May 5, 2003

Whitelegg studies lives of flight attendants

By Elizabeth Kurylo

Jetting off to Paris, Tokyo or Rio de Janeiro is not as glamorous as one might think, especially if the 777 is your workplace and your children need you at home. Even if the flight “only” goes across the country, rather than around the world, flight attendants with families carry a heavy burden.

This burden was laid bare at a recent colloquium sponsored by the Center for Myth and Ritual in American Life (MARIAL). Seven current and former flight attendants, most of whom have children, described their work schedules as flexible and manageable, but most admitted that being away from home for several days at a time is difficult. And they all yearned for the flexibility in scheduling that sometimes is years away.

“Seniority is the be-all and end-all of being a flight attendant,” said Drew Whitelegg, a postdoctoral fellow at MARIAL who is studying the family lives of flight attendants. “If you’ve got seniority, you’ve got more control of your work time.”

Every month, flight attendants “bid” on which flights they want to work, with the goal of flying at least 50 hours per month, depending on the airline. Those employees with the most seniority get first choice. Many people with children at home try to work weekends so they can be at home during the week and their spouses can watch the children while they are gone. Others try to fly “turnaround” from one city and back to the base—perhaps Atlanta to New York—twice a day, effectively giving them a 9-to-5 work shift.

The structure of their work time is very different from most traditional working parents, Whitelegg said. To log their minimum flight time, for instance, a flight attendant might fly three weekends a month, leaving the spouse—who works during the week—to care for the children on the weekends. “It’s classic shift work, and they are tag-team parenting,” Whitelegg said.

Those who spoke during the MARIAL panel discussion talked about the stress of being away from home for days at a time. Individuals with more than one child struggle to spend an equal amount of time with each; some try to build a work schedule around the activities of one child one month—a soccer game, perhaps—and then focus on the other child, who might be in a school play, the next month. Inevitably, someone feels left out, and parents feel guilty about not being seen as active in the lives of their children.

Still, although many flight attendants feel guilty about leaving their children, others “view it as a vacation,” according to one. And some experience a bit of both.

“I have friends who will never quit because it’s their saving grace,” said a woman who did quit after the birth of her second child. “A lot of flight attendants say they go to work to rest—being away from home is their alone time. For parents, there is no rest at home, but flight attendants have hours alone in a hotel room. They can lock the door. There are no little creatures bothering them. They don’t have to clean.” Another woman agreed, adding, “When we’re home, we’re 100 percent home.”

Understandably, the terror attacks of Sept. 11 cast a pall on the routines and rituals of the work flight attendants do. Before 9/11, they focused on customer service, making sure passengers were comfortable and happy during their flight.

“That’s all changed,” one said. “We have a new game face; we don’t have time for customer service. Now it’s like, ‘What’s in the bag?’ And we have to look at behaviors that are suspicious.” Their families, too, are struggling with their own fears of flying.

“I think there was a lot of soul-searching and conversations within families of flight attendants after the attacks,” said Whitelegg, adding he has been told of at least one child who hid his mother’s uniform because he didn’t want her to fly after 9/11.

Many flight attendants decided to keep flying, because their families need the income or benefits, “but the job itself has definitely changed.” As one flight attendant on the panel said, “I have to say I love you to my family when I go to work, because if my plane goes down, I have to know emotionally that I did that. It’s got to be OK.”

In addition, the economic fallout of Sept. 11 has led to major wage and job cuts in the airline industry, creating uncertainties about the future. “Many airlines are trying to get rid of older workers through layoffs and early retirement. Some are trying to change the pension structure,” Whitelegg said.

And as airlines reduce their flight schedules, lay off workers and close bases, every aspect of working life is affected, Whitelegg said. Flight attendants with seniority at a base that is closing may choose to relocate or commute to another base. They take their seniority with them, which affects the schedules of every other flight attendant at the base to which they move. “The impact of this on family life is great,” Whitelegg said.

And until the economy begins to recover, uncertainty will remain for the families of flight attendants, who no longer navigate friendly skies.

This article first appeared in the spring 2003 issue of
Families That Work, the MARIAL Center newsletter.