Long haul or short haul? The career path of a Flight Attendant.

We were having lunch the other day at the airport when I noticed a mature (older) flight attendant having lunch. She wasn’t partaking of the usual airport food but had a lunch tote full of goodies. My first thought was, “How cool, she’s eating healthfully.” My second thought was that maybe her wages have been impacted so greatly that she can’t “afford” to eat out while flying. Either way, I concluded it’s probably a combination of the two.

As I walked away I was struck by the thought: when did it become necessary for a flight attendant to bring their food with them on their trips. Flight attendants during the “good ole’ days” didn’t have to consider doing this. Come to think of it they had more options for onboard dining from company-provided crew meals to untouched passenger meals. Also, flight attendants made more money back then so they could afford to buy lunches and dinners when they flew. Wow, how things have changed.

My mind got to wondering. Given the dramatic changes to airline industry,  “Is being a flight attendant a long term proposition anymore? Or, has the industry changed so much that the position is moving more towards what it used to be – a job to be done for only a few years?”

That's me during initial training.

Ever since the airline industry was deregulated in 1978, the industry has endured breakneck changes. Many airlines, some of them very well-known, have come and gone. With deregulation came lower pricing. Airlines then started to compete on price and less on service. The “good ole days” were quickly approaching the end of the runway.

More pronounced since the events of September 11, 2001, air travel today has become extremely stressful. Enter the TSA with their hodgepodge of rules and regulations that are inconsistent and seemingly meaningless, body scans, and pat downs. Add to this, load factors in the mid-80% range, high expectations from the traveling public, and you have a recipe for high drama in the skies.

These stresses appear to have contributed to two recent public and disturbing events involving flight attendants. The jetBlue flight attendant who ceremoniously jumped down the evacuation slide (with 2 beers). And most recently the American Airlines flight attendant who had to be restrained by fellow flight attendants and passengers. My prediction is that there are more of these types of incidents ready to happen. As some flight attendants announce on the PA: “we’re primarily here for your safety.” As such, their mental well-being is a concern that should be investigated.

To mitigate the stresses (high load factors, security concerns, mergers, bankruptcies, and pay cuts) of the job on the well-being of the flight attendant group , how likely would it be for an airline to offer a specified period of time to be a flight attendant? Say, 5 year intervals. There could be the option to renew, and a lump sum payout at the end of the time period if you, or the company, chooses not to renew. Think of the benefits for the flight attendant?

When you think about it being a flight attendant is still a good job. The travel. The people you meet. The life skills you learn. The confidence you gain. All through travel. All while getting paid. With term limits factored in, you’ll be motivated to make the most of this time to travel, explore, learn, prepare for the next step. Sounds good.

Consider this also: as a FA you come into contact with hundreds of people in the course of a days work. That’s a lot of “hellos” and “buh-byes”. Extrapolate that over a 5 year, 10 year, 40 year range and only a small percentage of people would be able to maintain the same level of enthusiasm for serving the public. The NYTimes article featuring United Airlines flight attendant Ron Akana is a great example. He’s been flying 63 years and still loves his job. I’ve met my share of Ron’s in my years as a flight attendant. However he, and a few others are unique in their enthusiasm after all these years. They are the Gold Standard.

Many flight attendants probably don’t like the idea of having term limits on being a flight attendant. Why would anyone want to give up the opportunity to earn more and work less? Consider this: some of the longest, most challenging flights, are being worked by those with the most time under their belts. They’ve said the most hellos and buh-byes. They’ve crossed the most time zones. This type of flying takes a toll on most flight attendants. Heck, working those types of flights when I was in my 30’s was a challenge!

To institute term limits on the flight attendant position, with the option to renew, would have a profound effect on the profession. I’m sure some would see it as a step backwards. Others would see it as a way to ensure that the job is still suitable as you accrue seniority.

We would love to hear your input. The good. The bad.

airlineguys™ are Sylvester Pittman and Darin Topham. Aviation enthusiasts. 30+ (and counting) combined years of airline operation/leadership/PR experience. Former cabin crew. Discerners of great customer service.

