Last week as I was sitting window side in the exit row on a flight to Philadelphia I witnessed a seasoned flight attendant in a tough situation. The woman sitting in the isle seat my row had someone lift her bag into the overhead and mentioned she appreciated the help because she has "trouble lifting things after having shoulder surgery". The flight attendant, over hearing this, came over and asked the woman if she would change seats because sitting in the exit row required the ability to lift heavy objects. The woman objected profusely and essentially refused to move. This interaction kicked off a string of thoughts. How heavy is that door? How often does the emergency exit get used? Do those flotation devices save lives or are they the modern equivalent to duck and cover? It may sound naive but to me flight attendants have always felt like a secret society. After I landed I headed to social media to see if I could fine someone to ask all these burning questions. This is how I met flight attendant and DJ, Noel Dunlap. I caught up with her hanging out at a Hawaiian beach on a 30 hour layover...
How long have you been a flight attendant?
I started working for a mainline airline in the spring of 2006, 8 years ago. That is very junior in this company. I've worked with people that started in the mid 60's. Even if you've been with the company for 20 years, you're still considered junior.
What made you want to get into this line of work? What are the perks?
A long term relationship I was in had ended and I wanted a change. I decided I was going to get out of town for a while and try to figure out my next move. I spoke with some friends in NY that said i could stay with them while I looked for a job. I played a gig one night, came home toasted and started looking up flights. On an airline website, there was a link for employment opportunities. Flight attendant popped up and I answered a few questions from a quasi personality test. I woke up the next morning and had an email from them. They offered me an interview that following week in D.C. The perks for me, at that moment, were that I was going to be able to leave town with a job and have health and flying benefits.
Do you travel internationally?
I do travel internationally. The first 5 years I was on reserve. That means that I knew what days I was going to have off, but I didn't know when I was going to work and I never knew where I was going to be. Contractually, they have to give you 4 hours notice. So, I have at least 4 hours to prepare for going to Hong Kong or Boise. Reserves work trips that other FA's called off or misconnected or went illegal (there's a bunch of legalities because we are union and covered under the department of transportation. Someone could go illegal if they have a long duty time due to delays or their rest period goes under 9 hours...). Now, I'm on reserve every other month. Everything is seniority based. I bid for my schedule in the middle of the month for the following month.
Do you get to see the cities you fly to, or is the job mostly on and off of planes?
Internationally, you are usually given at least a day or more, depending on how long the flight is. Domestically, you are given anything from a minimum legal rest to over 20 hours. Longer layovers (anything over 20 hours) have to be in a downtown area with access to food and shopping. If I've never been somewhere before, I try to do all of the touristy things first (The Great Wall Of China, Liberty Bell, museums, etc) then I look for record stores and thrift shops.
How does lodging work? Do you have shared living spaces on the road or does the airline put you up in hotels?
We are given our own rooms and they provide transportation to and from the airport. The union has a hotel standards board for safety, quality and access to food.
What are your favorite routes to fly? Any particular cities you enjoy visiting?
I don't really have a favorite route. I like laying over in places where I can see friends I probably wouldn't have much contact with otherwise. Hawaii is nice and relaxing. Working the flight is amusing. The passengers are known as "breast fed, just wed or nearly dead". Beijing and Shanghai are good for getting clothes altered or made. The massages there are awesome and ridiculously cheap, $10 for a 2 hour massage and you don't even leave your room. Europe is cool for digging and thrifting. Sydney is beautiful, but probably my least favorite layover and definitely my least favorite flight to work, next to China. I could write a book about working the China routes.
You are a DJ as well, are you able to take gigs while on the road? Ever find time to look for records while traveling?
I've never played out on a layover. I suppose if I played Serato I might have. I also know that if I made plans like that, my flight would misconnect or my assignment would change some how and I would be on the opposite side of the planet. When at all possible, I make time for digging, thrifting and museums.
How do you deal with some of the more difficult passengers on a long flight?
Most difficult passengers don't start to become difficult in the air. Their first encounter is with customer service. CS usually let's us know, but we can usually pick them out. They are treated like an unruly child. Their rude or bad behavior is ignored and they are treated with politeness. Most of the time they just want some one to listen to them. Traveling is stressful. When you fly you give up most of your comforts and control. My favorite response is a compassionate stare followed by "that's unfortunate". From time to time you get those that just want to keep pushing. I have had people removed before takeoff and I have had the authorities meet a flight at arrival. Threats and not obeying a flight crews commands are not taken lightly (I'm not talking about fastening your seat belt or turning off your phone). The Captain has the final say and the Captain always has our back. He or she will assess the situation and try talking to the person themselves. This usually works.
Have you ever dealt with an emergency in the air? How did that go?
FA's go to recurrent training every year. For 2 days we are retrained in the worst case scenario of an event. Medical emergencies are quite common. I have dealt with someone appearing to be having a heart attack, appearing to be going through withdrawal, appearing to have alcohol poisoning. No one has ever appeared to have died on my flight (thank goodness). I use the word "appear" because I am not medically certified to know if these events are actually taking place (airline company language). There is almost always a doctor or some medical professional on board. We have oxygen tanks and medical kits available with everything needed to sustain someone until we can land. It's scary, but that training definitely kicks in like second nature.
