Have you ever sat facing the flight attendant sitting in the jump seat across from you and thought, “I wonder what it would be like to be in their shoes?” Or maybe you’ve peeked into the cockpit and were suddenly thinking about a career change? You’re not alone.
As a former airline employee, I’ve experienced many ebbs and flows of working in the industry. I began my career as a flight attendant for a charter airline that primarily flew the U.S. military and I’ve also spent some time working as a ramp agent for a major U.S. airline. While working for an airline is mostly great and exciting, there are definitely some downfalls. I’ve gathered some pros and cons of working for an airline from a variety of roles across the industry.
Pro: Free Flights
What’s better than a cheap airfare? Well, How about a free flight? The vast majority of airline employees will tell you that the number one reason to work for an airline is the travel benefits. Domestic flights are often completely free and international travel usually only requires that employees pay some taxes in order to fly. This can make it easier to see friends and family who may live out of state or in another country. And, of course, you’ll have a chance to explore the world on someone else’s dime.
Con: Standby Travel
The caveat to the travel benefits is that seats are never guaranteed when flying standby. Employees travel on a space available basis when using their benefits for personal travel. I personally loved taking the gamble and it almost always paid off, but this type of travel is not for everyone. There is always a chance that you’ll get “stuck” somewhere when there aren’t any seats available and either have to cancel your trip or pay for a last-minute confirmed ticket, which can be expensive.
Pro: Flexible Schedule
The second most mentioned perk tends to be the flexibility with scheduling. A JetBlue flight attendant told me that a 9 to 5 job never appealed to her. After getting through reserve duty (which means being on call), senior employees can often rearrange their schedule to fit life’s plans. Swapping shifts is commonplace in the airline industry. It’s a great way to get multiple days off in row without the need to use any vacation days. A Delta pilot told me that he really enjoys having 15+ days off every month. It gives him time to pursue other hobbies or just relax.
Con: Missing Family and Friends
On the flip side, when crewmembers are working, they aren’t home with their friends and family, and this can really take its toll. A single mother working as a flight attendant for JetBlue mentioned that she has to try and work around her daughter’s schedule and it can be difficult at times. Depending on the type of airline, flight crews can be away from home for up to two weeks at a time. As air travel takes place 24/7, 365 days per year, this also means many airline employees end up working holidays.
Pro: Meeting New People
For those who love meeting new people, the airline industry is a great place to be. The average airline employee tends to be fun and adventurous, which can lead to enjoyable layovers with colleagues or just an upbeat day of work at the airport. The travel perks also give you the chance to make friends all over the world and experience different cultures both by traveling and interacting with passengers from different backgrounds.
Con: Dealing with the Public
Of course, in any customer facing role, the public can also be difficult to deal with on a daily basis. Travel is a stressful environment and it sometimes brings out the worst in people. Add to that weather delays and cancelled flights, and airline employees sometimes have to work long hours handling disgruntled customers. It can take extreme patience and compassion to deliver excellent service in times when passengers can be outright obnoxious and rude.
Pro: Glamorous Lifestyle
Friends of airline employees are often envious of the lifestyle. It can definitely seem glamorous to spend a long weekend overseas, fly to a different city for a lunch date, or have the ability to travel across the country on a day’s notice to see your favorite team play in a major sporting event or a musical act perform. These perks give airline employees the chance to tell some pretty interesting stories around the dinner table—if they’re able to make it to dinner.
Con: Unhealthy Lifestyle
The erratic schedule of an airline employee can lead to an unhealthy lifestyle. Being tired all the time is a constant complaint in the industry. Sleep schedules vary greatly for crewmembers and passing multiple time zones doesn’t help. Getting into a routine can also be very difficult when working different shifts at the airport. Workout schedules often get thrown off and eating unhealthy restaurant food consistently can sure take its toll on the body.
Pro: Exciting Work Environment and Growth Opportunities
Most airline employees describe the work environment as an exciting place to be. A Safety Manager for American told me that he loves the growth opportunities available when working with airlines and there’s a job for just about anyone. Finance, communications, marketing, training and development, human resources, etc. I even knew a few baggage handlers who ended up becoming pilots. All it takes is determination and a foot in the door. Airlines love to promote from within and an entry-level job can lead to several different career opportunities.
Con: Flying Planes Can Be Boring
Flight is truly one of the most amazing accomplishments humans have achieved. However, with technology and computers becoming more involved in aviation, the thrill of flying is diminishing to an extent. One pilot told me that airline flying can be “mind-numbingly boring.” He also mentioned that rarely working with the same people often leads to having the same meaningless conversations with people you don’t know very well. So, even in an ever-changing external environment, there can be a bit of monotony.
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Pro: Pay Can be Really Good
Pilots at major airlines can make really good money. Of course, it all depends on years of experience and the type of aircraft among other considerations. Senior Flight Attendants also mentioned decent pay after gaining some seniority. As far as airport operations go, higher-paid positions are less common, but there are a few in supervisor or managerial roles. At the corporate level, pay can be comparable to other industries. And if you really take advantage of the flight benefits, any position at an airline could be considered six-figures, taking into account the cost of international flights in Business Class.
Con: Low Pay for Entry Level
If you’re just starting out at an airline and not jumping into a corporate role, entry level pay for frontline employees is not the best. It’s often at, or just slightly above, minimum wage for airport employees. This represents a conundrum for people that want to travel with their benefits since it could be pretty expensive to stay at the destination even though flights are free. This further illustrates that the main reason people work for an airline is to enjoy the flight benefits — and not for the pay. Flight attendants have reported that if you can get through the beginning stages of reserve duty and low pay, it does pay off with a decent salary eventually.
Is Working for An Airline Worth It?
When talking about flying with the airlines, a retired pilot told me he would “not recommend it for someone who is doing it just as a job.” For him, it was all about the passion for flying since he was two years old. “Airline flying takes some discipline to do well, but a sense of humor is also required or you’ll find yourself miserable on difficult days,” he added.
That necessary passion was also conveyed by a former Ground Service Coordinator and current Safety Manager who told me, “I take work home every day because I care about our team members and ensuring they are set up for success in what they do every day. It’s about passion and having fun.”
Likewise, a Flight Attendant closed by telling me, “Overall, I’d say I can’t think of anything else I’d love to do more! It’s a job that will keep me forever young.”
For what it’s worth, many former airline employees that I know who have moved on to roles in other industries often talk about returning to the airlines. It’s something that just gets in your blood once you’ve been exposed to it. If you’d like to travel for next to nothing and can handle a bit of an irregular schedule, I would say working for an airline is an excellent idea. Polish up your resume and check out your favorite airline’s career page on their website to see available opportunities.