Paige Barrera: Waiter, therapist, nurse, instructor, observer—
It was Paige Barrera’s little sister who first wanted to be a flight attendant. Alas, she was not old enough; you have to be twenty-one to apply. But after listening to her little sister talk about travel, Barrera was intrigued enough to apply. Soon one of the big airlines was flying her to San Francisco for a second interview. She got the job—eight years ago—and she says she just might keep it until she retires.
Did you surprise yourself when you applied?
It was kind of a whim; I wasn’t even sure what I was getting myself into. I was working in parks and rec at the time, and I was comfortable in my job, making good money, and I really liked it—but I was too comfortable. And I had never been anywhere. I hadn’t even been on a plane until I was nineteen years old.
And now you can fly anywhere you like. What are your favorite destinations?
My favorite personal travel was to Greece. We travel “space available,” so if seats are unbooked on that flight, you can go, and tickets for your companions are deeply discounted. So we went to the airport and waited, hoping for open seats! I recently had a layover in Iceland, and one of my girlfriends came along, and we spent an entire day at a hot-springs spa. My favorite domestic layover is Anchorage. In the summer it’s twenty-four hours of daylight, so you can start your day when you land even if it’s eight o’clock at night. There’s a lot of outdoor adventure—biking, hiking, kayaking. You’re not just sitting in your hotel room. I usually pack as lightly as possible, but if I know I’m going on that layover, I’ll pack hiking boots and maybe a rain jacket. Mainly, though, you just work with what you’ve got. I’ve done things in my white Vans before—Well, these are going to need a wash!
How did you weather the early COVID weeks?
I took a year off! They had so many employees, and before they started furloughs, they were offering leave. I was living in Atlanta at the time and based in Chicago, so I had been sitting in a hotel room waiting to see if I was going to work, because people weren’t flying. I took two six-month leaves. When I came back, I only had to wear a mask for three months before the mandate was dropped.
Occasionally you get people trying to hand you their trash or talking over the announcements, where it’s just like, Where’s your common sense? People are different when they start traveling. They’re exhausted, and they stop thinking straight. And I get it. It’s not always that exciting….
How were those three months?
A lot of states no longer required masking, and a lot of people were just over it. I never had the sort of issue you saw on the news, but reminding grown adults that you don’t want to do this either, it’s just something we all have to do…. I don’t like confrontation, so whenever somebody starts that kind of behavior, we pass along information to our other crew members—Hey, 21 Bravo—and maybe their interaction with the passenger will be better. Maybe that passenger just doesn’t like me, or doesn’t like females. So you just keep going, and you all give it a try.
Are people less civil these days?
We saw a lot of that when ticket prices were much lower. I don’t want to say that people who don’t usually fly are the problem, but people get antsy when they fly, and they get frustrated, and there are things beyond anyone’s control, and they don’t know where to take out their frustration. So they take it out on us. Occasionally you get people trying to hand you their trash or talking over the announcements, where it’s just like, Where’s your common sense? People are different when they start traveling. They’re exhausted, and they stop thinking straight. And I get it. It’s not always that exciting….
It used to be! People dressed up to fly, and we even looked forward to those weird little trays of food….Now it seems as routine as taking a bus.
And people just want to be comfy and get where they’re going. They don’t even expect snacks; they know they can bring whatever they like on board. Every now and then, an older couple will be dressed really nicely, and I always compliment them. They say this is what they always did, and why change just because everyone else has.
Speaking of change, do looks matter as much as they used to? Back in the day, a “stewardess” had to be single, slim, and pretty, and wear a girdle, and she could not dye her hair or wear braces….
During the hiring process, you definitely want to look the part. Wear a scarf, if you’re female, or a tie, if you’re male, and wear the airline’s colors. But yeah, back in the day, it was hair, makeup, weight. That, thank goodness, is not a thing anymore. More often than not, flight attendants are average to heavyset. One woman who was here during weigh-ins was joking that she wouldn’t be flying anymore if they still did that. They’re still pretty strict about your uniform and your hair, though. If it’s long, you usually have to have it tied back while you are in uniform—guys too. Recently, though, they’ve gotten a lot more lenient about tattoos, ear and facial piercings, jewelry, all that stuff people use to express themselves. Male flight attendants are allowed to have nail polish, jewelry, even makeup.