How do you cope with long layovers? Do you have access to airport lounges or are you ruffing it fighting over outlets with the rest of us?
Long sits between flights are rough. It makes a long day even longer. I always have a book and there's always words with friends and shopping on my phone. We can fly about 9 hours of combined flight time before we time out. That's just flight time, our duty day can go up to 15 hours. If you see a FA on the ground, they are not getting paid. Our pay is strictly flight time. If a sit is scheduled over 4 hours, we get a hotel room. I said scheduled, this means a delay does not count. The airlines are smart and they schedule sits for 3hours and 50 minutes. We are pretty much roughing it. If the airport is at a base, there is usually a crew room for us to go to.
What is your favorite airport to fly in and out of? Favorite airport restaurant?
My favorite airport to fly into is SFO because that means I'm home. My favorite airport to fly out of is what ever airport is the last one before SFO. My favorite restaurant at an airport is McDonald's. It's my guilty pleasure. I order the #2 special with extra pickles. I won't eat it in front of anyone. I don't eat the bun, so I put the fries on the burger and use the bun like a wrapper to push the patty up.
Does it bother you when people tune out the emergency briefing? Anything we should not be ordering off the drink cart?
It's rude and it does bug me a bit. People don't pay attention because they don't want to think about it happening. Ordering drinks and food on the airplane is fine. The food is full of salt and preservatives, but there's nothing unsanitary about it.
How do you pack? Any tips for the common traveler?
I bring 1 pair of sneakers, 1 pair of flats, 1 pair of flip flops, loose comfy pants, 3 tank tops, a hoody, a pair of black jeans, 3 t shirts, a dress or a pencil skirt, a bikini, 7 pairs of underpants, 4 bras, 7 pairs of socks and pantyhose and a scarf. I use packing cubes for my clothes. I wrap my shoes in shower caps. I Clorox wipe everything in my hotel room: light switches, toilet seat, door handles and i put the tv remote in a plastic bag. If I have to deadhead (the company flies me to my next segment or home because of a cancellation) I wipe down everything around me on the plane: seats, tray table, armrest. I'm not a germaphobe. It's totally normal, right? I won't even break down my logic behind this, you can figure it out. Do not walk around the airplane barefoot or in socks, especially in the bathroom!!Do not talk to a flight attendant about a plane crash unless the plane you are on is crashing.Bring your own food. If you have food allergies, bring your own food.There is no microwave oven on the plane to heat up your soup.We do not provide diapers.Bring your own refillable water bottle, I'll gladly fill it up for you.
Do you work with the same people?
I rarely work with the same person twice. However, I have worked with the same personality several times. This can be both good and bad. It's a lonely job and working with the wrong personality can really bring it out. Looking at someone's photo album of their cats birthday party and that someone is your flying partner, makes for a depressing time. This could go on for days!
How often are you home? What does a normal day look like for you?
I'm home about 12 days a month. I usually work a 6 days on, 2-3days off schedule. It's all I can hold at my seniority. It's hard to maintain friendships when your gone so much. I have to make an effort to reach out to people when I'm home. Being around hundreds of people all day makes me want to isolate myself when I'm home. I want to go out and kick it, but I still have laundry to do and groceries to buy. I have people over for dinner a lot so I'm close to my bed. I usually cook and pack my own food. Everything about this job does a number on your body. I eat healthy (I cook everything with bacon fat and drink at least 2 chocolate strawberry milkshakes a week. Your body needs fat.), work out (I practice Pilates and sometimes that means watching a video on my phone while laying in bed) and meditate daily. I've completely lost my body clock. I sleep when I'm tired, usually in 4 hour intervals. Pilates and swimming can usually get my sleep on track and keeps me energized. This summer travel season has been rough. I usually play with my records when I'm home. The last few weeks have my turntables looking like a Lazy Susan with candy and water bottles toothpaste and a coffee mug on them.
What's the best seat in the house if you're flying coach?
If you're flying coach, try to get an exit row seat. If there are 2 exit rows, one behind the other, get the one behind the first exit row. The seats in front of it don't recline. Otherwise, any window seat towards the first half of the cabin.
Craziest thing you've seen a passenger try and pull off?
Folks will try to get away with whatever they can. The first thing that comes to mind is the fort/tent made with blankets tucked in to the back of the headrests. Totally normal if you have a kid trying to sleep. Totally not normal if you're trying to make sexy time with your partner.
Do you still love travel or has this changed your relationship with it?
I still love to travel and I've taken advantage of my travel benefits. It really is the only reason to do this job. The ins and outs of the job can be thankless and mentally and physically challenging. That all goes away when you can dash over to Hawaii to meet up with friends or ride a friends coattails on a whim to stay in the South of France for 2 weeks and their employer payed for 5 star accommodations.
If you could give every traveler one solid piece of advice what would you recommend?
Bring your own food and reusable water bottle. Do this especially if you have dietary restrictions (vegan, gluten free, etc). The food supply is limited and there aren't a whole lot of options. Pack a lap blanket or warm clothing, especially if you are going to be seated in an exit row. Bring your own entertainment, airlines are phasing out entertainment systems on newly configured aircrafts.