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"Coffee, Tea or Milk?" You can probably picture yourself on a Boeing 707 being accosted by a big bouffant bimbo called a stewardess.  Well my friend, put out your cigarette, fasten your seatbelt and fast forward to 1997, since FAA guidelines nowadays prohibit smoking on all domestic flights, and us girls and boys (yes, boys too!) no, corrected, women and men) are now called Flight Attendants.  Oh, no more thing, 707's can now only be found in Boeing's corporate museum in Seattle; you can only find 727's, 737's, 747's, 757's, 767's, and soon 777's at your local international airport.

I have been a flight attendant for a decade now with Delta Airlines.  Now, don't you go call me old mama! I will probably knock your socks off if I see you on my flight, if not by my look then by my fist.  No, just kidding.  To be a flight attendant, you have got to be confident, courteous, and caring.   But first, let me tell you what led me astray to this profession and a bit about myself.

After college, I was so enthused at being out of my shell, I asked my dad to let me backpack through Europe.  I guess he was a renaissance man given my age at the time . . . so he gave in.  I spent a good summer backpacking through the many countries of Europe, concentrating on France to practice speaking French fluently.

By then, I had become addicted to traveling distant lands and meeting foreigners.   When, I got back to the states, I applied to a several major airlines and picked Delta.  A long time ago, there were many discriminatory and stereotypical barriers to becoming a flight attendant.  You had to have looks, height, and weight (or lack thereof) to be chosen.  Even after becoming one, you had to keep all the qualifications or else lose your job.  Thank God the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) did away with many of that.

Nowadays, the only legit qualifications for becoming a flight attendant are you have to be at least 5 foot 2 inches, and have a two year college degree or an equivalent amount of business experience.  Knowing a foreign languages is a plus but not required.   Mostly it is needed if you plan to work international routes (e.g., you need to speak French if you want to fly to France.)  I flew international routes for a while but settled for domestic (US) routes nowadays since I have a family and a baby.

When you first start, you get paid training at the company headquarters in Atlanta.   I stayed there for one month during training which included lots of FAA guidelines, safety skills, the business, the trade, the many airplanes' safety features, etc.   Upon completion, you assume the status of "reserve" for four months up to seven years, depending on your base of choice.  My base (hub) has been Cincinnati for the last seven years, after a few years in Dallas, Texas.  A "hub" is like the center of a bicycle wheel; major routes go from hub to hub, with minor routes from hubs to final destinations at the extreme ends of the spoke in the wheel.

It was a challenge being on reserve.  You basically carry a beeper for a 24-hr period at a time.  If someone calls in sick, you have to report to work that flight for them within 1 hour and 45 minutes.  Once out of reserve, you can bid on a monthly basis for your schedule.  You basically choose flights, dates, times, cities of origination and destination, and list them on the computer.  You start from your hub and end at your hub for each trip, after two, three or four cities later.  Sometimes you have to stay overnight if the trip is multiple routes like that.  Sometimes, one trip is simply to fly out in the morning and back in the same day.  The computer will weight all flight attendants' bids and arrange them according to seniority.  So you don't usually get what you want until you get some tenure.

Full-time status is about 80 hours of flying time a month.  Isn't that great?   That translates to about three days of work a week.  Sometimes you can bid to take off one full week a month.  The pay is pretty good.  At 10 years of service, I can earn almost as much as my husband who is an engineer (and he's pretty good) - well, that is if I work up to 100 hours a month.  Plus there is a host of factors that affects the pay scale is not that optimistic, just enough for a single guy or gal to support him/herself and that is about it.  My husband always wants me to stay home but why? Heck, I get my own money, get to be out of the house and in a couple of different cities each week, and keep all the perks.  But before we get to the perks, there's one important role I forgot to tell you about.

Did you know that Delta did not hire me just to serve "coffee, tea or milk?"   My responsibility is first and foremost to ensure the passengers' safety in case of an emergency.  As good as pilots are, they're no good when it comes to getting the passengers to safety if anything ever happens like a hijacking, mechanical failure, bomb threat, power failure, or someone getting sick. . . You get the picture.  Heck, they have to keep flying the plane! FAA guidelines are very strict in this regard.  We have to train on every airplane in the fleet, and know all safety features inside out.   We even have to get retrained and requalified every year.

Now about the perks.  Besides being able to shop in different cities every week, Paris, New York, London, etc.  I can fly anywhere anytime on Delta for pleasure for free!  Actually, it may sound bizarre, there are many flight attendants who "commute."  They choose to live in a different city from their hub city, and fly in and out to work every week.  I have a friend who lives in Hawaii with her parents, and commutes on a five hour flight to Los Angeles to work each week! Now you know why they let us fly for free.  But it's almost like hitchhiking.  If there are seats available, then you fly; if not, you wait.  You know, they call it "standby."  Usually it's no problem since you can call ahead and the computer will let you know how many seats a flight has left, up to departure time.   So you can plan alternate routes way in advance.
The better part of the perk is that my spouse and children get to fly for free, and so do my natural parents.  When they fly for free, it is called "non-rev," as in non revenue passengers..  They can take unlimited flights on domestic routes and they each get up to four free passes a year on international routes.  This benefit is not transferable.  However, it remains after my retirement, so I really look forward to that day!  Further, I can fly on other airlines for 10% of the listed (not discounted) fares.  I guess the airlines help each other out, since I have seen flight attendants from other carriers fly on Delta to get to work or home.  I believe Delta is the only airline that seats their non-rev's in first class on domestic routes if there are seats available, and in business class on international routes.

