• Flying the Unfriendly Skies

It is a typical day for the flight attendants aboard American Airlines Flight 710, a 737-800 headed from Dallas to New York with a scheduled departure time of 9:05 a.m.

As Debbie Nicks, 56, works in the first-class galley, brewing coffee and hanging up passengers' jackets, she glances down the jetway and notices a crush of people at the gate. An earlier flight to New York has been canceled, and people from that flight are desperate to get on this one. It is a familiar scene these days, what with many planes flying at near capacity, and so Debbie just continues her regular routine, making the announcement to passengers onboard that they should make sure all carry-on luggage is stored either in the overhead bin or below the seat in front of them.

Back in coach, Anna Wallace McCrummen, 45, organizes the cart of drinks and food for sale that would later be pushed down the narrow aisle, then takes a blue rubber mallet to whack a bag of ice cubes that had frozen into a solid block. She hits it over and over again, perhaps a little too keenly, as the sound - thwop, thwop, thwop - echoes off the walls of the small galley.

Meanwhile, in the main cabin, Jane Marshall, 50, walks down the aisle, checking to make sure people are finding their correct seats, keeping an eye out for passengers who have sneaked on luggage that she knows won't fit in the overhead space and trying to defuse any tense situations before they escalate into crises. But perhaps it is already too late. Two women who have been double-booked stand sulking in the aisle, wheelie bags firmly planted by their sides, signaling that they are not about to budge.

"What a mess," mutters Jane once the double-booked women have been found seats and the line of stand-by passengers is turned away from the gate. Only then, after every seat is taken, overhead bins shut, electronic devices stored and seatbelt sign on, do the three women finally settle in to their jump seats for one of the few moments of respite during their workday.

Over the next 11 hours, they will fly from Dallas to New York and back again, a routine that is clearly second nature to them. In all, the three represent nearly 70 years of flight attendant experience.

And today I am one of them.

In a behind-the-scenes look at the other side of air travel, I donned a navy suit and starched white shirt earlier this summer and became a flight attendant for two days. With the cooperation of American Airlines, I first went to flight attendant training school at the company's Flagship University in Fort Worth, Tex., where I learned what to do in an onboard emergency, from how to open an emergency exit window on a 777 aircraft (it's heavier than you may think) to operating a defibrillator (there are pictures to help you get the pads in the right place). I then flew three legs in two days: a round-trip journey between Dallas and New York, and then back to New York the next day.

And though the other flight attendants knew I was a ringer, the passengers did not. Thus I got a crash course in what airline personnel have to put up with these days - and, after just one day on the job, began to wonder why the phrase "air rage" is only applied to passengers. Believe me, there were a few people along the way, like the demanding guy in first class who kept barking out drink orders as the flight progressed (until he finally passed out), whom I would have been more than happy to show to the exit, particularly when we were 35,000 feet in the air.

WHAT'S it like to be a flight attendant these days? That's what I've often found myself wondering as I sit in my seat, waiting impatiently as yet another flight is delayed and my connection threatened, while around me are passengers fighting with each other over the lack of space in the shared bin, or complaining about having been bumped from an earlier flight, or swearing "never again" to fly this specific airline because they have been stuck in a middle seat even though they booked their ticket six months ago.

Is there a less-enviable, more-stressful occupation these days than that of a flight attendant? Just the look on their faces as they walk down the aisle - telling passengers that no matter how many times they try to squeeze them in, their suitcases are not going to fit into the overhead bin, or explaining yet again that they will not get a single morsel of decent food on this three-hour flight - tells you all you need to know of their misery.

It was a feeling that was reinforced when I glanced at an Internet chat board for flight attendants, airlinecrew.net, and came across postings like this: "I've been a flight attendant for 6yrs now, and I can tell you this much - if I'm still a flight attendant in 20yrs, I'll be a raging b*tch!"

It wasn't always this way, of course. Back in 1967, the best-selling book "Coffee, Tea or Me?" (subtitled "The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses") portrayed life in the air as a nonstop party, one to which the authors felt privileged to be invited. Another 60s artifact, the play "Boeing, Boeing," recently revived on Broadway in a Tony Award-winning production, also pictured the life of stewardesses (as they were called then) as a glamorous romp, with suitors in every port. Most recently, the fictional ad executives on "Mad Men" were thrilled when they were asked to compete for an airline account, not only because of the business it would bring in but also because they would be in on the casting sessions for the stewardesses and would get to fly free. Oh, such fun!

