10 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Flight Attendants

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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!”

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

11 Secrets of Astronauts

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

In the 60 or so years that the job has existed, astronauts have captured the public's imagination. And while many people might think they have some idea of what being an astronaut is like, thanks to the glut of portrayals in movies, real astronauts will tell you that working for NASA is much different from what you see on the screen. In between exciting tasks like spacewalks, they have to worry about less glamorous aspects of the job—like finding lost items that floated away and using the toilet in microgravity.

Mental Floss spoke with two former NASA astronauts about the realities of preparing for and experiencing life in space. Read on to learn about the most annoying parts of the job, the ways they have fun, and their honest opinions about astronaut food.

1. Astronauts come from a range of different fields.

There’s no one direct path to becoming an astronaut. If someone knows they want to be an astronaut from a young age, they need to build credentials in a specific field before they can get the attention of NASA. "They're looking for people who are qualified, meaning that they're high-achieving military people or people from civilian life, generally with an advanced degree," Mike Massimino, a former NASA astronaut and professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University, tells Mental Floss.

To be considered for NASA’s astronaut program, candidates must have U.S. citizenship, hold a master's degree in a STEM field, and have at least two years of related post-grad professional experience or at least 1000 hours of pilot-in-command time on jet aircraft. Two years toward a doctoral program in STEM, a completed doctor of medicine or doctor of osteopathic medicine degree, or completion of a nationally recognized test pilot school program are also accepted in place of a master's degree. Because space flight crews require diverse skill sets, the criteria doesn’t get more specific than that.

"I was a Ph.D. research engineer professor when I was picked," Massimino says. "I've flown in space with engineers, with test pilots, helicopter pilots for the military. I've also flown in space with a geologist, I've flown in space with an oceanographer, and I've flown in space with a veterinarian. So it's really varied. There's not just one route."

2. Astronaut training involves everything from class work to military survival exercises.

NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman on a spacewalk in May 2010.NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Candidates accepted into the astronaut program must complete years of training before they're ready for spaceflight. A lot of that training takes place in the classroom and involves learning about different space vehicles and systems. Astronauts also undergo physical training in the real world. According to Garrett Reisman, former NASA astronaut and the director of space operations at SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California, one of the most intense courses has nothing to do with preparing for life in space.

"We do the same SERE [survive, evade, resist, escape] training that military aviators go through," he tells Mental Floss. "The idea is that if you fell out of an aircraft over enemy terrain, you got to know how to survive without help. You have to learn to live off the land, what plants you can eat, how to make a shelter and all those things."

The T-38 jets astronauts fly as part of their training have ejectable seats, so landing somewhere unfamiliar is a possibility. But astronauts only fly over the continental U.S., so they likely won't ever need to use the full extent of their SERE training. "What are the odds that you parachute down and there’s not a Starbucks right there?" Reisman jokes. "All you need to do is give me a Starbucks gift card and I’ll be fine."

3. Exercise is a vital part of the job.

Exercising is more than a way to pass time in space: It’s essential to an astronaut’s health. The human body isn’t used to moving around without the force of gravity, and for this reason, all astronauts must make resistance exercises part of their daily routine.

"You do have to spend two hours every day exercising," Reisman says. "If you're up there for a long period of time, you can lose a lot of your bone and your muscle mass if you do nothing, so the way we get around that is by doing intense resistance exercise."

Astronauts can lose up to 20 percent of their muscle mass on an 11-day space flight due to the lack of gravity [PDF]. But zero gravity also makes free weights useless, so instead, astronauts maintain their strength by using a device outfitted with two small canisters that create a vacuum they can pull against with a long bar. A bike and treadmill (with a harness) are also available on the International Space Station. Strength is required to perform certain emergency procedures when the ship re-enters Earth's gravitational field, so staying fit in space is vital.

4. Astronauts do most of their work on Earth.

Astronaut Mike Massimino practices repairing a portion of the Hubble Space Telescope while training at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.NASA Hubble Space Telescope, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In order to become one of the few people to travel to space, astronauts must be willing to do a lot of work at home. "A NASA astronaut’s job is mainly spending your time on Earth," Massimino says. "You're going to spend the vast majority of your time on the ground, either training or working on technical issues or helping other people fly." Throughout his nearly two decades with NASA, Massimino spent less than a month total in space. Reisman was with NASA for 12 years and spent a cumulative 107 days of his career in space.

5. Astronauts don't make as much money as you think.

One of the biggest misconceptions astronauts hear about their work relates to their salary. While they are paid decently, astronauts don’t collect the massive paychecks some people might assume comes with such a high-profile job. "We don't make a heck of a lot of money," Massimino says. "We make a standard government salary."

