Depending on whom you ask, being a flight attendant isn't just a job — it's a lifestyle, and a competitive one at that. After all, not many occupations include 'travelling around the world' as part of the job description.
Earlier this month, Air Canada announced 150 positions for the first wave of flight attendants as part of their low-cost carrier, Rouge. To see what it would take to become a flight attendant in an industry no stranger to turbulence, Huffington Post Canada Travel spoke with Angie**, a flight attendant who's been with Air Canada for five years, asking her to share what she's learned and what advice she has for prospective airline attendants.
**full name has been omitted at the request of the interviewee.
Huffington Post Canada Travel: If you can take us back to your interview process back in 2008, how would you describe the competition?
A: It was pretty fierce — they called it a “cattle call”. There’s a really large banquet room — a holding room, if you will — and there are just rows and rows of chairs. Every now and then, we would shift seats — it was like musical chairs. When you got into the next room there was another large banquet room filled with rows and rows of tables. There was a guy who was basically like customs, and you would go up and have an interview for 20 minutes or so, and that would be the first round. If you were approved, you’d go onto another room and do language testing. It just kept going like that.
HPCT: I understand you speak multiple languages. Did that help with the job process?
A: Definitely. In general, Air Canada only wants to ever hire bilingual flight attendants. The only reason why there’s any unilingual flight attendants is because Air Canada bought up Ward Air and Canadian Airlines. Those companies did not always require bilingualism, so we do have some flight attendants who only speak English.
HPCT: Can you tell me more about the level of education or background needed to be a flight attendant?
A: Air Canada’s mainline, and I believe Rouge, only requires that you graduated from high school. I've met a lot of people who've had no post-secondary education or even experience in the hospitality industry.
HPCT: Are there any physical requirements to being a flight attendant, like height?
A: There used to be, but no longer. It’s a human rights issues, so it’s no longer an issue they can discriminate against during the physical examination. However, practically, I don’t think that it’s desirable, because there are physical elements to the job. But I've worked with a flight attendant who was about 4"8 and she was not able to perform all of the duties that we were supposed to. In regards to being too tall, we do have some very small aircraft that are called ’Embraer.’ Anybody who is over, I believe, 6"2 can elect not to not work on the Embraer.
HPCT: How about personality-wise?
A: It’s a very different thing for a low-cost carrier like Rouge than a mainline because it’s a different kind of flying. But in general, then it would be that you have to be a detached person. You have to be able to spend lots of time alone, adapting to new environments, new people and regulations — that’s always been surprising. I've been flying for over five years now but regulations are actually always changing.
HPCT: So what exactly do you mean by detached?
A: In the first two years I was laid off twice, and that was a pretty big surprise. I think that’s going to be very interesting to see what will happen with Rouge because of Air Canada’s other attempts at starting low-cost carriers — this is their third. So, we’re all very interested to see what will happen for this and all these new hires that will be promised the world might go through all these ups and downs in the next year or longer if they’re successful.
HPCT: Why were you laid off?
A: It’s a cyclical business. So in ‘08 when I was fired, it was a bad economy around the world. Beyond that, in 2009, it just happens — that’s what the expectation was. They over-hired, they under-planned and basically it happens to most flight attendants. I would say that about 70 per cent of flight attendants have been laid off at least once in their careers, regardless of what their experience is, whether it’s five years or 30 years. If you do [get laid off] once, then there’s a good chance you can get laid off up to three times in your career, because it’s seniority-based, and anybody is at the bottom at a bad time will get cut.
HPCT: So people looking to be flight attendants should expect little-to-no stability in their jobs?
A: I think that has been the best advice I was given. At the time, I took a pay cut and decided to do this [job], I really had no expectations, I just wanted to see the world and experience new things. It’s easier if you’re not depending on the income — which wasn't very much — and if you potentially have a stable income from a partner or from your family or if you have little attachment or are just renting an apartment or just have a sublet. You know, you can just pick up and go.
HPCT: What would you say is the most memorable trip you’ve had?
A: That’s a tough one, because I like to joke the best experiences have been during my layoffs. When I was laid off, we were the first group to ever get discounts even while on layoffs. So I just went backpacking both times. Generally, when flight attendants get laid off, they have to go back to their old jobs or collect employment insurance and it’s a bit of a struggle and you’re biting your nails waiting to be called back, but I just went off and did what I could, and got called back both times.
HPCT: So where did you go when backpacking?
A: I went to Australia for three months. And that was the first time and the second time I went to Japan for a month. So those experiences were only made possible because of the company. But work-wise/ layover wise, the first time I went to Japan — the only time I’ve ever been on a layover to Japan — was one of my most fond memories. I was on call and surprised by a phone call and they said ‘if you can make it here [the airport] in 40 minutes, then we will send you to Japan.’ Because we’re a seniority-based company, you bid for whatever you want to fly and in general, more senior flight attendants will bid for more productive flying. So when you’re on on-call and someone calls in sick, you can get lucky.
