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I spent 10 hours shadowing a Delta flight attendant — here's what it's like to lead a crew

CNBC logo CNBC 7/21/2018 Kathleen Elkins
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If you want to become a flight attendant for Delta, you’re going to face stiff competition: Each year, more than 100,000 people apply and less than 1 percent get the job. To put that degree of difficulty into perspective, it’s harder to fly with Delta than it is to get into Harvard, which, in 2018, accepted 4.6 percent of students.

Those lucky enough to survive the interview stage then go through an eight-week training program that covers everything from how to handle a medical emergency to how to adhere to Delta’s strict dress code. Trainees have to pass multiple tests throughout training, plus a 100-question final exam, in order to earn their wings.

For the final stage of training, flight attendants start working full-time but remain “on probation,” which means that they can’t lead any flights. If they pass the six-month probation period, they’re eligible to take on more responsibility as a flight leader.

As I learned when I spent a 10-hour day shadowing Delta flight attendant Melissa Pittman, there’s a lot more to the job than serving food and drinks to passengers. “The biggest misconception ever is the fact that people think we’re glorified waitresses,” Pittman told me.

a man standing in front of a door © Provided by CNBC

Here's what it's actually like to work as a flight attendant:

The commute

Pittman is based out of New York City, meaning all of her trips start and end in one of the city’s airports. A trip can last several days and consist of multiple flights.

I met her at LaGuardia Airport on a Friday afternoon for a two-leg trip from NYC to Atlanta and back. It was an easy, hour-long train ride from my apartment in Manhattan to the airport in Queens. Pittman’s typical commute isn’t as simple: “Some people take the train to work. I fly to work,” she told me of her five-and-a-half-hour commute from her home in Los Angeles.

Being able to fly to work gives her the flexibility to live wherever she wants, and she’s not the only one to take advantage of this perk: Another flight attendant on board, Sarah Motter, told me that she commutes about 20 hours door-to-door from Guam, where her husband is stationed in the Navy. She also has a “crash pad” in New York that she shares with other flight attendants, which means she always has a place to stay overnight in her base city.

Lisa Marie Presley standing in a kitchen © Provided by CNBC

Pre-flight

I met up with Pittman and the rest of her four-person flight attendant crew, including Motter, at the gate about an hour before departure. All four had flown with each other on separate occasions, but they’d never flown together as a group. “You’re not always going to know everyone on your crew,” Pittman told me. “Every crew is different.”

Pittman was the “flight leader” on this particular trip, meaning she led her team’s pre-flight meeting, communicating with the pilot and making announcements to passengers. Being the flight leader is something you can “bid” for when setting your schedule, and it’s typically given to the most senior flight attendant who bids for it.

Pittman and her crew can’t board the plane without their “SkyPro,” which is a big, red device that looks like a large iPhone. It provides information about all of the safety procedures to flight attendants and recognizes any high-value customers on board. “We live and breathe by this,” Pittman said.

Before the passengers started boarding, Pittman led a brief meeting with her team, checked in with the captain and did her pre-flight safety checks, like making sure all first aid items are in place. She also set up the entertainment system and turned on the boarding music. She and Motter would be working the first-class cabin, while the other two flight attendants, Shannon O’Brien and Niguel Modeste, would be covering the main cabin.

Mid-flight

The flight from New York City to Atlanta is relatively short — less than two hours — which meant the flight attendants would be on their feet the whole time except for takeoff and landing. I noticed that while the three female flight attendants boarded the plane wearing heels — there’s a minimum heel height of half an inch for flight attendants making their way to the plane — they had changed into flats before take-off.

As soon as we reached cruising altitude, I joined Pittman and Motter in the first class cabin. They had already started taking drink orders and preparing 20 full meals, one for each first-class passenger. While the cold meals are ready to serve, the hot meals have to go in the oven and then be plated.

Between the drink and snack refills, which are unlimited in first class, answering individual passenger requests and preparing and serving full meals, Pittman and Motter don’t slow down. I learned that Diet Coke takes painfully long to pour and “makes flight attendants want to pull their hair out,” Pittman told me. “I can pour three drinks to one Diet Coke. It’s our nemesis soda.”

While the majority of the flight is spent attending to passengers, Pittman and her crew aren’t just there to serve food and drinks.

“A lot of people think we’re their waiters and that we’re there to make sure they get drinks and food, but they don’t realize that we’re there to actually save their lives in case something happens,” Modeste told me.

a person preparing food in a kitchen © Provided by CNBC

“We have to be prepared for anything: a fire, an irate passenger or a medical event. And medical events happen more than you’d think,” Motter said. While they’ve been trained to deal with pretty much any emergency, and can always speak with a medical facility mid-flight, “98 percent of the time, there is a doctor or some sort of medical professional on board," she told me.

The biggest incident we had to deal with on this particular trip was “moderate” turbulence. “There’s mild, moderate and severe turbulence,” Pittman explained. “When things are spilling, that’s moderate.” Red wine was sloshing out of the glasses and it felt pretty “severe” to me, but Pittman assured me, “this is just another day in the life.”

After landing, Pittman and the captain stood at the front of the craft and said goodbye to each of the 200 or so passengers. “Between ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye,’ I probably say it 600 times a day,” she told me.

Before deplaning, Pittman and her crew did post-flight safety checks and made sure everyone was off the plane, which included checking the lavatory.

Post-flight

For this particular trip, we had a four hour “sit” in between flights, enough time for the crew to hang out or nap in the flight attendant lounge, work out in the airport gym or have a sit down meal. Other days, they may have just an hour between flights and go straight from one gate to the next.

O’Brien told me that she likes to use spare time to work on her schedule: “Based on our seniority, we can bid for what layovers we want or how many legs a day we want. It’s really great to build seniority so you can hold a schedule that you like.”

a group of people in a living room filled with furniture and a tv © Provided by CNBC

Pittman Facetimed her son, who was turning 18 that day, and then headed to the gym to work out.

About an hour before the second flight, I met back up with the crew, boarded and did it all over again, this time with less turbulence. The day ended at LaGuardia around 11 PM, making it a 10-hour day.

Like any job, there are pros and cons. “The best perk of the job for me is two-fold,” said Pittman, who’s been with Delta since 2015. “My entire family and friends are spread across the country and this career allows me to be able to hop on a plane and go see them more regularly than I could have previously being tied down to a desk, five days a week, in one place.”

a person standing in front of a group of people posing for the camera © Provided by CNBC

That said, “the hardest part of my job is being away from my children more that I want to be at times and missing holidays or special events. I’m missing my son’s 18th birthday today, but my kids are used to that. They know that holidays like Christmas may not be celebrated on Christmas. It might be celebrated on Christmas Eve.”

Pittman and the rest of the crew agreed that you can’t beat the flexibility. “We have one of the most flexible careers in the airline industry,” she said. “There are months where I could work six days a week, for weeks in a row. Or there are months where I could work two to three days a week, for months in a row.”

At the end of the day, the pros outweigh the cons, she said: “Even on my toughest, most challenging days with reroutes, mechanicals, weather delays, medical diversions, challenging passenger interactions, or any other job related issue, I still love my job and would not trade it for anything.”

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