What’s life really like behind the bright smiles, perfect uniforms and five-star hotel stays of jet-setting flight attendants? In a three-part series on the inflight service industry, Yahoo! Singapore finds out that it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. In the first part of this series, we explain how the initial attraction and glamour attached to the job can be quickly replaced by travel fatigue and loneliness. (For the purposes of this series, only first names have been used as most flight crew are bound by confidentiality agreements)
A glamorous life in the skies, jet-setting to exotic cities like Tokyo, London and Paris -- and being paid (very well) to do it.
To many, the perfectly coiffed and immaculate airline crew have it all – striding confidently and elegantly through international airports and being able to picnic at the Eiffel Tower one week and then be on safari in South Africa the next, all the while staying in five-star luxury hotels.
But ask the flight stewards and stewardesses themselves and you get a very different picture.
“Supermodels in uniform? Most of the time, we feel like waitresses – just further above ground,” scoffs a senior stewardess Vanessa K, 34, who flies with a well-known Hong Kong carrier.
She isn’t the only flight crew to feel this way. All 15 air stewards and stewardesses from various airlines Yahoo! Singapore spoke to expressed similar sentiments: that when the novelty of flying wears thin and the trips get longer, the shiny veneer of glamour and excitement disappears quickly to be replaced with loneliness and homesickness.
Add to that the recent allowance and hiring cutbacks facing the airline industry due to stiff competition from budget carriers and an increasing number of flight crew are ditching their jobs to find stability back home and on land.
Honeymoon first year
The first two years of a flight attendant’s career are apparently the happiest years.
“When you first join, it really feels like the best job in the world – everyone envies you,” said Singapore Airlines girl Marie T, 26, who has been a stewardess for nearly five years.
“Firstly, the pay is really good. For SQ, we can easily hit S$4,500 a month with allowances. Secondly, we get to travel the world without paying a single cent. All your colleagues are outgoing and good looking – it feels like you’re perpetually on holiday.”
For Marie, who only had ‘O’ level qualifications, a salary of S$4,500 was far more than what her peers were earning. She had previously worked part-time jobs doing sales and administrative work for less than half of her current pay.
“My spending power increased so fast, I could treat my parents and friends to good meals and talk about my trips to places like Rome, New York, Tokyo. If I was not an SQ girl, I definitely would not have the money to go to these places. I was really on a high for the first two years,” said Marie, who, before becoming a stewardess, had only travelled as far as Hong Kong.
Within two months, she had bought her first S$3,000 branded bag, expensive gifts for her parents, and splurged on hundreds of dollars’ of skincare and makeup for herself.
“The lure is really easy money. You don’t have to work 9-5, and when you’re on your days off, you’re really off – you don’t bring your work home. On top of that, the pay is good, and if you’re single, it’s super fun to hang out with pretty girls and travel all the time,” said Emirates steward Daniel, 29, who left his S$2,600 job as an accountant to take to the skies.
“You meet all these new and enthusiastic people on every flight and you party with them, hang out footloose and fancy free in a foreign country. It’s an exciting life that a normal desk-bound paper pusher would never get to experience.”
Two years in is when most flight crew start finding their job to be more a burden than a joy. Those who are married or in relationships start feeling the strain of being away from loved ones, while others find it hard to maintain friendships or find a potential spouse with their irregular work schedules.
“In the beginning, I’d immediately leave the hotel room to explore the country I was in but after two years, I just wanted to stay in my room and Skype with my fiance, or order room service and watch a DVD. Traveling got more and more tiring each time, and I feel like my face has aged six, seven years in just two years because of all that flying,” said ex-stewardess Jasmine Yeo, 34, who left her Hong Kong-based airline employer to get married and start a family three years ago.
“It is the worst when we are away during festive seasons like Christmas and Chinese New Year. I’ve seen many stewardesses crying in their hotel rooms because they can’t make it back for reunion dinner or a good friends’ wedding. Travelling is fun, but after a while I keep wishing I had my loved ones with me enjoying all these beautiful places. The feeling is really empty.”
“In the beginning, it’s fun, and you tell yourself you don’t mind not being there for New Year. But three years in, when you’re alone in your hotel room with only your lap top and you see your family on your webcam enjoying steamboat and going visiting together, it can get really hard. It doesn’t seem worth it to miss all these moments,” said Daniel.
Alcohol-fuelled parties – once an attraction to newly ‘graduated’ flight crew -- become tiresome for those who are married or attached and want to stay faithful. Most end up staying in their rooms alone to recuperate from their long hours on the plane.
Broken relationships, affairs
This loneliness is what leads many flight crew to resort to short-term flings or affairs when they are at work. All 15 this reporter spoke to said that they had been propositioned by fellow stewards or stewardesses before and that sleeping around was fairly common, especially among the younger crew.
“In general crew members are very friendly and flirty with each other – we like to keep things light-hearted when we are working because the pressure of handling a plane full of uncomfortable and demanding passengers can get to us,” said Qantas steward Jonathan, 35.
“If we’ve got chemistry working together on the flight, we usually hang out after we touchdown – if both parties are single and willing, sometimes one thing leads to another. No strings attached, of course. It’s an unspoken rule.”
Not all obey this rule, however, and Cathay Pacific stewardess Y.L Tung, 28, told Yahoo! that she has seen cases where flings or affairs turn ugly.
“The most common scenario is when an amorous steward on board who approaches all the hostesses – both single and attached. Some of them don’t get the message and overstep their boundaries. One time, I saw a steward being thrown out of a hotel room by an angry colleague who was not interested. He was only wearing his boxers. We had a good laugh,” she said in Mandarin.
But, she adds a little sadly, “we are all quite lonely for home and most of us have a tough time maintaining relationships”.
Some common pick-up methods used by male flight crew include invitations to “watch a show in my room together” or a lot of “accidental” body contact in the crowded flight cabins.
Lower pay, poor job prospects
Earlier this month, it was reported that Singapore Airlines would be adjusting its flight allowances according to new exchange rates – cutting the allowances received for working on flights to Europe and America by as much as 20 per cent.
The change would severely impact the salaries of many of their flight crew, who draw low basic salaries of about $2,000 and rely on their travel allowances to support their lifestyles.
For flight crew with other work experience and higher education, the immediate response has been to quickly start looking elsewhere for employment – a trend that has resulted in a steadily growing turnover rate among airline crew all over the world.
“It’s quite simple – if I leave now, I can start over without feeling the pinch as much. If I stay another three-four years and then leave, starting from scratch with no relevant experience will put me in a very lousy position. I am just cutting my losses,” said SIA steward Lionel, 25, who joined after he graduated last August but is thinking of quitting once his first six months are up.
Then there are those without the option of a equally well-paid career on the ground.
“I’m worried about the cuts, of course. It affected morale among us quite badly,” said Marie, who said she had considered leaving Singapore Airlines but felt that she would not be able to make as much money elsewhere.
“I only have ‘O’ levels. If I quit and work somewhere else, my pay will be less than half. I have monthly installments to pay on my credit cards. I cannot afford to quit,” she said bluntly.
“Even my parents don’t want me to quit. However, if I could turn back time, I would have just continued studying and getting a degree. My thinking was too short-term and now I am stuck.”
In Part 2 of our series on the inflight service industry, flight attendants tell Yahoo! Singapore what it’s like dealing with nightmare passengers. Read it here.