Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Adventures in Flight: A Day in the Life

After a long day at work you go home and what do you do? Cook dinner? Chat with your loved one or a neighbor? Throw a load of laundry in the washer? Take the dog for a walk? Maybe run to the store or work on a project in the garage.

    As a flight attendant, I don’t have the luxury of doing such things when I’m done with work. Half the time, I’m in another city; whisked away in a van to a hotel with a dozen sports channels on the TV and other various cable channels, all of which never live up to their name (Headline News rarely covers the headlines, Discovery Channel is full of things better left undiscovered and don’t get me started with MTV!). The workout rooms are small and the pools are often infested with children. For me, domestic projects have to wait until my days off and compete with all the other minutiae of things that need my attention; cleaning, errands, tasks, and, oh yeah, rest.

    There still seems to be an impression of glamour when telling others I’m a flight attendant. In many ways, I guess that’s still true. The hotels are deluxe retreats, the travel is wonderful – if you’re into travel, and one is exposed to a whole new world; one which is smaller than the one in which most people live. Breakfast in New York, lunch in Chicago, dinner in San Francisco; it’s no wonder it’s hard for me to keep track of time. I can be gone for 2 days and it feels like 5!

Aviation; an old propeller engine by PenguinScott

    Many people have no idea what really is involved in a typical day of a flight attendant. So I thought I’d open a little window into my world, which isn’t as easy as it might sound. Ours is a life full of Federal oversights, technicalities, legalities and union rules. I won’t bore you with the why’s of certain things, but feel free to ask if you would like to know more.

    First, a little background, one of the most annoying questions I get is what route I fly. Only the very senior can hold a route, and even then many don’t always fly the same trips. Each month we bid for our flying, and for most of us at my airline, we fly one month on reserve (on call) and the next month is a line month, which means we know exactly where we will be all month. We can trade and drop trips, thus we have much more control of our schedule. On reserve, I only know my days on and off and trading days is much more complex and often very difficult to do, as they are done so at the discretion of the crew desk, who need to ensure there are enough flight attendants to cover the ever changing needs of the flight schedules.

    For this typical day, I’ve chosen a reserve day. This when we have the most chance of experiencing problems, or as I like to say, having my trip go wonky. Things can change at the very last minute on reserve. You may think you’re going to do one leg to Denver and then fly home, but once in Denver, they may send you to Dallas for a layover and all of a sudden, you’re gone an extra night. That’s why I always keep my bag packed for as many days as I’m good to fly. Even if I go for a two-day trip, if I’m good to fly for 5 days, I pack for 5 days!

    Before going to bed, I look on line to see where I am on the list of reserves for the following day. This helps me gauge if I might get called for an early flight or a later one. I’m high on the list, so I go to bed at 2200hrs, which is very early for this night owl, who prefers red eye flights. (It helps with this job to use military time, so I’ll do so here as another way to show you what my life is like.)

    Sure enough, the crew desk calls at 0315 for a check in at 0835. I’m told I’m going to Philadelphia. After hanging up the phone, I now have to figure out what time to set my alarm. I have to leave my house an hour and 10 minutes before check-in and I usually allow an hour to wake, shower, print my paperwork for the trip and grab a bite to eat. After doing the math and checking it, I pray that I can get back to sleep. This is much more difficult than it seems. With a constantly changing schedule, my mind often thinks, ‘that was a good nap and now, let’s think about ‘all’ the stuff’!

    On the drive to work, I realize that I forgot to factor in that this is a Thursday and I hit rush hour traffic. Fortunately, it’s not too bad and I don’t have far to go in it; this is why I choose to live close to the airport. We are provided parking in a garage and a bus takes me to the terminal, which is why I must allow just over an hour to get to check-in even though I live 15 miles from work.

    Once past security, I squeeze past those who see the people mover as a ride and fail to keep to the right so those of us actually wishing to get somewhere soon can pass. I yell out, “Passing on the left and keep trudging through. Soon, I reach in-flight, our base of operations in the bowels of the airport terminal. I say hi to other flight attendants I recognize, never remembering their name or how it is exactly that I know them. Maybe it was a flight to Maui last year. Maybe it was a flight to Orlando last month. I have no idea, so I just say hi with a big smile and feign interest. I’m only really here because I have to check my mailbox and then log onto the computer to see what cyber info has been handed down from mother airline, in all her wisdom.

