During the golden years of flying, it seemed like every girl’s dream to take to the skies, don the signature kebaya and undertake the mantle of an SIA girl. Of course, back in the day, they were often referred to as ‘Air Stewardesses’, but we have since come a long way where inclusivity and awareness are concerned. We now adopt the more gender-neutral and respectful term, ‘Flight Attendant’. But semantics aside, the culture of cabin crew still seems to have a long way to go towards a flatter hierarchy.
I’ve long set my eyes on the aviation industry, but as an Air Traffic Controller in charge of the movements of the very planes I love up in the air. But after an unsuccessful attempt at that career, I decided to take a stab as a Singapore Airline cabin crew instead. Several interviews and group assessments later, I actually found myself just a mere step away from getting on-boarded—signing the contract. With the employee contract being the only thing standing between the job and I, it was a tough period of deliberation as I mulled over it long and hard. Ultimately, I ended up forgoing my one opportunity at foraying into the aviation industry to be a writer instead. Here are five reasons why.
“If you can’t stand your colleagues now,
you’ll hate your fellow crew even more.”
Like any other good student, I did my primary research into the role, and I was lucky enough to know a handful of flight attendants currently flying with SIA with whom I spoke to about the application process. They more than readily shared (ranted) about the biggest gripe they had with the Airline—its culture. According to one of them, trainee and junior cabin crew members always had it the worst because of the highly hierarchical nature of life at SIA.
As a junior, you’d have to respect, no, fear those that came before you. You’d have to greet them in the hallways. And if any crew member more senior than you made a request to swap shifts, giving no for an answer was almost akin to social suicide. And that, apparently, is the reason why so many junior crew members have been reduced to working on holidays like Christmas Day and Chinese New Year, simply because they were implicitly coerced into switching out their shifts for the unpopular ones. At that time, I was working in a small advertising agency when my friend cautioned, “If you already can’t stand your colleagues now because of the drama they start, I can guarantee you’ll despise your colleagues even more if you join us”. Yikes.
I would hate to be that one person who starts missing many milestones in the lives of those I love.
Another friend also weighed in. “Flying so often essentially means you’ll be perpetually maintaining long-distance relationships—and I don’t only mean with your boyfriend, but your friends and family too”. And that’s one of the hardest things for me to part with. As an extrovert, I bounce energy off of others, especially those whom I love being around. If you were to take a look at my schedule, you’d find that the days I spend going straight home after work to curl up in my bed and watch Netflix are few and far between. My week is typically jam-packed with meet ups and social gatherings—I can’t imagine going through life without these people physically here with me.
In addition, I would hate to be that one person who starts missing many milestones in the lives of those I love. And so, to spend long stretches of time away from this sunny island I call home seemed quite nightmarish to me when I was deliberating the cabin crew offer. I’d imagine being quite lonely, always having to pack my bags and country-hop. As the type who needs some sort of permanence in terms of the people in my life, fleeting friendships are more upsetting than cheerful to me, because I hate having to say goodbye to people. Some say I’m sentimental that way.
Nothing is worth compromising your health for.
Ultimately, I would still be able to bite down hard and sacrifice time, pay and other opportunity costs to pursue my dream of flying. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that nothing is worth compromising your health for. We don’t often think about it, but flight attendants have to coerce their body clocks to suit the city to which they fly, and that means jet lag becomes a norm. If you thought your 14-hour flight from London was terrible, think about what these poor souls go through on a daily, if not, weekly basis. During shorter flights, the turnaround time is sometimes only a mere couple of hours, which means the period taken for them to deplane passengers, clean up and prepare for the next flight leaves them with little to no time to even catch a breather.
After the novelty of travel has worn off, what remains is usually the fatigue of the physically-intensive work of the day. More often than not, they find themselves just craving a good night’s rest. Not only do flight attendants find themselves sleep-deprived, but many pilots also do lack rest as well, despite it being compulsory in most airlines for pilots to catch minimally 8 hours of shut-eye before a flight. In fact, according to sources, fatigue has been associated with 250 fatal accidents in the history of air crashes over the past 16 years.
A flight attendant’s hours only start rolling once the aircraft doors are shut.
Yes, it’s true. It’s embarrassing, but I spend way more time trawling through the deep sea of Quora than I’d dare to admit. And the bulk of the threads I indulge in all go by the names “Aviation”, “Accidents In Aviation”, “Aviation World”—you get the idea. So I’m always learning new facts about the industry and my favourite aircrafts. One of the things that shocked me the most was discovering that a flight attendant’s hours only start rolling once the aircraft doors are shut.
Essentially, that means all that time spent cleaning up after messy passengers after the flight, preparing the cabin for a new flight, and conducting checks during layovers actually go unpaid. And that to me seemed so unfair—no wonder there are so many attendants out there feeling shortchanged. I think it’s only human sometimes to wonder why you spend your career picking up other people’s leftovers, and not being paid for it.
Many flight attendants I spoke to actually referred to themselves as “glorified waitresses”. It saddens me that people whom I love and respect view themselves in such light. It’s something that we rarely think about—they play such a salient role in our in-flight safety, they’re the ones who pressurize the plane, they’re the ones who are responsible for getting us to safety in the event of an emergency, and they’re the ones who ensure that the cabin operations run smoothly in general.
Yet to most passengers, these flight attendants are nothing more than just a ticket to their must-have in-flight coffee, or worse still, a free upgrade to business class. Always being overworked but under-appreciated and (sometimes) underpaid hardly seems like a sustainable way to live. And so, despite loving aviation to bits, and discounting the fact that an aircraft would be my dream office, the first-hand encounters I’ve heard from many peers are enough to keep me away from joining the sky team.
All that said, quite a number of my friends have since clipped their wings—many with barely a year of experience as a flight crew member. Some wanted to start a family while others, who once quite literally took their career to new heights, decided it was time to stay on the ground. The long hours, constant fatigue, and the sacrifices they’ve had to make just didn’t cut it for them, and frankly, who could blame them? Not that there aren’t any perks to the job. I guess it just depends on the individual’s threshold on what they can and cannot tolerate in the workplace.
Having been presented with this opportunity as well as listening to stories (both good and bad) from my peers made me question how much we’d put ourselves through for a career. My heart aches for the investment bankers who spend tireless days and nights burning through every waking hour rushing out presentations and slide decks. I wonder how many actually question the work that they do, or have they just been too caught up in the rat race to stop and think? Someone once told me, “There’s no point in giving your whole life to a company that wouldn’t hesitate to replace you in a heartbeat if they needed to”, and that has stuck with me ever since.
Yet, it is only human for us to fantasize about the ‘what if’s’. Sometimes I do entertain the thought experiment of how different my life would be right now had I chosen to go down that career path.
Pardon my geek moment, but if it were up to me to pick, I’d love to be part of the crew on a Singapore Airlines Airbus A380—after all, SIA was the first Airline in the world to acquire the A380 model of aircraft when it was first introduced into the market back in 2007.
However, since long haul flights are beginning to be phased out, and with the A380s stopping in production, I’d be happy to settle into a Singapore Airlines Dreamliner, the Boeing 787-10. A reliable aircraft through and through, the Dreamliner also has a gorgeous wing flex with ultra-cool “cut outs” on their Rolls Royce Trent 1000 TEN engines that make the plane oh-so iconic. But until then, I’ll be content with sitting in the viewing gallery, admiring planes from the ground.