Another flight attendant was a German speaker and had spent his entire four years working flights to Frankfurt because he was pigeon-holed — he was forced to fly to Frankfurt because he spoke German and we were short German speakers. He wanted to see something else and so he put his name down for extra hours and he got Japan.
The two of us were ecstatic to be there for the first time and instead of going to the hotel, we got changed and at the airport, we gave our bags to our crew who took our bags with them to the hotel and we took the train straight into Tokyo and we went out all day and all night. In the morning we came back and slept all day before leaving.
HPCT: Do these kinds of adventures happen often?
A: Pretty much never. Because of course with seniority — not that I’m ancient or anything — it’s just that there are different priorities. I can understand if you’ve been somewhere many times then you’re not dying to go out and explore, so in general, when we have these exciting flights, they’re not with exciting people. Over the summer I was on reserve and got a two-day Barcelona layover and my entire crew didn't want to do anything. I ended up going on to Couchsurfing and meeting up with strangers.
HPCT: How has this job affected your social life?
A: That’s something I always caution people about when they first start, because they have to start making a very big effort to keep in touch with the people in your life that are important. It's only shown me who I actually care for in my life and the things I want to spend my time doing. You know when you’re up in the air all the time, when you come home, it’s to do laundry or to cook and clean.
Flight attendants who are a little bit younger, who don’t necessarily have discipline, for lack of a better word, to live on their own, they find having relationships very difficult. So say you’re living with your family and you are not able to see your friends all the time because they’re not nearby, or you can’t easily go on dates because you’ve got chores to do or you’ve got family to take care of.
HPCT: On that note, do you have any advice for anyone gunning to be a flight attendant?
A: I think that you definitely have to learn how to be frugal and make smart decisions and I don’t think that necessarily translates to living a lower quality of life. You just have to be decisive in what you want, because I find that in this job when there’s a lot of solitude and there’s a lot of mobility and a lot of choice. Flight attendants end up falling into a pit of going out and even alcoholism, and that’s not healthy in the long run and they don’t see it when they’re young. You’ll see these older crew members that are divorced and broke because they spent all their life doing this [lifestyle] and you know, not working on their relationships or their passions and not saving.
HPCT: Do you feel that there are there any misconceptions about flight attendants that people should know about?
A: Honestly, I would never say it’s not glamorous, but it’s not as glamorous as it’s made to be seen. But I’m thankful that I get to see new cities every day and go on vacations very often, extend my discount to friends and family, attend lots of festivals and see a lot of things that never ever in my life would I be exposed to if I wasn’t doing this. So right now I’m in Edmonton looking out the window and seeing this whole new city. That wouldn’t be possible and I would have probably never come here otherwise.
HPCT: Was there anything you wanted to add or comment on?
A: The two things I would add is that we are not supposed to lift bags and put them away and we don’t get paid until after pushback — the moment the plane moves.
HPCT: So if there’s a delay or a cancellation then...
A: We’re not getting paid. This topic has come up so often and I’m shocked that a lot of people still don’t know that. I think that it's something people need to know, like potential flight attendants, applicants and flyers need to know that this is the case. So when we are helping flyers doing things, we’re working very hard. We also have to show up an hour ahead of time before boarding and we’re not getting paid for that too. We’re in work mode even while on the bus.
HPCT: So you guys are almost always on the clock.
A: I’m happy to help and I’m happy to give directions when I’m on the bus. I’m happy to find space for your bag and I’m happy to give you water for your medication. Or you know, do all my safety checks, but I’m not getting paid. I think that it’s quite absurd and unbelievable but it’s the truth. So I think this is important people know this, because sometimes people get very upset with us when we refuse to help them put their bags away, but they’re very, very heavy when we sometimes have to do four to five flights a day, and just that action is very bad for us.
HPCT: So are flight attendants left to their own devices in these situations?
A: Yes, that happens a lot, because we’re sometimes put in situations where nobody is there to help an old person who cannot lift their bags but packed it themselves or there’s someone sitting by a window and needs their bag. So you know, we’re lifting a lot of weights repetitively and it’s not healthy for us. It’s many, many bags throughout the day and many throughout the year and throughout our lifetime and we’ve got our own backs to watch out for too. Our own bags need to be lifted too, like on the subway and up and down the stairs, when we switch planes or flights. So it’s something that needs a little clarification about how it’s not personal, it’s for our own safety.
HPCT: That’s fair. I mean it’s one thing to have a grumpy flight attendant but no one wants a complaining flight attendant — that just wouldn't be professional.
A: Yeah, that would not be professional. I’m really hyperaware of that. I never want to complain in uniform because I don’t want to project a negative imagine on the profession I’ve chosen. It’s just mutual understanding and from a common sense, ethical standpoint, if everyone just knew some of these things then it would make a lot of sense.
This interview has been modified for clarity and length