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Cabin Crew Confessions

American air steward Steven Slater's dramatic resignation from his job this week - following a spat with a passenger, he went on the plane's tannoy to declare that he was quitting, grabbed some beers of the refreshments trolley, and then left the plane via the inflatable slide - has put the airline industry under the lens. Hellish passengers, drunk pilots and, erm, dead bodies. Just some of the dramas flight attendants deal with on a daily basis. In this series of posts, we lift the lid on what it's really like to work 30,000 feet up in the air.
You're on board one of the world's leading airlines and you've almost finished seating the passengers. It's hot. The plane is already delayed, people are irritable, children are screaming. A bead of sweat rolls down your back as you fix a smile on your face and grit your teeth. At last the final passenger arrives, a chic French woman carrying a Chanel holdall that definitely won't fit in the overhead locker. You smile and explain that you'll need to keep it in the storage holder until after take-off, but she refuses to give up the bag. The plane can't take off until she's seated. You try again. She calls you a name that would make a trucker blush and you can feel everyone's eyes boggling. A colleague comes to back you up and the stand-off continues. Eventually, Madame backs down, but not before screaming something incomprehensible in your face. And this is only the beginning, as you'll be spending the next 16 hours in a confined space with this woman,
catering to her every whim and swallowing your pride for £9,000 per year.
Being a flight attendant isn't what it used to be. With gruelling hours, air rage and increased security risks, the golden era of air travel is long gone. "Forget the Leonardo DiCaprio Catch Me If You Can dream of Martini-fuelled, long-haul trips," says Imogen Edwards-Jones, author of Air Babylon. "Today's flight attendants work long hours for little pay and are far more likely to be swallowing Prozac than swigging the vodka miniatures they used to pinch from their trolley."
There are currently 31,500 cabin crew in the UK and women still outnumber men 9:1. Salaries range from £9,000 to £13,500 a year - peaking at £27,000 for very senior crew. With demands for A-Levels, second languages and survival training, the misogynistic view of the 'trolley dolly' industry should be long gone. But that's not quite the case.
First impressions count
"No one wants to say it, but this job is all about the way you look," says Katie Campbell. "If you aren't pretty enough, you won't land a gig with the big airlines. Everyone knows that the best-looking staff make it into first class quickest. During training, you're told you have to look a certain way. I was told to have my forearms waxed - and I wear a jacket!'
Looking the part is a big must for the job. "Everyone on board has to use the same cosmetics," says Katie. "A senior steward once caught me using the wrong brand of lipstick and I was given a warning. Plus we all have to stay in shape. We're not weighed, but if your manager notices you've gained a few pounds, you're taken to one side. Then there's the toe-touch test. Visible pant lines are totally forbidden, so before a flight we have to bend over and touch our toes. If it's visible, we have to change our knickers."
The opportunity to travel the world is still enticing - as are the per diems (weekly allowance), which can be up to £5,000 a year. "LA is popular," says Katie. "As is Vegas - because you never know what celebrities you'll meet, or where the night will take you. But once you've been in the game longer, you aim for Caribbean routes - your money goes further and there'll be a day or two on the beach."
But even the stopovers aren't what they used to be. "We used to get put up in luxury hotels, but that's all changed now because of budget cuts," explains Lycia Pearson, who has been a flight attendant for almost ten years. "Plus the turnarounds are quicker - you might only get 12 hours in New York, after travelling six hours there and six back. The jet-lag is horrendous, but we learn to sleep anywhere - although Valium and Xanax are our little helpers."


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