10 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Flight Attendants

iStock
iStock

by Heather Poole

Heather Poole has worked for a major carrier for over 15 years and is the author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet. We begged her to spill some workplace secrets.

1. IF THE PLANE DOOR IS OPEN, WE’RE NOT GETTING PAID.

You know all that preflight time where we’re cramming bags into overhead bins? None of that shows up in our paychecks. Flight attendants get paid for “flight hours only.” Translation: The clock doesn’t start until the craft pushes away from the gate. Flight delays, cancellations, and layovers affect us just as much as they do passengers—maybe even more.

Airlines aren’t completely heartless, though. From the time we sign in at the airport until the plane slides back into the gate at our home base, we get an expense allowance of $1.50 an hour. It’s not much, but it helps pay the rent.

2. LANDING THIS GIG IS TOUGH.

Competition is fierce: When Delta announced 1,000 openings in 2010, it received over 100,000 applications. Even Harvard’s acceptance rate isn’t that low! All that competition means that most applicants who score interviews have college degrees—I know doctors and lawyers who’ve made the career switch.

But you don’t need a law degree to get your foot in the jetway door. Being able to speak a second language greatly improves your chances. So does having customer service experience (especially in fine dining) or having worked for another airline, a sign that you can handle the lifestyle.

The 4 percent who do get a callback interview really need to weigh the pros and cons of the job. As we like to say, flight attendants must be willing to cut their hair and go anywhere. And if you can’t survive on $18,000 a year, most new hires’ salary, don’t even think about applying.

3. WE CAN BE TOO TALL OR TOO SHORT TO FLY.

During Pan Am’s heyday in the 1960s, there were strict requirements for stewardesses: They had to be at least 5-foot-2, weigh no more than 130 pounds, and retire by age 32. They couldn’t be married or have children, either. As a result, most women averaged just 18 months on the job.

In the 1970s, the organization Stewardesses for Women’s Rights forced airlines to change their ways. The mandatory retirement age was the first thing to go. By the 1980s, the marriage restriction was gone as well. These days, as long as flight attendants can do the job and pass a yearly training program, we can keep flying.

As for weight restrictions, most of those disappeared in the 1990s. Today, the rules are about safety: Flight attendants who can’t sit in the jump seat without an extended seat belt or can’t fit through the emergency exit window cannot fly. The same goes for height requirements: We have to be tall enough to grab equipment from the overhead bins, but not so tall that we’re hitting our heads on the ceiling. Today, that typically means between 5-foot-3 and 6-foot-1, depending on the aircraft.

4. WE CAN BE FIRED FOR BIZARRE REASONS.

Newly hired flight attendants are placed on strict probation for their first six months. I know one new hire who lost her job for wearing her uniform sweater tied around her waist. Another newbie got canned for pretending to be a full-fledged attendant so she could fly home for free. (Travel benefits don’t kick in until we’re off probation.) But the most surprising violation is flying while ill: If we call in sick, we aren’t allowed to fly, even as a passenger on another airline. It’s grounds for immediate dismissal.

5. DIET COKE IS OUR NEMESIS!

Of all the drinks we serve, Diet Coke takes the most time to pour—the fizz takes forever to settle at 35,000 feet. In the time it takes me to pour a single cup of Diet Coke, I can serve three passengers a different beverage. So even though giving cans to first-class passengers is a big no-no, you’ll occasionally spy 12 ounces of silver trimmed in red sitting up there.

6. IF YOU TRY TO SNEAK A DEAD BODY ONTO A PLANE, WE WILL NOTICE.

You may have heard the story of a Miami passenger who tried to board a flight with his dead mother inside a garment bag. Why would someone do such a thing? Because it’s expensive to transport human bodies! Prices vary by destination, but delivering a body on a flight can cost up to $5,000. Commercial carriers transport bodies across the country every day, and because the funeral directors who arrange these flights are offered air miles for their loyalty, they’re not always concerned about finding the lowest fare.

