Charleston native Abbie Unger always dreamed of the glamorous life of a flight attendant. She pictured herself landing in airports around the world, “strolling through the streets of Paris, eating paella in Barcelona, and cruising the canals of Amsterdam.” But, when she researched a career in the airline industry, she discovered daunting odds: Delta Air Lines’ flight attendant acceptance rate is more competitive than Harvard. But Unger remained determined to achieve her goal. And by 2006 she had.
Today she’s built a business out of what she learned. In 2013 she self-published, Looking Skyward: Turn Your Flight Attendant Dream into Reality. With the book she formed the Facebook group “Flight Attendant Career Connection” which has grown to 8,000-plus members. She hosts a website of the same name and now works as a flight attendant consultant. But it’s through her book where she really pulls back the curtain on the airline industry while detailing her journey to becoming a professional flight attendant.
For instance, simply getting your foot in the door with a major airline can be a formidable task. Unger reports that in 2013, Delta Airlines had 100,000 people competing for just 400 jobs. Even with the nightly cable news airplane horror stories, the allure of this jet-setting profession still attracts large numbers of people. That intense competition means applicants have little room for error. “The government regulates every aspect of our industry, and you must become officially certified as a flight attendant if you want to serve the airlines,” she says. Flight attendants’ uniforms, for example, must comply with military-like standards as well as their grooming protocols. When Unger discovered that the length of her ponytail fell out of regulation, she promptly cut it in the name of duty.
For the select few who manage to get past the interview stage, it’s time for the real test. Flight Attendant Training School isn’t a relaxing weekend seminar where candidates study the proper method of pouring a carbonated beverage at high altitude (although they do study that). Instead it’s a grueling “four to nine weeks of fast and furious learning and testing” where prospective flight attendants learn to fight an onboard fire in a pressurized environment and operate an Automatic External Defibrillator should a passenger experience heart failure at 30,000 feet. “It can be pretty hard core,” Unger says. “We have to know how to detect a fire within the walls of an aircraft. We have to know how to restrain passengers with handcuffs if necessary.” And part of her book is prepping wannabe attendants for open ocean survival, not to mention the fact that they’ll need to learn to maneuver a fully-loaded 350-pound beverage cart through the narrow alleys of a Boeing 747 barreling through the skies at 500 miles per hour. Candidates are judged at every moment — they are expected to follow every direction, every order, with precision. Candidates that make it through Flight Attendant Training School become what Unger describes as “a lean, mean, life-saving, drink-serving machines.”
Furthermore, the author exposes what many have feared: airplanes are “dirty places … cleaned a lot less often than you would think,” she says. Her less-than-glamorous experiences include being handed dirty diapers and chewed up bubble gum, being “puked on” and sneezed on, and coming in contact with every virus known to science, but she has done it all with a signature flight attendant smile and infinite patience.
Unger worked as a Delta attendant and in-flight instructor from 2006 to 2011 before retiring from the profession to start a family, she misses her dream job. “I loved those days,” she says. “I miss getting to meet lots of people, doing something very different day to day, ending up in a different city, on a different airplane, sometimes with a different crew. I miss that fast-paced constant changing — never really knowing where you’re going, or where you’ll end up. It was exciting.”
Unger tells her readers that being a flight attendant is more than a job, it is a lifestyle, and while she admits it “can by trying and difficult some days, and it’s not for everyone,” it is certainly worth the adventure.