It seems like some people come into this world knowing they want to be a doctor or a fireman when they grow up. Others, like me, have no clue. My go-to response when asked that crucial question has been, “I just want someone to pay me to travel.” I earned a degree in International Relations at the time when the economy was just starting to tank. Suddenly, I couldn’t afford to travel or look for that dream job; I had rent to pay so I got a job as a bank teller. It was during that time that I learned through a customer, who happens to be a pilot, about an interesting job prospect.
“So I just got a job with this airline that flies contractors between Dubai and Afghanistan and I think you’d be perfect as one of their flight attendants. Are you interested?”
Dubai and Afghanistan? My interest was definitely piqued, but so was my concern. Afghanistan is not exactly my first choice when it comes to job sites and quite frankly, I had developed a bit of flight anxiety within the prior year. For someone who had flown numerous times each year over the past decade, my little puddle jumper from Portland to my hometown of Boise had become a bit nerve-wracking. Sweaty palms, racing heart- all new and strange symptoms for someone who had previously enjoyed take-offs and turbulence.
Additionally, I had always scoffed at those who said I should become a flight attendant. Let’s face the cold, hard truth; The general public is crazy. We’ve all seen people at the airport, screaming at the gate agent for a weather delay or getting in a flight attendant’s face for serving peanuts over pretzels. For a non-confrontational gal, it’s not an appealing thought.
So reservations aside, I researched more online about charter airlines. I asked around to friends I knew had been to the Middle East, and I talked it out with my boyfriend and parents.
Boyfriend: “You should totally do this! It’s a dream job for you and it’s not forever. You can try it, fly for a few years, and then find something else. We can make this work.”
Mom and Dad: “Wait. Where?!”
With a confidence boost from my boyfriend, I began to approach my decision as ‘say “Yes” until you have to say “No.”’
• Yes, go to the interview (they paid for me to fly back east).
• Yes, accept the job and go through your four weeks of training (you can decide it’s not for you later).
• Yes, complete your training flight in Dubai (hey, it’s a free ten-day trip to Dubai!). It will be a great story some day.
And for the last 2 ½ years, it truly has been a life changing experience and a huge lesson in patience.
What I’ve learned
Things in aviation can always change.
I no longer fly only between Dubai and Afghanistan, but to basically anywhere in the world our customers need us. I have flown into over 20 countries in the last few years, often times going back on numerous trips.
This is not a usual charter flight attendant position.
It is not an airline with one of those tiny private jets owned by the rich and famous, but one with large Boeing 757s capable of moving nearly 200 people at a time. I have transported military men and women, sports teams, and other airlines’ passengers who need an extra plane for busy seasons.
Sometimes this job is a waiting game.
I am still on reserve twenty days a month and home for ten, but often times I can be home (still getting paid) for a month straight. Some airlines allow you to be ‘home based’ meaning they will fly you to wherever they need you to be from your home city. Other airlines prefer you live in a certain ‘hub’ city which you will depart from every time they call you out.
You don’t get paid for all of your work.
Have you seen flight attendants walking through the airport, getting the plane ready (cleaning, conducting security checks), and greeting passengers? They’re not getting paid at that time. While it varies between airlines, many flight crews do not start getting paid until the main cabin door is shut. So while I can work 60 flight hours in a month, the actual amount of time spent working can be much greater. Most airlines will have some sort of guarantee pay. For example say it’s 50 hours guaranteed. You will be paid the equivalent of 50 hours per month even if you don’t work at all and if you do work over that amount of guaranteed hours, you can get overtime. On the other side of that, you can work hard for two weeks or a month, get close but not over your guarantee, and still make the same amount as if you were home doing nothing for that time period.
Being paid while sitting at home can be great, but all that free time can be disastrous as well in the form of furloughs or layoffs. There is a running joke amongst flight crews that you’re truly not a pilot/first officer/flight attendant until you have been furloughed or your company has gone under at least once. I was furloughed without pay for nearly three months last year and most other senior crew members have a long line of similar stories. It unfortunately comes with this line of work.
Seeing the world.
I’ve snorkeled off the coast of Malaysia, dodged a typhoon in Japan, soaked in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, and ate waffles in Belgium all within the same month. I have eaten local delicacies, spoken with the residents of our host cities, and photographed breathtaking sights. I now have friends all over the world for convenient future couch surfing. Better yet, my flight anxiety is gone thanks to a working knowledge of what goes on in an airplane. I will also leave this job with a wealth of real world experience that will help in various industries.
The good news/bad news
I rarely know in advance when I’m traveling, where I’m going, or how long I’ll be gone. This makes it so I have to be incredibly flexible and always have a bag packed since the company’s schedulers can call me out with only a few hours notice. This can lead to some interesting conversations with friends and family.
True examples: “Hey, funny story, I just spent the last 24 hours stranded in Western Africa (during the Ebola crisis),” or “Hey, I can’t hang out tomorrow because I’m being sent to the Middle East tonight.” But that also makes life unbelievably exciting. I can navigate through any airport in the world. Public transportation doesn’t scare me, even when it’s not in English. While lamb testicles never seemed like something I would try before, I did try them within my first twelve hours in Dubai. Want to get out of your comfort zone fast? Try flying for a living.
Like I said before, things can change at the last-minute. Last week, I was called out to fly to Japan for 48 hours. On my way to Seattle, my trip was canceled, a fact I only figured out when I got to the gate and they did not have me on the flight. I often times spend more time commuting to my company’s plane than I do working. I rarely have flights at the same time every day. One day I can have a 2am departure, get to my destination, have maybe 10 hours on the ground, and then we’re up in the air once more.
Some last thoughts
It can be exhausting/aggravating, but incredibly rewarding, especially when taking troops home from deployment or when a friend says, “When you first said you were going to fly into Afghanistan, I never thought you would actually do it. You proved me wrong.” Don’t let anything hold you back from proving people wrong, exploring the world and having new experiences solo.
Websites to use
Check out LinkedIn’s Flight Attendant Career Guide group
About the author:
Kimberly Ptacek is a soon-to-be unemployed charter flight attendant, checking boxes off her bucket list one crazy experience at a time. When she’s not flying, she’s trying to convince her five month old black lab to stop eating whatever he’s not supposed to be eating and grabbing coffee with her boyfriend in Portland, Oregon.