Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Glamorous Day in the Glamorous Life of a Flight Attendant

This is a post by my friend, who flies for a regional airline. I was inspired to post this after this thread where people were actually debating whether or not it's okay to treat flight attendants poorly

I woke up at 4:30 this morning, as late as I possibly could to get to work by 5:45am. It's only an 18 minute drive to the airport, but I need to leave 45 minutes to an hour before my report time, so that I can park in the farthest-away terminal and wait for the light rail to take me to the main terminal, then go through security, which includes taking out my computer, taking off my shoes and many layers of clothing (as this is Minnesota in dead winter) and then shoving them all with my bags into the x-ray machine, and then packing them up and re-robing on the other side. I didn't shower or put on my make-up because I wasn't actually expecting to fly (which I will explain in a minute), so I just allowed for the barebones time it takes to convince myself to get out of bed, brush my teeth, take my pills, and pack my overnight bags in my car. I take one suitcase with overnight supplies and one very heavy tote bag with my required Flight Attendant Manual (which takes up most of the room), paperwork, corkscrew, various emergency supplies like a needle and thread and clear nail polish that doesn't really stop a run in nylons, though I keep it in hopes that if I believe hard enough, someday it will. I could make life marginally easier on myself by not toting my enormous laptop with me everywhere, but after getting stuck for 8 hours in Rhinelander, Wisconsin on a maintenance delay with absolutely NOTHING to do, I vowed to never risk wasting my life in total brain-melting boredom again. I do bring books, but I burn through them fairly quickly, and 3 books takes up about as much room as the computer and they don't give you the capability to check your email, or write, or watch the Daily Show in your hotel room later. So the computer is cumbersome, but a lifestyle choice I have chosen to sacrifice a little convenience for.

I brought computer with the intent of using it most of the day today. The beauty of the 5:45am shift this morning is that it rarely requires much work. It was an isolated day of "ready reserve," meaning I show up in the blue monkey suit and wait in the crew room until they call me for a flight. I'm an operational spare, as it were, only called if another flight attendant calls in sick at the last minute, or an aircraft and its crew get stuck somewhere and are not available to fly their next scheduled flight. Much of the time, you can be on ready reserve and not get called at all, or be called for some ridiculous 17 minute flight to St. Cloud and back. Or, as was the case today, be dead-headed out to Watertown, SD, and then just have to work the 42 minute flight back (dead-heading is when you are flown somewhere by the company for work purposes but sitting as a passenger). Many people despise ready reserve; they can't stand being called to work to sit around and wait, but I secretly enjoy it. I love that I am being paid to look nice (most of the time) and read a book. Granted, it's not much pay. Though we have to be at the airport a full 9 hours, we get paid for 3 hours 45 minutes. (A little known fact to the travelling public is how exactly flight attendant [and pilot] pay is calculated. Though it sounds like we make quite a bit if you look at the hourly wage, those "hours" are only flight hours. So in a 14 hour work day [which is legal - up to 15 for "operational necessity" and 16 with your permission], you might only actually be paid for 4 or 5, at the most 7. The typical schedule for a MONTH is 75 to 80 hours. Your typical 40-hour work week job gives you at least twice that in a month. It's kind of a screwy system to not be paid for the hours you are away from home, but no one can quite protest enough to get a change because, well, you could be getting paid almost 4 hours of work for 9 hours of reading - or sleeping.) Possibly the most redeeming quality of the o-dark-thirty reserve day is that you get to spend some of it sleeping, as long as you have your phone on you and don't mind a shrill awakening. (Some people can just put their phones on vibrate and wake up to it, but I am more likely to just fold it into a dream as some very small and passionate cat. So I opt instead for the shrill noise of the ring and just bear the slight shame of waking everyone else in the room up with me).