All Delta employees enjoy this same non-rev benefit.  Most recently, Delta just awarded its employees four "friends-and family's" passes a year.  This is an extension of the non-rev benefit to family members other than those listed above, as well as friends.  But this one is not free like the immediate family's non-rev benefit.  Pass holders have to pay 3.2 cents per mile.  For example, a friend with this pass will pay about $60 one way from Cincinnati to Seattle, after taxes and airport fees, it comes to $150 for a round trip.  This pass is transferable.

Every year, our family averages about two or three international vacations.  If the trip is 10 hours flight time or less, we haul our son along.  In our five years of marriage we have toured through parts of Australia, Denmark, England, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, The Caribbean, The Virgin Islands, and Mexico.  In Europe, for example, our favorite way to travel is to rent a car and drive from city to city while sightseeing famous landmarks, meeting the local folks and trying their cuisine.  At night fall, we check into a number of clean, nice affordable hotels that are always available.  Speaking both English and French really helps; otherwise my husband will always pull the old standard: sign language!   Traveling on our own terms means being thoughtful of weather patterns to achieve extremely light packing.  An advantage to carrying two small suitcases (sometimes one) is we always haul some art home at the end of the trip to remind us of the local culture.

Domestically speaking, quick getaways are innumerable.  On some weekends when there is nothing going on in our Vietnamese church, we just call a friend in another city, and pick up and go.  People at church are well aware of this, and my husband (and I sometimes) get to be airborne apostles of Christ.  He and I volunteer for the Cursillo and Thang Tien Hon Nhan Gia Dinh programs quite often, especially if that particular city or country is having the event for the first time.  Besides all the great shopping, I think one thing that stands out the most for me is being well-traveled, I get exposed to so many different cultures and peoples.  Nowadays, my brain operates on a different level, always keeping in perspective the many ways of life and cultures around the world.  So the good things here in the US is not always the best, and the worst things here is not always the end of the world.  Most importantly though, I get to accept people that I live with day in and day out because they represent one special set of lifestyle and thinking, totally unique to them, as compared to say, another group of people living in Germany, France, or Thailand.  It makes me more tolerant, more appreciative.  It gives my mind the "big" picture.

Work has its fun too.  You get to know many flight attendants at your own base and at other bases as well.  I found my close friends through work.  When I get to work with people I have befriended, it's a blast.  It's almost like having a party.   We all look forward to it - they even drop me notes to bring something good to eat because they know I can cook!  Then they layover gets to be quite a trip (pardon the pun).  We shop and go for international cuisine together, and just have a great time.

An in-the-air funny story for you.  One time an old, large sized gentleman asked me to locate his seat for him.  So I got to his seat number and stood there to wait for him to waddle up to it with his cane.  All of a sudden, his pants slipped off his round belly and dropped to his ankles!  He asked me if I could help him pick up his pants as he could not bent over.  What's a girl to do??? Quick thinking came to my rescue: I notice his wife behind him and offered to hold her luggage while she helped him put his trousers back on.  Whew, what a close call!

Work also has its side that I simple can do without.  First off, businessmen think that you are no more than their cocktail waitress.  You have to bear with it and find a way to educate them.  They are so demanding, cranky, short on temper.  Here, you just have to put up with it.  And you can't argue with them, since they are the passenger and you represent your company.  Even if you are totally steamed, you would still have to keep up a smile and be courteous.  Otherwise, they would go to the competitor airlines and you will be out of a job pretty soon.  Another thing, this is really a no brainer job so I always have to keep occupied both on and off the job to keep stimulating the old gray matter.  Otherwise, I'd get so bored I go home and kick my husband or something.

Once I scanned the company listing:  I saw only a couple of other Vietnamese flight attendants! I am sorely disappointed.  I guess it's due in part to the impression folks have had for years that it's a glamour job and it's hard to get in - that you have to be so tall, so good looking, etc.

Well, I hope I have dispelled most of those popular misconceptions and shared with you the real aspects of being a flight attendant.  It's easy if your heart's in it.  So, all you young men and women out there who years for an adventurous career, go apply!   Just stop by any Delta or other major airline ticket office, or write to their headquarters to request an employment application form.  The only address I know without research is:

        Delta Airlines, Employment Office,
        Hatsfield Atlanta International Airport
        Atlanta,  Georgia  303200

                             - Mai Linh -
                             Cincinnati, OH