In December of 2005, I was still under 40 and proudly employed as an operations manager for a Fortune 500 shipping company. I felt as if I’d arrived—I had a good job, a secure future for me and my family, respect and self-esteem. Two years earlier, my father died of lung cancer at age 63. That same month, my mother passed from brain cancer, which caused me to think more deeply about what I really wanted out of life.
I’d spent my working days in property management, banking, studio photography and then in corporate in one location. All the while, I wished there was more, and I secretly thought I’d missed out on something vital. Maybe the smartest thing I ever did was enter the following into Google’s search engine: “Job, Travel.” That led me to apply for the position of flight attendant with a major airline. Immediately after submitting that form, I was invited to complete a Caliper assessment, which led to an in-person interview in Chicago and then another over six weeks at a corporate training center.
That’s turned into 16 years as a flight attendant, with trips all over the globe and stories to tell. I’ll get to that in a second.
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Flight Attendants Do More Than Hand Out Drinks and Snacks
Historically, being a flight attendant was considered a glamorous job—not just because of the exotic world travel but because of the pay. Today, compensation for flight attendants is based on seniority, which means that starting out is tough, but over time, pay rates increase and the trips we get are better. As we move up in the standby list for personal flights, a sense of confidence takes over. The only time in my career where seniority didn’t play a substantial role was when I interviewed for—and subsequently received—a promotion to international purser.
Pursers are flight attendants responsible for the directing activities during a flight. In the terminal, the title is meaningless, but pursers have additional training to direct activity in the air and are granted a higher stipend. That’s why you shouldn’t call your average flight attendant a stewardess. It has the wrong connotation these days. We hand out beverages and snacks to make your flight more comfortable, but our job description and annual training doesn’t revolve around serving cocktails and making small talk.
Technically, we are safety and security professionals. About 95 percent of our training instills appropriate reactions to potentially horrific situations. Think back to US Airways flight 1549, when Captain Sully heroically dipped the plane into the Hudson. It was the flight attendants who safely evacuated that aircraft. That's one of the things for which we train, and we do so on multiple aircraft, each with different emergency procedures, as the FAA requires annual requalification.
I've topped out on my airline's pay scale, and I can’t get another raise until the union and airline have ratified the next contract, hopefully within a year. But at this point in my career, I'm generously compensated and I love my job. I have traveled the globe and am living my dream. When I land in Paris, Singapore, Narita, London, Sydney or even Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I take a breath, explore, take pictures and enjoy local cuisine. Work for it, and gratitude will become an everyday experience. But it hasn’t always been easy. There are grueling periods and difficult people on nearly every flight these days. And over the last year or two, a form of orneriness has become the standard in the United States.
We’ve Had to Enforce Mask Policies and Comply With FAA Regulations
As a flight attendant, I’m required to oversee—and in some cases enforce—federal regulations, making sure seat belts are fastened and passengers remain seated during critical times. Throughout the pandemic, the job has also meant insisting face masks be worn.
This is the only job I have ever had that mixes being a cheerful corporate ambassador with cracking the whip for the FAA. Most passengers get it, but others resist authority at every turn, posturing that masks and civil behavior are political and optional. Fortunately, the cranky and ill-informed are still outnumbered by reasonable and compliant passengers, but here we go—I promised a story.
The airline I work for was one of the first to implement mask mandates as COVID-19 spread across the globe and into the U.S. Soon, every airline implemented a mask mandate. The political environment exacerbated issues. The president downplayed the virus, while his opponents fought for mandatory protections—political division has since touched every aspect of our lives, including travel.
Crews often found themselves politely requesting that a passenger wear a mask, and then again to wear it correctly, and then again because the passenger would remove it after walking 10 feet away. Masking up was a federal mandate supported by strict corporate policies. We, the crew, would get disciplined or fined by the FAA if we didn’t enforce that rule. If a passenger refused to wear a mask, the rules said to kick them off the plane. We’ve done that.
But think about who has to deliver that initial message—the flight attendant. Give us a lot of trouble, dig your heels into the carpet and refuse to comply, and things eventually escalate. If the gate crew, or especially the captain, has to talk with you, pay attention. The rules don’t care if you are a thousand miles from your destination. Resist long enough and you’ll find yourself walking home, renting a car, taking a bus or worse. Some of the most headstrong passengers have sat in jails or been banned from flying on any commercial airline.
