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