As challenging as this career can be and as much as the glamour, pay and travel benefits have been eroded over the years at many carriers, it's still one a great many people aspire to. So here's the first thing you have to prepare yourself for:
It's extremely, insanely, outrageously competitive.
Harvard University accepts about 19% of all applicants. Southwest Airlines accepts about 7% of the people who apply to be flight attendants. Of the people in my first group interview, I think two actually made it and are flying today. It's tough to get in, and it may take several tries and a lot of disappointments before you get there. But I now feel quite confident in saying that if I made it, anyone can.
Most airlines now do their recruiting online, and I think there are few things more confidence-destroying that sending in a resumé online: you slave away at the thing, drive yourself mad getting it down to two pages, lie awake at night worrying you've missed a typo, then you hit the Send button and hope to God someone gets it at the other end.
That someone at the other end might be dealing with as many as 16,000 applications, so yeah, you want to fuss over the wording and the typos. Don't rely on spell check! If you're not a spelling person, get someone else to read over your resumé and application before you send it. Whoever looks at it is looking for any reason to discard it instantly so you don't want to screw yourself this early in the game.
Be a nice person.
I hate the word nice. It's a mousy, bland, insipid way to describe something.
But, I think it works very well describing the kind of person airlines are looking for. As Southwest Airlines says, "You can train for skills, but you can't train for attitude."
Are you a nice-to-everyone person, or do you draw the line somewhere? Does everyone you know think of you as kind and caring? I know you're nice to your friends, your boyfriend and (I hope) your mum. How about people you absolutely can't stand? How about people who literally disgust you? Can you be nice to a 400-pound, chain-smoking, constantly-complaining quadraplegic who can't control his bladder and has just leaked on the seat?
Have a rock-solid work ethic.
My dad worked for a government department where all the employees were unionized. He hated being part of a union. He was in the office one day and saw a secretary typing while looking at the clock at the same time - it was getting close to quittin' time. Promptly at 5:00, she turned off her typewriter, got her purse and left. Dad looked at her typewriter and saw that she'd stopped typing right in the middle of a word. The word "the".
My dad wouldn't have stopped in the middle of a word; he would have finished the paragraph, if not the whole letter, even if it meant staying a couple of minutes past 5. That story really instilled in me my Dad's work ethic and it's one I've always tried to uphold.
I'll stay late, come in on a day off, come in on a moment's notice, do some work on my own time, volunteer for the less-desirable tasks. I'm a big believer in "no one's done until everyone's done." My airline colleagues know I'm always willing to cover a shift for them or offer everyone a coffee if I'm going.
I read recently that some researchers have analyzed lyrics of popular love songs over the years and have found that we they now are more likely to contain words like I, me, mine than you, we, us, ours. Surely you've noticed we live in a time when everyone thinks, "It's all about me." Well, if you work on a team and for a company, it's not all about you - sometimes you have to make a bit of a personal-time sacrifice if it means getting the flight out on time or not leaving your supervisor short-handed on a long holiday weekend. I'm always prepared to do that, and it's served me well.
Do you get stressed if you're even one minute late for work? No? Wrong answer. On-time performance is everything with an airline. At my airline, one of the first things Inflight recruiting does when we apply is look at our attendance records. If you're consistently one or two or three minutes late, or have a habit of being late Sunday mornings, there's your application in the wastebasket.
Get in the habit of being on time. Get a watch. Know how long it takes you to get from A to B so you can plan accordingly. At many, if not all, flight attendant training programs, you're kicked out if you're late even one minute, even just once, so start working on meeting that standard now.
Don't be afraid to start at the bottom.
Yes, I know, your dream is to work international flights for a big airline. I also know thousands of other people have the same dream, and that you need to get an edge on them to get where you want to go.
I was really, really lucky to land a job as a customer-service agent at the airport for the airline where I'm now going to be a flight attendant. The pay and hours are not as good as an FA's, you have to deal with long lineups and cranky boarding-pass printers and you lift a lot of heavy bags. But I got to apply as an "internal" which gets me much further ahead in line than the people who don't work for the airline. I also got to learn a lot about the airline's operations, and see a lot of flight attendant behaviour both positive and negative.
If you can get a job working landside for an airline, take it. Even if it's not the airline where you want to be flying someday. Use it as a learning experience. If you can get a job as a flight attendant at a small airline like a regional, so much the better. (If you are lucky enough to score an airline job, be sure to review Be a nice person and Have a rock-solid work ethic, above).
Keep a STARs log.
One of the guys I worked with in Airports, Martyn, went to Inflight before me, and gave me probably the best advice of all.
Airline interview questions are usually behaviour based. I was asked, for example, "Tell about a time you realized afterwards you'd made the wrong decision" and "Tell about a time you had to take over for someone who was doing it wrong." (You can find sample behavioural interview questions here).
