Aim for the Sky

Aim for the Sky 

Chicken or fish? Coffee, tea, or me? The sexiest stereotypes were all that Sara Nelson knew before she became a rookie flight attendant.  Now as the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, she’s one of the most powerful figures in her field.

Printed in the June 2016 Edition of Cosmopolitan

Don’t Judge a Job by Its Uniform

When my best friend decided to become a flight attendant after college, everyone laughed.  But while I was in St. Louis working multiple jobs, she called me from Miami to tell me how good her gig was.  Flight attendants obviously get to travel, but what got me were the benefits.  Her pay was  higher than the starting job in teaching that I was pursuing, there was good health-care, and she could retire in her 50s.  I loved teaching, but I was staring down student loans.  I drove to Chicago the next day to interview at United Airlines.

Call In a Copilot

Growing up in a small town in Oregon, I learned to go to the source to fix problems.  So when I didn’t get paid after six weeks of training and several weeks into my probationary period, I went to the main office.  They told me that payout schedules differed – but soon I was down to nothing. When I went back and got the same excuses, I got angry and started crying.  A flight attendant tapped me on the shoulder and wrote me a check for $800.  “Take care of yourself,” she said, “and then call our union.” I did and was paid the next day. For women in particular who care about equal pay, unions give you a voice. 

Keep Your Cool

Probably the biggest issue flight attendants face is having to de-escalate conflict in cabin spaces that are getting tighter. That often requires teamwork: they rely on fellow crew members to help mediate or take care of everyone else. When you’re in a new or challenging setting, pick up on idiosyncracies. In certain regions, flight attendants might call down to operations and say, Hey we’re going to need more of a certain food or drink. Learn to anticipate what people like and want and you can respond in a proactive way, with humanity.

Bring Everyone On Board

I represent the interests of a diverse group of people within the same career. Union members successfully campaigned against allowing knives on aircrafts. We got smoking banned on U.S. planes 25 years ago and, more recently, helped extend that law internationally and on chartered flights. Last year, we launched a campaign to combat human trafficking in aviation. In this work, listening is the most important skill. Talk to people who have different opinions and you can advocate for changes everyone will get behind. People are more likely to accept a solution – even one that doesn’t address everything they wanted – if they feel like they were part of the process. 

Step Up and Lead

Women make great leaders but tend to give way to men. They may say they’re happy in more supportive roles.  If you have vision, try to implement it. I started out volunteering for the union, which led to local and national roles and, eventually, international president. I learned early on that it was important to have a defining role in what my future would look like.

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