It was about 2 a.m. Eastern Time on an all-nighter from Miami to São Paulo, Brazil. The aircraft cabin was dark, save a few glimmering screens and a smattering of overhead reading lights.
One of those lights beamed over the shoulder of a flight attendant colleague who sat in a jump seat, reading hand-written documents in a binder.
When I asked what he was doing, he looked up, as if he’d been in a trance. “Just reviewing some patient files,” he said.
“Patient files?” I asked.
“Yep,” he replied. “I’m a clinical psychologist.”
A flight attendant moonlighting as a clinical psychologist? Or was he a clinical psychologist moonlighting as a flight attendant? The career combination may sound bizarre. But for flight attendants, a second job is not.
The starting salary for a flight attendant can be less than $20,000 a year. To make up for the meager earnings, the job comes with two tantalizing perks. The first is free flying. Nearly all airline employees are given the freedom to fly, at no cost, to most destinations around the globe. Parents, spouses, designated companions and children also may fly free using passes from the employee.
For flight attendants looking to supplement their income, the second perk — a flexible work schedule — is a godsend. We’re permitted to swap trips, drop trips and use vacation days to tailor our workweek. This allows our clinical psychologist to schedule flights around patient appointments.
I’m not sure what sort of healthcare benefits the psychologist receives from his other job, but employees at my airline have a generous benefit package.
I could find no statistics on the number of flight attendants holding second jobs. But during my 30-year career, I’ve come face to face with hundreds of two-job wonders.
One flight attendant worked as a coroner. Another worked as a funeral home attendant. Flight attendants moonlight as lawyers, chefs, limo drivers, hairdressers, college professors, even firefighters.
Among young, new-hire flight attendants, restaurant server and bartender are perhaps the most common second occupation. In fact, when I was hired in 1985 and struggling to survive in New York City on a $16,000 annual salary, I landed a bartending job, one of the premier nightclubs of that era.
I would pour drinks at the club from 10 p.m. until 4 a.m. Because customer tips far exceeded my airline salary, I often dropped trips to work extra bar shifts.
Some nights, after cashing out my register, I would change into my polyester flight attendant uniform, hop into a taxi headed for LaGuardia Airport, work as many as four flights (New York-Toronto, Toronto-New York, New York-Chicago, Chicago-Cleveland) and end the day at a Ramada Inn where I fell into a deep sleep.
It was rough going, but I survived and prospered. So have many of my colleagues. Susan, for instance, is a registered nurse I’ve flown with many times. When she’s not working flights to London or Barcelona, Spain, she’s at the hospital caring for premature infants, her specialty.
Marlin, another moonlighting flight attendant, worked as a program director at a Miami jazz radio station. After flying an all-nighter, he would show up at the station, ready to start his shift.
Having given up the bartending job long ago, I went on to write two books and a couple of hundred newspaper and magazine articles. By providing healthcare benefits I would not have had otherwise and allowing a flexible work schedule, my flight attendant job helps sustain me during the ups and downs of a writing career.
Not all moonlighters can manage the double life. Many end up working one job and resigning from the other. Three police officers who worked beats in Tampa, Fla., Las Vegas and San Juan, Puerto Rico, permanently traded their badges for silver flight attendant wings.
On flights, the ex-cops would hold court in the airplane galley, regaling the crew with stories of drug busts and high-speed vehicle pursuits. When asked why she left the force, one female cop-turned-flight attendant told me that stress was a contributing factor. The other former cops concurred.
But one former flight attendant, a guy named Steve, apparently felt otherwise. He gave up flying the friendly skies and enrolled in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., police academy.
Twenty years later he’s still patrolling my neighborhood. For him, life on the streets was far more appealing than life in the air.