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14 responses to “Long haul or short haul? The career path of a Flight Attendant.

  1. Patti Takamine

    Great article. I’m all for a “term limit” on flight attendants. After all pilots have to retire at 65, bumped up from 60 in December 2007, and I don’t think a mandatory retirement age for flight attendants is unreasonable. More important, I think the age/experience to become a flight attendant should be explored as well. Professions such as waiting tables, retail, nursing, sales, teaching and further should be weighted more than a person JUST graduating from university that has never really worked a day in their life. Going back to the “limit”, being a flight attendant is a physically challenging occupation and it should be subject to medical exams and basic fitness tests. Most people these days are living longer and healthier lives so the pilot age could be bumped up in coming years as evidenced by the changes in 2007.

  2. Interesting points. Since y’all have been there, I have a question for you. How much incremental learning takes place as an FA after the first few years?

    I work in research and consulting. It probably took me 2 years to get my feet under me and really “get” the number-crunching side of things, then another 2-3 to grasp how my work in research could feed into branding and communications strategy. So I was 5 years in before I could really start to make an impact on client relationships. I’m now 15 years into the gig and every day I’m learning things that make me more effective in serving my company and our clients.

    I understand many roles aren’t like that, and once you’ve got the basics under your belt you are pretty much good to go. But other positions, like mine, really benefit from each incremental bit of learning and experience.

    How would you assess the FA role in terms of valuing cumulative knowledge and experience? And how does that play into the idea of term limits?

    • Hi Tom ~ Thank you for your thoughtful response to our latest post. We really appreciate hearing the thoughts and points of view of our readers.

      In regards to incremental learning for a FA, it is my experience that I became “confident” as a FA about 2 years into the job. There are a few skill sets that you must learn as a FA. The first type of learning takes place around the operational nature of the job. You must learn: safety, first aid, CPR, how to arm and disarm doors, how to evacuate an aircraft, the different aircraft types, meal services, drinks, wines, how to function as a FA on reserve, what are pick up times as oppose to report times, hotel safety, how to bid for trips as well as vacation, how to economize on a limited income (in the beginning), and the list goes on. Some of these skills must be mastered in order to graduate from FA school. Others, listed above, are mastered when you eventually get out “on the line.” Once you learn these skills you are “good to go.”

      However, FAs must re-qualify each year during “recurrent training.” It’s during recurrent training that you revisit the safety aspect of your job. These skills must be practiced on a regular basis so that if ever needed your response in an emergency becomes automatic; instinctively you know what to do. Recurrent is mandated so all FAs, whether you provide excellent customer service or poor customer service, must attend and pass with successful scores or be grounded until able to pass.

      When I wrote about term limits for FAs what I was communicating was the notion that FAs who aren’t performing satisfactorily from a customer service/brand/team player point of view should not be extended another 5 years. Keeping someone on who does not embody the brand, who does not provide outstanding customer service, and who does not function well as a team player is a detriment. They are detrimental to the core business of providing customer service. When allowed to remain, this type of detrimental mindset spreads and can undermine any amenities being offered to the customer.

      It all begins in the hiring process. FAs should be hired not only for abilities, but also for attitude (and we mean the good kind). If not a good fit. Don’t hire. With 5 year term limits it gives the FA an “out” if things aren’t working out. It also gives the company an “out” by being able to protect the brand they’re working hard to establish and maintain. If a FA is aligned with the brand of the company and is delivering outstanding service, they have the option to remain for another 5 years. If the FA is not living up to the brand and customer service, they are not allowed to continue on.

      I believe there is an abundance of people willing to accept employment as a FA for 5 years, enjoy the heck out of it, travel, experience life, and then move on to something else.

      Having term limits would keep everyone on their toes. It would have the effect of making sure complacency and entitlement did not set in for the FA group.

      I realize this is not a popular stance but one I feel could do wonders for the aviation industry in terms of increasing job satisfaction amongst FAs and improve the experience for the customer.

      Hope this answers your questions. And thanks again!

