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It's easier to get into Harvard than to become a Delta flight attendant, and more facts I learned shadowing a crew

Each year, more than 100,000 people apply to be a Delta flight attendant and less than 1 percent get the job. That means it’s harder to join a Delta flight crew than it is to get into Harvard, which accepted 4.6 percent of applicants in 2018.

"I didn’t get selected the first time I applied," flight attendant Melissa Pittman told me when I spent a day shadowing her. "It is extremely hard to get into this airline, but I was persistent. I knew I wanted this job. I knew I wanted this career. And I wasn’t going to give up until I got that."

Pittman made it through the interview stage the second time around, and that was still just the beginning of the process. The lucky 1 percent who are selected then go through an intense, eight-week training program and have to pass multiple tests in order to earn their wings.

Here are other facts I learned about the job that I didn't know until I flew with Pittman and her crew.

I spent a day on board with Delta flight attendant Melissa Pittman
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I spent a day on board with Delta flight attendant Melissa Pittman

The commute can take hours

“Some people take the train to work. I fly to work,” Pittman told me. It takes her five and a half hours to commute from her home in Los Angeles to New York City, where she’s based and where she starts and ends her trips.

Being able to fly to work gives her the flexibility to live wherever she wants, and she’s not the only one to take advantage of this perk: Another flight attendant on board, Sarah Motter, told me that she commutes about 20 hours door-to-door from Guam, where her husband is stationed in the Navy. She shares a “crash pad” in New York with other flight attendants, too, so she has a place to stay overnight in her base city.

Their coworkers change every day

I was on board with Pittman and three other flight attendants. While they had flown with each other on separate occasions, they’d never flown together as a group. That’s normal.

They’re always going to work flights with other Delta flight attendants based in New York City, but since there are so many of them, “you’re not always going to know everyone on your crew,” Pittman told me. “Every crew is different.”

Melissa Pittman and Sarah Motter
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Melissa Pittman and Sarah Motter

The worst thing passengers can order: Diet Coke

The drink takes painfully long to pour and “makes flight attendants want to pull their hair out,” Pittman told me. “I can pour three drinks to one Diet Coke. It’s our nemesis soda.”

There's more to the dress code than the uniform

The dress code is first introduced during the training program, where each of the trainees have a personal image consultation. The future flight attendants are assessed from head to toe on their style and how well-groomed they are.

A crucial part of the Delta uniform, which was recently updated, is a wristwatch. Flight attendants can't work a flight without one. There's also a minimum heel height of half an inch for flight attendants making their way to the plane, though they can change into flats on board. As for the men, their shoes must be solid, smooth black leather.

While the dress and grooming codes are particular, they have evolved significantly from when flight attendants were known as “stewardesses" and the job imposed strict age, height, weight, skirt length and other physical requirements.

The crew, from left to right: Shannon O'Brien, Melissa Pittman, Niguel Modeste, Sarah Motter
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The crew, from left to right: Shannon O'Brien, Melissa Pittman, Niguel Modeste, Sarah Motter

There’s almost always a doctor in the house

“We have to be prepared for anything: a fire, an irate passenger or a medical event. And medical events happen more than you’d think,” Motter told me. While they’ve been trained to deal with pretty much any emergency and can always speak with a medical facility mid-flight, “98 percent of the time, there is a doctor or some sort of medical professional on board," she said.

They know about you

Delta flight attendants can’t board the plane without their SkyPro, a big, red device that looks like a large iPhone and which includes information about the passengers. It recognizes any high-value customers, like medallion members or “million milers,” those who may need extra assistance and infants or kids that are on board.

The SkyPro also provides passenger information like “if they’re connecting to a flight, where they’re connecting to and where their connecting gate is,” Pittman told me.

The author and the crew
The author and the crew

They can’t work seven days straight

“Every seven days we legally have to have 24 hours of rest,” Pittman told me. If the layover is longer than a full day, that counts as rest, she added: “A 29-hour layover, for example, counts."

They can set their schedules, for the most part. “We have one of the most flexible careers in the airline industry,” said Pittman. “There are months where I could work six days a week, for weeks in a row. Or there are months where I could work two to three days a week for months in a row.”

It’s hard to go back to a ‘normal’ job

The four flights attendants I was on board with agreed that it would be nearly impossible to go back to a “9-to-5” or standard desk job after traveling the world and experiencing such flexibility with their current job.

“I left a very high-paying job to come to Delta,” said Pittman, who used to model and work in television production. “But I came here because I knew in the long term it would pay off. And I wanted to travel. I wanted to see the world. It can be challenging at times, as all jobs are, but the pros outweigh the cons by far.”

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