Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


flight-skies

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

Tags: ,

If you would like to comment on this post, or anything else on Pacific Standard, visit our Facebook or Google+ page, or send us a message on Twitter. You can also follow our regular updates and other stories on both LinkedIn and Tumblr.

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

Follow us


Subscribe Now

Quick Studies

Hunger and Low Blood Sugar Can Spur Domestic Quarrels

In an experiment, scientists found a correlation between low blood glucose and higher levels of spousal frustration.

Your Brain Starts Faltering After You Reach Age … 24

Sorry to break it to you, TSwift. At least in terms of cognitive functioning while playing StarCraft 2, you're finished.

Cavemen Were Awesome Parents

Toy hand axes, rock bashing, and special burials indicate that Neanderthals were cooler parents than previously thought, according to a new theory.

Bringing a Therapy Dog Into a Children’s Hospital Might Be a Terrible Idea

Despite the popularity of animal therapy in American pediatric hospitals, a new research review reveals that there's little support for its health benefits.

You Feel Closer to Your Destination Even When You’re Not

Simply moving toward or away from something alters the way you think about it, according to a new study.

The Big One

One state—Pennsylvania—logs 52 percent of all sales, shipments, and receipts for the chocolate manufacturing industry. March/April 2014