Unsung Heroes: A flight attendant talks grueling schedules, ‘commuting’ by plane to work and being an avgeek
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Anyone who’s stepped foot on a plane can tell you filght attendants are unsung heroes of the travel world — and as unruly passenger behavior is on the rise, now more than ever. More than 2,500 incidents have been reported by airlines to the Federal Aviation Administration since Jan. 1, the agency told TPG.
In addition to navigating out-of-line passengers, flight attendants are responsible for resolving a whole host of customer service requests, from seat assignments to luggage issues, to the most important thing: keeping passengers safe during flight. On top of that, for the past year, they’ve had to navigate COVID-19 while on the clock, putting their lives on the line every single day.
For more insight into the life of a flight attendant, we’re sitting down with Compton Fields on this edition of Unsung Heroes. Here, you’ll learn a little more about the job and how you can get the VIP treatment the next time you reach cruising altitude.
Unsung hero: Compton Fields, flight attendant for a major U.S. carrier
TPG: How did you get into becoming a flight attendant?
CF: I have always loved travel (who doesn’t?), and I had a pretty colorful travel history even before the airline gig: India, Panama, Italy, Chile etc.
A friend had been working for a regional airline and was making the attempt to jump to the mainline carriers. He encouraged me to give it a go as well. I did, and (very) long story short, I ended up at one major airline and him another.
TPG: How long have you been a flight attendant?
CF: I just celebrated my fourth anniversary with my airline in April.
TPG: What does a typical work week look like?
CF: In short, it’s always different. Some weeks, I may work five flights, some weeks I may work 25.
A typical week consists of a whirlwind of cities, airports and hotels. Flight attendants quite often wake up in their hotel beds and take several minutes to recall what city they’re in. In general, a domestic trip generally involves one to four days of being away from their base, two to four flights per day, and layovers in two to three different cities. Sometimes the layovers are long and we get to explore the city and go out with our crew, sometimes they are very short and it’s just enough time to eat, shower and sleep.
TPG: What is your favorite part of the job?
CF: Travel is a given.
This job allows us to travel both on and off the clock. But beyond that, I love the industry itself. I am obsessed with aircraft and airports and airlines. I love the people you meet along the way and their stories. Everyone is traveling for a unique reason, and it is fun to learn about them from my passengers.
TPG: What is your least favorite part of the job?
CF: I love the job. I love the thrill of a new city or new hotel. But I would say one of the biggest struggles for a lot of flight attendants is commuting.
Many flight attendants don’t live in their base or hub airport, so they may fly in on one or two flights to get to and from work. The extra flights and nights away from home can be draining, but in the end, it’s worth it.
TPG: What’s the one thing you wish more people understood about your job?
CF: We often get asked what route we work. Unless we’ve been with the airline for 30+ years, chances are we don’t have a set route.
The most junior flight attendants at an airline are generally on reserve status, which means we sit on call for up to 24 hours per day. Crew scheduling can call us at any time with a day-of trip assignment, and we get ready and head off to the airport. It can be anything from Taipei to Tulsa.
Related: How are flight attendants paid?
As you accrue more seniority with the airline, you gain the ability to bid for certain set schedules, but even those generally consist of different trips and routes each week.
TPG: What’s something anyone can do to be a better traveler in 2021 and beyond?
CF: As international travel starts to return, I think it is important to be a good ambassador of the U.S. (or wherever you happen to be from). We are visitors to someone else’s land and should be respectful of that and the cultures that exist there.
Additionally, the most experienced and seasoned travelers tend to have a lot of patience with the process of traveling. Aviation is a complex industry and things inevitably don’t go according to plan sometimes.
My advice is to just be patient with the process and the employees along the way; they want to help to get things resolved as much as you do. I was told in training that a single flight has up to 8,000 employees behind the scenes working to get it off the ground, from pilots to ground crew to network operations agents.
TPG: What is something a traveler can do to get the VIP treatment from you?
CF: As I said above, I think simple patience with the process really goes to serve the traveler in the long run.
The aviation industry is complex and there are many moving parts to keep it running smoothly and safely, and every single employee is there to make sure each of those parts is perfectly in place. If something is askew, it may lead to delays. But safety is the top priority, and I assure you, hundreds of people are working to resolve things as quickly and safely as possible.
Additionally, I love to go the extra mile for my passengers, and something as simple as a quick conversation with us or ‘thank you’ helps us to do that.
TPG: How does working in the hospitality industry change your idea of travel, or going on vacation?
CF: Being a flight attendant, people are always eager to know where I’ve been internationally, and, don’t get me wrong, I love my international trips and they are the most sought after.
However, one thing this job has allowed me to do is to discover all the small and medium-sized cities across this country, the little nooks and crannies I would otherwise never have seen.
And even though on my days off I have the ability to go just about anywhere, sometimes, admittedly the last thing I want to do is get on a plane. Sometimes it is great to just be at home, go on a hike or a road trip.
TPG: If you could go anywhere in the world on a vacation, where would it be and why?
CF: After a year of no travel, literally anywhere! I would love to go back to South America though. Argentina and Southern Chile. Outdoor adventures and wine tasting, please.
TPG: Tell us about the best vacation you’ve ever taken, or the best place you’ve ever traveled.
CF: Work trip: Melbourne.
I had a 72-hour layover there in a gorgeous hotel on the water. My entire crew — flight attendants and pilots — organized a wine tour throughout the wine regions surrounding the city. It was a stunning day and such a memorable experience. The next day, I walked all around Melbourne, exploring parks, botanical gardens, breweries, eateries and beaches.
On my own time: Chile. This one was actually prior to being employed by the airline. I went with my family to Pucon in Southern Chile. It is a renowned “outdoors” town, nestled under a snow-capped volcano. We stayed at a kayak hostel and kayaked, fished, hiked, biked and enjoyed a freshly-caught trout Christmas dinner in the outdoor kitchen.
Photo by Philip Pilosian/Shutterstock
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