Thankfully, I’ve never had someone sneak a deceased passenger on board, but my roommate did. She knew the man was dead the moment she saw him looking gray and slumped over in a wheelchair, even though his wife and daughter assured her he was just battling the flu. Midway through the flight, the plane had to make an unscheduled landing when it became apparent that no amount of Nyquil was going to revive him.

No one officially dies in-flight unless there’s a doctor on board to make the pronouncement. On these very rare occasions, the crew will do everything possible to manage the situation with sensitivity and respect. Unfortunately, most flights are full, so it’s not always possible to move an “incapacitated” passenger to an empty row of seats. Singapore Airlines is the most prepared. Its planes feature a “corpse cupboard,” a compartment for storing a dead body if the situation arises.

7. WE’LL ALSO NOTICE IF YOU TRY TO JOIN THE MILE HIGH CLUB.

It’s usually the long line of people waiting to use the bathroom that gives you away, and nine times out of 10, it’s a passenger who asks the flight attendants to intervene. Strictly speaking, it’s not against the law to join the Mile High Club. But it is against the law to disobey crew member commands. If we ask you to stop doing whatever it is you’re doing, by all means, stop! Otherwise, you’re going to have a very awkward conversation when you meet your cell mate.

8. WE’RE THE FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE AGAINST HUMAN TRAFFICKING.

When I started flying, I never dreamed I’d be working with the police, but it’s become an important part of the job. This new role started with Sandra Fiorini, an American Airlines flight attendant who testified to Congress about an 18-year-old male passenger carrying a newborn with its umbilical cord still attached. No mother in sight, just one bottle of milk and two diapers stuck in his pocket for the six-hour flight. When Fiorini reported her suspicions to the authorities, she got no response.

In 2007, Fiorini met Deborah Sigmund, founder of the organization Innocents at Risk, and they began working together to train airline employees on what to spot and who to call. In 2011, this translated into hundreds of flight attendants from different airlines volunteering to help police at the Super Bowl, a hotbed for trafficking prostitutes.

9. SENIORITY MEANS SHORTER SKIRTS.

Our tenure on the job doesn’t just determine which routes we fly and which days we get to take off; it also affects the hierarchy in our crashpad, an apartment shared by as many as 20 flight attendants. Seniority is the difference between top or lower bunk, what floor your bed is on, and just how far away your room is from noisy areas such as doors or stairwells.

Seniority even determines the length of our skirts—we can’t hem them above a certain length until we’re off probation. Afterward, it’s OK to shorten the hem and show a little leg. Some of the friskier pilots take advantage of the long hems; they know that new hires tend to be more flattered by their advances than senior flight attendants. (One senior flight attendant I know intentionally left her skirt long just to keep these guys interested!)

10. YOU’VE NEVER EXPERIENCED EXTREME TURBULENCE.

More than 2 million people fly in the United States each day, and yet since 1980, only three people have died as a direct result of turbulence. Of those fatalities, two passengers weren’t wearing their safety belts. During that same time period, the Federal Aviation Administration recorded just over 300 serious injuries from turbulence, and more than two-thirds of the victims were flight attendants. What do these numbers mean? As long as your seat belt is on, you’re more likely to be injured by falling luggage than by choppy air.

Interestingly, on some airlines, a flight attendant’s injuries in flight can’t be officially classified as an on-duty injury unless it happens during what’s known as “extreme turbulence”—where the captain loses control of the plane or the craft sustains structural damage. In both of those cases, the aircraft must be grounded and inspected. Because no one wants to ground a plane, captains are very hesitant to hand out the “extreme turbulence” label. A friend of mine who works closely with airline management said he’s never seen a pilot label rough air as “extreme turbulence.” So the next time you’re nervous about some mid-flight bumps, just take a deep breath and remind yourself, “This isn’t extreme!”

