They’re those perfectly coiffed and put-together people you see confidently strutting through the airport in packs, like a well-heeled gang with really good manners. And although their feathers are rarely (if ever) ruffled, flight attendants are constantly juggling multiple tasks at once, from organizing overhead bins to managing travel-weary passengers — all at a cruising altitude of 40,000 feet.
What goes on in that perfectly styled head when they deal with gruff (or drunk) passengers and “galley yogis?”
We spoke to Christina Ling, a former lead flight attendant for Canadian Airlines and current lead flight attendant instructor at Canadian Tourism College, who filled us in on the many hats flight attendants wear, the challenges of the job and the things passengers do that drive them nuts.
What is the biggest challenge of a flight attendant’s job?
“We’re very misunderstood. A lot of times, passengers don’t realize that we’re dealing with constant jet lag and lack of sleep. The flying public thinks of us as these glamorous people traversing the world, but we’re highly-trained individuals and safety is our number one priority. We care about people, and want to help take care of them.
“It’s a physically and emotionally challenging job. We’re lifting bags and pushing trolleys, as well as handling passengers, all of whom have already been through an ordeal with checking in and going through security — by the time they get to us, they’re already tired and frustrated. We have no control over delays, and sometimes people don’t understand that. It’s so easy to film things [like arguments and altercations] and post them to social media, but patience has to come from both sides.
“We also often miss out on holidays and celebrating milestones with our families because we’re always travelling. I’m an airline brat, so my family never celebrated Christmas on Christmas day. At times it can be very lonely — the crew doesn’t always want to hang out together. So we learn to be independent and to take care of ourselves,” Ling said.
What do you love about the job?
“I’d say that nearly all of us adore our job. Meeting people from all over the world is amazing — we get to learn about so many cultures and different customs.
“I also love knowing that I’m bringing people together. I’ve had passengers travelling to a family reunion, for instance, who told me they hadn’t seen their brother in 20 years. It’s so heartwarming to know you’re a part of that.
“People get on a plane and they want to talk, and I’ve lent an ear on many occasions. I’ve helped people who were anxious about flying and consoled passengers on their way to a funeral; when I had honeymooners on a flight I would send them a bottle of champagne. I love being a part of those moments,” Ling said.
Has anyone ever shared something intensely personal with you?
“On one particular flight, I had a passenger who tried to open the doors of the aircraft mid-flight and he tried to open the oxygen compartment,” Ling said.
“The more I talked to him and tried to figure out what was setting him off, he confided that he was devastated because he was coming back from a family trip where he came out to his parents and they responded by disowning him. The were on the same flight and didn’t want to have anything to do with him. That’s why he was acting out. It was one of the most exhausting flights I’ve ever had in my life. I sat with him from Beijing to Vancouver.
“Everybody has a story and it’s up to us to have an open mind and heart to see beyond [their actions]. We’re very good at reading people and body language.”
Is there still a perception that flight attendants are the fun and flirty people they were made out to be in the past?
“People still think of us as very glamorous. We have these great uniforms and we’re always made-up. But we are always professional, above all else.
“We’re [mostly] women and people want to talk to you, and ask you out, but we have to be diplomatic. If someone tugs on my skirt and [makes a pass at me], I’m not going to make a scene. I smile and I’m cordial, but I’ll never follow up on the offer. You have to exercise your rights and be firm, but you also have to be professional.”
What do passengers do that drives flight attendants crazy?
“We hate it when you don’t pay attention to the safety demonstration — it could save your life. People don’t understand how important it is and we truly care about your safety.
“It’s really annoying when people go to the galley to do their stretching or to do yoga. That’s our workspace and it’s also where we go to reset. When we close the curtains, it’s because we need some privacy and a chance to recharge.
“And please don’t take your shoes and socks off. The cabin is filled with so many smells already, we don’t need to add foot odour to the mix. The same goes for wearing too much fragrance or bringing really fragrant food onboard,” Ling said.
“Please don’t hand us your garbage when we’re handing out food or ignore us when we ask if you want a drink. We’re not just waitresses in the sky — we’re professionals and safety is our number one concern.”
What do you appreciate from passengers?
“Patience. There are 50 passengers for every flight attendant, so your patience is greatly appreciated. Please understand that delays are out of our control and we don’t have anything to do with the mechanics of an aircraft.”
“And always wear your seat belt when you’re seated, even if the captain has turned off the sign. You never know when turbulence will hit.”
What should passengers never do on an airplane?
“Don’t ever drink the water in the bathroom. And don’t walk to the bathroom in your socks or bare feet — the floors and carpet are never cleaned. It’s so gross.
“I had one flight where a mom dropped her baby’s bottle down the aisle. I picked it up and brought it to her, figuring she’d wipe it off. But instead she just stuck it in the baby’s mouth. I was horrified.
“And I’d like to point out that every airplane bathroom is equipped with a changing table. Passengers should never change their baby’s diapers in the seat next to them. And please don’t hand the dirty diapers to us to throw away.”