This Woman Tells Us What It’s Actually Like to Be a Flight Attendant

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Kelli White, a new flight attendant for United Airlines, stands in Little Venice In London on one of her many work trips. Photos from travelwithkell/Instagram

Two years ago, Kelli White submitted two online applications.

One was to become a flight attendant with United Airlines, and the other was to become a contestant on The Bachelor.

She had just moved back to her home state of South Carolina to be closer to her boyfriend. However, the relationship ended shortly after her move.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” White, then 24, remembers thinking.

She told herself whichever application was successful was her new path forward.

Within two weeks, she heard from United. They wanted an interview.

How This Twentysomething Became a Flight Attendant

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Kelli White, a new flight attendant for United Airlines, stands in a plane during a shift. Photos from travelwithkell/Instagram

White earned a parks, recreation and tourism management degree from Clemson University. After graduating, she managed a clothing boutique in Louisiana. But other than a ton of customer service experience, she didn’t know much about flight attending.

“I’ve always been fascinated with planes and have loved flying,” White says. “It’s something I’d considered growing up, but I never considered it seriously.”

That is, until she found herself walking into her first day of flight-attendant training in Houston.

The five-week program ran six days a week. White describes it as 98% safety-based.

She remembers one day in particular when the group of trainees practiced evacuation procedures on a real plane in a hangar. They ran through three possible emergency scenarios more than 15 times. Each time, they slid down the emergency slides.

“Exhausting,” White says.

Ironically, she only had two days of “first-class service” training, “which is funny because when we started [our jobs] we felt comfortable evacuating the plane but not serving a drink,” White says.

At the end of training, she had a certificate and an official Federal Aviation Administration flight attendant license. A little over a week later, she boarded her first plane.

Living Life 39,000 Feet in the Air

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Kelli White has seen almost all 50 states and 18 different countries as a flight attendant for United Airlines. Photos from travelwithkell/Instagram

Since becoming a full-time flight attendant for United, White has relocated to United’s base in the New York/New Jersey area. There, she rents an apartment with other flight attendants, though she’s only there about six nights a month.

The other 24 nights? She’s either in the air or sleeping in a hotel out of the state — or the country.

She says she takes, on average, about two to three flights a day, depending on the flight time. If it’s an international trip, it’s just one flight. This equates to about eight- or nine-hour workdays, including layovers. Sometimes, workdays last up to 14 hours, she says.

White’s daily duties include checking in and briefing with the crew after she clocks in. Once on board, White performs safety checks and sets up the plane. She helps passengers board and runs through the pre-flight announcements and safety briefings. In the air, she serves drinks and snacks.

White says she’s not allowed to sleep in sight of passengers (on the plane or in the airport), so during layovers she keeps herself busy by eating meals, catching up with phone calls, watching Netflix or just walking around the terminal.

After her last flight of the day, she catches a shuttle to her designated hotel if she’s not home.

How Much Do Flight Attendants Get Paid?

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White is pictured in Paris, France on one of her many work trips. Photos from travelwithkell/Instagram

White admits that financially surviving the five-week training period was difficult financially. At the time, United paid her $20 a day. Sure, she received free housing, as well as lunch and dinner. But she was still paying rent in South Carolina, so she had to dip deep into her savings account.

Since working full time, she aims to stack about 100 hours of flight time in her schedule a month.

Really, flight time is what matters. When in the air, she gets paid $27 to $28 an hour, which is the starting pay at United.

But compared to her previous job as a manager at a boutique, her paychecks have been cut in half, she says.

That’s because when she’s not in the air — that is, when she’s boarding the plane or hanging out during layovers, for example — she’s paid $2 an hour. This includes any time she spends away from her home base, so if she’s hanging out poolside in Nicaragua, for example, she’s getting paid — but only a little.

After five years, she says her pay will double. Then, after about 15 years, White says United’s flight attendants can earn up to $68 an hour.

So What’s It Like to Get Paid to Travel?

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White swings in the San Francisco Bay Area. Photos from travelwithkell/Instagram

White’s favorite part about being a flight attendant is getting paid to go places she otherwise wouldn’t be able to visit.

She’s seen almost all 50 states and hit 18 different countries in about two years. “It’s been so cool to be paid to travel,” White says. “It’s sort of like a vacation within work depending on your trip.”

Her Instagram is stocked with beautiful photos of her latest jaunts. Her favorite destination thus far has been Italy.

She’s also had a blast meeting crew members, some of whom have become fast friends.

United also gives her health benefits, a 401(k) and free travel on standby anywhere domestically. Family members can get free flights (she chose her parents), as does one lucky buddy.

In addition, since her promotion, White can work as much or as little as she likes, as long as she takes a nine-hour break between domestic flights or a 24-hour break between international flights more than eight hours long.

She could also opt to take a whole month off, if she wanted.

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White poses on an airplane in her flight attendant uniform. Photos from travelwithkell/Instagram

But Being a Flight Attendant Isn’t Entirely Glamorous

When White started out as a flight attendant, she worked reserve, which basically translates to being on call. She worked six days straight with three days off. Two more days on, two days off.

“There’s no telling where you’re going,” White says of the reserve class. “Sometimes I’d find out four hours before departure.”

Getting time off was difficult, too. For example, White worked Dec. 22 through Dec. 27 this past year.

She got lucky, though, and only worked reserve for four months before getting promoted to what’s called “holding a line,” which means she knows her schedule an entire month ahead of time and can drop shifts, pick up extra or switch trips around.

But she says those first few months were tough to get through.

White is single (and has plans to stay that way for a while), but she says the constant work commute proves difficult for her coworkers with spouses and kids.

She says the job can be very lonely, too, and it’s hard on her body. She’s constantly changing time zones and packing, then unpacking, then packing again. She says she lives off Diet Coke and airport junk food.

And she never knows that day it is. “We’re not on the same wavelength as the rest of the world,” White says.

She notes honestly, too, that flights can be trying. She’s talking about the passengers: “Sometimes we have to deal with passengers yelling at us for things completely out of our control. Sometimes we deal with very rude people, and we just have to press on and treat them with kindness.”

Flying Into Her Future…

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White just earned her private pilot’s license and hopes to enter the Air Force Reserves train to become a commercial pilot. Photos from travelwithkell/Instagram

White doesn’t plan to be a flight attendant forever, but it’s been a great, telling experience for her.

“I realized my passion for flying was more based on being in the flight deck, rather than in the back of the airplane,” White says.

Down the road (or runway), White sees her career as a pilot. She just earned her private pilot’s license, and now she’s trying enter the Air Force Reserves so she can gain enough flight hours to return as a commercial pilot.

However, she suspects that will take her five to eight years to complete, so for now she’ll continue to attend flights — and make everyone jealous through her Instagram account.

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She went to college with Kelli White and recently reconnected after ogling over her Instagram and thinking, “That’s gotta be the coolest job ever.”