We’ve all seen glamourous flight attendants on TV, smiling and waving, but what is it really like to be a flight attendant, to deal with emergencies and nervous passengers?


I spoke to a commercial flight service manager and a private plane flight attendant to understand their jobs, the highlights, the challenges, how covid has influenced the flight industry and training. But first, what do they actually do and how did they get into flying?


Louise works for the commercial airline Virgin as a flight service manager. Louise has been working for 23 years at Virgin and is the only flight service manager during the flight. This means she looks after the well-being and safety of about 18 crew for the whole trip depending on the size of the aircraft.

   “As soon as that door shuts it’s basically my cabin.”

 Louise’s aunt worked for an airway, and Louise wanted “to be just like (her) aunty, who was so glamorous”. The only things that interested her in school were learning languages and geography. She loved to travel and wanted to see the world (and getting paid for it seemed like a pretty good perk too!).


Leanne is a permanent freelance flight attendant who works on private jets. Leanne is the only flight attendant during the flights. She started when she was 19 and has been flying ever since. Leanne always “wanted to be a dinner lady on a plane”, and also has a love for travelling, so she followed her dream and applied for a job.


The main difference between Louise and Leanne’s jobs is that Louise works for a commercial company and Leanne is private. A commercial company is focused on transporting the general public around safely, either for business or holidays. In a private company, it is the passenger's comfort that is the priority.  Private planes are chartered out to an individual who has soul priority of the plane. The owner runs a business and uses a broker to promote his plane to clients. A broker tells clients about the companies, much like a travel agent helps you decide which holiday to choose. As private is more expensive, it comes with more flexibility and exclusivity.


Training is a big part of a flight attendant’s career, as safety is paramount. Louise has regular training sessions and is tested on this learning with yearly exams, which enables her to renew her license annually. On top of that, there is further rigorous testing, with the crew being quizzed every day on different aviation topics.

Leanne is re-doing her first aid and her fire and safety test which occurs every year, and both attendants have physical tests too.


Obviously working on planes isn’t a regular 9-5 job, and it can vary depending on your role and contract. For Louise, who works part-time, she is on a contract of 9 days a month, which usually consists of 2 trips a month. An example of this would be flying to LA and spending 2 days there before flying back which would be a total of about a 4-day trip. Then she has a short trip to Boston or New York, and then she’s finished working her monthly shift. Louise flies back to her 3 young children, but with these variable hours, childcare can be challenging.

On the other hand, Leanne freelances, so she can choose how many days a month she works, as it's flexible, which on average is around 7 days, and she gets paid depending on the days she works. If Leanne wanted, she could work every day as there are no restrictions bar your own fatigue and mental health of course.


So, the big question; what was it like flying in 2020? No passengers, no flights, and no income. Louise’s company stopped all flights to the far East and “thought that was the end, until it started spreading…” She was in LA at the time when it really hit as cases started skyrocketing in London and there were no available flights back to the UK. After that flight, which would be Louise’s last for about 18 months (unbeknown to her). Louise was made redundant and informed her she would get her job back December 2022, along with many of her co-workers during a worldwide conference call. The CEO of Virgin, Richard Branson, spoke: “with a really heavy heart and he said, ‘this is more serious than we anticipated.’”. After that, it got worse and worse, with closed borders and another chunk of employees being furloughed. Soon the only aircrafts operating were cargo flights carrying medication and PPE to Asia and Africa, which didn’t have it readily available. The company lost its big airlines and has shrunk to a skeleton of a company.  Thankfully, Louise now has a 6-month temporary contract starting within a week, despite the fact the company told her she would get her job back December 2022. Currently, the airports have machines that sterilise everywhere every night, and aircraft have deep cleanouts after every flight. There are also plastic shields up in airports and the bigger aircraft pump and circulate purified air around. Masks are mandatory on the flight, the crew take covid tests when signing in, and are therefore exempt from the covid tests that the passengers must take.