10 Secrets of Brewmasters

Being a brewmaster is about more than just sampling beer and coming up with new recipes. Maintenance and sanitation also play a huge role in the job.
Being a brewmaster is about more than just sampling beer and coming up with new recipes. Maintenance and sanitation also play a huge role in the job.
Stone Brewing

With roughly 7500 craft beer breweries in the United States—a number that continues to grow—it’s clear consumers like their ales and lagers. And as more of these breweries pop up in towns and cities every month, it’s up to brewmasters to constantly produce new beers to satisfy demanding (and evolving) palates, maintain a sterile workspace, and properly operate all the complex machinery that pumps out your favorite IPA. To find out what goes into owning and operating a brewery, Mental Floss spoke with a number of brewmasters about what their days entail. Here’s what they had to say about taste tests, oyster beer, and getting doused in hop sludge.

1. A lot of brewmasters started out as home brewers.

Stone Brewery equipment.
A brew kettle from Stone's Richmond, Virginia, location.
Stone Brewing

While brewmasters sometimes attend college to study chemistry or even specific brewing courses, a fair number get their start in their own homes. “When I started, I would say about 50 percent [were home brewers],” Tom Kehoe, co-owner of Yards Brewing Company in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, says. This was back when there were only around 649 breweries in the country, according to Kehoe. That number has only grown with time, and now he says as many as 90 percent of current brewers experimented with home brewing before moving on to larger productions.

While home brewing can be a good start, Kehoe says that there’s a limit to how much you can learn in a garage setting. “The basic knowledge of how beer is made is exactly the same. However, good brewing practices need to be learned on site. The environment working in a brewery is a lot different than brewing at home.”

One example? Size. According to Jeremy Moynier, brewmaster of Stone Brewing in San Diego, California, people are surprised when they see the scale of some brewing operations. "A home brewer is used to making a few gallons," Moynier says. "We could be making a 250-barrel batch [at Stone]. Each barrel is 30 gallons."

2. Brewmasters use sound almost as much as taste to evaluate the brewing process.

Brewing equipment from Yards Brewing.
This is just a sample of the brewing equipment employed by Yards.
Yards Brewing

Breweries come in all shapes and sizes, but all of them implement a lot of machinery, stainless steel vats, pumps, and bottling lines to concoct their brews. It becomes a symphony of sorts, according Moynier. And if one instrument sounds off, he can tell.

"You use all of your senses, from taste to sound," he tells Mental Floss. "Breweries are noisy, and there are sounds you get attuned to. If something sounds wrong, you know there’s a problem somewhere. Your senses being in tune are important."

Once, Moynier heard an unusual squeaking noise in the factory. He discovered that the tank that held the crushed malt was backed up, which would eventually ruin the conveyor belts if no one noticed in time. Thankfully, Moynier picked up on that change in noise, and the problem was corrected before the machine required a more expensive repair.

3. Brewmasters are always trying novel flavors. Even oysters.

There’s no shortage of creativity among brewmasters, with breweries constantly experimenting with different flavor profiles, from tea to chocolate to fruit. "There are so many different styles, flavor, and aroma profiles you can hit," Moynier says. "We’re constantly learning about new ingredients.” One that impressed Moynier recently was an oyster stout, a style that was originally billed as a beer that simply paired well with oysters more than a century ago, but has since evolved to include actual oyster meat and stock in modern recipes. This one came from Liberty Station, one of Stone Brewing’s locations in San Diego. "It was pretty fascinating," he says. "They got a real briny, oyster thing going."

4. Sanitation is one of the most important parts of being a brewmaster.

A picture of Stone Brewing's beer equipment.
Stone's barrels hold 30 gallons of beer.
Stone Brewing

The stereotype of brewmasters sipping beer all day and hovering over batches is slightly misguided. According to John Trogner, co-owner with brother Chris of Tröegs Independent Brewing in Hershey, Pennsylvania, most of the job is making sure beer is made in clean conditions. “People usually think you’re sitting around all day dreaming up recipes and tasting beer,” Trogner says. "That’s a very small component. Physical cleaning is probably 80 percent of it. Sanitation is paramount. It’s like a chef keeping a kitchen clean. Workers spend most of their time scrubbing."