It's a fair bet that nothing about air travel today would inspire such rapture.

In fact, the flight attendants I spent time with on my three flights took a grimly realistic view of their jobs, aware that temper flare-ups - "People just get nasty," said Jane Marshall - are in some ways an understandable reaction to the process that passengers themselves have to endure in trying to get from one place to another. "After they've been harassed by security, we're the ones they see," said Debbie Nicks, explaining why a minor inconvenience, like being told that there are no more headsets, might send someone into a fit. "Your shining personality only goes so far," added Jane.

Certainly the one lesson I learned quickly - along with how to cross-check the doors and that Dansko clogs are the footwear of choice among experienced flight attendants - was how to say "no" politely. No to the young Indian man who asked for a blanket for his mother who was shivering in her sari next to him. (There were none left.) No to the hungry passenger who wanted to purchase a cookie. (We had already sold the only two stocked for the flight.) No to the guy who, like many of his fellow passengers, was concerned he wouldn't make his connecting flight because of our late departure and pleaded, "Can you call and find out?" (Sorry, but here's the customer service number you can try when we land.)

I also got a crash course in stress management.

My return flight out of La Guardia was as packed as the morning one out of Dallas, and the passengers were even crankier. The plane was supposed to take off at 4:25 p.m., but at 5, passengers were still boarding, with many already anxious about whether they would make their connecting flights.

Meanwhile, two commuting flight attendants came aboard to ride in the jump seats. Jennifer Villavicencio, 35, a mother of two from Maryland, had been up since 5 a.m. working a four-leg trip - New York to Chicago, Chicago to St. Louis, St. Louis to Chicago, Chicago to New York. As a newer flight attendant on "reserve," she largely works on call. She spends days at a time away from her children, sometimes leaving them with her mother in Dallas, while she works out of New York. In between shifts, Jennifer shares a four-bedroom crash pad in Queens with other flight attendants. She sleeps in a so-called hot bed, bringing her own sheets and grabbing whichever of the 26 bunks is available when she arrives.

"I like the top bunk," she said, "because you can sit up all the way."

Our chat was interrupted by some news from the gate agent: The plane might be shifted to another runway. "Oh, good, more drama," said Anna, explaining to me what was about to happen. "When it's midsummer and it's hot, and the runways are short, you can't have a certain heaviness or you can't take off. Because we're switching runways they're going to put a weight restriction on and they're going to pull people off because of the weight."

Jennifer sprang to attention. As a commuter, she knew her seat would be among the first to go if the flight was deemed too heavy for the new runway. She began counting the number of children onboard, a factor that could immediately minimize the weight issue, if there were enough of them. Thankfully, there were 11 - enough to save other passengers from being taken off.

At 5:49 p.m., the plane finally took off, more than an hour late.

I had been told that working first class was harder than coach, and so I joined Debbie at the front of the plane. When I arrived, Debbie had already taken down the passengers' drink orders, her neat handwriting listing 3A - BMary, B - RW, E -Vodka tonic, etc., on a pink cheat sheet posted on a cabinet. She warned me that Passenger 4B, a heavy-set young man with an iPod, was already proving to be a handful. He had taken some sort of painkiller for a bandaged wrist when he boarded, immediately followed by a Jack and Coke, followed by a Heineken, and now wanted a glass of wine, not in one of those standard-issue wine glasses, but in a fat cocktail glass instead.

I recalled what one flight attendant had told me when I asked about what they do when it looks like a passenger is having too much to drink: Water it down. In coach, where travelers mix the drinks themselves, some attendants invent their own rules - "I can only sell you one drink an hour."

First class was intimidating. And I, frankly, wasn't much help, finding all I was really qualified to do was hand out and collect the hot towels. Debbie, however, performed a series of in-flight culinary maneuvers so demanding it inspired a challenge on the Bravo television series "Top Chef": Prepare an edible, multicourse meal, mid-air, in a narrow hallway, between two ovens at 275 degrees and a hot coffee maker.

As the flight wore on, Passenger 4B finally dozed off; dessert was served and the flight attendants became weary. Jennifer, who wasn't even on duty, had taken pity on a mother with a screaming child and was walking him up and down the aisle on her hip. Later, she would occupy a toddler by letting him hold the other end of the trash bag as she collected garbage from passengers.

