Image: Michelle Caron-Pawlowsky
The Graveyard Shift is a series chronicling how professionals with some of the strangest hours get their rest.
There are many jobs that negatively affect employees’ sleep schedules, but flight attendants the extra challenge of hopping around time zones and spending a lot of time in the air to add to the long hours.
Per FAA requirements, flight attendants are only required to get 24 hours off after seven days of work and are required 10 hours of time off between when the plane lands and when they return to work––lower than other countries’ standards.
In this industry, Ambien prescriptions are common and exhaustion and hospitalization are not rare. We talked to a flight attendant about how the 24/7 job affects her life, her sleep, and her relationships.
MOTHERBOARD: How long have you been a flight attendant?
Wingenfeld: Six years.
What does a typical work schedule look like for you? Are you on a few days and then off a few days?
I do four-day shifts where I’ll be gone for four days, or two-day shifts because they’re easier.
What are the hours like for those?
The hours are around the clock. I show up, I have to be there an hour before my flight, so I usually get to the airport around 3:30 PM and fly out at 4:30. I get to my destination and stay there. The next day, either fly back or fly directly somewhere else and then sleep. I do that for four days. Then I will usually leave the West Coast in the morning on the fourth day and land in New York in the afternoon. That is if everything goes cool, that is a typical week for me, that is like a 40-hour week.
I usually do a red eye once a month. I used to do them every week but I just couldn't do it anymore
How has this affected your sleep?
Time zones are definitely a huge factor. Also rest––I legally must get eight hours of rest a night, but our rest starts as soon as we pull up to the gate. So, by the time we get off the plane, and leave the airport, and get on a van, sometimes when I get to my hotel we might only have a few hours left. When you are in a different time zone, it may be hard to get to sleep. That is a huge factor. I usually do a red eye once a month. I used to do them every week but I just couldn't do it anymore.
I would sleep all day on the West Coast and then work all day in New York. Sometimes I would be up for 24 hours, and that really, really affects you mentally. It is something I can’t handle. I become extremely emotional, I feel like I have zero control over myself. Then I try to sleep all day, but it’s just not natural.
Is the eight hours of sleep minimum rule a law or airline policy?
That’s the FAA law. Airlines do have the choice of saying you need more than eight hours because half the time you’re traveling, but that is not something my airline does at this time.
What are your sleep habits like? What does a typical night before going to sleep look like for you?
When I am working I have a pretty decent routine, especially since I go to the same city and same hotel so I’m comfortable there, so it’s kind of like a second home. If I have more than 12 hours I can have a glass of wine, sit down in my bed, and watch TV, which is my thing.
If I have friends with me, if my coworkers want to stay out, I will go out. If you’ve got enough time, a drink helps, that is kind of the norm. I am not one to take sleeping pills, that is something a lot of people do. I have a prescription but I haven’t taken it. Exercise is a huge part of sleeping routine with flight crews. I always get to the hotel gym and go for a run on my layovers.
I need complete darkness, so I will take hangers and clip the curtains together so no light gets in. At home I always shower at night but I always take my shower in the morning when I’m working because it wakes me up more.
What are the rules surrounding drinking?
If I have a layover longer than 12 hours then I can legally drink. I think the FAA says 10 hours but most airlines have 12 hour rule. If I am lucky I usually get 12 hours, but if you have less than 12 hours it’s just so hard, you end up being worked really hard.
What do most people use in terms of sleep aids?
A lot of times flight attendants and pilots live in crash pads, where you’re in an apartment with a dozen other people, and people are coming in and out and have weird hours, so a lot of people sleep with earplugs, a lot of people use noise canceling headphones. A lot of people use sleep aids, a lot of people use Ambien, melatonin. My other thing is pillows—I’m always in the same hotel so I need a specific pillow to fall asleep, so it feels like home.
I do five alarms on my phone, a wake up call from the front desk, I usually have a friend call me or someone in the morning. There are times my schedule is, I get in, I sleep at night, I have all day in Vegas, then I fly out of Vegas at 1 AM. So I have to try to sleep in the night time but wake up in the middle of the night to work. That is the one I get really nervous I won’t wake up. That fear makes it so I can’t fall asleep completely.
What is something you wish people understood better about your profession and sleep schedule?
I wish people understood that when their flight is delayed, your crew isn’t likely at the hotel sleeping and getting more rest. They are up too, it just adds to the amount of time we’ve been up, we could have been up for a long time and still working. If you see your flight is delayed because your crew timed out, that is just a safety issue. It is not that the crew didn’t show up. I always hear people thinking they are getting more rest and it’s like, yeah, they were probably in a different time zone yesterday and they have to legally sleep for safety reasons. It is necessary to get that rest.
People don’t realize when we pull up to the gate we are starting our rest––and we are not getting paid. We only get paid when we are on the plane. That is also a hard thing to deal with.
Red eye flights I know are hard for passengers to handle too. I’m lucky enough I am senior enough to make my schedule, so I don’t do them anymore. There were times afterwards I would start crying or break down and have a panic attack on the subway, and all it was is that I had been working for four days and hadn’t gotten enough sleep. It affects every part of your life, it’s so stressful and weird. I feel bad for anyone who has to see me after I work a redeye flight. It is not me, I become a different person and it is crazy.
A lot of people fly so much that they wear themselves out. I used to do that and I ended up in the hospital
I am lucky, a lot of people fly so much that they wear themselves out. I used to do that and I ended up in the hospital. I was completely worn down, my whole body was thrown off. I’m lucky that I don’t have to work that hard anymore. I chose that for myself, I thought I cannot mentally handle that anymore. This is an awesome job but there are some parts you have to question, like, is this worth it?
You were in the hospital?
Yeah I worked so many hours. It was right when I started, so I wasn’t really used to getting up... I used to be on call 24 hours, so I could get a call at 3 AM telling me I had to be at the airport in two hours, so I’d be half asleep having to go into work... I never knew when someone was going to call me and I had to be alert at all times and I didn’t get enough sleep. I ended up having to go to the hospital in Dallas because I was totally dehydrated, and I had zero strength. I couldn’t walk or get out of bed. That happens all the time, it’s totally common.
I had a friend just now who was completely dehydrated and had to go to the hospital. Working at a different altitude you need to stay hydrated, for anyone, and that is hard. If you get in the habit of working so much, it definitely takes a toll on you.
Are you only on call when you are early in your career or does everyone have to do that?
It’s a junior program, called the reserve system, which every airline has. It usually lasts a long time. I am lucky I got out of it after two years, but it’s basically a test period. If I didn’t take a call at 3 AM, I would have just been gone. They’d say, "We’ll replace you, you’re done." They will call your hotel room, or someone will come knock on my door to wake me up. There are so many ways that you are always alert and nervous that you’re going to oversleep or not get that phone call, and you’re going to screw up. Your career is on the line at that point too.
You’ll Sleep When You’re Dead is Motherboard’s exploration of the future of sleep. Read more stories.