Leanne continued to work throughout Covid and although there was a change in passengers and their reasons for flying, it wasn’t a dramatic change. There were people desperate to get back to their families and a few workers, mainly in the oil rig industry. The people who usually flew on private planes didn’t mind paying extra for testing and a quiet terminal. In the private jet world, masks are worn depending on passengers’ comfort and aren’t mandatory, and gloves are used in addition when Leanne preps the food. The plane is sprayed once a month by an external company to create a layer of antivirus protective spray, and the crew take lateral flow tests. The crew were given priority to be vaccinated early and are also exempt from passenger covid tests.

            “It’s such a safe environment – no one has covid on                                                        that small plane.”

One thing that has changed more dramatically, although more due to Brexit, is the length of flights, Leanne stated. Instead of staying in the place they flew to for a few days and having long flights, they often fly back the same day and just have day trips now.


Working in the flight industry is hard work, whether you’re a pilot, a flight attendant, or a CEO. It can take a toll on your mental and physical health. For Louise, there was a big mental strain on her with her loss of job, and she “went through a huge period of grief.”

                                    “(My job) was my life”

Going back will be hard too, with much training to be done and although it’s exciting, the crew is much smaller, and the aircraft are much lower in quantity.  

 For Leanne, there was a fear of losing her job and still is. The owner is still trying to make money, and it can be difficult in covid times for the flight industry.”

                       “I had a small wobble a few weeks ago.”

In the private plane world, whilst the benefits stand out, it must be noted that the jobs don’t always come with stability and a regular income. Leanne’s colleague, a helicopter pilot, was made redundant suddenly, due to low profits and the owner selling off the helicopter. It’s almost scary how quickly this happens. The pilot was doing a great job, yet through no fault of their own, is now redundant.


Leanne also must prepare all the food which “is the most strenuous part”, and it consists of contacting food companies, sourcing ingredients, making food, sending out menus, finding food preferences…. the list goes on and on. Leanne described it as though “you’re hosting in your kitchen, but in the air.” For Leanne, once you’re on board it’s more enjoyable, however, flying does take a toll on your body. You’re constantly moving in a confined space, reaching into various nooks and crannies of the moving aircraft which leaves a sore body the next day!


Whilst Leanne can command her hours more, being away for long periods from her family is hard.

            “There’s always lots of company, but there’s a loss of physical contact

                    and missing loves ones. It can become quite lonely at times.”

Many passengers have aerophobia: fear of flying. Louise talked about the training that they do, to be prepared for all passengers, such as nervous ones. Although flying can be scary, there have been no emergencies in all of Leanne’s 23 years of flying, and Louise only had one, which ended well. “Airplanes are such safe machines”, Louise confirmed, and “I just feel at home on an aircraft, and I feel the safest on an aircraft.”


A major event that rocked the world was 9/11. It was a frightening time for everyone, but particularly those flying. Louise was working in a large plane on the upper deck after the attack, with 2 famous people on board, flying to Washington. The questions were piling on her, passengers alarmed and alert. Disaster struck and there was a power cut in New York, which was thought at first to be another attack. It became too much, during the demonstration, for Louise, who burst into tears on the plane.

            “You’ve got to look after the passengers, but you also know

                                    You’ve got a family back at home yourself.”

Leanne was working abroad at the time and didn’t believe the news. Where she was, the news was hardly ever relevant in the UK, and to Leanne, it didn’t seem true. But it was true, and it was terrifying.



With challenges also comes highlights, which Louise and Leanne spoke about, smiling as they recalled happy memories. Louise grinned, as she told me stories about flying with Richard Branson on his private jet and being invited to “cool parties in LA” by famous people. She also talked about reuniting families, which she’s looking forward to when she returns to work.

Leanne loves going to bizarre places you would never go to if you were on holiday yourself and being able to see the world. And occasionally, if the plane was going to maintenance, the crew would eat nice food, even have some champagne.


No one knows exactly what the future of flying will be like; electric planes, invisible helicopters, anything could happen. But one thing that will stay the same for Louise and Leanne is their love of travelling.