Work & Career
Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a Flight Attendant
If you think your flight attendant is nothing more than a waitress in the sky, think again. Here’s what it takes to get the job and do it well.
Understand the job
Air travel used to be glamorous, and flight attendant jobs were highly coveted. During the golden age of air travel (the 1950s through the 1980s), flight attendants (or “stewardesses,” as they were called back then) held a certain mystique because they were almost uniformly young, pretty, and female. Today, they possess a different mystique because they know things the rest of us don’t, like these secrets of air travel. They’re able to suss out their passengers with a single glance, and they’re uniquely adept at hacking our most vexing problems, such as dealing with smelly bathrooms. “So why do people continue to presume they’re nothing more than waitresses?” wonders Farida Boland, a flight attendant (FA) with more than ten years of experience and co-founder with her pilot husband, Dan Boland, of HolidayPromoCode.com, an online service helping travelers find the best possible vacations for the least amount of money. “Yes we serve meals and make your drinks,” Farida says, “but for everyone’s safety, we also have to know everything about the aircraft you’re flying in on, we have to continually pass exams to stay proficient, and we’re trained for all kinds of emergencies you probably can’t even imagine.” We talked to Farida, Dan, and Bob Seidel, who is the CEO of Alerion Aviation, which charters and manages private planes, including staffing them with crew. Between the three, it became clear that being an FA requires one to be a customer service magician, because you’re working in a small, enclosed space to keep people who are often quite anxious and stressed out, both happy and safe. That, plus the schedule, the required training and the fact that everything you do gets undone and redone ad nauseum, requires a hefty dose of tenacity, a sense of non-attachment and at-times super-human physical and mental endurance. “People who excel at the job are the sort of people who like to build sandcastles,” says Seidel. “The waves are going to come in, and what you’ve built isn’t going to last. If you cry over it, the job’s not right for you.”
You’ll need a degree from the school of life
Some FA schools such as The Travel Academy, require that you have at least a high school education. Others, such as Beyond and Above, don’t have such a requirement. According to Seidel, when applying for flight attendant jobs, it’s helpful to have a high school education or GED; about half of those hired by Alerion have college degrees. However, what’s more important is “life experience and personality type.” (Did you know that the way you pack a suitcase says a lot about your personality?) In fact, some airlines have their potential hirees complete a personality assessment. Ideal qualities include being organized and flexible. All FAs should be fluent in English (reading, writing, listening, and speaking). Being bilingual can be helpful, especially if you are looking to work for a private aviation company such as Alerion. “There are times when certain of our clientele wish to have an FA who speaks their language,” says Seidel. This is especially true with Chinese and Russian clients. Non-native speakers agree that these are the hardest English words to pronounce.
You’ll need to pass a background check
As part of the background check, you’ll need to present identification in the form of a valid passport. Some airlines require a driver’s license, though the job doesn’t require driving a car. Ironically, the TSA will soon stop accepting drivers’ licenses as a valid form of ID in these unfortunate states. When applying to a United States-based airline, you’ll need to be either an American citizen or otherwise have the full legal ability to work in, exit, and re-enter this country without incident. A criminal background check will include searches of both federal and state databases. Felony convictions and any DUI convictions will disqualify an applicant. You’ll also need to submit to drug and alcohol testing before you’re hired.
You’ll need to fit the part
No, you don’t have to submit to weigh-ins or wear a girdle like the stewardesses of days gone by. But you must be reasonably physically fit to perform the tasks required of an FA. That means at least being able to do these everyday fitness tests without struggle. You’ll also need perfect vision or vision that is correctable to perfect; same with hearing. As far as height requirements, The Travel Academy requires students to be between 4’11” to 6’4″, but on some planes, anyone over 6’2″ will find themselves stooping to keep from bumping up against the ceiling. Seidel says that FA’s can be any weight as long as they wear their clothes well and with a sense of pride in their appearance because that will inevitably extend to the image they project in uniform. “They certainly don’t have to be waifs or models,” he adds.
You’ll need to look good at 3 a.m.
If you want to be an FA, you’ll have to find a way to “look like a million bucks at 3 a.m.,” Farida says. “We’re strictly monitored by our managers for our personal appearance. During initial training, make sure you listen up because even the color of nail polish, lipstick, and hair is heavily regimented.” We bet flight attendants are masters at these makeup tips to fake a wide awake look. In one of Farida’s previous airline jobs, a colleague was sent home until she had cleared a bad case of acne. Another who had put on some weight was sent home until her uniform fit again. Visible tattoos are frowned upon, as are multiple piercings, even in the ear (one or two are fine, our experts agree). And personal hygiene is noted by those doing the hiring. Seidel recalls one applicant who seemed perfect on paper, but when she arrived for her interview, her clothing was covered in pet hair, and her shoes were badly worn. She was enthusiastic and spoke well, but it was feared that her lack of care in her appearance would be off-putting to customers.
Expect the training to be grueling
Farida says the training is mentally and physically exhausting. “We only train for seven weeks but the pace is intense, and we have so much to learn about both safety and passenger service that it almost feels like two separate jobs.” There is a lot of pressure to pass the testing that follows. “We need to get a score of 85 percent or higher on every exam,” Farida says. “When it comes to the hands-on evacuation drill, anything below a 100 percent is deemed a failure.”
The pay is not so glamorous
Those seven weeks of training are unpaid, Farida says, “so prepare to eat noodles in a cup for those long nights at home studying.” Once you’re an FA, you only get paid for time actually spent flying, so it may not be a bad idea to read up on ways to make extra money fast. “That means we are not getting paid until the aircraft doors are closed and we push back from the gate, then it stops when we land and park at the gate. Despite this, we still need to arrive an hour and a half before departure, meet the crew and answer safety quizzes (which if you fail you might get kicked off the flight), prepare the cabin and all the meals, board the passengers and pray we are not delayed. If we get delayed due to weather or traffic, trust me when I say this, it hurts us more than passengers as we are basically working for free.”
The hours are tough
If you want to a be an FA, one of the first things you have to accept is that you’re working when others are heading off to vacation. “Flying never stops,” says Farida. “Not for Christmas, not for anything. The highest number of flights depart on holidays and in the days leading up to them. If you’re new to the job, expect to be the one flying across the Pacific Ocean on New Year’s Eve or Christmas.” That can change as you gain seniority, of course, but this could take many years. Stay safe when traveling by following these hotel room safety tips.
Prepare to be undervalued, except in an emergency
Regardless of the many FA responsibilities you’ll have, people will still think of you as a glorified server of chips and soda. You, of course, know it’s so much more than that, but you shouldn’t expect to receive validation from your passengers—at least not until you run into an emergency. Although they’re rare, emergencies reveal an FA’s training in aviation safety and remaining poised and capable under pressure. Everyone, flight attendant or passenger, should know these essential survival skills to get through any emergency.
Prepare to make new friends every day
“We get to know our crew very well,” says Farida, “although after a flight, we might not get to see them again for year, but then it’s like we’re old friends. It depends on the size of your airline, of course.” In one of her jobs, she was one of over 5,000 FAs. That suits some people, but for others, it can be hard to gain any lasting, consistent relationships. Seidel points out that it’s not necessarily the best job for married people, and certainly not for people who have families with whom they want to spend significant time. That said, there are plenty of happily married flight attendants. And sometimes, they marry their pilots, as is the case with Farida and Dan. Here’s what it’s like to be a pilot like Dan.