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Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

Diet Coke does something funny at 30,000 feet. Ask any flight attendant and they will tell you that this is their least favourite drink to pour. It bubbles, it fizzes. It takes an extremely long time to settle. Pop, sizzle, fizzzzzz. A request for a cup of Diet Coke, and heaven forbid, two cups from the same passenger, can elicit a subtle exchange of eye rolls between flight attendants. Please, just take the whole can.

Pouring drinks while shooting through the air was never a career I envisioned myself in, but much to the chagrin of my family, and many in my inner circle, my part-time hobby job became a dream career.

It was an odd career move for someone in their 40s.

“Flying waitress?” my parents asked.

“I could never do what you do,” strangers and friends alike have told me.

I, myself, was also hesitant. Why would I leave a stable and promising career as a registered dietitian, having gone through graduate school, only to hand out drinks in the sky while dealing with grumpy and stressed-out people? Why would I choose to work such irregular hours, much of it unpaid, suffer through jet lag and miss out on holidays and family events? “It must be a midlife crisis,” I told myself.

Being a flight attendant means a lot of unpaid work. We’re paid according to flight time only. We know it as brakes off, brakes on – once the plane starts moving, the clock and subsequently, our pay, begins. It is one of the only professions where one is expected to arrive to work a few hours early, conduct safety-related duties, assist in passenger boarding and ensure things run smoothly on the ground – all unpaid. And in an uncomfortable uniform, I might add.

When there is a delay, please don’t get mad at your flight attendant. We’re just as irritated, even though we may not seem so. To us, your delay means more unpaid time that we are sacrificing away from our families, our children and ourselves.

Why on earth would I do this job?

The simple answer is that I love it. And most of us do. Becoming a flight attendant is competitive, historically with a one per cent hiring rate, according to Business Insider. It can take months, even years to get hired. It took me over four years to finally get an interview. Even after getting hired, there is no guarantee that you will pass the intense training. I initially scoffed when I heard that approximately 40 per cent of new hires failed their training, and then weeks in, tearfully said goodbye to half my classmates who endured that fate after a wrong step or a word forgotten. Those months of training are gruelling, intense and more difficult than people imagine – focusing strictly on safety, not service. It’s a time when you simply hand your life over to the airline while you study for practical tests and exams, all of which require a 95 per cent passing rate and annual recurrent training. In aviation, everything is black and white, there is no margin for error. Passengers may see us as a waiter in the sky, but please note that we are also the firefighters, police officers, medical professionals, security guards and emergency response personnel as well.

Despite the unpaid labour and the personal sacrifices, it is a refreshing change from the humdrum routine of office life, the typical 9 to 5, saying the same thing every day, bound by four walls and a desk.

Being a flight attendant means a day of complete unknowns – new colleagues, new destinations, new airplanes, new passengers. It’s an opportunity for a lifetime of adventure and with that, a lifetime of fascinating dinner party stories. With the world at your fingertips, there are no boundaries. I am not alone when I say that travel ignites my fire within, creating lifelong curiosity and excitement in my heart. I know that for myself, I couldn’t do anything else.

My flight attendant colleagues come from all sorts of professions and all parts of the world, with different customs and cultural norms. Everyone has a story. You could be flying with retired doctors, lawyers and nurses just as easily as new graduates, grandmothers and former police officers. For most airlines, bilingualism is a requirement, which automatically ensures a culturally diverse working cohort. So many different backgrounds, and a variety of ages, yet all of us are bound by this unique sense of adventure. This career shows you firsthand that we can all get along when prejudice is replaced with an open mind. You can start the shift as complete strangers, and then 12 hours later, you are best friends, confiding to each other each and every detail of your life, only to never see each other again. It’s a funny kind of job.

What I find the most rewarding is the opportunity to travel solo on my layovers, that’s when I discover how capable I really am. I remember the rush of excitement while navigating the subway station in Shanghai during rush hour, the satisfaction of finding Juliet’s balcony in Verona after a series of erroneous turns or the thrilling gratification of climbing all the way up the Pantheon in Athens, with no one to bear witness except for a poorly taken selfie. When you are completely unburdened by the encumbrances of others, you have the liberating opportunity of self-discovery. So many of us do not have the luxury of time to appreciate our own company, especially when the background noise of life and responsibilities are removed. I am grateful for this freedom on each layover.

Despite the Diet Coke, I am so glad that I found myself at 30,000 feet.

Wan Lu lives in Toronto.

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