Astronauts are paid according to the federal government's General Schedule pay scale. Most federal jobs are assigned a General Schedule (GS) grade that determines their starting salary, and the pay increases as they gain experience. Astronauts either qualify for grades GS 13 or 14 (the highest grade is GS 15) and make between $104,898 and $161,141 per year. For comparison, Fish and Wildlife administrators are paid similarly at the right experience level.

6. Astronauts lose things (but not for long).

Even in a place as tight as a space station, astronauts still manage to misplace their belongings. Thanks to the lack of gravity, anything they let go of immediately drifts away, which can cause problems when they’re not paying attention. Massimino recalls one incident that happened to his crewmate Mike Good: "He had his grandfather’s watch with him, and he comes up to me and goes, 'Mass, I can’t find the watch.' We’re looking all over the place and I stop after a minute and go, 'Mike, it’s inside here somewhere.'"

They eventually found it trapped inside the airlock. The air filter is another common place where lost items end up: Without gravity interfering, the air flow will carry any floating objects there. "One thing we would say is, 'If you can’t find something, just wait,'" Massimino says. "You'd wake up in the morning and look at the filter and see like aspirin and a piece of Velcro or something, because everything eventually would get there."

7. Astronaut opinions on the food in space are mixed.

Despite its reputation, space food has some fans in the astronaut community. "Astronaut food is great," Massimino says. "We had ravioli, lasagna, shrimp cocktail, fajitas. It was fantastic."

Reisman holds a much different opinion of the meals he ate in space. "It’s terrible. You don’t go to the space station for the food," he says. While he didn’t love the American and Russian provisions that made up most of his diet in space, he did have nice things to say about food from other agencies. "The Japanese and the Europeans, when their astronauts would fly, they had special food that was provided by their space agencies. The Japanese sent up yakitori and miso soup and that was delicious. And the Europeans had pâté. That was much better."

8. Astronauts find time to have fun.

NASA astronaut Mike Massimino smiles during some extravehicular activity (EVA).NASA Hubble Space Telescope, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Between work, meals, and exercise, astronauts don’t have a ton of free time in space. Duties like maintenance, installing equipment, and conducting experiments take up the majority of their day. Sneaking in recreation usually means staying up past their scheduled bedtime, which Reisman confirms most astronauts do. One of his favorite activities to do aboard the International Space Station was taking pictures of Earth. "You could take photographs of places on Earth that are special to you. I got a picture of my hometown, which is pretty cool. As far as I know, no human ever photographed that particular town from space before."

9. Astronauts think movies set unrealistic standards.

The science isn’t the only thing that’s unrealistic about Hollywood’s portrayal of space travel. "I think the biggest misconception is that we're all tall and good-looking," Reisman says. When working as a technical advisor for 2019's Ad Astra, he jokingly brought up this gripe with the movie’s star Brad Pitt. "I said, 'I’m kind of pissed off at you. Think about who they cast to be astronauts in all these movies and TV shows. Matt Damon, Matthew McConaughey, George Clooney, Brad Pitt. People meet me and they’re disappointed.'"

Reisman doesn't hold this against the actors, however. Pitt reminded him that the stars portraying astronauts on screen have plenty to be envious of themselves. "Brad said: 'Well, Garrett, I can't actually fly a spaceship. The only talent I have is being able to stand in a certain spot and read something that someone else wrote. I got nothing else.'"

10. Going to the bathroom in space is an ordeal.

If you’ve ever wondered how astronauts poop in space, the answer is: with great difficulty. "Taking a dump was not easy," Reisman confirms. Without the help of gravity, using a toilet in space becomes a complicated operation. Astronauts must strap their feet down to keep from floating away and create a perfect seal between the toilet seat and their butt cheeks. The toilet itself uses a vacuum hose to suction up the waste. The process is so complex that using a space toilet is part of an astronaut’s training. It's not unusual for a bathroom break that normally takes a few minutes on Earth to last half an hour in space.

11. In such a competitive field, astronauts need to be persistent.

NASA's astronaut training program is extremely competitive. The agency selected just 12 people out of a pool of 18,353 candidates in 2017, which comes out to an acceptance rate of 0.065 percent. Massimino had to apply four times before he made it into the program.

"I was rejected outright twice while I was in grad school. The third time I got an interview and failed the eye exam, so was medically disqualified." NASA considers candidates with less than 20/20 vision today as long as it's correctable, but that wasn't the case when Massimino was applying. "I went through some vision training with an optometrist, and I was able to teach my eyes to see a little better. I was able to apply a fourth time, and I was picked on my fourth try."

According to Massimino, that level of commitment to his goal ended up being relevant to the job itself. "The job is a lot of late-night simulations, you have to pass exams, you have to work with your teammates. And unless you have a real interest in it, it's going to be tough."