Brian Pelletier

Behind the Smile

The Contradictory World of Flight Attendants

Originally Published March 25, 2018

It’s 10 pm. You just finished a 14 hour day of work. Arriving at an airport hotel room in a city you never expected to be in that day, you slide your key card into the door and enter the room, luggage in tow. It looks and smells like countless corporate hotel rooms you have been in. Impersonal. Anonymous. The door slams behind you. You take a few steps in the door to the bed and collapse. Tears start to fall. You’re crying and you don’t know why.

After six years as a flight attendant for two large airlines, not only have I heard this same story from countless friends and colleagues; I have experienced it myself. As with many public-facing jobs, you often don’t get a moment of privacy to let the tension out. The result, a full breakdown in private.

“Perception is reality” was a quote written on the marker board in the training classroom at my current airline to remind students that the customer’s perception is their reality. This concept can really work to the company’s benefit by making the customer perceive they are receiving something of value when they may not be.

The concept can also work against the employee. It doesn’t matter if what you were doing was procedure or protocol, if the customer perceives something is wrong, then something is wrong. This is especially true in today’s age of instant publishing on social media.

To be a flight attendant is to work in a paradox. It is both a social job and isolating. While you are interacting with many customers and colleagues throughout the day, many of these people are complete strangers. Often, in a large airline base, there are so many flight attendants that it is rare to fly with the same person twice over a several-year period. Many trips you are working as a team with complete strangers.

A flight attendant may be reporting to work shortly after a breakup, a death of a pet, or other major emotional event but they will need to hide it all, smile and say “welcome aboard”. Add that to the fact that with new technology, flight attendants are often the first airline employee a customer may have face time with; flight attendants are not only the face of the airline but a sounding board for customer complaints.

Don’t get me wrong. Things happen during someone’s journey such as delays and cancellations. Passengers are also traveling for a variety of reasons; some of which can be stressful and emotional. I’m not trying to write this as a “feel bad for the poor flight attendant” article. It’s part of the flight attendant’s job to put on a face and smile even in the face of less than perfect situations. However, sometimes that smile is a dam on the verge of collapse. All it takes is one chip to make it fall down.

Speak to any flight attendant and they’ll tell you about a time they went to the lavatory and cried mid-flight. Usually, it’s after interacting with a particularly difficult situation. Most of the time, it is not the situation that caused the breakdown but something underneath.

A couple years into flying, I found myself in a new relationship. We spent many nights together. We would cook for each other and all the other stuff couples do. One morning we woke up as usual and I made my way to work and he went home. During my bus ride to the airport, I received a text from a friend asking me if I was still dating that guy. After my confirmation, I received screenshots of an online conversation on a hook-up site with the guy I was dating. Ouch! It hit me like a ton of bricks.

Unfortunately, I had to keep going on my way to work. I was upset, angry, sad and disappointed. It was a very hard flight. It’s not the passengers’ fault that this happened but how do you hold it all in while you are being scolded about a missed connection?

Another quick example, which happened recently, was a friend texting me asking for a ride to the hospital. I just boarded a plane. It’s a balancing act to still smile at the customer while peaking at your phone in the corner to find out what’s going on and coordinating with other local friends to take care of this person. You can’t always be there for people when they need you to be. And it can make you feel bitter.

The last stressor I would like to mention is rest. We often work long days and short rest periods. Even when traveling overseas where a flight attendant may get twenty-four hours of rest, you often take a nap when you land. After the nap, you have some dinner and maybe a glass of wine. By then, it’s about nine hours before your pick up time in the morning so back to bed you go. Then your body clock wakes you up in the middle of the night, often falling back asleep an hour before your wake up call. Then you work home exhausted.

This brings me to coping mechanisms. How do we cope with the change, the loneliness, the lack of rest? Personally, I feel crying is actually one of the healthier ones I’ve seen.

For the majority of crew members, it is often alcohol. Not only does drinking relax you, it lowers your social inhibitions so you can socialize with the strangers you just flew over with. Intimate stories are shared over wine or beer with people you just met a few hours ago. A friend calls it “crew bonding”. Like all things, this works in moderation and many of my colleagues are responsible for following the rule of no alcohol eight hours before report. However, it becomes an issue if you can’t enjoy a single layover without alcohol.

Another coping mechanism I find is medication. A few years ago, I met a veteran flight attendant on a flight to Orlando who asked me if I had any Ambien. I didn’t. She was shocked and said I wouldn’t make it in this job without something to knock me out and something to wake me up. Personally, I find a Xanax my first night home after an international trip help reset my body clock and eliminate next-day jetlag.

The third coping mechanism is sex. While I personally haven’t participated in this coping mechanism much while on the road, (after talking to strangers all day the last thing I want to do is talk to a stranger on an app) I do see its benefits. If we go back to the hotel scene described in the beginning, earlier the flight attendant was in an environment of constant stimulation and interaction. Shortly after, they are in a room silent and isolated. All day long they put their personal needs last while they did their jobs and listened to other people. Now it’s time for someone to listen to them and to meet their needs.

By this point of this essay, you probably think I hate my job. I don’t. I love it. There is a lot of flexibility in my schedule. I get to see the world, albeit a few hours at a time. I have also learned a lot about people and cultures. This job has made me a better communicator and made me a lot more adventurous. What I really want to do with this essay is figure out how we can balance all of the industry unique negatives so that we don’t burn out so easily. Can we find better coping mechanisms?

For me, I find pursuing my creative passions helps. Using my experiences from work I created a web series called Flying High with Charlie. It’s was a fun way to poke fun at what I do and blow off some steam without grabbing some beers and blowing a slide.

Crewmembers and others who have unique careers, what do you do to maintain a healthy work-life balance?