Just because the breweries are kept clean doesn't mean the brewmasters are quite as lucky. Depending on the valve and your luck that day, that could sometimes mean an unintentional beer shower for workers. "I’ve taken baths in yeast and beer sludge," Trogner says of his early days, explaining it's a hazard you face when you're opening the valves on the brew tanks.

5. Brewmasters know they're expected to bring beer to most gatherings.

A look at the Tröegs brewery.
Foeders are large wooden vats that age a beer to create a unique flavor profile. It's part of Tröegs's Splinter Cellar, and each foeder was custom made and shipped to the brewery.
Tröegs Independent Brewing

Like any other profession, brewmasters can sometimes be greeted with an expectation that their services and goods are free for friends and relatives to enjoy at gatherings and family events. "If it’s appropriate to bring beer, I will," Kehoe says. "And sometimes when it is not so appropriate. I have brought beer to a business networking breakfast and somehow it turned out to be a great icebreaker. I find that people are disappointed if I don’t have at least some beer at the ready."

6. The job can make you critical of other beers and even food.

Working to perfect beers all day can have an effect on how brewmasters regard other beer options. "I still love beer, but it changes the way you approach it," Moynier says. "You pick out a flaw, and it will bother you. It might ruin your enjoyment. But if you find a beer you really like, it can also make it more enjoyable."

A brewmaster doesn’t just develop a sense of what makes for a good beer; they’re also constantly thinking about what type of food pairs well with certain beers. "It definitely affects the way you taste things," Moynier says. "It’s made me a pickier eater. You’ll think about how food will pair with beer sometimes, where you wouldn’t necessarily think about that before. It made me appreciate how things go together."

7. Brewmasters know names and logos can make or break a beer.

Tröegs Independent Brewing Mad Elf beer is pictured
Tröegs's Mad Elf is one of the most recognizable beers around the holidays.
Tröegs Independent Brewing

With so many beer options, it’s imperative for brewmasters to use marketing as a way of setting up a consumer’s palate before they sample anything. For Tröegs's Haze Charmer, which offers pineapple and grapefruit notes, the brewery went to great lengths to describe how the "haze" of the recipe carries hop oil into the mouth.

"Haze Charmer emerges from a soft, swirling cloud of oats and unmalted wheat. Vigorous dry-hopping adds a second phase of haze, propping up the oils of Citrus and El Dorado," the website description of the beer reads.

"The name is a critical component," Trogner says. "Consumers are getting to know it before they try it."

The right—or wrong—name and design can make all the difference. Trogner promoted a cherry, honey, and chocolate ale around the holidays and called it Mad Elf, with bottles and packaging decked out in cartoon images of a tipsy elf enjoying one too many. It's become a perennial hit.

"It’s a celebration of the holidays," Trogner says. "Mad Elf is kind of part of social webbing, which is nice to hear. Grandmothers come in and buy five or six cases for family coming over for the holidays."

Similar beers with different branding didn't fare as well. "We’ve done beers like Mad Elf out of season and it didn’t have near the fervor or excitement," he says.

8. A brewmaster associates a beer’s personality with color.

Yards Pale Ale is pictured.
Yards's Philadelphia Pale Ale is lighter in color and far more citrusy than an amber lager.
Yards Brewing

According to Kehoe, light and dark beers each give off a distinctive personality trait depending on their color, which comes from the grains used. "To me, the color of the beer is the mood of the beer," he says. "Light color is fluid and exciting; darker [is] slower and more filling and relaxing." Amber is more middle-of-the-road and more versatile. "[It] can be whatever personality that you want to project in the moment."

