Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


flight-skies

(PHOTO: ILOLAB/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The Friendly Skies: On the ‘Peculiar Identity’ of Flight Attendants

• October 04, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: ILOLAB/SHUTTERSTOCK)

How do the 100,000 flight attendants working in the U.S. handle working with a new crew almost every day?

Flight attendants are not only friendly with their passengers, they’re also often super friendly with each other. This may be because especially gregarious people go into the profession, but it’s also an adaptation to a surprising structural feature of their job. It turns out that, on any given flight anywhere in the world, most flight attendants are meeting their co-workers for the very first time.

There are about 100,000 flight attendants in the U.S. alone and they get their flights through a process of bidding, one month at a time, one month ahead. Most really do “see the world,” as the old glamorized image of the intrepid stewardess suggests, instead of working the same route over and over again. As a result, explains Drew Whitelegg in Working the Skies, they rarely run into the same flight attendant twice.

This means that flight attendants must get to know one another quickly once they get on board. They need to do so to make food and beverage service efficient, to coordinate their actions in the tight galleys in which they work, and, most importantly, so that they will trust one another if they are called upon to do what they are really there for: acting in an emergency, one that could theoretically happen within seconds of take-off. There’s no time to lose. “[F]rom the moment they board the plane,” writes Whitelegg, “these workers — even if complete strangers — begin constructing bonds.”

flight-australia

Their instant bonding is facilitated by their shared experiences and their “peculiar identity,” Whitelegg explains—few people understand their job and the airline industry deliberately misportays it—and also by a culture of confession. The galley has its own rules to which new flight attendants are socialized. So, even though the workers are always new, the workplace is predictable. Whitlegg describes how galley conversations during downtime tend to be extremely, sometimes excruciatingly personal. ”The things you hear,” laughs Clare, a flight attendant for Continental, “I could write a book. The things you hear at 30,000 feet.” It’s the odd combination of a habit of bonding and the anonymity of strangers.

So, if you have the pleasure of taking a flight, spend a few minutes watching the surprising coordination of strangers who seem like old friends, and take a moment to appreciate the amazing way these workers have adapted to their very peculiar position.


This post originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site.

Lisa Wade
Lisa Wade, Ph.D., holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an M.A. in Human Sexuality from New York University. She is an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @lisawade.

More From Lisa Wade

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.



October 28 • 6:15 AM

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.


October 28 • 6:00 AM

Why Women Are Such a Minority in Elected Office

The obvious answers aren’t necessarily the most accurate. Here, five studies help clear up the gender disparity in politics.


October 28 • 4:00 AM

The Study of Science Leads to Leftward Leanings

Researchers report the scientific ethos tends to produce a mindset that favors liberal political positions.


October 28 • 2:00 AM

Who Funded That? The Names and Numbers Behind the Research in Our Latest Issue

This list includes studies cited in our pages that received funding from a source other than the researchers’ home institutions. Only principal or corresponding authors are listed.


October 27 • 4:00 PM

School Shootings: What’s Different About Europe?

There may be a lot of issues at play, but it’s undeniable that the ease of access to guns in the United States is a major contributing factor to our ongoing school shooting crisis.


October 27 • 2:00 PM

The Best Investigative Reporting on Campaign Finance Since 2012

From dark money to a mysterious super PAC donor, here are a few of the best investigations of money in politics since the last elections.


October 27 • 12:00 PM

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.