To prepare for these questions in advance, you want to record examples where you feel you did something right in STAR format. STAR stands for Situation/Task/Action/Result. For example:
Situation: A passenger was angry at me because he'd missed his flight. Task: Deal appropriately with the anger and re-accommodate onto another flight. Action: I listened to the passenger respectfully and calmly re-explained our check-in cut-off time, and told him that we would be happy to book him on the next flight to his destination. Result: The passenger apologized for getting angry and thanked me for being helpful.
I kept my STARs in an Excel spreadsheet and, following Martyn's advice, started out with sections titled Maintaining Your Poise Under Pressure, Unpopular But Right, Above and Beyond, Passenger Conflict Resolution, Co-Worker Resolution and Taking Over When They're Wrong. Later, I found I needed to add tabs for Flexibility, Coaching, Leadership/Mentoring and Team Play.
I treated my STARs log as a diary. On the ride home each day, I'd review my day and see if there were any events that would be good to have recorded in my log.
By getting into this habit, I started actively seeking opportunities to handle situations so that I could have a good entry for my STARs log. For example, I'd had a question in one interview about resolving a conflict with a supervisor. I tend to let things go rather than get in people's face about things so this was one that I was quite reluctant to take on. Eventually, I did have an interaction with one supervisor that was so unsatisfactory I decided to discuss it with him.
Not only was that a good "get" for my logbook, I talked about it afterwards with a member of our Team Services office. This is a unique position in our company, not so much Human resources as support, advice and resources and morale maintenance. In that meeting, I learned quite a bit more about conflict resolution, which made me a better employee overall.
I think that no matter what field you work in now, you can build a STARs book that will help you in your FA interview (I took mine into the interview to use as a reference, which also showed I was prepared, organized and focused).
Get people to say nice things about you.
Okay, so you always hear about the people who get because they do something wild and crazy to get noticed. Back when my airline started, one flight attendant applicant sent in her application inside a toy jetliner.
Those kinds of stunts are probably a little less workable now since applications are done online. But I did do one additional thing which, whether it actually helped in the end or not, at least helped me stand out from the crowd somewhat.
My airline has a referral program, where an employee can recommend a friend or co-worker who's applying for a position (a lot of other airlines do, too, another good reason to get in through any door open). But you can only get one referral.
A lot of people I'd worked with as CSAs had gone to Inflight, so I asked them if they would write a short "letter of recommendation". I figured if flight attendants are saying I'd be a good flight attendant, that would carry some weight. I got eleven in total, and I printed them out (sans typos and spelling errors, natch) to give to my interviewer.
Like I said, that may or may not have made any difference, but if you know flight attendants already, ask them either to recommend you at their companies or write a short recommendation you can take to any interview.
We had all heard horror stories about our airline's mandatory physical you have to pass before you start FA training. I didn't have any extra weight, but I wasn't in good physical condition either, so I splurged on a personal trainer once a week. Payoff? I had better core strength which translated into better posture and more confidence. I highly recommend it.
And do I really need to tell you....
Show up on time for your interview. Dress for business. Unless you're specifically told to come in casual clothes for an interview, you'll never go wrong with a suit. My airline's head office is very business-casual; I wore a pinstripe suit with a pocket square and I was the best-dressed guy in the joint. Ladies, a navy or black suit is perfect. (Why not wear a scarf that looks a bit stewardess-y so they can see how great you'll look in uniform?) Shoes are really important; they don't have to be fabulous, just clean, polished and in tip-top repair. Under no circumstances are you to wear flip-flops. Double-check you've brought with you anything you were told to bring, like your resumé, passport and photos.
Be nice to everyone you meet. The barista at the Starbucks downstairs from your interview may very well deserve having you rip him a new one for messing up your drink, but how's that going to look if the person interviewing you is behind you in line?
It's almost a guarantee that you'll be asked, "So, why do you want to be a flight attendant?" I'm hearing quite often lately that "I love people and I love to travel" is the kiss of death response. My answer was something like, "As a CSA, I already give great passenger service, but I'm with my passenger only a couple of minutes. As a flight attendant, I would have the chance to give that passenger a much richer experience of my great service."
Don't take phone calls or text during the interview and don't ask the interviewer if they'll drive you home afterwards (these have actually happened). Don't bring your mum or best friend along for support, you'll just look needy.
Relax. Relax. Relax. And be yourself.
I think at my first interview, I was so focused on being Mr. Sparkling Personality Who Stands Out From Everyone Else in the room I was too tense to really show who I was. In this interview, I was so confident (save for that 1% of me that still thought I Am Just Not Good Enough) I was able to loosen up and show my smile, my sense of humour and my people skills.
My final word.
As I've said, I wanted to be a flight attendant from the time I was 13. From the get-go, I thought I was just not good-looking enough to get the job. Guess what? I got the job anyway. So I think that if I can get this job, anyone can.
You may be thinking you're too ugly/old/young/fat/thin/stupid/clumsy/loserish to get this job. Please, take the lesson I've learned and don't let that stop you. If I had known at 13 I was actually capable of getting this job, I'd have started a lot sooner and be flying International by now. Just try, OK? You have absolutely nothing to lose and so much to gain.