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The Truth About Life as a Flight Attendant

Beyond Dreamy Destinations and a Seemingly Luxurious Lifestyle

Iulia Hau
Iulia Hau

Interview with a flight attendant

I had the pleasure of catching up with my dear friend and college buddy, Cristiana. Over the past decade, I’ve missed her immensely. 

Her five-year stint with Emirates Airlines transformed her. Initially, she spoke with excitement about her travels. However, over time, the challenges of her demanding job and being away from home weighed on her. Yet, she always pondered the idea of returning to Bucharest. 

Upon her return, I immediately proposed an interview. Here’s a glimpse into our conversation:

Q: How old were you when you applied to Emirates, and what motivated you to pursue a career in aviation?

Cristiana: I was 23 when I packed my life into a 30-kilo suitcase and ventured abroad. Fresh out of Geography-Tourism college, I was driven by an unconventional vision for my professional future. I just knew I wanted to travel. I’ve always been an adventurer, exploring every corner of our country, guiding tours from a young age, and feeling the call of wanderlust since childhood. If someone had told me during my early college years that I’d become a flight attendant for a top airline, I’d have laughed. But here I am.

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Q: How would you describe the lifestyle and cultural environment in Dubai, and how did you adapt over the five years you lived there?

Cristiana: Dubai is a melting pot, with about 80% of its residents being immigrants. It’s one of the most liberal places in the Arab world. While the city exudes luxury and opulence, there’s an underlying artificiality that feels suffocating. Despite its orderliness and impeccable discipline, I never fully adapted to the desert environment. Dubai was merely a place I returned to between exhausting flights. On my days off, I preferred the comfort of my home, reading, and spending time with friends.

Q: What were the biggest challenges you faced, and how well do you feel you responded to them?

Cristiana: I don’t remember there being a flight without challenges. Before the outbreak of the pandemic, Emirates covered a network of about 150 destinations, each with its peculiarities and specific passenger profiles, which we had to consider. Probably the flights longer than 12 hours came with the most challenges. We had at least one such flight a month, if not two.

First of all, no matter how hard you tried, before such a flight you couldn’t really rest because your sleep was already disrupted from previous flights. Let’s assume we took off at 8 in the morning from Dubai to San Francisco. That means at 4 in the morning I was up, straight, on command. In exactly one hour, I was dressed, styled, made up, in full uniform, and walked out the door with two suitcases behind me. At 6 in the morning, I arrived at the headquarters (you always had to start your shift two hours before takeoff). Then, I attended the pre-flight meeting, called a briefing. There I met my shift colleagues, 26 in number when we flew on the largest passenger plane in the world. Airbus A380 or as I like to call it, the mammoth of the sky, has two decks and a maximum capacity of 853 seats, but let’s get back to earth a bit.

The meetings were led by cabin supervisors and the supreme leader of the orchestra, called the Purser. During the meetings, essential details about the flight, passenger profile, service delivery, some technical details, instructions, and procedures were discussed. If time allowed, we had to introduce ourselves to our colleagues and say a few words about ourselves to break the ice. The flight itself followed, during which we did 3 major service rounds and another 2 or 3 smaller services.

The plane has limited storage space for drinks and food, so it was practically impossible to always have an extra portion for passengers with certain culinary preferences. There was no flight without a full-blown conflict on this topic because passengers sometimes forgot to pre-order a vegetarian, vegan, lactose-free, gluten-free meal, etc. The demands were quite high (and rightly so, given the ticket price) but we, as flight attendants, couldn’t whip up meals on a whim, no matter how much we wanted to.

Another challenge was the medical cases that arose all the time, especially on long-haul flights. There were many occasions when the plane turned into a flying hospital. There were passengers who felt sick, some fainted, others vomited, and we had to be there and give them first aid. I had flights where we were so busy that we didn’t have time to eat or have a coffee. Despite the challenges and fatigue, I knew I had to cope because my sense of duty was activated. To complete a long flight, you ended up staying awake for up to 24 hours, and I don’t miss those days at all!

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Q: Name three things you’ll miss about your life in Dubai and three things you hope never to encounter again.

