Being a flight attendant isn’t just a career – it’s a lifestyle. In addition to providing world-class service to flight passengers, flight attendants are professional air safety staff who must be able to handle a variety of stressful situations and switch gears at a moment’s notice.
They are also known for having workdays with long hours compared to most jobs.
The typical schedule for a flight attendant varies greatly, however. Unlike the traditional 9 to 5, a flight attendant’s usual schedule can run up to 12 hours per shift and often includes nights and weekends, with ample days off each month.
That said, multiple factors affect individual flight attendant schedules, and even those working for the same airline may have wildly different work weeks.
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Individual airlines determine the specific schedules of their flight crews. However, flight attendant work time is also governed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), whose rules airlines must abide by.
In addition to regulating rest periods and setting other guidelines for flight staff schedules, the FAA also controls how many crew members are on board at any given time.
Most flight attendants have some say in their schedules, particularly when it comes to requesting time off in advance or stating a preference for certain shifts (for example, night over day).
However, flight crew schedules ultimately come down to the needs of the airline and FAA rules.
If a flight attendant doesn’t want to work weekends, they may still have to if the airline is short-staffed and those shifts don’t conflict with their other shifts during the week.
Flight attendants with seniority also have more say over their schedules. Most airlines operate on a “bidding” system with their flight crews, allowing senior staff to bid first for the shifts they want.
Flight attendants can also trade or swap shifts with one another as long as both parties agree and doing so does not violate mandatory rest periods.
Picking up back-to-back shifts is common practice in many aspects of the service industry, but flight attendants are service professionals in the transportation industry.
As a result, they are subject to rules that limit the number of hours they can work for safety reasons.
Due to the varying length of flight times, flight attendants do not necessarily work back-to-back “shifts” but can instead work multiple flights in a row.
They are required to have minimum rest periods between these on-duty periods that prevent overlap.
While they do get mandatory rest periods in between shifts, flight attendant schedules don’t come with the routine breaks that many other jobs have.
Instead, the amount of breaks a flight attendant has depends primarily on the flight length and destination.
International flights are far more likely to come with flight attendant breaks because they may have some downtime to wait at the airport and will also usually have a longer time in the air.
Once in the air though, flight attendants are never truly on break time. A flight attendant may be able to sit down and rest after completing their side tasks, but they will still have to get up and handle passenger requests as needed.
They will also have to get up and help in certain emergency situations, like if a passenger is being unruly and posing a danger to others on the plane.
Up until new regulations in 2019, flight attendants were only required to have eight hours of downtime or an “off-duty period” between work shifts.
However, current regulations require flight attendants to have a minimum of 10 hours off between scheduled shifts.
The length of a flight attendant shift depends on both the length of the flight and its destination (international and longer flights require more prep time on the ground).
The average shift for a flight attendant spans between 8 and 14 hours long.
Though unions work to prevent shifts from extending beyond 14 hours, there are cases where a flight attendant may work beyond that.
This could be the result of flight delays, re-routes, or onboard incidents. In most situations where shifts go into overtime, flight crews are already in the air and must wait until landing.
If you’re looking to become a flight attendant, don’t expect to work Monday through Friday.
While some flight attendants do have this traditional schedule, most are subject to a changing assortment of days every month.
Most flight attendants work around 20 days a month, though others may work as little as 9 days.
Paid time off or PTO policies vary from airline to airline. Some flight attendants start out with a set amount of PTO while others have to build it up during their time working.
On average, flight attendants receive two weeks of PTO plus additional unpaid days off based on scheduling needs and mandated breaks.
According to an Indeed survey of different airlines, flight attendants typically spend 65 to 85 hours in the air each month, not counting overtime.
Most airlines offer part-time work options for flight crews. An estimated 25% of flight staff work on a part-time basis.
When flight attendants first start their careers, they are typically considered to be “on reserve” and will work fewer than 72 flight hours per month.
The number of flight hours they receive will gradually go up with experience and on-the-job training.
Most flight attendants have designated “on-call months” where they are not scheduled for any particular flight during certain weeks but must be ready to go to work as needed.
During these on-call times, flight attendants are guaranteed to be compensated for at least 75 hours of work, whether or not they are actually called in to fly.
Flight attendants are only paid for time spent in “flight,” which really means once the plane doors are closed and until they are open again at the terminal.
This means they are not paid for time spent in airports, prepping for flights on the ground, boarding and de-boarding times, or cleaning up cabins after landing.
They are also not paid for layovers, though they are typically given stipends for basic travel expenses like meals and personal essentials.
That said, Delta Airlines announced in April 2022 that their flight attendants will start being paid during boarding (a decision that came after months of petitioning from flight crews).
It is possible other airlines will eventually follow.
Depending on where their schedule takes them, flight attendants often have to spend nights away from home while waiting in between assignments.
Airlines have hotel rooms reserved in cities all over the world for this reason, which the flight crew is able to stay in free of charge.
Some airlines also have what’s known as “crash pads,” which are essentially dorms where groups of flight staff can stay at once.
Flight attendants do not have to pay to stay at crash pads or assigned hotels, but they will for any other accommodation of their choosing.
The size of the flight crew depends on the size of the plane and the number of passengers.
For example, a plane with a weight load capacity of under 7,500 lbs. with space for between 19 and 50 passengers only requires one flight attendant to be working onboard (though many airlines will assign two if able).
By contrast, a larger plane with 101 to 150 passengers requires at least three flight attendants.
The largest passenger planes (with 450 passengers or more) require a whopping 10 flight attendants working while in flight.