Major airlines are required by law to provide flight attendants for the safety and security of the traveling public. Although the primary job of the flight attendants is to ensure that security and safety regulations are followed, attendants also try to make flights comfortable and enjoyable for passengers.
At least 1 hour before takeoff, attendants are briefed by the captain—the pilot in command—on such things as emergency evacuation procedures, coordination of the crew, the length of the flight, expected weather conditions, and any special issues having to do with passengers. Flight attendants make sure that first-aid kits and other emergency equipment are aboard and in working order and that the passenger cabin is in order, with adequate supplies of food, beverages, and any other amenities. As passengers board the plane, flight attendants greet them, check their tickets, and tell them where to store carry-on items.
Before the plane takes off, flight attendants instruct all passengers in the use of emergency equipment and check to see that seatbelts are fastened, seat backs are in upright positions, and all carry-on items are properly stowed. In the air, helping passengers in the event of an emergency is the most important responsibility of a flight attendant. Safety-related actions range from reassuring passengers during rough weather to directing passengers who must evacuate a plane following an emergency landing. Flight attendants also answer questions about the flight, and help small children, elderly or disabled persons, and any others needing assistance. Flight attendants may administer first aid to passengers who become ill. Flight attendants generally serve beverages and on many flights sell precooked meals or snacks. Prior to landing, flight attendants take inventory of headsets, alcoholic beverages, and moneys collected. They also report any medical problems passengers may have had, the condition of cabin equipment, and any lost-and-found articles.
Lead, or first, flight attendants, sometimes known as pursers, oversee the work of the other attendants aboard the aircraft, while performing most of the same duties.
Flight attendants held about 102,500 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of flight attendants were as follows:
- Scheduled air transportation - 95%
- Nonscheduled air transportation - 2%
Flight attendants work primarily in the cabin of passenger aircraft. Dealing directly with passengers and standing for long periods can be stressful and tiring. Occasionally, flights encounter air turbulence, which can make providing service more difficult and causes anxiety in some passengers. Handling emergencies and unruly customers also can be difficult and cause stress.
Flight attendants spend many nights away from home and often sleep in hotels or apartments shared by a group of flight attendants.
Injuries and Illnesses
Flight attendants have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. To avoid injuries, these workers must follow safety procedures. For example, they must ensure that overhead compartments are closed, especially during turbulence, so that carry-on items don’t fall and present a risk to all in the cabin. Attendants also ensure that carts are properly stowed and latched during aircraft emergencies to avoid injuries to passengers and themselves.
Flight attendants usually have variable schedules. They often work nights, weekends, and holidays because airlines operate every day and have overnight flights. In most cases, a contract between the airline and the flight attendant union determines the total daily and monthly workable hours. A typical on-duty shift is about 12 to 14 hours per day. However, duty time can be increased for international flights. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that flight attendants receive at least 9 consecutive hours of rest following any duty period before starting their next duty period.
Attendants usually fly 75 to 100 hours a month and generally spend another 50 hours a month on the ground, preparing flights, writing reports, and waiting for aircraft to arrive. They can spend several nights a week away from home. During this time, employers typically arrange hotel accommodations and a meal allowance. Some flight attendents work part time.
An attendant’s assignments of home base and route are based on seniority. New flight attendants must be flexible with their schedule and location. Almost all flight attendants start out working on call, also known as reserve status. Flight attendants on reserve usually live near their home airport, because they may have to report to work on short notice.
As they earn more seniority, attendants may have more control over their schedules. For example, some senior flight attendants may choose to live outside their home base and commute to work. Others may choose to work only on regional flights. On small corporate airlines, flight attendants may work on an as-needed basis.
Education & Training Required
A high school diploma or its equivalent is the minimum educational requirement. However, airlines increasingly prefer applicants with a college degree. Applicants who attend schools or colleges that offer flight attendant training may have an advantage over other applicants. Highly desirable areas of concentration include people-oriented disciplines, such as communications, psychology, nursing, travel and tourism, hospitality, and education. Flight attendants for international airlines generally must speak a foreign language fluently. For their international flights, some of the major airlines prefer candidates who can speak two major foreign languages.
