The “Darker Side” of Crew Life: Sadness, Sickness & Loneliness

Trying to understand crew life is, for some people, almost a pastime. This is good for me because trying to explain it is literally a second job. However, even as much as I talk about it, some sides remain difficult to express. Some are simply quite personal. Some come off as complaints, as if I think it’s terrible and I hate it when I don’t. I still love flying – but it is glamorized and has real downsides.

It serves no good purpose for these downsides to be denied, so I’m happy when they’re substantiated, like in this new report titled “A Darker Side of Hypermobility” from the University of Surrey in the U.K. and Lund University in Sweden. This addresses the effects of regular travel in general, but as cabin crew I actually feel a sense of relief when I see these difficulties in print, being recognized and explored from the outside.

“See, we’re not making it up!” I want to say to the company people who meet such topics with suspicion. Here’s just a few of the less-than-glamorous realities us crew members have to deal with:

LONELINESS

What much of the public sees in the crew lifestyle is adventurous individuals constantly surrounded by others either in airports or airplanes, in layover cities along with a group of colleagues or traveling on their own time on the privilege of leisure travel.

What they don’t see is that being surrounded by people all day means we crave time without anybody poking at us, asking us for something or just generally being no more than two inches away at all times. However, we often get into our hotel rooms, luxuriate in the silence and empty space for a couple of hours… and then feel a bit bored and lonely because now we’re isolated (presuming the layover is long enough).

What you want then is to be with someone you know and enjoy the company of, but those people are probably far away on a different time zone. Sure we’ve got colleagues, and we do hang out, but they’re probably mere acquaintances. It’s not the same. This is why, I think, so many crew members drink a lot. You can do it anywhere, it passes the time and makes mingling easier.

So far in this article we’ve got loneliness and increased alcohol consumption. Stellar mix!

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Yes, some entertainment is needed to pass the time. Picture: Sebastian Oliva

SOCIAL DISCONNECT

Being a flight attendant is the alchemy that has allowed me to marry what would normally be competing lifestyle dreams. In a sense I have it all! I live abroad and maintain friendships all over the world, yet remain close to and see my family in the U.S. all the time; I have a dependable income yet have schedule flexibility to pursue other interests seriously. That’s awesome.

However, when you see articles mentioning why we’re unreliable friends or difficult partners, this is why. I feel like I manage three lives: the one where I’m in the U.K. with my husband, the one where I’m in the U.S. with that family and the one at work – which takes me away from both the others.

Divvying time for these and keeping my scheduling straight is a constant challenge. I’m useless at acknowledging weddings, birthdays, etc., and of course have to miss a lot of life events, family holidays and gatherings. (I can see them often, just not all together or when anyone else in America wants to travel anywhere!)

About five years ago I had a falling out with one of my dearest friends because of this. The short story is that I mixed up dates – they’re not my strong suit. He traveled from Belgium to my apartment in England only to find himself locked out, at midnight, in an inconvenient part of town with all the local hotels booked full… because I had picked up a work trip to visit him. Super disaster. We made up eventually, but I’m not sure it will ever be the same. It’s hard for others to understand how, when you can feasibly be almost anywhere, it feels like life expects you to be everywhere – which you will fail. When that happens loved ones are just made to feel unimportant. Ouch.

This is why it takes a special, understanding kind of person to be close to a flight attendant or pilot.

Balancing love, a social life and time in the sky can be hard.
Balancing love, a social life and time in the sky can be hard.

HEALTH ISSUES

Fertility problems, cancer rates, jetlag, radiation exposure, repetitive motion injuries, unhealthy eating and (the aforementioned) alcohol habits, digestive problems, etc. — these are health issues that crews worry about and know well, even if there are few organizations with the funding and interest to fully research the connections. And, as “A Darker Side of Hypermobility” mentions, all these stresses could head toward mental concerns in anyone.

Unfortunately, elements of our work environment and scheduling that minimize the physical stress of “hypermobility” (like proper recovery rest, regular sleep, access to food and food choices) have the pesky downfall of being a drag on productivity, which is all the scheduling software cares about. This conflict is simply in the nature of the business, but these items, which are really just the “human element”, definitely need attention and could use improvement in the airline world. Studies like this — and the resulting awareness — are our best hope at pushback against “the optimizer” that builds our schedules.

I also write about this because airlines are hiring and the job is as popular as ever. Often, flight attendant hopefuls and New Hires are so excited about the glamorized aspects of the job that they just don’t see this “dark” side of it. Some think we who talk about it have lost our appreciation for flying, but that’s not the case here. Writers like me just want the picture to be realistic. I’d encourage anyone to take up the job, but I also want them to really know what they’re in for. Studies like this are a good start.

This story was written by Sarah Steegar and originally appeared on FlyerTalk

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