Passengers by PenguinScott

    After filling up the circular file, I find my room to brief with the flight attendants I’ll be working with. Those who are based with me in San Francisco (SFO) will be there. Sometimes we might fly with crewmembers from other bases; they will meet us at the plane. On this trip to Philadelphia, I’m assigned the purser position, which means I’m the lead flight attendant on the trip. I make the announcements, work first class and am responsible for briefing with the captain and relaying information to my crew. We are a crew of 3, flying an A320.

    Following the briefing, we emerge from the belly of the terminal and make our way to the gate. I brief with the customer service representative (CSR) and board the plane. Next is a busy time for me; stow my luggage, perform safety checks of equipment, brief with the captain, check galley provisions and start getting the galley ready to provide world-class pre-departure service to the wonderful people who occupy the first class seats, all while greeting the passengers with a smile, a few laughs and trying to look chipper as one can be at 0900hrs after getting 5 hours of sleep!

    Mr. Sir is upset that he’s not sitting with his wife and asks if I can help move people around. I know he’s already asked the CSR and been told the flight is full and he’ll have to ask people to move. I tell him the same thing; we are not allowed to move passengers. Tee-Shirt-Mom boards with her stroller, already tagged to be placed in the plane’s cargo hold, so I have to remind her to take it to the door so a baggage handler can stow it for her. People are shoving 2 and 3 bags in overhead bins sideways, so I have to make an announcement telling them not to do this. No one listens to our announcements, but I did my job. The bins fill up and there are still 20 people on the jet way with large roll aboard bags. I inform them there is no more room for bags and that they now have to check them, which really makes me a popular person. 2A , 2E and 3F all have jackets for me to hang. Mr. Got-an-upgrade-and-has-never-flown-in-first-class finds out he can have alcohol right now, and asks what I have. I ask what he likes as I have no intention of trying to name all of our drinks. I make his screwdriver, pour 2 red wines, and deliver 3 ice waters, a beer and 2 gin and tonics. The first officer wants a coffee with cream and sugar and the captain asks for a diet coke. The interphone rings and the flight attendant in the back tells me there are bags coming forward to be checked. I have overhead bins to close before we can close the door and 1F would like another glass of wine.

   Finally, the CSR hands me some paperwork, signaling that we are finished boarding and she closes the aircraft door. I make an announcement asking for all electronics to be turned off. About half the people actually do this, and most who don’t are in first class. I check with the pilots to make sure they have all they need and confirm that they want to eat their crew meal later in the flight and will call me when they are ready to eat. I make sure all passengers are seated and notify the pilots that we are ready to go.

    Now I start getting paid. You read that right. I am only paid flight time, which means once the brakes are released and until they are set again. It’s the same for pilots. This is why, so often, when we know there is a delay in taking off, that we push from the gate and go sit on the tarmac. We want to be earning money, and we can’t when sitting at the gate with the door open. Of all the jobs I’ve had in my life, I think it’s the hardest I’ve ever worked for free.

Wheel markings and chocks by PenguinScott

    As purser, I make another announcement welcoming the passengers and introduce the video safety demo. For planes with no video equipment or if it’s broken, I have to read it live, while the crew demonstrates the safety features. Following the demo, I check for customer compliance, secure the galley and take my seat in the jump seat for takeoff. This is where I go over my emergency commands in my head, just in case, as there are only two times you can evacuate a plane: before takeoff and after landing!

    The flight time to Philadelphia is over 5 hours, so there’s no hurry to the service today. It’s drinks with warm nuts from the oven, drink refills, hot towels, lunch, ice cream and 90 minutes later I might get a chance to sit down for a minute before the cockpit calls to come out to use the lavatory.

Since two people are required to be in the cockpit at all times, I now have a chance to escape the passengers for a few minutes up front. I cherish my time spent in the cockpit during flight and the opportunity to get a front-view of the terrain below. I look over the cockpit controls; 32,000 feet, wind from the west, coming up to Denver with aircraft at our two o’clock and four o’clock. The pilots like to ask where I live, where I’m laying over, how the passengers are doing, if it’s cool or warm enough in the cockpit and sometimes we chat about world events or company goings on. It’s almost always the same drill.