So I slept a good portion of the morning and was shrilly awakened (of course) by Crew Scheduling calling to let me know I had a flight out at 10:10. I would be on the flight going to Aberdeen, SD which was making a previously unscheduled stop in Watertown to let me and my pilots off so that we could fly a previously broken and fixed airplane back to Minneapolis. Some chaos had erupted in whatever department is in charge of gate agents and gate signs, so there was a group of four of them conferring at the gate, trying to figure out who was supposed to be at what gate, and none of the gates had accurate information on them (this gate said we were going somewhere in Tennessee). I was the first one at the gate, and the gate agent printed my boarding pass (dead-heads need them, too) and scanned it in. Then he did something he technically shouldn't have: he opened the door to let me down to the aircraft. He shouldn't have done this because passengers are not allowed to be on the plane without the legal "minimum crew" (a big, important legal term in the airline industry), aka, the flight attendant working the flight. I blinked a few extra times and opened my eyes wide so he knew I didn't think this was normal, then asked, "Can you do that?" because I didn't know whether there was a flight attendant on the plane or not, and I had thought not. He nodded rather non-commitally and held the door open for me. I could either have refused the gesture and firmly planted my feet, or I could accept his under-the-table goodwill and get out of his hair to let him deal with the chaos more effectively. Jet bridges are not heated, so when I got to the plane and saw no flight attendant inside, I figured the security rule had been broken anyway, so it wasn't going to harm much by getting on the plane where it was warm. But Total Bitch Flight Attendant apparently disagreed. When she got on the plane, I said "hi" so as to minimize her shock at finding someone on what should have been an empty plane. She flipped her lid. I explained that it was really cold in the jet bridge so I didn't want to wait there, and she said, with no attempt to disguise her anger, "And you didn't want to wait by the gate either." Whoa, lady. I'm not some spoiled brat that just can't bear the sight of the public so I coerced the gate agent into sneaking me down. I backed up a bit and told her that the gate agent just wanted to expedite things, to which she fumed in the most passive aggressive trying-for-superior-but-a-little-too-pissed-to-pull-it-off voice, "And you obliged him." As if that was supposed to be some cunningly cutting remark putting me in my place. Well, duh I obliged him, or I wouldn't be sitting there.

I have this awkward habit of going totally silent when someone is blatantly rude to me. I think my parents did such a good job instilling the value of politeness and courtesy in me that I have a very difficult time processing something so completely opposite. I have to take a few seconds to think 1. "Did she really just say that? Because that seemed rude if she did, and people don't say rude things" and 2. "How do I respond to that?" The script of politeness has lines for both sides: please, thank you, I'm sorry, excuse me and so on, and even when the specific words are not written, the actors are at least headed in the same direction. Rudeness is throwing away the script and heading your own direction, leaving the other person to improvise in a show they aren't sure is a comedy or a drama. (I hate improv, by the way. I am so terrible at it that I can't even stand to watch it performed because I have a hyper-active sense of empathy and am putting myself in the actors' shoes, and the thought of it is too nerve-wracking. My stomach twists and I am on the edge of my seat, not with rapt attention, but nail biting fear that they will mess up, say something unfunny, and humiliate themselves). So I was totally silent, dumbstruck by her rudeness, wishing I could have said something satisfyingly petulant like, "Yeah" in a you-wanna-make-something-of-it? tone, but probably just giving her the impression that she had put me in my place and now I felt like the sneaky little dog who'd gotten into the garbage again that she inferred I was. She also threw out some angry sounding remarks about how they weren't supposed to stop in Watertown, and how she hated it when they did this, and that she hoped none of us (the two pilots had gotten on by that point) were offended by swearing, because this is just the kind of thing that brings it out in her. She was worried about offending us with her swearing (which she actually refrained from), but apparently not anything else she had said. Maybe she she is one of those self-righteous "I only speak the truth" types who say that to somehow justify saying mean things. As if the truth is never offensive.