The flight arrived in Dallas at 8:02 p.m., 52 minutes late. Debbie, Jane and Anna would be paid for the actual flight time of roughly eight hours for the two legs of the round-trip journey. They would also receive a per diem of $1.50 for every hour they were away on the trip. (For certain delays, American said its flight attendants receive an extra $15 per hour, pro-rated to the actual time, minus a 30-minute grace period.)

Flight attendants' schedules are often wrecked by delays and as the airline industry went into its steep downturn after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, many airline workers took significant pay cuts and reduced benefits in order to help the carriers stay in business.

There are roughly 100,000 flight attendants in the United States, according to the Association of Flight Attendants, down from about 125,000 in 2000. Depending on the airline, attendants earn between 7 and 20 percent less today than before 9/11, according to the association. The average flight attendant salary today is around $33,500 a year.

There are already fewer attendants working each flight. Most carriers now go by the minimum number required by the Federal Aviation Administration - one flight attendant per every 50 passengers. And though the benefits, like free flights for your entire family, still exist on paper, they are hard to claim as airlines continue to pack planes full of paying passengers. In other words, it's not much fun anymore.

Certainly, it's a far cry from the "Coffee, Tea or Me" years.

"Who would have thought, after 30 years, that we'd be a flying 7-Eleven," Becky Gilbert, a three-decade veteran of the industry told me during a break in our training session in Fort Worth. "You know, I mean we used to serve omelets and crepes for breakfast, and now it's 'Would you like to buy stackable chips or a big chocolate chip cookie for $3?' "

When Anna, Jane and Debbie became flight attendants more than 20 years ago, tedious chores, like collecting passenger trash, were offset by the perks and quasi-celebrity status that came with the job. "When you walked down the terminal, all the people would look at you," said Jane, between bites of pizza on a lunch break at La Guardia, her back turned to a group of travelers paying no mind to her navy blue suit, her gold wings or the black roller bag by her side.

"People used to," continued Debbie, a well-groomed flight attendant with cropped gray hair and gold accessories who can finish Jane's sentences after 23 years of flying together. "What girl didn't want to be a stewardess?"

"It was the layover in the old days that made it glamorous," Anna explained. "You worked one leg to San Diego and you were sitting on a beach, margarita in your hand, and you were going, 'I'm getting paid to sit here.' That was the old days. Now, we're like crawling into bed thinking, 'I hope my alarm goes off.' "

Luckily, the next morning at 4, mine did. Running on no more than five hours of sleep and no coffee, as the hotel takeout stand had yet to open, I caught the five o'clock hotel shuttle to the airport. After stumbling through security I arrived at the gate, an hour before departure, as required - bleary-eyed and beat. When I met the crew I would be working with, a jovial bunch who often fly together, I warned them that I might be useless.

They could empathize. David Macdonald, 51, an American flight attendant for 28 years, was on his fourth straight day of flying. Elaine Sweeney, 55, who has worked for American for 30 years, was on her third day. And Tim Rankin, 56, a 32-year veteran, was on his third flight in 24 hours.

Standing in the aisle of the cramped MD-80, Elaine assured me that the passengers, mostly business travelers, would be relatively well-behaved. "It's so early on this one," she said, "that usually half of them go to sleep."

As with the flight attendants I worked with earlier, my new companions described their job as being one where they constantly had to calibrate the mood of the passengers. "Over a typical month," said Tim, "I will be a teacher, I will be a pastor, I will be a counselor, I will be a mediator." As he slid his 5-foot-11-inch frame into the sliver of space between the cockpit and the first-class bathroom, he slumped into the jump seat and let out a barely audible sigh. "I'll have to tell people that a two-and-a-half-foot-deep bag will not fit in a one-and-a-half-foot hole," he said.

"People need to understand that the rules of social order do not go away when you get on an airplane," Tim added, his Texan twang kicking up a notch as he laid down his commandments. "You cannot have sex on an airplane. When you purchase a ticket, that does not give you the privilege of yelling at me. It does not give you the privilege of sitting anywhere you want to sit. They assign you a seat. I do not have an extra airplane in my pocket if my flight's delayed."

Elaine chimed in, "We joke that people check their brain when they board."

When we landed in New York at 11:04 a.m., I was wiped. Standing for the majority of the flight, which included a brief bout of turbulence, had unsettled my stomach and caused me to lose my appetite. My feet hurt. I had lost all feeling in my pinkie toes.

Before we disembarked, Tim, in a touching gesture, ceremoniously gave me his gold wings. I then dragged myself through the terminal, past a throng of restless passengers gathered around the gate, anxiously waiting to board the plane.

I was glad I was heading home.

New York Times