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Working In These Times

Monday, Jul 7, 2014, 8:00 am

Flight Attendant: ‘The Job Itself Is Almost Therapeutic’

BY Matthew Blake

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Moy Medina says that to be flight attendant, 'You don't have to be creative or talented; you just have to be gracious.' (Matthew Blake)  

For three years in the early 1970s, journalist Studs Terkel gathered stories from a variety of American workers. He then compiled them into Working, an oral-history collection that went on to become a classic. Four decades after its publication, Working is more relevant than ever. Terkel, who regularly contributed to In These Times, once wrote, “I know the good fight—the fight for democracy, for civil rights, for the rights of workers has a future, for these values will live on in the pages of In These Times.” In honor of that sentiment and of Working's 40th anniversary, ITT writers have invited a broad range of American workers to describe what they do, in their own words. More "Working at 40" stories can be found here.

When Terkel interviewed Terry Mason in 1964, her occupation was referred to as a “stewardess.” She described the five weeks of “stew school” she had to attend, where she and her co-workers learned the techniques for applying makeup, smiling under any circumstance and allowing men to light their cigarettes. She thought of her job as a stepping-stone out of her small Nebraska town, though she admitted that it wasn’t as glamorous as she’d fantasized it might be.

Like Mason, Moy Medina is 26 and uses the phrase “stepping-stone” to describe his career choice. However, he tells In These Times that he’s worried he’ll never leave his current job. This interview has been edited and abridged.

How does one become a flight attendant?

After I applied and got the job, I went to ground school for seven weeks in Atlanta, Georgia. I lived in a Westin Hotel for two months with some guy from Colombia that I had never seen before in my life. They use ground school to weed out people—whether it’s the stress of living with a stranger or being away from home, it’s sort of a trial period for what your life will be like in the air. And a lot of people couldn’t cut it.

Delta puts it together. They come up with the curriculum—all the tests and all that—because it’s specific to the aircraft that they fly.  I still work for Delta. If I wanted to work for a different company, I would have to go for a different kind of training all over again. That’s one reason why a lot of people stick with the same job for a long, long time—like more than 35 years.

The airline industry is really hung up on traditions, or just the way things have been for a long time. Attendants call established airlines like Delta “legacy carriers.”

I’m based out of Minneapolis, but I live in Chicago. You’re on call for 24 hours during a three-day period each month. I have to be on call in Minneapolis, where I don’t live, so I have to pay for a hotel. It’s just a really shitty way to live, because you’re on edge about being on-call and you’re not comfortable because you’re in a hotel room. Sometimes, I’ll stay in the airport lounge because I don’t have $70 to spend on a hotel. We have lounges for flight attendants and I’ll go there.

But the work itself is really not stressful. Serving people on the same aircraft, again and again, is sort of like a weird comforting thing. The job itself is almost therapeutic. What’s stressful is the buildup before and after getting to work.

Is it difficult to deal with some passengers?

At first there was a lot of emotional labor, because I didn’t want to be disingenuous to anyone. I wanted to approach every single person with the full intensity and empathy that I wanted to be treated with. But at a certain point, that’s not sustainable. I deal with 250 customers at once, plus my crew, and that’s emotionally hard work. So I’ve built up a set of responses to people.

Like when people complain about being in a business-class seat and not being able to plug in their laptop, for example. It’s not worth getting mad at them for being angry at you.

I don’t feel a connection with passengers anymore. Sometimes I feel a pang of guilt, or a little bit of sorrow or pity for them. But it doesn’t last very long anymore.

In ‘Working’ the flight attendant was called a stewardess, and it seemed like a very female-dominated occupation. Is the field still largely female in your experience?

No, not really. But there’s a strong bias toward “housewife” types of people—women who went to college but didn’t really have ambitions, career-wise, in any other field. I'd say those are the majority of my co-workers.

There’s also, of course, the gay male demographic. We have a proclivity to want to host, and want to be gracious and, like, fabulous. It’s sort of glamorous to be able to fly all over all the time, and a lot of gay males are into that sensation.

You don’t have to be creative or talented to do this job; you just have to be gracious. You don’t have to be an artist or an architect or an interior designer. Those sorts of things take talent and vision that a flight attendant doesn’t.

How long do you think you’ll be a flight attendant for?

That’s the question of the day! And of my life, really. I always thought of being a flight attendant as the stepping-stone to something better. But it’s comfortable. It’s so easy to think,  “Oh, this is the best gig ever.” The longer I stay with Delta, the more I’ll get paid and the better my assignments will be.

I’m at that breaking point right now where I don’t want to do it for more than five years, but I think I’m going to have to. At the moment, it’s obviously gratifying to go and travel everywhere and provide people with good service, but it’s not gratifying in the long term. I want to feel like I did something important in the world, and serving people Coke is not the way to do that.

That’s my hang-up. I understand people have to do jobs. There have to be cogs sometime in the system. There have to be flight attendants. There have to be people that clean garbage off of the street. I’m not discounting them. That’s really cool. But I’m trying to decide whether I want to be one of those people or I want to be someone that does something different or something more. 

Matthew Blake is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. He has written for the Chicago Journal, Washington Monthly, Washington Independent and The Nation, among other publications.

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