  3. Term limits are an interesting idea, but I’m not sure they are the right one for this job. Regional pilots also face the challenge of long hours and low pay, but do we want fresh faces every five years, or pilots who have logged a lot of flight hours and been there for 10 or more years and really know what they’re doing?

    The flight attendant’s job is not as hard as a pilot’s job, but there are a lot of elements of the job that only get better with experience, with respect to both safety and customer service. I’ve been flying about 4 years, and I know I am still just a beginner.

    The cost of initial training is quite high- with hotel costs, classes, trainers, equipment, per diem for students, it can be about 30k per person. 5 year contracts would increase attrition and result in greater training costs to an airline, but perhaps a way to put that money to use would be to increase pay and make more reasonable schedules so that FAs aren’t being worked to the bone for a low salary. Reasonable hours and reasonable pay make for happier people, people who do their jobs with a smile.

    I don’t need a limit put on my time in the industry to make the most of my opportunities. Actually, one of the biggest limits is that, though I can fly almost anywhere for free, I don’t have much money to enjoy the world once I’m there! I agree that good, careful hiring is essential to maintaining an airline’s brand. However, I believe the way to keep those stellar people you hired is to treat them right, not just hire new ones after the old become bitter thanks to less than great working conditions.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful reply. The idea of term limits is attractive, IMHO, because it allows those who no longer enjoy their job the ability to leave with something (money). Money that could be used to start a new career, school, etc. The idea of term limits has been talked about from time to time. I agree, it’s important to look at how conditions (pay, hours worked, etc.) can be improved. Given the thin margins in the airline industry, it appears to be an uphill battle to increase crew pay, lower flying hours, etc. When airlines are looking into every possible way to increase ancillary revenue, it doesn’t appear that sweeping changes to compensation and work rules are on the horizon. This thought is the basis for the article.

      • I agree that there are very thin margins, and sweeping change isn’t likely, that’s exactly why I think most airlines wouldn’t go for term limits. Increasing compensation and better work rules are actually the easier plan to implement. My airline has decent pay and a work day that stops at 10.5 hours (as scheduled, during irregular ops all bets are off). That’s not too big a change from other airlines that have lower pay and a 12-14 hour day, but I think we have a happier work group, and the company is still making a lot of money. Southwest also pays well and has happy people, but is making money… I sense a trend. 🙂

      • Hi Traci ~ Thanks for keeping the convo going about how to make work better. There are many points we agree with you on. Here’s our experience. We used to work for a major airline that at one point started an offshoot airline. Of the 20 years spent at the major, the 3 spent at the offshoot were by far the VERY BEST. Each person who chose to move over to the offshoot had to reinterview for the position. Seniority wasn’t a factor in deciding who was offered a position. Each person was chosen based on attitude…the ‘right’ attitude. We were offered options. One of the options was to fly for a specified amount of time. At the end of that specified amount of time, those who chose that option, were given a payout and severed all ties to the airline. Contrary to conventional thinking, there were quite a few takers. Each person that I knew who chose this option had other plans in mind after being a flight attendant. Some retired, some went back to school, others started a new career.

        We know there is a desire for many to become flight attendants. I also believe that there are those who do not necessarily want to become career flight attendants. Given the amount of stress, changes in the industry, and sheer numbers of ppl that you interact with on a daily basis, it’s hard to imagine anyone who can be “on” on a consistent basis. However, we all know those who do, and will continue to be “on” for their entire careers.

        Our thoughts: Give those an option who want to experience the lifestyle of a flight the opportunity to do that. AND provide those who know they want to fly for only a few years, the opportunity to walk away (with compensation). Doing so, in my opinion, will keep those who want to be there, there. And will allow those who’d prefer to exit, the opportunity to do that, and have something to take with them in their next experience.

        Thanks again for keeping the convo going!

  4. Hello Friends,
    Interesting conversation. As in most discussions there are some pros and cons on both sides of this topic. The reality of a 5 year contract would never pass muster at the Department of Labor. Not to mention the Union Labor movement in America. JMHO. Yes, that little sing-a-long airline had some aspects of what you talk about, but it was really under the radar.

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