Flight attendants' biggest secrets revealed

Have you ever wondered how flight attendants stay so cheery, even after a 16-hour flight? Or how the ones aboard the world’s top airlines maintain their perfect makeup and hair for hours on end at 30,000 feet? And how do they deal with drunk passengers, screaming babies and obnoxious guests who make over-the-top requests?

“Each flight is different,” says Pascale Noordam van der Woerdt, a senior cabin attendant with KLM. “You meet new passengers on board each day and fly to several distinct, faraway destinations with different sets of crew members. This gives the job variety. It’s everything but boring as a result.”

But what are flight attendants really thinking?

The Federal Aviation Administration has a 123-page Cabin Safety Subject Index for dealing with everything from safety to “problem passengers” to prisoners traveling under armed supervision. But beyond the official regulations for flight attendants, each airline has its own requirements. From weight and height restrictions to mandatory rest, here are six secrets flight attendants shared with us.

1. They have their own sleeping cabins.

U.S. flight attendants working on long-haul flights have a union-negotiated maximum workload of 95 hours a month, with per-airline limitations of 10 to14 hours a flight. As a result, flight attendants on long hauls sleep in shifts in their own upper-level sleeping corridors.

This is where American Airlines flight attendants sleep on Boeing 787 Dreamliners.

This is where American Airlines flight attendants sleep on Boeing 787 Dreamliners. (Sery Kim)

Boeing 787 Dreamliner is equipped with corridors at the front and rear for six beds — two in front and four in back — and flight attendants seem to have no preference on which is better. But not all sleeping cabins are created equal. Crew members on Virgin Atlantic’s Airbus planes sleep downstairs in a cabin beneath the guests.

2. They must sport a signature look at all times.

Virgin Atlantic has a style guide for flight attendants, a fashion magazine called "Runway" that helps them find their ideal shade of the signature Virgin red lipstick; tells them how to style their hair in a classic chignon, side roll or top knot; and gives advice on what to carry in their TSA-approved toiletry bags. And there’s a reason they always look pretty chic: flight attendants who fail to conform to these style guidelines when on duty or in an airport can be fired immediately.

3.  Male flight attendants have requirements, too.

Think female flight attendants have it tough when it comes to looking and dressing the part? Their male counterparts have pretty strict standards as well. United Airlines has details for men covering everything from make-up (a big no-no), how wide your tie should be (one-half inch at the widest point), jewelry (bracelets are allowed but no more than one-half inch wide) and definitely no visual piercings or tattoos.

4. Many of them adhere to a strict diet.

Virgin Atlantic flight attendants say they drink pineapple juice and other juices with high levels of Vitamin C to boost immunity, and polyphenol-loaded juices like apple juice or cranberry juice to reduce the risk of blood clots. Many also choose to eat fish, which is rich in Omega fatty acids and helps reduce blood clotting. Though many airports are fast food hubs, most flight attendants forgo burgers, chicken nuggets and fries, which can cause bloating.

5. They do have height and weight restrictions.

You don’t have to be a model, but there actually are height and weight restrictions for becoming a flight attendant. For safety reasons, Shanghai-based Cathay Pacific requires an arm reach of 82 inches from floor to fingertips. Generally, flight attendants must be no shorter than 5 feet and no taller than 6-foot-4. KLM specifies a height of 1.58m to 1.90m in its YouTube recruitment video.

6. They aren’t just bartenders.

Sure, they serve meals and can make a great Bloody Mary, but flight attendants aren’t there just to provide drinks and snacks. They go through extensive safety training — some programs last as long as six weeks — to become top notch safety officials. U.S. flight attendants must obtain an FAA certificate, and are required to pass numerous tests to ensure they can assist travelers in an emergency.