10 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Flight Attendants

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by Heather Poole

Heather Poole has worked for a major carrier for over 15 years and is the author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet. We begged her to spill some workplace secrets.

1. IF THE PLANE DOOR IS OPEN, WE’RE NOT GETTING PAID.

You know all that preflight time where we’re cramming bags into overhead bins? None of that shows up in our paychecks. Flight attendants get paid for “flight hours only.” Translation: The clock doesn’t start until the craft pushes away from the gate. Flight delays, cancellations, and layovers affect us just as much as they do passengers—maybe even more.

Airlines aren’t completely heartless, though. From the time we sign in at the airport until the plane slides back into the gate at our home base, we get an expense allowance of $1.50 an hour. It’s not much, but it helps pay the rent.

2. LANDING THIS GIG IS TOUGH.

Competition is fierce: When Delta announced 1,000 openings in 2010, it received over 100,000 applications. Even Harvard’s acceptance rate isn’t that low! All that competition means that most applicants who score interviews have college degrees—I know doctors and lawyers who’ve made the career switch.

But you don’t need a law degree to get your foot in the jetway door. Being able to speak a second language greatly improves your chances. So does having customer service experience (especially in fine dining) or having worked for another airline, a sign that you can handle the lifestyle.

The 4 percent who do get a callback interview really need to weigh the pros and cons of the job. As we like to say, flight attendants must be willing to cut their hair and go anywhere. And if you can’t survive on $18,000 a year, most new hires’ salary, don’t even think about applying.

3. WE CAN BE TOO TALL OR TOO SHORT TO FLY.

During Pan Am’s heyday in the 1960s, there were strict requirements for stewardesses: They had to be at least 5-foot-2, weigh no more than 130 pounds, and retire by age 32. They couldn’t be married or have children, either. As a result, most women averaged just 18 months on the job.

In the 1970s, the organization Stewardesses for Women’s Rights forced airlines to change their ways. The mandatory retirement age was the first thing to go. By the 1980s, the marriage restriction was gone as well. These days, as long as flight attendants can do the job and pass a yearly training program, we can keep flying.

As for weight restrictions, most of those disappeared in the 1990s. Today, the rules are about safety: Flight attendants who can’t sit in the jump seat without an extended seat belt or can’t fit through the emergency exit window cannot fly. The same goes for height requirements: We have to be tall enough to grab equipment from the overhead bins, but not so tall that we’re hitting our heads on the ceiling. Today, that typically means between 5-foot-3 and 6-foot-1, depending on the aircraft.

4. WE CAN BE FIRED FOR BIZARRE REASONS.

Newly hired flight attendants are placed on strict probation for their first six months. I know one new hire who lost her job for wearing her uniform sweater tied around her waist. Another newbie got canned for pretending to be a full-fledged attendant so she could fly home for free. (Travel benefits don’t kick in until we’re off probation.) But the most surprising violation is flying while ill: If we call in sick, we aren’t allowed to fly, even as a passenger on another airline. It’s grounds for immediate dismissal.

5. DIET COKE IS OUR NEMESIS!

Of all the drinks we serve, Diet Coke takes the most time to pour—the fizz takes forever to settle at 35,000 feet. In the time it takes me to pour a single cup of Diet Coke, I can serve three passengers a different beverage. So even though giving cans to first-class passengers is a big no-no, you’ll occasionally spy 12 ounces of silver trimmed in red sitting up there.

6. IF YOU TRY TO SNEAK A DEAD BODY ONTO A PLANE, WE WILL NOTICE.

You may have heard the story of a Miami passenger who tried to board a flight with his dead mother inside a garment bag. Why would someone do such a thing? Because it’s expensive to transport human bodies! Prices vary by destination, but delivering a body on a flight can cost up to $5,000. Commercial carriers transport bodies across the country every day, and because the funeral directors who arrange these flights are offered air miles for their loyalty, they’re not always concerned about finding the lowest fare.

Thankfully, I’ve never had someone sneak a deceased passenger on board, but my roommate did. She knew the man was dead the moment she saw him looking gray and slumped over in a wheelchair, even though his wife and daughter assured her he was just battling the flu. Midway through the flight, the plane had to make an unscheduled landing when it became apparent that no amount of Nyquil was going to revive him.