The shrill cry of Crew Scheduling had never sounded more like an angel when they called just then, telling me that we would now be on a later flight at 11:50 (and consequently Total Bitch would get her flight direct to Aberdeen after all). So I trundled with my three bags (the two from before plus large purse) over to the next gate to wait for the flight, which was delayed by a half hour. I actually don't mind delays much, when they are not my last flight going home. It is maybe the one arena of life in which I have learned to employ a zen kind of peace, thinking only about the present and not worrying. I read books or take out my computer or eat food. Today I read Sunshine, by Robin McKinley, which is quite good, and makes me think I might actually be becoming one of those vampire-obsessed people I always thought were a little strange. I read on the flight over and through the planned 45 minute break we were supposed to have. And I continued to read through 4 of the 5 hours we actually had.

No one is a greater optimist than the Crew Scheduler, I have found. Our flight out to Watertown carried not only passengers and crew, but the airplane mechanic who was supposed to fix the plane that we would be taking back to Minneapolis. He was supposed to fix a circuit breaker or some such simple-sounding thing in 45 minutes, then we were to hop on the plane and go home, arriving at around the time my reserve shift would have ended if I hadn't been called. The pilots often roll their eyes when Crew Scheduling quotes a time that they have estimated repairs will be done, and then give their own timeframe like today's, "There's no way we'll be outta here in less than 2 hours." In my memory, the pilots have always been right. More than two hours later, the plane was fixed, but not so fixed that we could take passengers, just fixed enough to get it from the little outstation to Minneapolis, its home with lots of mechanic friends and sophisticated tools. So it was just me, the mechanic, and another crew catching a ride in the back, and the pilots in front. During the pre-flight engine tests, the plane always makes funny noises and the lights go on and off. I am so used to this that I hardly blink and have to remind myself that it might actually be normal to worry when passengers look at me with stricken faces as we are taxiing and they see a propeller suddenly stop and the lights go out. But this time the plane made what I thought was an unusual coffee maker noise (and there is no coffee maker on this plane). It could have been just that I was sitting in the back instead of the front, but then we stopped a few minutes later. The captain catching a ride in the back said, "I don't think I like this," and then we heard the pilot over the intercom with the dreaded words, "Sorry, folks, but...." Though the original problem was fixed, a new one had cropped up in its stead.

It was 4:00, and the last flight out of Watertown left at 4:10, and someone (a gate agent or pilot) had told me it was oversold. The crew dead-heading home saw their chance and nearly catapulted out of the plane to try to get on the flight. Thinking it unlikely (it was oversold!) and knowing that Crew Scheduling hates to separate crews (as in me and the two pilots assigned to this flight together), I didn't jump into action and follow them. They all got on the plane, and just before they shut the door on the plane that was leaving, the captain turned around to me and said, "You probably could have got on, too, did you call crew scheduling?" Helpful. But I didn't think "so much for crew loyalty" would have been helpful either. The airplane needed two pilots to fly it, but it didn't need a flight attendant if there were no passengers. So even though they don't generally break up a crew, they probably would have in this case to let me go home, as it was clear the sick plane wouldn't be flying any passengers until it got properly attended to in Minneapolis. If there was room of course, which I had been led to believe there wasn't.

So I hung out in the plane while we taxied and the pilots and the mechanic looked at blinking lights, listened to engines, and evaluated things. I tried to read my next book, but I hadn't had time to properly grieve for the end of the last one, having finished only an hour or so ago, and I couldn't get into it. I did have free reign over the snack and beverage cart, but unlimited pretzels, cookies, and peanuts kind of lose their excitement after months of them - even the Biscoff cookies. I've had to be creative to keep relying on them for sustenance - it was a great day when I realized I could actually stand the taste of pretzels if I ate them in a handful with the peanuts. It increased my number of snack options from 2 to 3. With only three ingredients, there aren't a lot of recipe options. I've even taken to putting peanuts on top of the Biscoffs (with limited success) just to have something a little different. Occasionally on our biggest plane (the one that has a first class with a meal service), someone won't want their breakfast bagel and there is an extra cream cheese and raspberry jam, which makes a Biscoff cookie almost like cheesecake. It is sad, but that is one of the more exciting things about my job.