I am still often confronted for doing my job. I’ve been called a “mask Nazi,” been cussed at, been spoken to loudly and with bad intentions. I have experienced huge men rage vitriol inches from my face, and many passengers presume to tell me how I must have voted. By the way, I don’t intimidate easily. Being tolerant of others is in my nature, but volatile situations in the confines of an aircraft? There’s a reason I was selected as a purser. My role relies on de-escalation—a smile, a joke, a warning followed by another. I politely ask twice, at least, but there are limits. Politics shouldn’t even be a factor, but it’s everywhere, even sometimes among crew members. When that happens, I take a breath and consider what the laws and corporate policies actually require.
Fortunately, my airline has a low tolerance for noncompliance. We were one of the first airlines to require masks and later required all employees to be vaccinated. During the height of the pandemic, our corporate president confided in some of us that he was writing multiple condolence letters on a daily basis to the families of employees who had died from COVID-19. His job—and, by extension, my job—is to protect the crew and passengers.
What It’s Like Dealing With Confrontational Passengers
Of course, COVID hasn’t just affected the passengers. It’s put me on my back twice—once before we knew the virus’s name. I had been sick and missed work for a month after contracting it in December of 2019 from a passenger on a flight traveling from Cancun to San Francisco. The passenger was just passing through Northern California on her way home to Beijing, but within four days of having her onboard, I was sicker than I’d ever been. I thought I had bronchitis and treated the malady as such. Two and a half weeks later, my doctor informed me that my prediction was wrong.
On a flight a few short months ago, before the mask mandate was lifted, a family got on board—father, mother and two young children. They’d removed their masks on the jet bridge, ignored the greeter’s request to put them on and took their seats. (By the way, most people are not aware of the fact that flight attendants aren’t paid during boarding and deplaning, arguably the hardest phases of our day. The only time we’re on the clock is when the aircraft door is closed and the brakes aren’t engaged.)
Soon, a second request was made, along with a warning. If they wanted to travel on this flight, they had to comply. The father said no. In his mind, wearing a mask wasn’t required—his governor had said so. I think you can see where this was heading. By the time I got involved, both parents were speaking loudly, holding up passengers trying to reach their seats, convinced they were right. They weren’t. Entering a commercial aircraft puts you into federal territory.
Eventually, the second warning was given, detailing what would happen if the family, especially the father, remained noncompliant. But he was resolute. Boarding had been delayed; other passengers were frustrated; and the situation had to be reported. Within minutes, gate agents were on the plane, followed by security, followed by the father being unceremoniously escorted away. When the mother then started yelling that we couldn’t separate the family like that, she was given the option to remain seated and compliant or join her husband in the terminal.
She chose to remain seated. In the aftermath, numerous passengers sent complimentary messages to the airline about how we handled the situation. That’s something many noncompliant people don’t realize. Those standing nearby are not impressed. They may not come to the aid of a flight attendant being attacked—though that has happened to me on more than one occasion—but oftentimes, there is a wink, a nod, a touch on the arm as we pass by that says, “Yes. We see how you handled that difficulty. Thank you.”
Everyone on a Plane Has the Chance to Be Considerate to the Crew and Other Passengers
I managed to make it through the pandemic without getting sick again until the federal mask mandate was lifted. I still wear a mask everywhere I go, and I’m triple vaccinated, but when infected passengers choose, sometimes unwittingly, to fly ill and without a mask, they put even vaccinated individuals at risk. My experience tells me that masks work if people wear them and that vaccines are a necessary form of defense against hospitalization.
Last month, I again contracted COVID-19. The virus hit me hard, and I missed three weeks of work. My underlying condition is asthma. The passenger who likely transmitted the virus had a distinctive cough, glassy eyes and a feverish look—they weren’t wearing a mask. I was masked and practiced good personal hygiene but still caught the virus. Other passengers may have also become infected. Risk comes with the job. Sadly, COVID-19 is not the only virus out there. I understand that people need to travel, but please. The simple act of putting on a mask can make a world of difference for fellow passengers and crews.
Consider an experience I had last year, when a mother boarded first class with her family. The family was wearing masks below the nose, or not at all, so I requested they all wear them properly. A few minutes later, a flight attendant told me about an issue between the mother and a male passenger seated next to her, yelling about her mask. I could see that her young daughter was shaken up, so I politely reminded her of the federal mandate and assured her that I would speak to the man. He angrily informed me that he had just come home to bury his mother, who he had lost to COVID-19. I allowed him to vent, extended my sincere condolences and told him that the masks would not be a problem.
As I returned to the mother tending to her young daughter, I took her aside and explained the man’s situation, which had made him a bit raw when it came to mask compliance. She quickly agreed to keep her mask on properly. Her daughter was still upset, so I made it my mission to make sure she had a great flight. About midway through the trip, the man apologized to mother and daughter for yelling, and by the end of the flight, we were all friends.
These are trying times for everyone. I find that taking a moment to understand someone's personal story can make or break the mood of any flight.