9. Smells are a big inspiration for new beers.

Don’t think brewmasters develop recipes based just on tasting other beers; it’s more of a multi-sensory experience. Trogner says that most beer ideas come from everyday life. “We’re not sitting around and looking at other types of beer,” he says. “It’s more about an experience, like having an amazing dish at a restaurant. Or you might be hiking and smell something floral in the air, like pine.”

10. Yes, brewmasters sometimes drink early in the morning.

While downing beer is probably not as common an occurrence as you might think, brewmasters are still expected to sample their wares before it goes out for distribution. According to Moynier, those executive samples can happen at odd times of the day depending on schedules.

"Tastings can happen at six in the morning," he says. "We also have structured tasting and daily taste panels to approve beer about to be packaged. Three times a week we have a brewmaster taste panel where we focus on new beers we’re trying out for release or changes to recipes. There’s an executive panel once a month with [Stone's founders Greg Koch and Steve Wagner]."

Or, as Kehoe puts it, “I don’t drink all day, but I do drink every day.”

14 Secrets of TSA Agents

Being a TSA agent means plenty of job stress.
Being a TSA agent means plenty of job stress.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Last year, more than 964 million people boarded airplanes departing or arriving within the United States. Barring any special security clearance, virtually all of them were filtered through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a federally operated branch charged with screening passengers to ensure they’re complying with the rules of safe air travel.

Some travelers believe the TSA’s policies are burdensome and ineffectual; others acknowledge that individual employees are doing their best to conform to a frequently confusing, ever-changing set of procedures. We asked some former TSA officers about their experiences, and here’s what they had to say about life in blue gloves.

1. CATS ARE THE REAL TERRORISTS.

A cat escaping from its carrier.
"Cats are a nightmare."
Lightspruch/iStock via Getty Images

According to Jason Harrington, who spent six years at O’Hare Airport as a Transportation Security Officer (TSO), rogue felines have created more havoc and confusion than any suspected criminal. “Cats are a nightmare,” he says. “They don’t want to come out of their carriers, they scratch and claw, and they don’t come when you call them.” A cat that’s made a break for it and who hasn’t been patted down to check for weapons is technically a security breach, which a TSA supervisor could use as justifiable cause to shut down an entire terminal.

Dogs, however, are no problem. “A pat down on a dog amounts to going over and petting them,” Harrington says. “That’s actually pleasant.”

2. THEY HAVE CODE WORDS FOR ATTRACTIVE (AND ANNOYING) PASSENGERS.

Because TSOs are usually in close proximity to passengers, some checkpoints develop a vocabulary of code words that allows them to speak freely without offending anyone. “Code talk for attractive females was the most common,” Harrington says. An employee might say “hotel papa” to alert others to an appealing traveler heading their way—the “h” is for “hot.” Others might assign a code number, like 39, and call it out. Harrington was also informed by a supervisor that he could signal for a prolonged screening for an annoying passenger if Harrington told him that the traveler was “very nice.”

3. FANCY HAIRDOS ARE A SECURITY RISK.

Any passenger coming through with an elaborate hairdo—either carefully braided hair or the kind of up-do found on women headed for a wedding—means additional inspection will be required, because piled-up hair can conceivably conceal a weapon.

“Just about anything can set off an anomaly in the head area, from braids to a scrunchie to a barrette to a bad hair day,” Harrington says. “And those body scanners are especially fussy when it comes to the head, giving false positives there more than any other area.”

4. THEY LIKE YOU BETTER WHEN YOU’RE EXHAUSTED.

A customer sleeping in the airport.
A tired customer is a pleasant customer.
AlexBrylov/iStock via Getty Images

“Tina”—a former TSO in the northeast who prefers not to use her real name—says that travelers taking evening flights are typically more cooperative than morning passengers. “People are actually much nastier when they’re flying out in the morning,” she says. “The really late-night travelers are the best ones to be around.” (Also on Tina’s naughty list: business travelers. “They’re generally meaner.”)