No one officially dies in-flight unless there’s a doctor on board to make the pronouncement. On these very rare occasions, the crew will do everything possible to manage the situation with sensitivity and respect. Unfortunately, most flights are full, so it’s not always possible to move an “incapacitated” passenger to an empty row of seats. Singapore Airlines is the most prepared. Its planes feature a “corpse cupboard,” a compartment for storing a dead body if the situation arises.

7. WE’LL ALSO NOTICE IF YOU TRY TO JOIN THE MILE HIGH CLUB.

It’s usually the long line of people waiting to use the bathroom that gives you away, and nine times out of 10, it’s a passenger who asks the flight attendants to intervene. Strictly speaking, it’s not against the law to join the Mile High Club. But it is against the law to disobey crew member commands. If we ask you to stop doing whatever it is you’re doing, by all means, stop! Otherwise, you’re going to have a very awkward conversation when you meet your cell mate.

8. WE’RE THE FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE AGAINST HUMAN TRAFFICKING.

When I started flying, I never dreamed I’d be working with the police, but it’s become an important part of the job. This new role started with Sandra Fiorini, an American Airlines flight attendant who testified to Congress about an 18-year-old male passenger carrying a newborn with its umbilical cord still attached. No mother in sight, just one bottle of milk and two diapers stuck in his pocket for the six-hour flight. When Fiorini reported her suspicions to the authorities, she got no response.

In 2007, Fiorini met Deborah Sigmund, founder of the organization Innocents at Risk, and they began working together to train airline employees on what to spot and who to call. In 2011, this translated into hundreds of flight attendants from different airlines volunteering to help police at the Super Bowl, a hotbed for trafficking prostitutes.

9. SENIORITY MEANS SHORTER SKIRTS.

Our tenure on the job doesn’t just determine which routes we fly and which days we get to take off; it also affects the hierarchy in our crashpad, an apartment shared by as many as 20 flight attendants. Seniority is the difference between top or lower bunk, what floor your bed is on, and just how far away your room is from noisy areas such as doors or stairwells.

Seniority even determines the length of our skirts—we can’t hem them above a certain length until we’re off probation. Afterward, it’s OK to shorten the hem and show a little leg. Some of the friskier pilots take advantage of the long hems; they know that new hires tend to be more flattered by their advances than senior flight attendants. (One senior flight attendant I know intentionally left her skirt long just to keep these guys interested!)

10. YOU’VE NEVER EXPERIENCED EXTREME TURBULENCE.

More than 2 million people fly in the United States each day, and yet since 1980, only three people have died as a direct result of turbulence. Of those fatalities, two passengers weren’t wearing their safety belts. During that same time period, the Federal Aviation Administration recorded just over 300 serious injuries from turbulence, and more than two-thirds of the victims were flight attendants. What do these numbers mean? As long as your seat belt is on, you’re more likely to be injured by falling luggage than by choppy air.

Interestingly, on some airlines, a flight attendant’s injuries in flight can’t be officially classified as an on-duty injury unless it happens during what’s known as “extreme turbulence”—where the captain loses control of the plane or the craft sustains structural damage. In both of those cases, the aircraft must be grounded and inspected. Because no one wants to ground a plane, captains are very hesitant to hand out the “extreme turbulence” label. A friend of mine who works closely with airline management said he’s never seen a pilot label rough air as “extreme turbulence.” So the next time you’re nervous about some mid-flight bumps, just take a deep breath and remind yourself, “This isn’t extreme!”

13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Dog Show Handlers

Dog handler Kellie Fitzgerald poses with her English Springer Spaniel 'James' after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in 2007
Dog handler Kellie Fitzgerald poses with her English Springer Spaniel 'James' after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in 2007
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Every year, roughly 3000 dogs from around the country flock to Madison Square Garden to strut their stuff at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. In all, some 190 breeds can enter the ring, each competing to look and act exactly as required for their breed’s ideal standard. But it takes a lot of hard work from dedicated handlers to produce a dog that can compete with the best of them. “What you see at Westminster, that’s the very final touch,” says Karen Mammano, who handles dogs with her husband Sam. “That’s the final product of everything we do.” We talked to a few handlers who have been at Westminster about what goes into training a dog with a shot at Best In Show.

1. The dogs have treadmills.

Among the qualities the judges take into consideration is the dog’s trotting pace. Many handlers put their pups on doggy treadmills set at a certain speed to get them used to keeping a particular trot. “It teaches them foot timing and the right kind of gait we want them to have,” Mammano says.