Once hired, all candidates must undergo a period of formal training. The length of training, ranging from 3 to 6 weeks, depends on the size and type of carrier and takes place at the airline's flight training center. Airlines that do not operate training centers generally send new employees to the center of another airline. Some airlines may provide transportation to the training centers and an allowance for room, board, and school supplies, while other airlines charge individuals for training. New trainees are not considered employees of the airline until they successfully complete the training program. Trainees learn emergency procedures, such as evacuating an airplane, operating emergency systems and equipment, administering first aid, and surviving in the water. In addition, trainees are taught how to deal with disruptive passengers and with hijacking and terrorist situations. New hires learn flight regulations and duties, gain knowledge of company operations and policies, and receive instruction on personal grooming and weight control. Trainees for international routes get additional instruction in passport and customs regulations. Trainees must perform many drills and duties unaided, in front of the training staff. Throughout training, they also take tests designed to eliminate unsuccessful trainees. Toward the end of their training, students go on practice flights. Upon successful completion of training, flight attendants receive the FAA Certificate of Demonstrated Proficiency. Flight attendants also are required to go through periodic retraining and pass an FAA safety examination to continue flying.
All flight attendants must be certified by the FAA. To be certified, flight attendants are required to successfully complete training requirements, such as evacuation, fire fighting, medical emergency, and security procedures established by the FAA and the Transportation Security Administration. They also must perform the assigned duties of a cabin crew member and complete an approved proficiency check. Flight attendants are certified for specific types of aircraft, regardless of the carrier. Therefore, only 1-day or 2-day recurrent training, with the new carrier, is needed for those flight attendants who change airlines, as long as the type of aircraft remains the same.
Other Skills Required
Airlines prefer to hire poised, tactful, and resourceful people who can speak clearly and interact comfortably with strangers and remain calm under duress. Applicants with previous experience in dealing with the public are preferred by airlines. Additionally, airlines usually have age, physical, and appearance requirements. Applicants usually must be at least 18 to 21 years old, although some carriers may have higher minimum-age requirements. Applicants must meet height requirements for reaching overhead bins, which often contain emergency equipment, and most airlines want candidates with weight proportionate to height. Flight attendants must be in excellent health, and a medical evaluation is required. Vision is required to be correctable to 20/30 or better with glasses or contact lenses (uncorrected no worse than 20/200). Men must have their hair cut above the collar and be clean shaven. Airlines prefer applicants with no visible tattoos, body piercing, or unusual hairstyles or makeup.
In addition to education and training, airlines conduct a thorough background check, which goes back as many as 10 years, as required by the FAA,. Everything about an applicant is investigated, including date of birth, employment history, criminal record, school records, and any gaps in employment. Employment is contingent on a successful background check. An applicant will not be offered a job or will be immediately dismissed if his or her background check shows any discrepancies. All U.S. airlines require that applicants be citizens of the United States or registered aliens with legal rights to obtain employment in the United States.
How to Advance
After completing initial training, flight attendants are assigned to one of their airline's bases. New flight attendants are placed on reserve status and are called either to staff extra flights or to fill in for crewmembers that are sick, on vacation, or rerouted. When they are not on duty, reserve flight attendants must be available to report for flights on short notice. They usually remain on reserve for at least 1 year but, in some cities, it may take 5 to 10 years - or longer - to advance from reserve status. Flight attendants who no longer are on reserve bid monthly for regular assignments. Because assignments are based on seniority, usually only the most experienced attendants get their choice of assignments. Advancement takes longer today than in the past, because experienced flight attendants are remaining in this career longer than in the past.
Some flight attendants become supervisors, moving from senior or lead flight attendant, to check flight attendant, to flight attendant supervisor, then on to base manager, and finally to manager or vice president of in-flight operations. They may take on additional duties, such as recruiting, instructing, or developing in-flight products. Their experience also may qualify them for numerous airline-related jobs involving contact with the public, such as reservation ticket agent or public relations specialist. Flight attendants who do not want to travel often for various reasons may move to a position as an administrative assistant. With additional education, some flight attendants may decide to transfer to other areas of the airline for which they work, such as risk management or human resources.
Employment of flight attendants is projected to grow 30 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations.
About 17,600 openings for flight attendants are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.
Much of the projected employment growth in this occupation is due to recovery from the COVID-19 recession that began in 2020 and is likely to occur early in the decade. A return to normal patterns of travel following the COVID-19 pandemic will support job growth of flight attendants, who will continue to be needed to ensure the safety and comfort of passengers on flights.
The median annual wage for flight attendants was $61,640 in May 2021. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $37,020, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $81,400.
In May 2021, the median annual wages for flight attendants in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:
- Scheduled air transportation - $61,870
- Nonscheduled air transportation - $61,830
Flight attendants receive an allowance for meals and accommodations while working away from home. Although attendants are required to purchase an initial set of uniforms and luggage, the airlines usually pay for replacements and upkeep. Flight attendants generally are eligible for discounted airfare or free standby seats through their airline.
Attendants typically fly 75 to 100 hours a month and usually spend another 50 hours a month on the ground, preparing flights, writing reports, and waiting for planes to arrive. They can spend several nights a week away from home. Most work variable schedules. Some flight attendants work part time.