There’s more to being a flight attendant than you realise. Extensive training on everything from self-defence to first aid and evacuations is essential and, even after a member of cabin crew qualifies, there are yearly tests and exams that assess whether they’re up to speed on safety emergency procedures.
Being adaptable and calm under pressure are musts – but what else does it take to be a flight attendant? What are the best and grimmest parts of the job, and is the mile-high club still a thing? (Remember 2007’s scandal involving actor Ralph Fiennes and named, shamed and promptly sacked Qantas steward Lisa Robertson?)
It’s a job that pays in experiences, that's for sure – cabin crew's salaries are notoriously low. But it's also one of the most competitive jobs out there, with Delta Air Lines reportedly receiving 22,000 applications for just 300 spots in 2012.
We asked a flight attendant to tell us what her job is really like, from handling drunk passengers to dealing with jetlag.
How long have you worked as a flight attendant?
Just over five years.
What are the best parts of your job?
Exploring lovely parts of the world, seeing new places, and getting to go shopping in New York fairly frequently.
What are the best places you've been?
San Francisco, LA, Las Vegas, and maybe Cancun.
The places you like visiting least?
Probably Delhi and Lagos. In Lagos most of the cabin crew stay in their rooms, and have security escorting them to and from the airport.
Worst parts of the job?
Night flights. And, generally, being shattered, but having to have a smile on your face when all you want to do is go to bed. Dealing with rude passengers while gritting your teeth, killing people with kindness when you really want to scream.
Ever been hungover at work?
All cabin crew can be tested for alcohol or drug consumption before a flight – there’s a strict 'no drinking' rule 12 hours before takeoff. So no.
I’ve worked on a flight where two men got arrested for groping female cabin crew
Have you ever had to deal with handsy male passengers?
I haven’t personally been grabbed or groped by anyone – you’ll get flirty passengers, especially on Vegas flights. I’ve worked on a flight before where two men got arrested after landing because they had groped two of the female cabin crew.
Do you get any training on how to deal with that kind of thing?
There is a procedure to follow if there has been physical contact (hence those two men being arrested after landing) – if it’s verbal harassment then you would have to talk to your supervisor about it, but you would definitely stop serving alcohol to any difficult passengers.
Any horror stories?
The most memorable was probably a flight to Vegas with a stag do, where these guys had all brought their own booze onto the plane and were getting hammered, smoking in the toilets, physically fighting each other and upsetting other passengers. Two of the guys actually crapped in the sinks of the toilet cubicles.
What's the most unpleasant thing you’ve had to deal with on a flight?
Clearing up vomit (or being handed bags of it), picking up soiled nappies – that kind of thing.
So, the mile-high club – what really goes on (if anything)?
I’ve never seen a couple coming out of the toilet together, but there have been flights where a passenger has got on without knowing anyone and a few hours (and drinks) later they’ve hooked up with the stranger in the next seat. Sometimes you’ll see a couple with a blanket conspicuously over both their laps...
Basically there’s no cure for jetlag
What’s the best way to recover after a long-haul flight and fight jetlag?
Drink loads of water during the flight, and resist the urge to sleep at weird times. If you’re going to LA (eight hours behind the UK), try to stay awake until a normal time (locally) to go to bed. But as I’ve discovered five years into this job, basically there’s no cure for jetlag.
What’s the grossest thing passengers do?
It’s gross when people go to the toilet with bare feet, and then walk the germs around with them. A woman once came out of the toilet and told me that she had urinated all over the lid as she’d just sat down without looking. People throwing up into the sink rather than the toilet is both gross and annoying as it clogs it up. And more generally, passengers littering the floor of the plane.
Any tips on getting upgraded?
It’s really hard to get upgraded – some airlines might be more inclined if you’re on your honeymoon or engaged. It depends who you talk to, but if the manager on a flight knows you just got engaged or are on your honeymoon, they might try and move you to better seats, or at least bring you a complimentary glass of champagne. If the cabin crew learned that a passenger was flying somewhere for, say, a funeral, they may try and make it a nicer journey for that person.
Which destinations would you be most likely to see someone famous on board?
LA, New York and Miami.
What’s the longest flight you’ve had to work?
Hong Kong, a 12-hour flight.
Do you have to wear heels as part of your uniform?
Are they uncomfortable?
There are three different heel heights to choose from, so you can opt for the lowest. To wear a completely flat shoe you would need a note from your doctor.
How many breaks do you get on a flight to eat or rest?
On a six-hour flight you might get 20 minutes to sit and eat your meal. On longer flights you would legally have to have at least an hour and a half of horizontal rest.