Some doggy treadmills cost more than $1000. But, according to dog handler Sharon Rives, that’s just part of these athletes’ training routine. “They’re developing their muscles just like any athlete,” she says, “any runner or football player or any athlete that has to train muscles to do something over and over again.”

2. Soup cans might be a dog handler’s best friend.

Judges also look closely at a dog’s stance—how it holds itself while standing still. “It’s kind of their supermodel stance,” says Rives. Every breed has an ideal stance, but teaching a dog to maintain that position while a judge pokes and prods often takes some creative training techniques. According to Rives, when her parents trained dogs in the 1980s, they used to have the dogs stand on four soup cans placed the correct distance apart.

“Everybody has their own way of doing it,” she says. “Now I have what we call stacking blocks, sort of a wooden device with four feet on it for the dogs to stand on and it’s adjustable. I start when they’re puppies with that and they stand on it for a couple minutes and as they get older they spend more time on it, maybe 15 or 20 minutes a day, to help train their muscles and body to remember to stand in that correct position.”

3. The dogs have ridiculously long names.

'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
'Flynn' the Bichon Frise, with handler Bill McFadden, poses after winning 'Best in Show' at the Westminster Kennel Club 142nd Annual Dog Show in 2018
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Professional pups have very fancy monikers that reflect their pedigree. For example, Rives’s Australian Shepherd answers to “Wiggle” but her full name is “Veritas Sexy and I Know It.” “Typically the prefix of the name is the kennel the dog is from,” she explains. “Veritas is my kennel name, so whenever I breed a dog, every dog has the word veritas in their name.” As for the rest of Wiggle’s full name, Rives says the litter theme was Top 40 Songs, so every puppy had a different song title in its name.

4. Handler cars must be inspected.

According to Mammano, the American Kennel Club inspects handlers’ vehicles before they can be listed as a "registered handler." What are they looking for? A car that could keep a dog alive in the most dire of conditions. “We have a generator, air conditioning, heat, a 30-gallon water tank,” she says. “We have to have fire extinguishers that haven’t expired and a heat monitor in the vehicle so if the air conditioning goes out the monitor knows. We’re pretty much self-contained.”

5. Dog shows aren’t natural.

Handlers are the first to admit that dogs weren’t made to trot around a ring. “Golden retrievers were never meant to run in circles in a show ring,” Mammano says. “They were meant to be out hunting and doing that job and other breeds were meant to be out pulling sleds. So I try and make it as fun for them as possible.”

6. There’s one quick way to get disqualified.

“If a dog bites a judge or a handler or another dog, that’s pretty much it for the rest of its career,” Rives says. “Aggression is not ever acceptable.”

7. You’re not a real handler until …

... you trip and fall in the ring. “I think we’ve all had a moment where we’ve fallen,” Rives says. “That’s always embarrassing. But I think I like to say that’s sort of like the dog show hazing. You haven’t been fully initiated into dog showing until you’ve completely wiped out in the ring.”

She also shares a hilarious story of one of her earliest shows, when she was just 16 years old. “Normally I use hot dogs or string cheese as bait, something I could put in my mouth, and I happened to only have liver that day, which I’m not gonna put in my mouth. I was wearing a suit that didn’t have pockets, but I had panty hose on so I thought I’ll just real slyly stick this in the waistband of my pantyhose under the flap of my jacket and when I need some bait I’ll just break off a little piece. Well, the liver made its way down the waistband of panty hose to my ankle and dog starts licking it. The judge is going, ‘Ma’am, the dog is licking your leg.’ I was just mortified.”

8. Handlers’ wardrobe choices are strategic.

When deciding what to wear for the big day, handlers have to make sure they’re not overshadowing the dog with fancy flair. “You want to dress to compliment the dog’s colors,” Rives says. “If you’re showing a black dog you don’t want to wear a black skirt because then you’re obscuring the dog.”

The more prestigious the show, the better the handlers dress. “We always joke that last week was fashion week for us because we were all trying to get suits for Westminster,” says Mammano.

And for the bigger shows, they invest in nice footwear, not only because they’re on their feet all day, but because their feet and ankles are going to be on TV. Rives is wearing the shoes she wore to her wedding. “They’re little silver ballet flats that have sparkly crystals on the toes,” she says.

9. It’s hard on the body.

Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Co-owner and handler David Fitzpatrick holds Pekingese Malachy after winning Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 2012
Michael Nagle/Getty Images

“A lot of my peers have had their knees and hips replaced,” says David Fitzpatrick, a professional handler who works with the Pekingese breed. “You get tired just from being at the show.” And because dogs are always making left-hand turns in the ring, the handler’s left leg tends to take a beating.

