Rita is a flight attendant based in Los Angeles. This story was told to Arielle Pardes.
1. People will treat you like a glorified waitress, but you're actually an aircraft expert.
Rolling the beverage cart up and down the aisle is the easy part of the job. Most of what flight attendants learn in training is related to safety, not service. You need separate qualifications for every single aircraft you're going to be working on, which means understanding the insides of the plane and exactly how it operates. You have to memorize seating charts, know where all the emergency equipment is stored, learn how to operate all of the doors, and pass both written tests about the technicalities and physical drills inside models of the airplanes. Sure, I can also make a mean Bloody Mary from canned tomato juice, but if shit were to hit the fan, the most important thing is knowing how to get everyone out of the plane safely.
2. The hours are insanely flexible, but there's a catch.
Every other month I alternate between a set schedule and an on-call schedule, which means you have to be near the airport and ready to head into work on short notice if you're called in. We have the ability to drop trips, pick up other people's trips, and move our schedule around a lot, which means we can give ourselves time off or work more. Of course, there's a trade-off: During on-call months, I'm guaranteed to be paid for 75 hours, whether I'm working or not, but that's a really small paycheck. We also get paid a per diem rate when we fly, which covers meals and travel incidentals, so you lose that chunk of money if you're not working. So even though you could take a ton of time off, most flight attendants pick up extra trips to make enough money to get by. The only exception to the schedule flexibility is, of course, during the holidays…
3. Don't plan to spend the holidays at home, ever.
Unless you've been working as a flight attendant for a decade and have seniority, you will be working on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's, guaranteed. Winter holidays are especially tough, since you're more likely to have weather delays: While the passengers are pissed off about wanting to get home to be with their families, I'm pissed off about being stuck on the airplane during the holiday! I've learned to work around it for Christmas—we can have a big Christmas celebration on the 23rd, and it's not a huge deal—but it's trickier for holidays like Halloween or Independence Day. It's not like you can take your kids out and about.
4. Get used to sleeping in strange places.
When you're taking two-day trips, your layovers can be as short as 10 hours, which gives you just enough time to sleep at a hotel near the airport between flights. For longer international flights, like Los Angeles to London, you get short sleeping breaks during the flight. The large aircrafts have an area above the passenger cabin, which is about 4 feet tall and 40 feet long, with eight bunks on each side. Each flight attendant gets a sleeping shift during the flight, about two or three hours, where we get to lie in one of those little cots and sleep. They're not the most comfortable beds, but it definitely beats sleeping in a passenger seat in coach!
5. It's frighteningly easy to let this job wear you down.
Even if you aren't strained by the low salary or working at odd hours of the day and night, the job can be extremely grating. You're sleeping in strange places, you're away from your friends and family, you're eating crap at the airport all the time, and you're constantly stressed. Anxiety and depression are extremely common. According to The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, flight attendants are 1.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. Flight attendants are also 2.5 times more likely to die by alcoholism. I've had friends who have ended up in the hospital from exhaustion from the job. It's so important to take care of yourself—physically and emotionally—to survive. I try to take as much time off between flying as I can, eat as healthfully as possible when I'm home, and get as much sleep as I can, but even I've had days when I've cried at work or thought I was going to pass out from exhaustion.
6. Looking put-together is part of the job description.
Every airline has slightly different grooming standards, but they're all really specific and extremely strict: We're told what color our hose has to be, how we have to wear our hair, what type of makeup we have to wear, how tall the heel on our shoes has to be. Our uniforms need to be neatly pressed each day. Our nails and lips have to be in neutral, muted colors—pink, peach, nude, or, occasionally, you can do classic red. Your hair has to look natural, which means you can dye it to another natural-looking color, but you can't have any roots showing. We can't even have ombré hair. Airline unions fought to remove the weight restrictions on flight attendants in the '90s, but every year we're evaluated to make sure we can fit through every door, emergency exit, and the aisle of the smallest aircraft, which means you can lose your job if you're too big to fit. Some airlines also have height requirements, which are supposedly to make sure you can open the overhead bins.
7. You can fly anywhere for next-to-nothing.
It's not free to fly anywhere, but almost. We can ride in coach for free, or fly with a companion for about 90 percent off, plus tax and fees on international flights. My husband and I recently flew to Tokyo first class, and our tickets were less than $1,000 round-trip for the both of us. I can use my airline discount for one companion (in my case, my husband) plus a similar discount for my immediate family members (my mom and dad), meaning we all get to travel for dirt-cheap. I also get a certain number of discount standby passes that I can give away to friends.
8. You'll learn everything about your coworkers—and then never work with them again.
When you fly with another flight attendant for a three-day trip, you'll know their entire life story by day three. We call it "jumpseat therapy." You sit with them on the plane, you stay in the same hotel, you go to the bar together during your layover—basically, you're attached at the hip for a few days. It's kind of like sorority rush, except that often, you'll never fly with that person again. There are hundreds of different flight attendants for each airline, so you end up getting to know a lot of people really intimately and then not seeing them for months, if ever again.
9. Most airlines are based in big cities, so be prepared to stretch your paycheck.
I cannot overemphasize how painfully difficult it is to survive on $27 (P1,000) an hour in the cities where we're based—many hubs are in really expensive cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Miami, and San Francisco. The money we're making wouldn't be so terrible in Atlanta, but it doesn't go a long way in New York. To make it work, lots of flight attendants live in what are called "crash pads"—essentially dorms, where they're sharing a bedroom with a handful of other flight attendants. Everyone crams into one room with a bunch of beds. It works out because you're flying most of the time (especially in the beginning, because you have to fly a lot to earn a decent paycheck), but it does feel a little like freshman year of college.
10. You'll learn to appreciate places you'd never visit otherwise.
If my friends and I had a contest for "most-traveled," I would obviously win. But it's not just the layovers in Hawaii or Sydney that make this job so cool. Recently, I had a long layover in Oklahoma City, and I had such a great time there. I wandered around the city by myself, visited the bombing site in the early morning, and strolled around the River Walk. I would've never visited Oklahoma City otherwise, but I'm so glad my job took me there.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.