Cristiana: I’ve always been surrounded by a close-knit group of friends, and I’ll dearly miss the exceptional people I met in Dubai. The city’s roads, with their sprawling highways, are truly a marvel. And the sense of safety in Dubai is unparalleled. On the flip side, I won’t miss the scorching summers, the strict rules during Ramadan, or the exorbitant costs of social life.

Q: Looking back, how would you weigh the pros and cons of life as a flight attendant for an Arab airline?

Cristiana: It depends on the lifestyle you want. I had colleagues who passionately loved Dubai and the flight attendant job. On the opposite end, there were people who started complaining about their new life from the moment they began flying. Legend has it that they still complain to this day, but they’re still there. However, from this category, I would like to exclude those who are tied to the job due to loans or who have families to support in their home countries because here we’re talking about certain mitigating circumstances.

I believe the secret of this profession is that the wanderlust should always be slightly greater than the longing for home. There are numerous undeniable advantages; the salary package is relatively good, you get the chance to visit parts of the world that aren’t easily accessible, you work in a multicultural environment, interact with fascinating people, listen to their life stories, learn to be disciplined, punctual, and maintain your integrity even when faced with challenging situations.

On the other hand, it’s hard to maintain a healthy balance between personal and professional life. You will most likely miss important events in the lives of loved ones, and sooner or later, you will suffer from chronic fatigue. Moreover, in the long run, the job poses several health risks. Pilots and flight attendants are radiation workers; the dose of radiation you receive while flying 120 hours a month is at the legal limit, and the side effects are not exactly friendly.

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Q: How easy was it for you to enter or maintain a romantic relationship during this time?

Cristiana: I wouldn’t want to reveal too much. Let’s just say I said goodbye to my personal life for five years.

Q: Are there things you regret or would do differently if you could turn back time?

Cristiana: Like any person who is not on the psychopath spectrum, I too carry a fairly substantial bag of regrets. Often, I made compromises for the sake of the group, which I wouldn’t repeat if I could turn back time. We would land in a destination where our rest time averaged 24 hours. If a guided tour was organized, for example a safari in Kenya or a trip to Niagara Falls, the only option was to go with the group and usually, you’d end up with great experiences.

But if we landed in a European city and scheduled certain group activities without a guide, there were often grievances or even animosities between colleagues. For instance, we would go for a walk, visit the historic center, maybe go shopping, and then have lunch or dinner together. Well, there was always someone in the group for whom good manners were a vague, foreign concept. I’m talking about cases where you hold up the entire group until some poor colleague takes 101 pictures of you from all angles, until you get the shot that will break the Instagram algorithms. You can do that when you’re with a close friend, when you’re on vacation, when you have plenty of time.

I also remember situations where someone, ignoring the fact that they went out with a group where it’s fair to submit to the majority’s will, would start making a fuss because they were adamant about dining at a particular restaurant, possibly located on the other side of the city. I should mention that we, as crew members, were constantly whipped by time and fatigue. We weren’t there on vacation and really didn’t have the luxury of time.

Late, very late, I realized that if I want to have an authentic experience of the place I’m in, it’s best to go alone. Thus, in the last year, I ended up visiting places that became dear to me, and I imprinted them with the serotonin of my own rhythm, without external interference. You are not contractually obligated to spend your free time with colleagues just because you arrived together at a destination. I think this is the golden rule that I missed at the beginning!

Q: Who do you think this kind of life suits and who doesn’t?

Cristiana: I don’t recommend this lifestyle to people who love routine. If you’ve made it a habit to wake up at the same time every day, if you have certain rituals that you cherish, for example, you like to drink your coffee peacefully and read the news, or you need an hour just for yourself before starting your regular work schedule, I don’t think this job is for you.

Also, if you feel attached to your homeland, if you’re not passionate about other ways of life and don’t want to integrate into a different culture, if you value time spent with family, if you want holidays off like Christmas, Easter, New Year’s, and your birthday, if you’re in a long and stable relationship, this job will come between you and all the above. Then, keep in mind that you might be hit by homesickness at any time.

As enchanting as the life of a flight attendant seems, despite breakfasts in Paris, dinners in London, and behind those mirage-like photos, there are many sleepless nights and a lot of work. It’s important to be aware and accept the sacrifices you have to make once hired as a flight attendant!

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