10. They have lucky leashes, toys, and rubber bands.

Dog show people are quite superstitious. Fitzpatrick, for example, has a lucky leash. “I have one I’ve been using probably since 2004 because I know many dogs have had great success with it.”

Mammano won’t re-use a leash once it’s been used on a winning dog, opting instead to retire it. And she always wears three rubber bands around her arm to hold her number.

Also, Fitzpatrick says some owners carry around special toys for dogs, similar to the “busy bee” in Best In Show. “Most of these dogs do have a favorite thing and when you go into the ring and you can’t find that toy you do kinda go crazy like ‘Where is the busy bee?!’”

11. The dogs eat whatever they want.

Well, in the ring at least. “I had one dog way back in the early 2000s and all he wanted was filet mignon,” says Fitzpatrick. “He wouldn’t take chicken or liver, but the filet he would eat. So they get whatever they like. Or I had a Pomeranian that only liked potato chips. I had another dog who liked apples.”

12. Chalk and dryer sheets keep the dogs looking sharp.

Show dogs are some of the most pampered, well-groomed dogs in the world, but it takes a lot of work. “Every breed is going to have their own quirky thing they do to make the coat look a certain way,” Rives says. “One handler told me you should put dryer sheets on a wavy coat. Others say you should wash your dog’s coat in Dawn dish soap if you want it to be straight.”

Chalk is often used to make a dog’s coat look whiter, Fitzpatrick says. “Whatever it is to make the dog look better for the show, there’s probably a product out there for it.”

But according to Rives, grooming is a taboo topic among handlers because “people don’t want to share their secrets, and because there are things that are not allowed.” Indeed, too much grooming is considered cheating, so owners keep their tips and tricks to themselves. And if a handler sees another handler crossing the line, they’ll snitch. “It’s a self-regulating sport,” Rives says. “If you see somebody doing something they shouldn’t be, you’d report it.”

13. Best in show doesn’t come with a cash prize.

“You don’t win any money,” says Fitzpatrick, who won Best in Show at Westminster in 2012 with his Pekingese Malachy. “You get trophies and a lot of swag. We came home with bags of loot, but not one penny. It’s not about the money. It’s about competing at this historic event.”

This list first ran in 2016.

8 Secrets of Air Traffic Controllers

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As the United States enters into the second month of a government shutdown that began on December 22, 2018, federal employee shortages are becoming an increasing problem. On the morning of January 25, 2019, the FAA announced that due to air traffic control staffing shortages along the east coast, they were halting flights into New York City's LaGuardia Airport. It's a potent reminder that while pilots and flight attendants are key to making air travel safe, air traffic controllers—though less-visible—are just as essential in getting you from Point A to Point B.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employs more than 14,000 of them to choreograph the flow of airplanes on the ground and in the sky, whether that means using radar and other tools to direct aircraft at take off, communicating with pilots about flight paths and weather, or helping pilots land their planes safely. Take a look at these secrets of air traffic controllers to learn about their unique lingo, high degree of job stress, and occasional UFO sighting.

1. Many of them don't work at airports.

When you imagine an air traffic controller, you probably envision someone working in a tall glass tower at an airport. However, many controllers toil at either a Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility or at a route center, which may be located far away from an airport.

According to air traffic controller Chris Solomon, who controls planes for the military, controllers in each of the three types of facilities have different responsibilities. “The typical tower controllers get the planes from the gate to the runway and then airborne to within five or so miles of an airport. The aircraft then becomes under the control of the approach controllers [TRACON],” he told the website Art of Manliness.

These TRACON controllers usually control the plane during its ascent and descent from the airport. When aircraft reach an altitude above 18,000 feet, the route center controller takes over, using radar to guide aircraft at cruising altitudes until the plane begins its descent. Then the approach controller takes the reins, followed by a tower controller who guides the plane’s landing.

2. Age is a major factor.

Some air traffic controllers begin their careers in the military, while others apply to the FAA’s Air Traffic Control Academy. But no matter how they enter the profession, they must have good vision, a sharp mind, and the ability to think quickly and clearly under pressure. The FAA requires that applicants be 30 years old or younger when they apply to the job, and controllers must retire at age 56, before most of them experience any age-related mental decline.

