Dirty Diapers & Celebrity Sightings: The Confessions Of Former Flight Attendants

Photo: Denis Closon/REX/Shutterstock.
Whether your guilty pleasure is stalking the #wanderlust hashtag on Instagram or you’ve just always idolized Zooey Deschanel's character in Almost Famous, chances are, you’ve daydreamed about being a flight attendant before. Even as air travel has lost much of its former luster, it’s a career that still maintains an air of glamour, thanks to the cute uniforms, free flights, and sense of adventure.
And yet, as anyone who flies has probably observed, being in charge of making sure everything goes smoothly at 36,000 feet isn’t always easy. Or clean. Or even, to be honest, totally safe-feeling. How do we know? Well, we caught up with three former flight attendants to hear their wildest on-the-job tales. From a passenger who lit his hair on fire while smoking crack in the bathroom (seriously) to chance encounters with the rich and famous, these high-flying women have enough fodder to power a thousand cocktail party conversations. Perhaps that’s the real perk of the profession.
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"Air Traffic Control cleared two planes to take off at the same time going down intersecting runways"

The Time The Plane Almost Crashed

“We are all human and make errors, and luckily this story has a positive ending,” prefaces Shannon Kontalonis, a former flight attendant who now works at the student travel organization WorldStrides. “However, Air Traffic Control cleared two planes to take off at the same time going down intersecting runways. As we were barreling down the runway, our pilot all of a sudden slammed on the breaks and veered off course because the other plane was coming down the intersecting runway at the same time. As I said, luckily, the pilots realized the error and took corrective action to divert a horrible accident.”
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"All we heard was a loud bang"

The Time The Plane Got Hit By Lightning

“We were once hit by lightning while in-air,” recalls former flight attendant Brittany Cosenza. “It’s a lot less destructive than you might think. All we heard was a loud bang. I wasn’t entirely sure what had happened until the pilots called up to tell me.”
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"If I'm going to get life advice, obviously take it from Quincy Jones"

The Celebrity Run-Ins

“I had Matthew McConaughey on my flight. He had his whole family with him, and I got to witness him disciplining his kids. That was a trip!” Cosenza says.

Shawn Kathleen, a former flight attendant who runs the hilarious social media account Passenger Shaming (check it out on Instagram) remembers her own Hollywood run-in: “It was Quincy Jones and he was just like the nicest celebrity. It was weird because it was a short flight so we didn't do [drink] service … [But] I talked to him for almost 30 minutes and he was the loveliest, sweetest guy. Asking questions, he was nice to everybody. He was like giving me life advice. And I'm like, well, if I'm going to get life advice, obviously take it from Quincy Jones. Thank you! I remember after the flight was over, I was like, that is why that man is so successful, because he was just lovely.”
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"I was panicked he lit a cigarette and threw it somewhere"

The Guy Who Did Drugs And Lit His Hair On Fire

“We had started our descent into the city, so we were like maybe 20 minutes out from the airport and a gentleman went into the front lavatory and caught his hair on fire while he was smoking crack cocaine,” explains Kathleen. “It involved me, you know, running up to the front of the cabin because I saw the lights and [heard] the alarm. The cabin was pitch black because it was at night and I was like, oh God, fire on an airplane. Worst thing ever. So I grabbed the fire extinguisher, pull the pin. The captain’s calling me, so I’ve got a phone to my ear. And this guy stumbles out. You get that burnt hair [smell]. And of course I didn’t know it was crack cocaine. That didn’t cross my mind, I was just panicked. I was panicked he lit a cigarette and threw it somewhere.”

The funniest part? After lighting his own head on fire and getting caught smoking crack on an airplane (for which he was arrested), the passenger in question was most concerned about making his connecting flight. “That's one of the inside jokes, you know, where something crazy like that happens and people are like, ‘am I going to make my connection?’ No.”
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"They will use that tray table as a changing table"

The Diaper Thing

Believe it or not, all three of the one-time flight attendants we spoke to had the same answer when asked what the grossest thing people do in the air is: changing diapers. Sounds benign, but it's not. “They leave them on the floor. They put them in the seatback pockets. They do that a lot. They will use that tray table as a changing table. The one that we eat off of,” Kathleen says. “You know, changing a shitty — excuse my language — diaper in an enclosed cabin where people are eating with recirculated air? Not cool.”

Kathleen advises parents to instead ask airline staff where the changing table is, as most planes have one available in a bathroom. Meanwhile, Kontalonis also has some practical advice for flyers using the fold-out tables: “Please people, use a napkin or a wipe to rest any food down on those things before you eat anything!”
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"Anyone considering fulfilling their ‘mile-high club’ fantasies should think twice"

The (Other) Gross Stuff

Lest you think it’s only babies being gross with their bodily functions on planes, well, our former flight attendants would like to assure you it’s not. “Passengers would also cut their toenails, depositing them all over the floor!” Cosenza says.

“Anyone considering fulfilling their ‘mile-high club’ fantasies should think twice. The lavatory floors (and even walls!) are absolutely covered in filth and urine from guys who can’t seem to make it in the hole,” she continues.

And no one understands all of this more than Kathleen, whose Passenger Shaming social media accounts are filled with viewer-submitted images of humans being vile on airplanes in various ways. “People essentially treat the airplane like a living room,” she says. “They put their bare feet up on the arm rest. You know, you put your elbow back, you're like, oh, excuse me. Oh wait, holy shit. That's like, somebody’s nasty Fred Flintstone foot.”
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"I like to think this has only encouraged her to follow her business instincts"

The Mini Mogul

Thankfully, it’s not all toenail clippings and lavatory fires. Kontalonis shares this sweet moment: “On one of my flights, a sweet girl around the age of eight was making these little string friendship bracelets, I asked her how much she was selling them for, in a joking manner, however her entrepreneurial thinking kicked in and she told me they were $1 each if anyone on board wanted to buy one. I of course purchased one and during my next announcement I let other passengers know of our ‘business mogul’ on board. By the end of the beverage service, the girl was beaming from ear to ear as she sold her entire supply. I like to think this has only encouraged her to follow her business instincts!”

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