V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Sky-high surprises

Published in The Toronto Star, August, 2004.

In the past four years, I have flown to exotic locales, sunned myself on mile-long beaches while sipping margaritas, kept various lovers strewn across the continents - none of whom spoke a word of English - engaged in raucous behaviour in the galleys and lavatories and travelled for free on my time off.

Yes, I used to be a flight attendant. And yes, stereotypes are full of half-truths.

At 23, fresh out of university, I had no intention of pushing papers. So I eschewed the conventional wisdom of settling into a 9 to 5 job and chose instead to make a career out of seeing the world. That much is true.

The rest? Although I did fly to the Caribbean on the job, I always flew right back after sipping on wishful thinking, fantasizing that the aircraft might encounter some irreparable mechanical problem. I have had a trans-Atlantic romance, but he spoke English - with a cockney accent. And sex in the aircraft? Have you ever looked at the state of the lavatories?

But for adventure seekers, being a flight attendant makes a job travelling a legitimate one.

One day, I would be in Japan and a few days later find myself in Paris. Recently, I took a weekend trip to London, leaving Friday. On Saturday, I strolled by the Thames River and took in Romeo and Juliet at the Shakespeare Globe Theatre for $12, and was home by Sunday - it was a weekend well-spent.

But how long could I keep up a fantasy life? While friends were working toward professional careers, was I living the life of an adolescent, seen as nothing more than a trolly-pushing server? After four years of flying, facing irate passengers who refused to stow their bags and too often not knowing where I was, I've decided that yes, I'm ready for a land-dweller's job.

Since my four-month leave of absence, I've been working quite happily on the ground and have gotten reacquainted with non- pressurized working environments. It's refreshing, not having to wonder what altitude I'm at.

Flight attendant boot camp

Four years ago, it all began with a cattle call where 1,500 people (mostly women) stood waiting seven hours to be judged by airline recruiters. Four interviews, language tests, mental fitness and medical examinations later, I got the phone call that would give me a ticket to the skies - almost.

What I learned was that about 250 of us from Toronto had to go through two months of emergency and safety training, everyday from 7 to 5. The stress of having to be perfectly groomed and coiffed (they took measuring tapes to the lengths of our hair, heels and skirts), pass 54 written and practical exams on evacuation procedures, and living among strangers at a hotel out of town all took a toll on some of the recruits.

About a quarter of the people dropped out, some for failing exams, some for improper grooming, and others for talking back to an instructor. That left the rest of us panicking at the prospect of having to return home admitting we had degrees but couldn't cut it as a flight attendant.

Instructors were merciless, giving us strikes if we were literally seconds late for a lesson, trying to instil in us the importance of punctuality. It was flight attendant boot camp, only scarier because we took our punishments like robotic beauty queens - always smiling.

Feminism in flight

Like the industry itself, the profiles of flight attendants have undergone some major makeovers. About 35 years ago, aspiring "stewardesses" in Canada had to be qualified nurses, young and unmarried, meet stringent weight restrictions, were rigorously examined for beauty deficiencies, and had to promise to retire after 10 years of service.

Flying was a luxury limited to the rich and powerful, and necessitated a crew that could match that glamorous, elitist image. Top designers would bid to design airline uniforms and the young, pretty stewardesses danced with male passengers in-flight, using a discretionary amount of flirting.

"It was upstairs in the lounge on the 747s in the 1970s," remembers a veteran flight attendant who wishes only to be called "Heather."

"It was a very small dance floor. We played music from a tape and served hors d'oeuvres. We wore pink PJs - fitted tops and wide bellbottoms - it was a shocking pink. You could dance if you wanted but I never chose to - the men were fat and old! When asked, I said, 'Oh no, you go ahead. I'll clap and dance,'" she laughs.

The feminist movement stripped away the title of stewardess in the '70s, taking with it a lot of derogatory implications, for a more politically correct version the flight attendant.

Gradually, precedents were set and unions strengthened, all which created a less engendered role for the flight attendant. With this change came the transformation of air travel altogether, where flying became more viable for the masses.

Travel is now less a luxury than it is stressful for flyers and flight attendants alike. And to alleviate some of that stress, I found out that some pilots feel the need to relax through sex. Though some myths about airline crew warrant demystifying, pilots have a hard time living their randy reputation down thanks to philanderers like the one I met on a U.S. layover.