    Later in the flight I’m back in the cockpit for a second break and this time I’ve got the pilot’s crew meals. The first officer scoffs at how cheap the pasta dish is. He asks if this is the same pasta I serve in first class. It is. He is dumbfounded at how we get away with serving it for what people pay to sit in first. I sort of agree, but offer, “Well, I smile a lot, if that helps!” This makes him laugh and the buzzer sounds notifying us that the captain is ready to re-enter the cockpit.

    Now we play Stay Awake for the rest of the trip, going out to replenish drinks every so often and reading magazines left on the plane from previous crews. You can normally see the crew start to get excited about 40 minutes before landing. Not only for the work we have to do to prepare for landing, by putting things away and collecting trash in the cabin, but just in the excitement that soon the seatbelt sign will be on and the constant line for the lavatories at the back of the plane is finally gone.

   This trip has gone well; the passengers in first class weren’t as needy as they can be. Some were quite nice and talkative as they got up to use the lav. The guy in 3F was surly the whole time, but at least he wasn’t demanding. Mr. Upgrade wound up sleeping most of the trip. Madam was nice, telling me about her cruise to Alaska with her daughter, who lives in Oakland. I enjoyed the flight and working with the crew in the back. But it’s great to take my jump seat and finally see the tree tops out the window of door 1 left. Hello, Philly! I make my landing announcements, with a dash of humor, and I enjoy looking at the passengers who catch it, chuckle and look up at me. The woman in 9E gives me a thumbs up when I ask that people keep their conversations interesting when saying that they can now use their phones…as we are all listening.

   The taxi to the gate seems to take forever, like we actually landed in Camden and are just going to drive the rest of the way! Seatbelt sign is off, so I’m up to disarm my doors and check that the aft doors are also disarmed by calling the crew on the interphone. The jet bridge comes and the agent opens the door. I tell her that I have 2 passengers who need a wheelchair and have no other specials; sometimes we have unaccompanied minors that need an escort off the plane. I now say goodbye to over 130 passengers; trying to vary the parting comment so no one hears me say the same thing twice; goodbye, farewell, thank you for flying with us, enjoy your day, see you next time, have a great day, thanks for your business, goodbye, see you soon, thank you, farewell, adios, have a great day, etc. A few passengers thank me for the great announcements. Two shake my hands, one gives me a hug. That hardly ever happens, but I never refuse a hug.

Airplane getting serviced photo by PenguinScott

   The pilots rarely stay in the same hotel and they leave with the passengers. Soon, the plane is empty and a few passengers are waiting near the door for the strollers to be brought up from the cargo hold. There isn’t a crew waiting so we have to wait on the strollers as well. Once all the passengers are clear, we can enter the terminal and head to our pick up for the van to the hotel. It’s all prearranged and the pick-up area is listed on my paperwork.  The van shows up after waiting a few minutes and we are taken to the hotel. This time we are down town, since the layover is more than 20 hours. If it were less, we would stay in a hotel close to the airport. Check in is a breeze for us; a name and some information on a form and we are handed keys.

   I say farewell, for now, to my crew. I head to my room, change out of my uniform and head out to explore the city. I don’t have long, as my return flight is 0800 the following day and those 5 hours of sleep the night before are dragging me down fast. But I love Philly and head to my favorite spot for a great cheesesteak sandwich. I walk a few miles and return, exhausted, to my hotel room. I enjoy the fact that my windows face an apartment complex across the alley and spy on a few people who seem to enjoy the fact that they live across from a hotel with prying eyes. Oh, you didn’t know I’m a voyeur? I see a topless lady playing with her 3 dogs, a couple having sex through half-drawn blinds and a guy eating dinner on his sofa. He looks over and up at me and waves. I wave back and we laugh.

   It’s been a long day and it’ll be a short night. Time for bed; tomorrow comes too soon so often in this job. I’ll fly to Denver before eventually reaching SFO. I’m good for 2 more days when I get home and I know I’ll be used for them. I’ll get home; too tired to do the domestic projects that most of you get to enjoy doing when ‘you’ get home from work. I’ll put them off for another day. Before I know it, that bill I thought I’d pay when I next get home, doesn’t get paid until my next day off, in 3 or 4 days. But at least I will have 4 days off; one day to recover and 3 to do get things done. It’s never a dull moment in the life of a flight attendant!

747 in air by PenguinScott

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