5. THEY SOMETIMES LIE ABOUT WHERE THEY WORK.

Because public criticism of the TSA is so pervasive, Harrington has found that many employees stretch the truth about where they work when asked. “If I had to admit it, I’d say I was working for the Department of Homeland Security,” he says. “When I made mention of that on Facebook, I got a ton of officers who said they did the same thing.”

6. CHEESE CAN LOOK JUST LIKE A BOMB.

Airport X-ray screening.
The foods in your bag can really confuse agents during an x-ray screening.
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

That giant wheel of cheese you’re bringing back from the holidays? It’s going to cause a lot of agitation among employees monitoring the x-ray machine. “A block of cheese is indistinguishable from C4,” Harrington says. “There is no difference on the screen. Meats, too. All organic products look orange on the display and similar to explosives.”

7. YOUR GENDER CAN CONFUSE THEM.

When a passenger enters a full-body scanner, the device operator hits a button to tell the unit whether it’s a he or she. It makes a difference, since a female passenger’s anatomy would raise a red flag when the machine expects to see male-only parts, and vice versa. If a person's gender isn’t easily ascertained on sight and a TSO guesses, a pair of breasts could initiate a delay. “The machines detect things under clothes, and if it doesn’t match what’s been pressed, it means a pat down,” Harrington says.

8. THEY DON’T DO THE SAME THING ALL DAY.

TSOs typically get assigned to different stations (ticket taker, x-ray operator, shouting-at-you-to-take-your-shoes-off officer) at the security checkpoint, and never for very long: 30 minutes is typically the limit before a new officer is brought in. According to Tina, the revolving schedule is to avoid employee error. “After 30 minutes, you may begin to miss things,” she says.

9. OPTING OUT GETS THEM ANNOYED.

Harrington’s security checkpoint had a code word for passengers who “opted out,” or refused to submit to the full-body scanners—they were “tulips,” and they proved to be an annoyance.

“It slows down the whole operation and a lot of guys would hate it,” he says. “Now that it’s millimeter [radio] waves and people still opt out, they get annoyed, thinking the passenger doesn’t even know what they’re opting out of.”

10. THEY’RE WRITING ON YOUR TICKET FOR TWO REASONS.

A TSA agent looking at a traveller's documents
No, TSA agents don't love it when you opt out of their full-body scans.
John Moore/Getty Images

Policies can vary by airport, but generally, security officers sitting up front and checking tickets are looking for irregularities in your identification: If something causes them to be suspicious, they’ll write something on your ticket that would prompt a more thorough inspection. “They’ll also write their badge number and initials,” Tina says, “so the airline knows they’ve been through security when they board.”

11. “CREDIBLE THREATS” STRESS THEM OUT.

According to Tina, turnover rates for TSOs can be high, and that’s due in large part to the perpetual stress of preparing for a hazardous situation. “In 10 months’ time, we went through active shooter training three times,” she says. “Another time, we were told there was a credible threat against the airport and not to wear our uniforms to or from work.”

12. THEY HATE WHEN YOU ASK THEM TO CHANGE GLOVES.

"The most common complaint [from TSOs] is when passengers ask them to change their gloves before a pat down," Harrington says, "because we change them all the time. We might have changed them just before getting to someone and passengers will still insist they use new ones in front of their face."

13. IT’S REALLY HARD TO GET FIRED.

TSOs undergo regular training and performance reviews where they're expected to simulate a screening in a private room for supervisors. After two years, the probationary period is over, and employees are generally set. “They’d call it being a ‘made’ man or woman,” Harrington says, referring to the mafia term for acceptance. “It’s really hard to get fired at that point. The only way to lose your job would be to commit a crime.”

14. THEY DON’T GET AIRPORT PERKS.

As federal employees, TSOs don’t enjoy any perks from airlines: Accepting a gift could be cause for termination, according to Tina. “But there’s a loophole,” she says. “If you’re friends with a pilot or have a personal relationship with an airline employee, you can accept it.”

A version of this story originally ran in 2016.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER