culture’s portrayal of this career choice is painted somewhere between waitress and good time gal. Reality shows like the short lived Fly Girls followed a group of pretty young if slightly augmented things, as they partied their way around the globe on Virgin Atlantic’s dime, leaving drooling, cash throwing men in their wake. Primetime shows like Pan Am (also short lived) focus on the nostalgic glamour of providing customer service in the air the white gloves, the jaunty hats and nary an airsick bag in sight. The true reality of the job, though, is closer to that of safety warden with a dash of psychologist and a healthy measure of custodial artistry thrown in.
Today’s flight attendants have replaced the prim white cocktail gloves with sanitary rubber ones, and the skillset required goes far beyond filling out a pencil skirt and keeping your nails nicely manicured. Surprisingly, though, some of the old school rules still remain: a number of companies, for instance, still require lipstick on their female attendants for takeoff and landing. The truth about making a career out of flying “the friendly skies” these days is that it isn’t always that friendly. However, according to the FAs I spoke with, if you have the outgoing, affable and level headed personality Canadian airlines are looking for, taking a bit of guff from an unruly passenger and dealing with dirty diapers shoved in seat pockets are far outweighed by the perks of the job. And once you take your work up in the air, it’s awfully hard to ground yourself again.
Living the Dream?
“Maybe it’s a clich gay thing, but I just grew up always wanting to be a flight attendant,” says Edward Redekopp, a 10 year veteran of the trade. “My parents lived in different parts of the country when I was growing up, so the experience of boarding the airplane and being treated so nicely by the crew really stuck with me. I had my colouring stuff, my meal and my independence; I was set.” After earning his degree in classical studies and not really knowing what step to take next, Redekopp decided to throw his resum into the mix at one of Canada’s top airlines when one of his friends was doing the same.
This seems to be a recurring trend with flight attendants: most were encouraged by friends to “apply and see what happens.” Little did they know that, years later, they would find themselves unable to return to regular nine to five office gigs after experiencing the freedom and flexibility a flight attendant’s schedule allowed them. The thought of giving up their generous travel discounts and buddy passes is also too much to bear for most FAs, so the job they thought they would do for a year or two becomes a permanent lifestyle for many. “I can’t get into the specifics of the discounts, but my employer is incredibly generous when it comes to the travel perks we receive,” says Redekopp. “I typically work 15 to 17 days a month and have the ability to decide how they are scheduled, so not only do I have the time available to travel, but I can actually afford to fly wherever I feel like going.”
While most boys and girls don’t dream of one day becoming a flight attendant, many do dream of seeing the world, and this is one career that can and does make that a reality. Calgarian Diane Spurway spent seven years working for the now defunct Skyservice before making the move t asics trainers o corporate flight attending for a local oil and gas company. Skyservice was renowned for giving its flight crews five to seven day layovers in tropical locales because it wasn’t worth the money to fly the crew home and back again to pick up returning passengers. “Essentially, we were getting paid to travel and sit on the beaches of places like Jamaica, Cuba and Costa Rica,” Spurway says with a laugh. “It’s easy to understand why the company is no longer in business when I think of it that way.”
It’s also easy to understand how the “party people” image of flight attendants came to be when you imagine them disembarking in Cancun and having a few days to kill with their young, energetic co workers. According to 31 year old WestJet flight attendant Iana Aguilar, though, the good time gal (and guy) stereotype is mostly a fallacy. “Everyone has their own agenda and reasons for being a flight attendant. So while there is the opportunity to be a party girl and have a boyfriend in every city, that’s certainly not the norm,” Aguilar says. “We have a lot of FAs that have made this their second career, and a lot of moms that use the layovers in a hotel room as a bit of ‘me time.’ I personally like to explore new parts of Canada, go out and find running trails, that kind of thing, rather than hit the town Vegas style.” Another WestJet employee, Megan Green, agrees that the party based lifestyle is for the most part a myth. “As with any line of work there are those people that seek out extra fun and like to live it up,” says Green. “WestJet has something like 3,000 flight attendants, though, and what they are looking for when they land somewhere is all over the map.”
Likewise, being a flight attendant is no longer just a young person’s job, as the career now spans all ages and demographics. Still, it’s undeniable that an extroverted personality and a sleep when you’re dead mentality is more common among flight attendants than it is in most lines of work. “You can make this career whatever you want it to be ultimately,” Aguilar says, “but you always need to be responsible enough to do the job well or you will lose all of that.”
“Every flight attendant starts o asics trainers ut thinking it’s all beaches and glamour, but then you get hired and the next five weeks of training sets you straight,” Aguilar explains. Of those five weeks, only a day or two is spent on the elements of service and guest care; the rest is focused solely on safety procedures. “Right away we learn that there is a two minute window to save people once you hit the ground in an accident,” she says. “From the get go you turn into this Gestapo type person always worried about taking the proper precautions because it has been drilled into our heads that should anything go wrong, mere seconds in reaction time can make all the difference.” All joking aside, beyond providing guest care and service, a flight attendant’s top priority is preventing any potentially dangerous situations from occurring. Everything they say and do, from asking you to turn off your phone to cutting you off from the drink cart, is a preventative measure.
