Courtesy of Betty Ma
- Betty Ma became a flight attendant at 21. Five years later, she’s hung up her wings and left the profession.
- The job helped her meet her husband but it also had downsides she wasn’t expecting.
- Unpredictable schedules, a lack of work-life balance, and other factors drove her to leave the profession.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Betty Ma, a former flight attendant who left the profession after five years. It has been edited for length and clarity.
When I was 21 years old, I really had no direction in life. But I knew I wanted to see the world, and being a flight attendant seemed to offer a way to make that happen. Also, I’d taken a trip to London and met someone there, and being long-distance was every bit as hard as people say it is.
One day, I saw Delta Air Lines was hiring. On a whim, I asked my partner, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I could get hired at Delta and be able to fly to see you more frequently?” I put in my application, half as a joke, but then made it to the interviews. Two weeks later, I got my conditional job offer.
The job was an immediate reality check. I was working long hours, with three or four flights a day with short layovers. They were mostly domestic flights, to cities that most flight attendants view as pretty undesirable. Nothing in training could have prepared me for those first few months. Adjusting your body to hopping time zones and making sure you’re not burning out on Day 3 of a trip — it was unlike anything I’d done before.
We had a bidding system to determine our assignments. If you’re very junior like I was, you get the leftover flights that other people didn’t want. When “schedule day” comes every month, everyone goes through the same panic. You click refresh and you think, “What’s in the cards for me this month?” It was exciting at first, but after a certain point, the unpredictability wasn’t fun anymore.
I also had five or six reserve days a month, where my schedule was out of my control and I could be called to work any flight that needed staff. I’d be sitting in my dinky little hotel room waiting by the phone. I could be called at 2 a.m. and then I’d be packing my bag, half-asleep with a bagel in my mouth, trying to get to the airport.
I had amazing flights, for weddings, bachelorette parties, a passenger who beat cancer, but I also had some where we were carrying home a fallen soldier or someone’s relative who passed away.
There were times when I’d sit in my jumpseat after a long day and wonder, “What in the world am I doing here? Is there something out there where I could be more creative and find more meaning?” It got tiring going through the motions of boarding, getting the galley cart out, doing service, deplaning. I felt like a dandelion puff kind of floating from destination to destination.
My “a-ha” moment was when I started finding reasons not to go to work, even though I actually had a good hold over my schedule: I knew how to work the bidding process, and had a good network of colleagues with whom I could swap flights. I was almost exclusively flying to Europe by this point.
I started to find reasons to pawn off my trips to other flight attendants. Delta offered a lot of resources to try to help but at the end of the day, when you don’t want to fly anymore, it shows.
I quit in January, and I’m now jobless for the first time in my adult life. But it’s also the first time in five years where I haven’t felt a pit in my stomach when schedule say comes around.
I wish I had known how much sacrifice goes with the job. As a flight attendant, the most important thing is making sure flights stay on schedule. That meant being rerouted and flown into your off days. That meant missing birthdays, anniversaries, holidays. It felt like my personal life would always be second fiddle to protecting the operation.
I loved Delta, and without the job, I might not have been able to marry my husband, and we might not have had our son. But when someone asks me if I’d never go back to being a flight attendant, I always say 100% no.