The mechanic didn't know what was wrong with the airplane, which means it must be something really wrong. Or at least, something more than a couple of hours to fix. The pilots were going to time out if we didn't leave by 7pm - time out meaning that they wouldn't legally be able to fly because their duty day would have started over 15 hours earlier by the time they got back. So I, being the pro-active sort, called Crew Scheduling while the pilots were still discussing aircraft issues to tell them the news so they can make arrangements for us to stay in a hotel overnight. But Crew Scheduling hadn't heard anything from their official channels (Maintenance), and couldn't do anything until they did. I got the distinct impression she didn't believe me. I often get the impression that Crew Scheduling has a rather dismissive attitude toward flight attendants, and gives much more respect to pilots. I am not the only one who feels this way. I told the pilots I had phoned and added, "I don't think she believed me," and they just nodded as if to say, "You're probably right."

At 5:30, they phoned again and Crew Scheduling still hadn't heard anything. At 5:45, the ground personnel in Watertown noticed that the flight time had been changed, meaning Crew Scheduling officially knew now that something was going on. It was moved to 6:00. They were giving the mechanic 15 minutes to fix the plane. Eternal optimists. The captain called at 6 and explained to them that parts were going to be needed, and there was no way it could get fixed tonight because a plane would have to fly them out (which would take an hour at the least if parts were on a magical platter being delivered to the plane at that moment) and then they'd have to install them, and that would be long after 7pm when it finished. Crew Scheduling said they couldn't actually set up a room for us at the hotel until they had it from The Powers On High that it couldn't be fixed by then. So that meant that either the mechanics who were not yet on their way with parts, driving the 5 hour drive, had to show up and say conclusively through official channels that it couldn't be fixed in a timely fashion, or we had to just sit at the airport and wait until the pilots timed out and THEN they could get rooms for us. But they did change our departure time to 6:30.

Finally at 6:30 some magic must have happened, because the airport folks in Watertown (who were all working way past their shifts to babysit us) told us Crew Scheduling had made hotel arrangements and the van was on its way to pick us up. Too many minutes later, no van arrived. Turned out that Crew Scheduling had made arrangements for a crew in Waterloo, not Watertown. So some puzzled van driver in Iowa had been dispatched to pick up a crew that wouldn't show up. They sorted things out and eventually we got in the van to our hotel in Watertown. Now some places have the not-so-nice areas of town, but I suspect that Watertown may just be not-so-nice. Granted, I was seeing it in the dark, and we may have been coincidentally driving down the one road lined with casinos. But they weren't nice, Mystic Lake, Muckleshoot, fancy, go-there-for-the-buffet kind of casinos. They were dark, one-story longhouses with readerboards. We asked the driver if we could go to a drive-through or anywhere for dinner because we hadn't eaten since before our originally scheduled 10:10am flight (the Watertown airport had a vending machine but no restaurant. It is essentially a long room with benches, a counter, and an x-ray machine). There didn't seem to be anywhere as hip as a drive-through, but there was a Subway. In a gas station. So the driver kindly let us go in (I say this with no irony - they don't have to take us anywhere but the airport and back, and Subway is a "fast" food restaurant that takes a long time when 4 people have sandwiches made to order one by one) and we had gas station Subway for dinner.

All this was independent of the feather-ruffling that occurred as a result of me missing a fancy dessert date with friends, and a birthday party with more friends, and the fact that I will technically be working on my day off to deadhead home. And of course, the irony that this was the first reserve day that I'd had in over a year, and I only got it due a scheduling fluke that happened as a result of calling in sick earlier, and that I'd planned to not get called at all. And that I wasn't even used to flight attend a flight. Those are all unfortunate side effects that sometimes just happen, given the potential for the unplanned in this job.
But the day's narrative is a pretty true portrait of a pretty common day - an oh-so glamorous day in the oh-so-glamorous life of the flight attendant.

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