If you’ve set foot in an airport recently, you know that between canceled flights, endless delays, surging prices, and lost luggage, this summer has been pretty miserable for travelers. It has been even more of a nightmare for flight attendants. After laying off staff to cut costs early in the pandemic, airlines have struggled to accommodate the recent influx of passengers and increased demand for flights. Flight attendants are typically only paid during flight time, meaning that when flights get delayed, they’re often forced to work longer days without compensation for the wait time — all while dealing with unsustainable schedules, exhaustion, and frustrated travelers. Here, three flight attendants share their experiences.
“A lot of the chaos is mismanagement.”
I work as a flight attendant for a small budget airline. Our crew had huge attrition rates during the early months of COVID. Now it’s full throttle, like, “Let’s book as many flights as possible.” Flight attendants are flying six days in a row, four flights each day, at the whim of the airline. When my airline hires people, they used to say you can come home and have a family. But lately, we’ve had so many delays and cancellations that, a lot of times, we’re unexpectedly working overnight. It has become impossible. I recently spoke to a flight attendant who is quitting, because her child is in preschool and there’s absolutely no flexibility with the job anymore.
A lot of the chaos is mismanagement. Airlines are scheduling flights they’re not able to staff. Every single day, there are delays, and that wears on you. You never know for sure what your schedule will be, so you just prepare for the worst. So many times, I’m sitting with passengers who have been delayed for eight hours. I keep boarding and deplaning them. People become irrational. I had an overnight this summer where we were delayed 30 hours. Our bathrooms didn’t work on the second day. I try to understand passenger frustrations, but the most I can do is comp a drink. I usually just end up crying in the employee lot after a long delay.
As flight attendants, we’re so sexualized. We’re trained to be nice all the time, but people read it as inviting unwelcome behavior. I’ve had a guy corner me in the back of the plane and try to take pictures of me. He tried to pull me onto his lap while I was walking through. I didn’t report it. I knew nothing would be done. We’ve had flight attendants get smacked on the ass. We’ve had flight attendants who’ve been body slammed from behind. We’re trained to de-escalate, to be empathetic, to dissolve conflict, often at the risk of our own well-being. —Raychel Armstrong, 32, Allegiant Air
“We’re going through real exhaustion.”
I work ready reserve, which is grueling. You’re on call 24/7 for three days, so you’re always on edge. A lot of people commute to their bases — it’s a luxury to live in one — so you have to fly out and pay for a hotel or crash pad without reimbursement. You’ll be sitting in the airport lounge for five hours waiting for assignments. If you don’t get used for the day, you only get paid for a fraction of it.
Summer has been stressful. When you’re seeing delays, sometimes we don’t have enough staff, enough rampers or baggage handlers. We often get mandatory overtime: “Hey, I know you’ve worked eight hours today, you’re now going to work 16.” Our pilots have been picketing and calling out the company for scheduling more flights than they have employees for, but nothing has budged. Work conditions are a disaster. I know people who have gotten hurt from severe turbulence: My friend hit the ceiling and broke her rib. The company figured out they can cut costs by using the same plane all day, so there’s no opportunity for us to leave and buy food until our shift ends.
Because of delays, I’ve had days where I didn’t get back to my base until 5:30 in the morning when I was supposed to get back at midnight. Then, because of all the cancellations, there are often no flights for me to commute home, so I’m sitting in the airport, my head bobbing as I try to stay awake. It’s hard to sustain. We’re going through real exhaustion. We’ve had pilots sleeping on the ground in the terminal. There are flight attendants who are homeless, who can’t afford where they are based. I make it sound like a nightmare, but it has sort of been that way. —Leslie, 38, Southwest Airlines
“People should know that most of us are overworked and underpaid and aren’t getting adequate rest.”
I’ve been a flight attendant for seven months. I knew it wouldn’t be sunshine and daisies, but I didn’t think about how tiring it would be on my body — the unexpected layovers, the delays. There are days I work six flights in a day, in four-inch heels, dealing with passengers who don’t understand that I’m not just a bartender in the air.
This summer has been extremely chaotic. I’m working 15-hour days — sitting with the passengers during delays, trying to pacify them while receiving no compensation for the wait time. I understand passengers are frustrated and upset, but so am I. There’s nothing I can do about delays.
Delays cut into my personal time. There are nights when I’m supposed to be home by 8:30 and it’s almost 2 a.m. by the time I get home. When am I supposed to sleep or do my laundry? I’m exhausted. When I come home from work, I’m a zombie.
People lose all common sense within five miles of getting to an airport. I’ve had tipsy passengers try to hug me. I tell myself I’m probably never going to see 90 percent of these people ever again. If they’re rude, I don’t take it to heart. But sometimes I’m just like, Why are you being a dick?
On top of that is sexism. Earlier this summer, I was doing drinks service when a man in the back row pulled my hair. All professionalism left my body. I turned around and said, “Who the fuck just pulled my hair?” He said, “Sorry, I just wanted your attention.” I told him, “Don’t ever touch a flight attendant.” Then the man in front of him said, “It’s fine; she probably liked it.” It’s disgusting to have to be used to those comments.
People should know that most of us are overworked and underpaid and aren’t getting adequate rest. Everyone has bad days, but people expect flight attendants to be cheery and giddy: “Oh yes, ma’am.” “Yes, sir.” “How can I help you?” “Let me put your bags up.” But we’re people too. We don’t get to eat for 14 or 15 hours, we don’t sleep, we’re practically doing red-eyes with all the delays. We’re getting delayed just as much as you are and don’t have all the answers to your questions. I don’t know why your bag is in Carousel 4 when it’s supposed to be in 5. —Aaliyah, 22
These interviews have been edited and condensed.