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How to Become a Flight Attendant

flight attendants
Flight attendants are responsible for the safety of airline passengers, as well as their comfort.
Credit: Blend Images | Shutterstock

Flight attendants do a lot more than just serve drinks and hand out headphones. They are responsible for the safety and comfort of every customer aboard domestic and international flights and must be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) upon obtaining employment. This multi-faceted job combines emergency care with customer service, hospitality, food service, and sales.

If you’re considering a career as a flight attendant, then you’ll want to read up on the various aspects of the occupation before searching for a job. Here’s some useful information on this career, including what the job responsibilities are, what the typical hours and work environments for flight attendants are like, and how much money they earn annually.

What flight attendants do

First and foremost, flight attendants are responsible for the safety of airline passengers. Airline companies are required by law to employ attendants for this purpose, and attendants must be trained and certified in emergency and first aid procedures. They are also responsible for demonstrating the proper use of safety equipment for passengers.

Besides keeping customers safe while in the air, flight attendants must also ensure passengers’ comfort. They perform a variety of duties for customers before, during, and after a flight takes off, including attending preflight briefings; checking and restocking supplies of food, beverages, and emergency equipment; selling and serving food and beverages; and reporting cabin conditions to the airline after each flight.

Where flight attendants work

Most flight attendants work for major airline companies, but some work for corporations or chartered flight companies. Most are members of the flight attendant labor union.

Flight attendants spend the majority of their time at work in the cabin of an airplane, and because of the nature of this environment, flight attendants report a higher-than-average number of work-related injuries and illnesses. Injuries can be sustained when opening overheard compartments or pushing carts. Some flight attendants report that irregular sleep patterns, stress and spending extended period of time in the pressurized cabin environment of an airplane can give rise to medical issues.

Because airline companies operate around the clock, flight attendants are often required to work nights, weekends and holidays. The flight attendant union and airline companies are responsible for negotiating the amount of daily and monthly hours attendants are allowed to spend on-duty, and most typically work between 12 to 14 hours per day.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, attendants typically fly 75 to 90 hours a month and spend 50 additional hours on the ground preparing flights, writing reports, and waiting for planes to arrive. The FAA requires that flight attendants receive nine consecutive hours of rest following any on-duty period.

Attendants usually spend two to three nights away from home per week, during which time their employing airline covers the cost of hotel stays and food.

A flight attendant’s home base and route assignments are based on a structured seniority, wherein new attendants must be flexible in their schedules and locations and more senior attendants receive the most desirable schedules and routes.

The median annual wage of flight attendants was $37,740 as of 2010, with entry level positions in the field paying closer to $16,597 annually, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Most flight attendants receive health and retirement benefits as part of their compensation package, and many airlines also include incentives for working night shifts, holidays, and weekends. Attendants typically cover the cost of their initial set of uniforms and luggage, but most airline companies pay for replacements.

Becoming a flight attendant

Flight attendants must be 18 years of age or older, hold a valid U.S. passport, and be able to pass a background check. A high school diploma or equivalent is the minimum educational requirement for flight attendants, though airlines are increasingly preferential to applicants who hold a college degree in hospitality, tourism, public relations or communications. Many airlines also prefer to higher applicants with several years' experience in a customer service profession.

Because the job of flight attendants is physically demanding, applicants must be in excellent health and pass a medical evaluation. Most airlines require that attendants are a certain height, possess a proportionate height-to-weight ratio, and have vision that is correctable to at least 20/40.

Most airline companies provide initial training for new hires, which ranges in duration from three to six weeks and is a requirement of the FAA. Trainees are taught proper evacuation techniques, flight regulations, first aid, emergency procedures and other skills important to the job. At the end of this training, new flight attendants receive the FAA Certificate of Demonstrated Proficiency, which is a certification that must be tested and maintained throughout their careers.

Upon completing certification, flight attendants are placed on reserve and must remain on-call for duty at short notice. For this reason, most new attendants live close to their base airport for the first year or so of their career. Advancement in the field is based on seniority, and once new hires have put in a sufficient amount of time with an airline, they are taken off reserve status and are able to start bidding on their own monthly assignments.

Flight attendants are certified for work on specific aircraft carriers and must obtain different certifications for every type of aircraft on which they work. Many attendants who work on international flights are also required to be fluent in a foreign language.