3. They have their own lingo.

Inside an air traffic control room

Pilots and air traffic controllers around the world must speak English to communicate (it's required by the International Civil Aviation Organization), but they also have their own flight-related language. This phonetic alphabetic and numerical system, which replaces letters (A to Z) and numbers (zero to nine) with code words, minimizes confusion and misunderstandings between air traffic controllers and pilots.

For example, controllers say “bravo” instead of the letter “B,” “Charlie” instead of the letter “C,” and “niner” instead of the number “nine.” (Theories explaining the origin of the code word “niner” differ, but aircraft enthusiasts speculate that the extra syllable differentiates it from the German word for “no” or distinguishes it from the pronunciation of the number “five.”) Air traffic controllers also have their own slang and, for instance, use the phrase “souls on board” to refer to the number of people on a plane.

The phonetic system is spelled out in detail in the FAA Order 7110.65 manual [PDF], along with other key code words, phrases, and procedures. Controllers call the manual their "bible," study it during training, and review it regularly to keep apprised of any updates and additions.

4. Pilots with heavy accents can frustrate them.

Although English is the official language of aviation, not all pilots speak it well. Air traffic controller Brandon Miller, who works for Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) in northern Virginia, tells Mental Floss that it can be difficult to communicate with foreign pilots. “However, we are in the business of communication,” he says, explaining that learning to solve potential communication issues is part of their training. When talking to a pilot who has a heavy accent, controllers may speak more slowly, enunciate words more dramatically, and try to avoid changing routes as much as possible.

Stephen, an air traffic controller with the FAA, echoes Miller’s point. “We mainly just bitch amongst ourselves, say things very slowly, and do the best we can” when dealing with pilots who have heavy accents, he wrote on Reddit.

5. They alternate between stress and boredom.

An airplane and an air control tower

Because they’re responsible for thousands of lives 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, most air traffic controllers experience a high level of job-related stress. “We often miss birthdays, we work on holidays and weekends, and often operate on alternative sleep cycles,” Miller explains. Staying focused is essential, especially during times of busy traffic and bad weather, so most air traffic controllers take a break every hour or two, depending on the rules at their facility.

According to Miller, the diversity of tasks in his work day keeps his job challenging. At any given time, he may be directing Air Force One or other VIPs (from our country or a foreign one), sequencing commercial passenger jets into a variety of airports in the Washington, D.C. area, assisting police or paramedic helicopters, expediting military fighters and military transport planes, or looking for suspicious aircraft in the Washington, D.C. Special Flight Rules Area.

On the other hand, graveyard shifts and periods with less traffic can be tedious and dull. “Hours and hours of boredom combined with moments of sheer terror, as we like to say,” Stephen told Reddit. “But if you like the challenge and want to be where the action is, it's a great job!”

6. They're probably overworked.

In a 2011 article for The Daily Beast, Bob Richards, who worked as an air traffic controller at Chicago O’Hare International Airport for more than two decades, described his job as “thrilling, fulfilling, and utterly exhausting.” Richards noted that four of his coworkers died of sudden cardiac death, two died of pancreatic cancer, and many others suffered from stress-related gastrointestinal illnesses. In his early 40s, Richards himself suffered from atrial fibrillation, which eventually progressed into congestive heart failure.

A secret study conducted by NASA in 2011 found that almost one-fifth of controllers made significant errors, partly due to chronic fatigue caused by their lack of sleep and busy shift schedules. To combat fatigue and address controllers who were allegedly asleep on the job, the FAA issued a series of new rules that increase the mandatory time between controllers’ shifts.

7. UFO sightings definitely happen.

A screen showing radar

During the course of their careers, most air traffic controllers have personally spotted (or have a coworker who has spotted) some sort of unidentified flying object. UFO sightings are more common at night, when air traffic controllers may see an unexplained blinking light that doesn’t appear to be coming from an aircraft. But strange sightings aren't necessarily alien life forms—radar is so sensitive that it may pick up items such as clouds, a flock of birds, or even a large truck on the ground.

8. RObots won't be replacing them.

Commercial aircraft landing

Although air traffic controllers rely on radar and other technology to do their jobs, they’re not in danger of technology replacing them any time soon. With so many lives at stake, air traffic control will likely always require humans to ensure that automated systems function properly and technology doesn’t malfunction. And controllers enjoy the sense of satisfaction that comes with using their knowledge and skills to help passengers get from point A to point B safely. “There is a great amount of pride that my coworkers and I take knowing that safety of air traffic control is the last thing on passengers' minds when they get buckled in the airplane,” Miller says.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2017.

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