With the waking nightmare that is holiday travel now behind us, we thought we'd check in with the unsung heroes of the season, the humble flight attendant. They kept our drinks full and seats upright as we rocketed ourselves to relatives in influenza-filled metal tubes. But what goes on behind that thin galley curtain once all the dinners have been served?
We spoke with "Betty," an attendant working for a major American airline. She asked to stay anonymous so as to avoid getting fired. She explained that the life of a modern flight attendant is far from the glitz and glamor of the airlines' golden age, though it does still contain a fair bit of sex, drugs, and booze. More importantly, however, she spilled the beans on how to cop those free seat upgrades.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
VICE: Having to turn off your cell phone is just a bullshit control thing, right? Are there any other placebo or performative commands or warnings?
Betty: Nobody turns off their phones. I don’t, even. All of those commands are really just precautionary. You’re not allowed to get up when taxiing to the gate, but we’re going three miles an hour. What’s actually going to happen?
I guess at some point, something had to have happened for them to have made the rule. At least, that’s the bullshit excuse they gave us during training. Some time at some point someone did get hurt. I mean, I push it. I don’t always wear my seatbelt. Actually, one time I didn’t wear it, the landing was pretty rough and I jerked forward and hit my head so I felt like a bit of an asshole there.
Yeah, but keep your phone on. No one cares.
What's the best way to get away with joining the mile-high club? Has a passenger ever propositioned you?
Wait for service, when the attendants are all in the aisle. Everyone’s busy and has a job at that point and I don’t care what’s going on behind me then. There could be ten people in the bathroom and I wouldn’t be aware of it.
On the bigger double-decker planes they have flight attendants whose entire job it is to sit at that bottom bathroom and make sure no couples are going into it. But on smaller planes, for shorter flights, the attendants aren’t watching you like you think we are. We’re on our phones in the back with the others or doing our jobs. We don’t want to be near that bathroom at any point in time and we’ll avoid it at all costs. God speed if you’re gonna try and have sex in one. They’re disgusting and small, but it is possible.
The people who are propositioning me… hard pass on everyone so far. It doesn’t happen as often as you might think. I’ve only really been propositioned three times in the two years I’ve been here. They dance around it, though. It’s more like people get nervous and do the “ha ha so how many times have you been asked” type of deal. “What do you say when they ask you? What would you do if I asked?"
How do you fuck with or get revenge on annoying passengers?
Usually, I spend the majority of my time just ignoring them. You don’t really have much to work with so it becomes a power play. I try to assert myself as much as possible and let them know I’m the boss by not giving them their orange juice with ice or giving it to them with ice if they asked for no ice. Weak pours for drinks, stuff like that. Anything I can do to stick in their craw without it being obvious because, unfortunately, I have to smile and do my best to not look upset, no matter what the case is.
What are the most common annoying things passengers do and is there any sort of industry-wide jargon or slang for referring to them or the situations they might create?
It’s crazy how dirty people are on planes. They aren’t aware they’re in a public space and there’re other people around them. Those bathrooms are the most disgusting places on the planet. There’s no way these people act this way in their normal lives, but they get on a plane and go cool, I’ll just pee all over the floor and dump my peanuts right on the ground.
We don’t really have code names or anything. Actually, it’s almost the opposite. We’re pretty blatant. I sometimes worry about how openly we talk about passengers when we’re in my galley and they’re only three feet away. Some of our flight attendants are uncomfortably loud and I have to peer out and make sure the person's not aware we’re talking about them.
Besides the bathrooms, what's the grossest thing on planes that we don’t hear about?
Coffee. Don’t drink the coffee on airplanes. It’s the same potable water that goes through the bathroom system.
We recently had a test for E. coli in our water and it didn’t pass, and then maintenance came on and hit a couple buttons and it passed. So, avoid any hot water or tea. Bottled and ice is fine, of course.
What's the best way to get a free seat upgrade or finagle other freebies and perks from you guys?
Wait until you’re on the plane because gate agents don’t care. But once you’re on and that door is closed, make sure you have something to give your flight attendants. We’re bargainers. Give me candy and I’ll give you whatever you want. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. We don’t keep count of those mini bottles of alcohol. If there’re seats open in business class, and it’s not going to affect me negatively, or there are first class seats open and I can still eat my first class meal if I put you up there, I’ll put you up there. As long as you’re nice to me, no problem.
That’s me, though. There are some attendants who get off on the power trip of saying no. But if you’ve got bargaining chips, usually in the form of candy or Starbucks gift cards, you’re pretty much set.
Or, you can lie and say you work for the airline. If they think you’re in the biz, they might hook you up.
How do you kill time during the boring and quiet stretches of long flights?
I play “who I would save first” a lot. Like in the instance of an emergency landing. Obviously get the kids off first and all that. But it really does get boring up there. You spend a lot of time daydreaming, a lot of time staring at your passengers and mentally putting them in situations with you that would never happen.
If I find a passenger attractive, I’ll offer them free drinks and try to get them drunk and flirt. You’ve got four or five hours to kill and you’re probably never going to see them again. Unless they find you on the internet, which does sometimes happen.
Can you tell when passengers are high on something or smuggling/using drugs on the plane? Do you ever partake yourself or sneak drinks on the job?
I actually had a passenger check on his coke prior to take off. I happened to glance down as he pulled out this this little paper of what I assumed was coke. I mean, I didn’t pull my finger out and rub it on my gums to test, but he did, so I assumed it wasn’t anthrax. But there were other people around him, so I had to call the captain just to let him know what was up, in case anyone else brought it up, really just to cover my own ass. I had to. But I tell the captain as we’re taxiing and he just says “we’re not getting delayed for coke,” and takes off.
But for other stuff, nobody’s good at hiding when they’re on pills or fucked up.
And I NEVER participate in any of that or drink on the job. But my cabinets are filled with miniature versions of bottles. Any industry person, if you check their cabinets or carry-on bags, you’ll find they’re littered with those.
What’s the worst part of the job? Does the corporate side suck?
It’s not nearly as glamorous as people let on but you figure that out pretty quickly. The worst part is really the pay, especially at the beginning. And if you have to move to fly for the company you’re flying for, you could be living in a crash pad with six or seven people in bunk beds. And a lot of those people are 30 or 40 years old and have to do that just to get by, so that’s kind of a bummer.
Management’s not great but it’s so separate because you’re not seeing those people every day. So the only time you’re seeing them is when you’re having your review or something comes up that they need to speak with you about so they kinda get a bad rap.
Any celeb anecdotes?
I had a pretty famous rapper who got overly intoxicated before we even took off and couldn’t even buckle his own seatbelt and had passed out and slumped over his seat so I had to pick him up and buckle him in.
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