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Want to be a flight attendant? Get in line.

Jim Burress Mar 18, 2013

Want to be a flight attendant? Get in line.

Jim Burress Mar 18, 2013

When Delta Air Lines recently put out the “help wanted” sign for 400 flight attendants, more than 50,000 people applied. After sorting through all of those applications, the carrier spent the better part of February hosting groups of finalists at its Atlanta campus.

And just as a flight attendant’s job isn’t typical, neither is Delta’s interview process. Just consider the icebreaker that kicks off the day-long process.

In the front of a huge room designed to look like an airport lounge, a chorus line of uniformed Delta flight attendants serenade perspective employees.

“Fifty thousand applied. Feel special today,” they belt out to the tune of “New York, New York.” “Join us in celebrating you, the Delta way…”

But these Delta veterans are here for more than just entertainment. To become a Delta flight attendant, each candidate will have to impress current Delta flight attendants.  That’s because they conduct the interviews and decide who makes the cut.

“We know they’re nervous,” says Carmen Richardson, who’s been with Delta for 26 years. “But through that nervousness, we ought to be able to see to see that they’re warm and gracious, approachable.”

Applicant Laura Long says she’s got that covered. The 38-year-old from Mexico City has already spent much of her adult life at Delta, working in baggage service, ticketing, and as a gate agent. Now, she wants to take her customer service skills into the cabin.

“Honestly, it’s my dream job,” she says. “You can really make a wonderful experience for passengers.”

But the job goes beyond making sure passengers are comfortable. Flight attendants are first responders in an emergency. And in the post-9/11 airline world, they’re also the last line of defense.

Despite that, the perk of traveling for work has strong appeal. More people want to be a flight attendant today than ever before.

“These are record numbers we’re looking at,” says Joe Belotti, president of AirlineCareer.com.

He says stubbornly high unemployment could be helping the demand. Plus, after years of turbulent earnings, carriers are returning to profitability.

That’s leaving airline HR departments scrambling to sort through the flood of applicants.

“American Airlines has been advertising vacancies for 1,500 flight attendants and they got 22,000 applications for those. US Airways got about 20,000 applications for 420 vacancies,” says Belotti. “So it’s not unique to Delta.”

Back at Delta’s headquarters, applicants are broken into three groups. One group heads into various side rooms where two flight attendants interview each candidate. The two other groups will soon get their turn.

Based on their performance, one or two of these candidates could walk away with a job offer.

The majority won’t.

“One of the hardest things for me is [when] you have to say goodbye at the end of the day to some of these candidates, and they’re not going to get the position,” says Delta flight attendant Troy Thorup. “And it’s tough, because I know what I have and I wish they could have it to.”

For those who do make it, they’re guaranteed long hours, a physically demanding workday, and long periods away from home.

And while wages have improved, the average flight attendant’s annual pay hovers in the mid $30,000 range.

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