“In the 10 years I have been doing this job I’ve only experienced one in flight emergency,” says Redekopp. During a routine flight into Kelowna, the aircraft’s wing flaps, designed to slow the plane for landing, malfunctioned. The plane had to be diverted to Vancouver, as Kelowna’s runway was too short, and an emergency was declared, but, happily, the plane landed without incident thanks to the pilots’ skills. “It was amazing how the muscle memory from all of my training just kicked in and my emotions shut off this is our work, that incident is when what we do really counts. It wasn’t until we landed and everyone was gone that we were able to process what happened and have a bit of a ‘Holy crap’ moment.”
Thankfully, full blown emergencies in the air are few and far between. Strange (and often gross) occurrences, on the other hand, are a fairly regular thing in this line of work. All of the flight attendants I spoke with had countless tales of unfortunate cases of airsickness and confirmation that the Mile High Club does in fact exist.
“Once, coming back from some tropical locale, there was a couple that managed to christen the bathroom mid flight,” says Redekopp. “The girl just scurried back to her seat, but the guy came to the galley and was essentially bragging to us about his performance. He got so carried away, he was trying to remove his clothes and show us his endowments. We had to physically stop him from disrobing on the plane; it was quite the scene.” Beyond the obvious hygiene concerns and potential cramping, demonstrating your love in the air is serious business. “It all depends on the situation and if other passengers are disturbed by it, but it’s not something that we can ignore,” Aguilar says. In fact, the act is considered public indecency and is a punishable offence. “There have been occasions when the police have been waiting at the gate when the guilty parties have disembarked.” In such instances, one has to wonder if a romp at altitude is really worth all the turbulence that follows you home.
Also confirmed: the urban legend about the woman who breastfed her pet cat mid flight was not a myth at all. If you haven’t heard that one, consider yourself lucky, as it belongs in the Bizarre Behaviour Hall of Fame. Even weirdos have to fly, it seems.
Oh, the Glamour of it All
“A lot has changed in the airline industry over the last 50 years,” notes Spurway. “The hiring requirements and grooming standards that were once enforced for flight attendants now qualify as grounds for a discrimination suit.” Nevertheless, some airlines are still trying to maintain some semblance of nostalgic glamour when it comes to their attendants’ appearance. During one of my recent extended airport “visits,” I followed an Air Canada flight crew member through security. At this point I was in my grubby, delayed flight garb, and there she was looking like she had just fallen out of an episode of Mad Men, all pearl earrings and carefully coiffed chignon. She looked great. But I couldn’t wrap my head around how the heck she was going to navigate the aisles during a bout of rough air in those three and a half inch pumps. “Air Canada is still trying to keep things classy,” says Spurway, whose corporate flight uniform also maintains an air of elegance in the form of a little black dress. “Their attendants have two pairs of shoes, boarding and galley. They change once they are on the plane.” Good to know that superhuman balance and titanium ankle joints aren’t hiring requirements after all.
Still, veterans of commercial airlines are used to turning it out when it comes to their personal appearances re applying your lipstick for landing is to a flight attendant what filing is to an office manager. “The uniforms and taking a certain amount of care with your grooming are just part of the gig,” Spurway says. “But that’s not to say that the nylons in summer and those damn neck scarves aren’t the bane of our existence!”
While the importance of the neckerchief eludes most flight attendants, even more baffling is the prevalence of passengers’ tomato juice orders. It’s one of life’s greatest mysteries: why do people (myself included) who would never order the red stuff on land find themselves requesting it as soon as they are in the air? “I swear every FA ponders the tomato juice phenomenon,” says WestJet’s Green. “I’m not sure if it’s because people think it’s a healthy choice or if it’s a nostalgia thing. We can’t even keep the stuff in stock, though; it’s by far the most popular choice.” In fact, the off the chart sodium content of tomato juice counteracts any health benefits you glean from the antioxidants and lycopene; it may also have you inflated like a balloon animal by the time you reach your final destination. Redekopp, who often finds himself salivating after pouring 15 or so glasses of tomato juice in a row, was once presented with a theory that involved cravings for the nitrogen in tomatoes at cruising altitude, but the science fails to back it up. One thing’s for sure: Heinz never needs to worry about going out of business as long as people continue to travel by plane.
At the start, I was almost certain that exploring the “real lives” of flight attendants was going to unearth all sorts of unpleasantries and hardships that these jet setting guys and gals face on a daily basis. In the end, the interviews very nearly had me convinced to “put in my resum and see what happens.” No one was willing to discuss actual figures when it came to their salaries, but it’s public record that Air Canada’s hourly rate for flight attendants starts at $22.99 and tops out at $48.27 after 10 years of service. WestJet starts their FAs out a little higher at $29.48, but they max out just over $40 per hour. Service Canada reports the average salary for full time flight attendants in our country to be $39, 511.
Like any job, being a flight attendant has its pros and cons, but all of the FAs I spoke with were adamant that the benefits of their position far outweigh any air rage or air sick incidents even if they aren’t allowed any serious cleaning supplies onboard, thanks to the regulations around aerosols. “I’m certainly not the richest guy in the world, but the extras that come along with the job make up for it,” says Redekopp. “Not getting paid until the plane takes off is not a big deal when we are able to live the way we do.”
If the notion of living your life (both literally and figuratively) up in the air appeals to you, it’s not an impulse that should be ignored. “I never thought I would be saying this, but being a flight attendant is more than a job, it’s really a whole lifestyle,” Aguilar says with a smile. “It has allowed me to see the world and the freedom to arrange my life the way I want. Some children are seeing delays of weeks or months to be immunized against whooping cough, diphtheria, polio and other serious illnesses, according to the United Nurses of Alberta.