During my first month of flying, my crew decided to take advantage of our long Philadelphia layover and went out on the town.

I distinctly remember seeing a wedding ring on the first officer's hand at the beginning of the night but as the evening wore on, his ring conveniently disappeared.

"So," he says, while locking his beady eyes on mine. "Do you have a boyfriend?" His newly, self-appointed single status gave him license to flirt freely with the girls at the pub after his attempts at wooing me failed miserably - I kept weaving his young wife and new baby into the conversation.

Passengers, too, consider physical contact onboard a pressurized, metal tube at 35,000 feet, exhilarating and highly arousing.

Flight attendant Julie Hebert remembers a flight where she caught a young couple in the throes of passion.

"I was doing a routine bathroom check, when I saw a couple having sex under the blanket in the last row of the plane," she says. "We called a few of the other flight attendants, and one of the guys took it upon himself to pull the blanket right off."

It was a young couple in their late teens or early twenties, and while both were clothed, there was no question they were getting a little frisky, what with the undone buttons, open zipperand one hiked up skirt.

The partially clad couple were "really embarrassed," Hebert says.Going for the globe

I soon realized that the unpredictable schedule, irregular hours and lack of routine sometimes negated altogether the pleasure of flying.

During the post-9/11 pandemonium, for instance, I flew between Frankfurt and Toronto four times in a two and a half week period which threw off my body's clock for weeks. Contrary to what I hoped, veteran flight attendants have assured me that there's no such thing as getting used to jet lag.

The day about 300 of us were laid off for the second time in three years, a bunch of us went to see Gwyneth Paltrow's movie View From The Top. It's a comedy about a small-town girl whose dream is to move up the ranks of a small, regional airline to overseas routes on a large commercial airline. Though the movie left much to be desired, it did touch on one aspect of the job that's true of the globetrotting life the unexpected.

In most airlines, junior flight attendants will also start out being on call. Because being on call means having to be available all day for a flight, it's nearly impossible to plan a life. My suitcase was always packed and ready to go, as I was often given less than two hours notice and sent on flight cycles that could last anywhere from one to four days, and literally take me anywhere in the world. And for a young, single gal, the thrill was in the unknown.

But, we were also hostages to our phones by scheduling crews, otherwise known as "God." Should you get on one of the "God's" nerves, it's Montreal and Ottawa turns for the rest of the month, while friends are awarded London, Paris or Japan.

Brains behind the trolly cart

Not long ago, I saw a caricature in the newspaper which commented on the demise of the global airline industry. In it, a flight attendant was in the aisle with the trolley, asking, "Coffee, tea ... my resume?"

However, passengers might want to consider networking the other way around. The people who ask you to put away your cell phone (for the third time), serve you hot meals at 35,000 feet and pick up your garbage are teachers, writers, lawyers, med students, entrepreneurs, speech pathologists, masseurs, university students and dentists.

I remember working a flight to Germany where two of our 15- member crew were studying for their mid-terms in med school. Often, I've also been awed by colleagues who were able to switch seamlessly between two to four languages fluently.

While flying, I've served celebrities like Drew Barrymore and Tom Green when they were still married, both of whom were extremely polite and undemanding. I also had comedian Wayne Brady and writer Michael Ondaatje on the same flight, sitting one row from each other.

In my four years I maximized my time in the airline industry. On the job, I saw Canada coast to coast. Internationally, some of the more notable places I've visited include New York, Miami, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, London (several times over), Paris, Frankfurt, Munich, Glasgow, Copenhagen,and Tokyo. On my own time, I've also managed to visit New Orleans, Las Vegas, Jamaica, Seoul, New Zealand and Glasgow.

Despite how greedy it sounds, I know I want more. More than flying over the world, I've decided I want to get "my head out of the clouds" and live in the world.

I've decided to take the bold step of leaving the comforts of working only 17 days a month, taking weekend jaunts to Paris, and being able to travel overseas for $50.

I've decided to leave, so that I can make use of my degrees, stay more than 24 hours at an overseas destination, and not travel standby on a flight, a nail-biting exercise in planning.

But before I say goodbye, on behalf of the flight attendants I leave behind, a gentle reminder that though they're more commonly known for distributing foil-wrapped chicken or beef, passengers often forget that our primary role is to ensure safety.

As flight attendants have been known to comment to each other, "We're here to save your ass, not kiss it!"

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