credit: John Lewis
credit: John Lewis

Singing the flight-attendant blues

On airlines, their jobs are particularly tough. On bizjets, demand for their services may be declining.

Our airliner was on final approach to New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport when a flight attendant decided to grab a mic and start warbling Willie Nelson’s country-western ballad “Crazy.” Not Nelson’s own smooth-as-pudding rendition of the song or the plaintive Patsy Cline version, but rather a caterwauling, off-pitch, screeching interpretation that, as the airplane descended, probably had most of the cats in North Jersey looking to the night sky with alarm.

What can this be, I wondered, but a distress call about the deterioration of airline travel, not only from the passengers’ perspective but also from that of the flight attendants? Some of them are apparently so desperate to escape the wretchedness of the job these days that they are using their captive audiences to audition for a better gig as a singer, dancer, or comedian. You can find lots of these impromptu performances by flight attendants on YouTube.

Their corporate-jet counterparts, of course, are in a whole other arena. A song and dance isn’t part of their jobs, nor is the soul-deadening grind of working long hours on crowded airplanes full of mostly unhappy passengers.

“I tell people who want this kind of work that passing out juice and pretzels isn’t what you do,” says corporate flight attendant Melanie Marie Foster. “But you never know who’s going to be on that private or corporate jet, and you have to be on your toes.”

The days are mostly long gone when Foster’s airliner counterparts spent part of a flight slamming frozen meals into galley microwaves and distributing them to hungry passengers. But on certain private aircraft, especiallyheavy business jets, food preparation and presentation are high on the customer-service list, and some attendants are responsible for all aspects of in-flight catering.

“Every flight is different,” Foster says. “If it’s a bunch of guys going to the Super Bowl, you might have to make sure you have beer and [Buffalo] wings, but with a group of ladies or a family, your main challenge could be to find great pastries.” And yes, that often means going food-shopping the night before, Foster adds.

This sort of effort pays off, says Mary Lou Gallagher, a former airline and corporate flight attendant, who notes that “in this business, it’s very important to give people those service nuances if you want to get invited back on that plane.” In 2001, she started Beyond & Above, a school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where would-be corporate flight attendants receive instruction in safety, business protocol, etiquette, catering strategies, and food and wine presentation.

Back in the 1970s, when Gallagher began flying commercially, smart young people flocked to the airlines for flight-attendant jobs, drawn by the excitement of a business that hadn’t yet deteriorated, and by perks like five-day layovers in Paris. Those times are barely remembered in the drudgery of today, when layovers for airline flight attendants often mean eight hours in an airport hotel before the next trip out.

Both Gallagher and Foster insist that copious—and growing—opportunities exist for contract and freelance private-aviation flight attendants with service skills and savoir faire. “The [flight-attendant] business is fabulous,” Gallagher says, especially when it comes to long flights on large-cabin jets.

Not everyone agrees, however. Cultural changes driven by millennial generation tastes are reducing demand for business-jet flight attendants, says Vincent M. Wolanin, chairman of PrivateSky Aviation, a Gulfstream refurbishing center and FBO operator in Fort Myers, Florida. He cites the increased popularity of “grab ’n’ go” meals, which caused the hotel industry, for instance, to deemphasize room service.

“We stopped using flight attendants on a regular basis because most savvy clients-passengers did not want the invasion of their privacy,” Wolanin says. “On my Gulfstream, for example, the crew gets what we need on board, and we all serve ourselves as required, as it’s only a few feet to walk and get it.”

Perhaps this helps to explain why Foster, who is herself a member of the millennial generation, is keeping her options open. She is an aspiring actress and also appears in some commercials.

But she has no urge to perform in flight. “That is a very different world,” she says, sounding a little horrified at the prospect of doing a song-and-dance routine for bizjet clients.

Joe Sharkey covered business travel for the New York Times for 16 years.