Memories from a Former Flight Attendant
Working as a flight attendant on a stand-by reserve schedule meant I would likely be called out to a last minute flight with as little as one hour's notice to head for the airport. Braniff was hiring and training extensively with hopes for expanded travel routes. With the number of graduates being placed on reserve schedules, we had little hope of winning the bid for a routine schedule.
As reserves, our trips were assigned on an as-needed basis to cover for flight attendants who might be ill or who missed their connection because of mechanical delays or other reasons. It was a volatile time with the Flight Attendant Union in negotiations for a new contract giving us even more reasons we might be called in to work.
When Scheduling did call, it might be an assignment to fly to Omaha, Detroit, Kansas City or all of them. If we were lucky, it could mean being assigned to work an eight hour flight to Hawaii with a cozy layover on the tropical beach. One predawn morning when the phone rang at my house the too cheerful voice told me, “Get your sun tan lotion and swim suit packed, you’re heading to Acapulco.”
Despite the many years which have passed, that flight is one I remember well. It was my first flight out of Dallas traveling to Mexico. Working an international flight was rare for me as those flights were routinely staffed with bi-lingual Flight Attendants. The Federal Aviation required the crew to make flight announcements in two languages for passenger safety. Those of us who were not fluent in Spanish were usually not called.
As Flight Attendants, our travel assignments were based directly on our seniority with the company. During this hiring frenzy even a week's seniority was enough to put a crew member in charge. On one flight to Detroit, all us were new hires of less than six weeks. With a crew of five on board a 727 series jet, two usually worked first class and the other three Coach. Among the three, assignments were given to work the galley, run meal trays or serve beverages. Although we covered each other in these jobs, the senior among us assigned us our duties for the flight.
Some of the long term crew members with fifteen or more years flying might win an ideal schedule like the Dallas-to-Hawaii trip. The duration of the flight was eight hours each way which would give them only four trips a month to meet their minimum base hours. With all the reserves in place, hardly any overtime was available.
Rookies like myself would end up with a monthly schedule of nine specific days off scattered throughout the month. The other days of the month we were on twenty-four hour call and had to be ready to take off at any time, although, we might not be called out at all. Most of the time we'd get at least a few hours notice of an upcoming trip or sometimes even an assignment for the next day. It was nice to get away from the land line phone (there were no cell phones) for a few hours without worrying. Like expectant mothers, we lived with a packed suitcase by the door in order to head out on short notice.
Flight attendants were allowed to lease pagers at our own expense, however, we were cautioned that if we missed a scheduling call it could mean suspension. During the first ninety days of probation this was a huge risk if we ventured out of the pager's coverage area. Most flight attendants couldn't afford a pager on the base salary we earned.
Kansas City Meal Runs
One of my first assignments after training was to work a Kansas City Meal Run. This was a grueling series of commuter flights where hot meals were served during the one-hour and ten minutes flight duration. Usually the planes were completely full of commuters and business travelers.
We didn't use the rolling service carts seen on planes today. Our PSK (passenger service kits) remained locked in the storage section of the galley. We literally ran the meals trays up the aisles stacking them several deep in our arms to make less trips. We would collect the trays while serving second coffees.
Three flight attendants worked the coach section: one worked in the galley pulling entrees out of the ovens and setting up meal trays; another would run meal trays to passengers while the third served cold and hot beverages. The other two Flight Attendants on board worked First Class.
After serving a series of two or three meal flights, the crew was literally out of breath awaiting the onslaught of passengers for the next flight segment.
Iced Glasses and Hotel Rooms
The gate agent would give a passenger report to the Senior flight attendant before passenger boarding started. This would give an exact number of how many passengers to expect on the flight. The Senior FA would assign duty stations to the rest of crew and pass along this information.
After a particularly gruelling meal segment the assigned senior on board told the rookie crew in coach that the next flight segment we'd have a fully loaded plane. Groaning inwardly while smiling, then exchanging meaningful looks with one another the three of us began icing dozens of glasses in preparation. This task was done prior to takeoff to get a head start on the beverage service which started after the plane leveled off.
In reality only a sprinkling of passengers actually got on board. The two seniors working the front thought it was a hoot watching us hustle. You know, Rookies! It was a variation on the rites of passage for newbies. We all had a good laugh, many years later.
But worse than the practical jokes or standing up for fourteen hours of duty, a flight attendant might get stuck in a hotel room with the same practical joker they'd been flying with all day. The airline assigned shared hotel rooms to flight attendants in an effort to reduce overhead cost.
Depending on the numbers and genders of the crew; the odd person out might be assigned a room to themselves, which was always a hope, but not often the reality as seniors got room choice, of course.
The Mexico Layover
Our flight arrived hours after dark and by the time our crew got through customs and took the shuttle to the hotel it was quite late. Despite the hour, I wanted to see a few of the sights before taking off early the next morning.
The luxurious hotel was situated only a short distance from the ocean but I was cautioned that walking on the beach at night was definitely not safe, so I scrapped the idea. Shops were closed for the evening as well so I tried to convince my bilingual crew mate into joining me at the hotel lounge.
“I’ve already seen the lounge,” she told me irritably.
She was one of those Flight Attendants who never brought street clothes on layovers, using it as her excuse to stay in the hotel room. We were forbidden to drink while wearing our uniforms. I loaned her some of my clothes to convince her to join me at the piano bar and help keep me out of trouble since I didn't speak the language.
With a little more persuasion, she agreed and we shared a lovely evening filled with good conversation and music, becoming friends of a sort. It turned out our friendship was of a temporary nature which ended at the door to our hotel room. At that point she insisted I hand over my alarm clock which she promptly hid in the depths of her suitcase. She explained, "The noise bothers me."
By then, it was extremely late and I just wanted to get some sleep, but that was nearly impossible. I kept waking up to check my watch with my handy flight attendant flashlight. I wondered whether she'd get me up on time or not. She was true to her word when morning arrived and I lost sleep over nothing.
As I look back on those little pranks and jokes, they were all done in good fun with no harm intended and served as the rites of passage for the new job.
© 2010 Peg Cole