Guest post by Norbert Sari
I’ve always found the idea of being on an airplane strangely cozy. I flew for the first time when I was 14. There’s nowhere to go, nobody can enter or leave, you have a chance to disconnect and the excitement of travel and arriving to your destination is enticing. I have never been a nervous flyer or scared of turbulence, but more on that later.
When I boarded my first 12-hour flight (alone) from Paris to San Francisco, even the thought of working on an airplane fascinated me. Just think about it: you work inside a tube built of tons of metal and plastic, blasting through the skies at about 8-900km/h, almost the speed of sound. You leave the surface of the Earth at one point and touch down on another, thousands of km’s away. Your “office window” looks to cotton candy clouds, sunshine, stunning skylines and at civilization at a distance. Isn’t that magical?
Little did I know back then that just 2 years later, I would be working the skies for a living. I came to realize as the first months passed that being a flight attendant is a full-fledged lifestyle. I knew I was not going to do it forever, but it was an exciting adventure and, honestly, some of the best years of my life. Years with lots of (free) travel, getting to know new people almost every day, exploring new countries/cities, trying new cuisines and serving people drinks and food 10 km’s up in the sky.
When you’re on the move all the time, your whole life becomes strangely transient as well. Here’s a list of some stuff that I discovered in my flying career:
1. Getting used to living in hotels
Spending most of your nights in hotels is a two-sided coin. Most hotels have a gym, sometimes a pool and/or hot tub, most likely a sauna in Northern Europe and these are all nice. What they also have are overpriced in-house restaurants, impossible-to-find wall plugs, dust and other gems under your bed (and other less-cleaned areas), toilets that are too high to sit on, and hard-to-set air conditioning systems.
There were months when I spent up to 16 nights away, and whenever I was off from work, I would also often travel somewhere for leisure, so I would maybe spend 5-6 days at my own place. Why pay rent, right? Despite all that, I did manage to keep alive 5 plants!
After the first few months of flying, I had to start taking pictures of hotel room doors to remember which one I’m staying in. After a half year in, hotel staff started to recognize me. They knew how I liked your coffee and breakfast. They knew to clean my room but not touch any of my stuff. They knew which floors and rooms I preferred. It all started feeling like a big family, like returning to your long-lost aunt’s house every few weeks. I remember that at one point, hotels started to feel more and more familiar than my own house.
2. Having an extra of everything
A few months in, for practical reasons, I purchased an extra set of EVERYTHING. I got tired of packing and unpacking so I had one of everything for “home” and one for “work”. Chargers, bathroom stuff, clothes, shoes, and whatever you can imagine. There was one of “everything” permanently in my suitcase and one where it belongs in my house. I knew which hotels had ‘meh’ pillows and which had great ones, and sometimes I would shove my own pillow into my suitcase just to ensure a good night’s sleep and avoid a sore neck for a week.
3. Constantly meeting new people you then spend a lot of time with
I’m not talking about passengers here, although that number was also about 1000 people a day. I’m talking about colleagues. Sometimes I would work with a crew for 1 day, sometimes for 5 in a row, or anything in between. Again, there are two sides to that coin as well. If it’s people you click with, you’re looking at a pleasant and fun work week. If not, then, you better whip that book out because you’ll have a lot of time to pass between meal services. The former was the case most of the time and I did enjoy getting to know people and their stories and I have a few ex-colleagues who I’m close friends with to this day.
4. Working at crazy times
There are flights departing pretty early, and if you’re staying in a hotel, there’s a big chance that you’re out at a line station that feeds passengers into a hub (for example, you’re flying Nice to Paris early so passengers can get that 11am New York flight). This means flights will leave as early as 5.30am to get these transit passengers to their international / intercontinental flights. That means you have check-in at 4.30, which means you’ll have to get up around 3.30 counting transport time to the airport – even earlier if you take longer getting ready. Good luck going to bed at 7pm the day before! (This may have happened to me a few times).
The same goes for working late but that has never been an issue in my case. I’d rather work until 4am than start working at 5am, which also happened a couple times. There’s also a mean trick the Earth plays on you called time zones. And then you cry after realizing that your 4.30am check-in is actually 3.30 in your time zone.
5. Start enjoying turbulence
To be honest, working on an airplane is not that exciting if you’re doing short haul. Few-hour flights, one meal service, maybe a snack bar. It gets monotonous after a while, so whenever something happens, you’re happy. Like I said, I’ve never been afraid of flying (kinda hard to be a flight attendant like that). Turbulence’s fun – it’s just wind and it’s usually more inconvenient than dangerous. Before you think, “well that’s only because you haven’t been through a bad one yet”, why, yes, I have. It was Christmas 2016 in Norway, and Storm Urd was raging on Dec 26th. We tried to land 2 times before diverting back to our origin since the crosswind was so strong that we were unable to land. About 8 people threw up during the descent and there was a mild amount of screaming. The only thing I did not enjoy about it is the lingering smell of vomit, otherwise, it was fun!
6. Stop caring about delays or cancellations
Many get annoyed when their flight is delayed or worse, canceled. I was one of them, too, before I worked in aviation. Delays are inevitable and while frustrating, they’re not meant to piss passengers off. Maybe it’s a technical issue that needs to be looked at for everyone’s safety and security. Maybe the catering guy or the fuel truck is late. Maybe bag sorting had some glitch and we’re still waiting for some baggage. There can be multiple reasons and believe me, airlines track and treat delays very seriously to smooth out processes, avoid mishaps, and improve passenger experience. Same goes for cancellation – airlines will not cancel a flight unless they absolutely, definitely have to. After being stuck in Amsterdam one time for 5 hours with passengers on board due to a huge snowstorm all over Europe, I never cared again about a delay.
7. Finding great spots for shopping
Apart from knowing which airports have the best deals on stuff, be it clothing, beauty or tech things, I also got accustomed to keeping an eye out for offers in every city. I had my spots to buy great quality (and price) shoes, clothes, bathroom stuff, even home stuff (whatever could fit in a suitcase, although I have heard about colleagues buying a giant carpet and taking it home). It was also a good way to stock up on food supplies that were hard or impossible to get where I lived.
As said, I enjoyed these years immensely and I would not do it any differently if I could change anything. I have not completely discarded the possibility of me flying again for a living at some point in my life. Despite all its quirks, it’s one of those jobs that doesn’t feel like a job most of the time, and if you have an opportunity to try it, even for a short time, I definitely recommend that you go for it!
Norbert is a Full-Stack Designer and Marketing Magician living in Southern Spain. After graduating from university, he worked as a language trainer & coach and online marketing specialist before moving to Scandinavia to broaden his horizons and try his hand in other industries. He is currently a Brand Ambassador at Paris-based UX research agency MindSpark Research Intl.
An advocate for human-centered design, Norbert’s also been freelancing for many years as a side hustle, collaborating with startups to unify brand vision and identity with design. In his free time, he likes exploring the Spanish countryside, gaming, cooking, and learning new languages.