Life of a flight attendant (Part 3): Vanessa's story of debt, pain and emptiness

Elizabeth Soh
Y! Travel Journal
21 February 2013
Life of a flight attendant
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Many SQ girls, tempted by easy money and their jet-setting lifestyle, fall into the trap of living beyond their means (AFP file photo).

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. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here. In the third part of this series, we speak to one Singapore stewardess who was carried away by the good money and high-flying life but now finds herself in poor health and even poorer finances. (For the purposes of this series, only first names have been used as most flight crew are bound by confidentiality agreements).
 
SQ stewardess Vanessa (not her real name) is only 29 but she has over ten credit cards and is more than $30,000 in debt. Despite her growing credit card bills, she continues to live in style, driving a European sports car and owning a wardrobe full of expensive branded bags and clothing, most with their price tags still on.
 
Her extravagant behaviour is far from uncommon in the industry she works in – in fact, she said, most of her colleagues lead the same lifestyle. Young, beautiful, well-paid and jet-setting, their motto is to “live in the now” – and spend far more than they earn.
 
In Vanessa’s case, however, she might have bitten off more than she can chew: she has accumulated so much debt that she currently only pays the interest on her credit cards to keep the banks at bay.
 
“I know I’m in trouble, but I don’t know how to get out of it. Maybe I’ll sell some of my bags to pay it off. But I can’t sell my car, I’ll make a big loss,” said the petite, pixie-faced young woman during a recent three-hour interview with Yahoo! Singapore.
 
Vanessa started working as a flight attendant after graduating from a private university here about five years ago and was instantly swept up by the free-spending behaviour of her fellow flight attendants.
 
“I started off buying one branded bag per long haul trip, which works out to maybe two or three bags or S$4,000 a month for luxury brands like Miu Miu and Prada. Within half a year, I "graduated" to even more high-end brands like Chanel and Hermes and was spending about $7,000 a month on my bags,” said Vanessa, who cringed when she said the amounts out loud.
 
While she declined to comment on how much she earned a month, she said that it was "at least" $6,000 on average.
 
Out of this sum, $2,500 a month goes to paying for her car, which she admitted she hardly uses because she is seldom in town, and everything else goes to either shopping or paying part of her debt.
 
“Of course, I feel very stupid. I drive an expensive car, carry an expensive bag to meet my friends, but I always leave before meal times to go home and eat plain bread because I can’t afford to eat at a restaurant like them. I have no savings at all. In fact, my balance has been negative since I started to work,” said Vanessa.

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However, instead of turning her life around and adopting a lifestyle change to clear her debts, Vanessa said she has no intention nor determination to give up her so-called “high life”.
 
“My colleagues and I have an inside joke. We all owe quite a lot of money, and we always say – all we have to do is a “Jamie Cuaca” and we’ll be secure for the rest of our lives,” said Vanessa.
 
The ex-Mrs Jamie Cuaca, now Jamie Chua, is a former SQ girl-turned-socialite who married Indonesian tycoon Nurdian Cuaca after the pair met when the latter flew in Business Class. Their acrimonious divorce saw demands from Chua for maintenance of $500,000 a month, and she is famous for owning more ultra-expensive Hermes Birkin bags than celebrity Victoria Beckham.
 
“I feel that the only way I can stop my crazy spending is to quit my job so that I don’t feel the pressure of keeping up appearance(s). But the money is too good – and I’ve been doing this for five years, I can’t imagine working in any other job,” said Vanessa.


 
Poor health
 
Her bank account isn’t the only thing that has suffered from her choice of career. According to Vanessa and her colleague, who wanted to be known only as Min, female flight crew suffer from a range of occupational hazards which include hair loss, headaches, and tired legs with cracked heels.
 
“Those of us with long hair need to keep it tightly pinned and in a bun that we secure with lots of hairspray. The hairstyle is very heavy and a lot of us get bad headaches as a result. The hairspray also damages our roots and hair quality… leading to hair loss,” said Vanessa.
 
Their skin condition also deteriorates due to the extremely dry inflight cabin air, while cracked heels and varicose veins come from standing on their feet for hours on end with hardly any rest.
 
“It’s a job that you can only do when you’re young, because unless you take very good care of yourself, your body will not be able to handle the pressure of flying non-stop,” said Min, 28, who cut her hair to chin length after pinning up her long locks gave her bouts of migraine every month.
 
Severe dry-eye syndrome, fatigue and weight-gain are other common problems that flight crew face because of harsh cabin conditions and irregular meal and sleeping times.
 
“There is a permanent feeling of confusion. I always wake up not very sure about where I am, and I don’t think it’s good for my mental health either to always feel a bit lost,” said Min.
 
Weight gain is also a permanent pre-occupation for flight crew, who are under pressure to stay svelte and slim in their uniforms. SQ’s iconic kebayas, in particular, are unforgiving on less-than-perfect hourglass figures.
 
“A lot of girls take weight-loss supplements bought overseas but banned here to lose weight. It’s not like we have time to go to the gym regularly. Although nobody will say you are getting fat or your uniform is bulging, we are all very aware of the need to look good. It’s our livelihood,” said Min.


 
Difficulty settling down
 
Both Vanessa and Min said they have not been in a stable relationship since they started working because their boyfriends could not accept their long absences or trust them when they were overseas. They also said their ex-boyfriends felt extra pressure after seeing how high-maintenance they had become, putting a serious strain on their relationships.
 
“In the end, we date other stewards because it’s convenient, but because we know all about how easy it is for flight crew to cheat, it becomes our turn to get suspicious,” said Vanessa.
 
While many flight crew live on the same extravagant terms as Vanessa and Min, there are others on the opposite end of the spending scale – scrimping and saving for something bigger, especially education.
 
“I feel very tempted to splurge when I’m on long-haul trips to Europe, but I control myself by leaving my credit cards at home and only carry small amounts of cash with me,” said steward James, 27, who joined Qantas to pay off his university loans.
 
After two years, James has already stowed away enough to pay off his loans, and more. He intends to use the excess to buy an engagement ring for his long-time girlfriend, with whom he has already applied for a flat.
 
“It’s very easy to lose focus of what you want with all the hard partying and peer pressure from colleagues but I stuck to my goal. For me, flying is not a career. It’s given me a chance to explore the world for two years, earn more than decent money to pay off my loans and not be a burden to my parents,” he said.
 
“I am starting off my ‘real life’ a bit later than my other friends whose parents paid for their university education, but it is good to be debt-free.” 

Read Part 1 and Part 2 here.