Do passengers still flirt with the flight attendants?
Just a little. During the rough times of wearing a mask, you’d get them saying, “I wish I could see your smile.” Maybe once a month that happens. And I’ve never had anything more than that.
How is the job continuing to evolve?
One big issue is flight attendants not getting paid for boarding time. We get paid from the time the door closes. It’s been like that forever, and nobody ever realized it. We’re checking in, answering customers’ questions, closing bins, hanging coats….all unpaid. One airline, Delta, just started paying for that time, and that might get the ball rolling.
What, so far, is your most thrilling or terrifying experience in the air?
When we were flying through thunderstorms, and our plane was struck by lightning, which I guess is more common than you would think. You could hear this giant boom, like an explosion, and we were already in turbulence. We all jumped. From the front, we saw a giant orange spark where it hit the side of the plane. In the back, people said they saw a giant purple spark. Passengers were hysterical. The pilots said, “Oh, we were just struck by lightning,” like it was no big deal, and I said, “Do you mind telling the passengers that?!”
Every now and then, an older couple will be dressed really nicely, and I always compliment them. They say this is what they always did, and why change just because everyone else has.
Are many people still scared to fly, overall?
It’s rare now for someone to tell you they’re scared to fly. Every once in a while, someone will come up and say they’re anxious, or ring their call bell if it’s getting turbulent, but my guess is that most people just don’t say anything. The people with them probably know how scared they are, but they tough it out.
What is the hardest part of your job?
The schedule. Being awake at crazy hours, staying awake as long as you have to. Most trips, by the end, because I’m commuting, I will have been awake for twenty hours. I do it to myself, because I like to take the red-eye home. If you live in base [where your airline’s hub is], you just drive or take the train to work, and that’s where you start and end every trip. I’m based in Chicago and I live in Las Vegas, so I commute, which means flying “space available,” and I’m responsible for finding an open seat so I can get to work. Some flight attendants have a crash pad, a two- or three-bedroom apartment with a bunch of bunk beds. The more expensive the city is, the more people I’ve seen contributing to the rent for a single crash pad. In San Francisco, there were eighteen—but they were never all there at once.
Next to the schedule, what is challenging?
Staying positive and giving excellent customer service when you’re dealing with that many people and that many situations. Some are getting connecting flights for business, some are going to funerals, some are on vacations. Everybody is on a different journey. You don’t know if somebody’s having the worst day of their life or the best. So many people with so many expectations, all in one spot—it’s hard to deal with that many personalities at one time. You’d be surprised by some of the things people say or do. Like, if they can’t get their bag right above their head, they say, “There’s no space!”—even though there’s space a few feet away. The little fits people will throw over something so simple! And you just have to hold it in. Talk them out of their fit. Manage your cool.
And on top of that, know a bit about medical triage, emergency response, and security.
Most airlines have between four and seven weeks of training about security, about each aircraft, about emergency procedures and all the equipment, about basic first aid and CPR and how to step in during a medical emergency. Although hopefully there’s a doctor on board. So far I’ve only had a diabetic emergency and someone who was woozy.
What about security—do you have to be hypervigilant?
We are always observing while people are boarding. That’s our time to pick out people we think might be helpful if there were an emergency. People who are strong or just helpful—we’re always aware of where they’re sitting. Human trafficking is a big issue—we pay attention to signs that someone is there against their will. We know the red flags for a bombing or terrorist situation, but that’s been screened for before they board.
We get paid from the time the door closes. It’s been like that forever, and nobody ever realized it. We’re checking in, answering customers’ questions, closing bins, hanging coats….all unpaid.
What do passengers complain about consistently?
Wifi and entertainment. If the wifi’s not working, you will know right away.
How do you amuse and distract them?
I don’t work for Southwest, so I’ll joke about it: “I am not getting on this speaker and singing to you!” It’s boring if you don’t talk to your customers and crack a few jokes.
Your boyfriend used to be a flight attendant? That could be romantic, stolen glances in midair as you serve the beverages….
Occasionally we’d pick up trips together, and then we’d have layovers and could explore a new place together. We miss that. He only flew for three years; he found it exhausting. He’s in sales now. But I’m glad he knows what it’s like, so I don’t have to explain my job. Because I don’t see myself ever quitting.