Myth or reality? We fact-check HBO's 'The Flight Attendant' with real flight attendants

HBO Max's new miniseries "The Flight Attendant" has all the trappings of a good pandemic TV binge: good-looking cast; anxiety-spiking plot line; travel scenes that pull at your heart strings. The show is a welcome escape, particularly if you miss the sights and sounds of flying on a plane or running through an airport.

The story follows Cassie Bowden, a partying New York City flight attendant played by Kaley Cuoco, who wakes up on a layover in Bangkok to find that her passenger-turned-one-night-stand has been murdered. The series is based on a 2018 novel by Chris Bohjalian.

The miniseries keeps your attention, but does it capture what life is like for an actual flight attendant? We asked four flight attendants what they thought of the show's portrayal of their job.

True: Being a flight attendant can be glamorous at times

The job can be glamourous at times.

The job can be glamourous at times. Photo: iStock

The beginning of "The Flight Attendant" shows Cassie partying her way around the world one moment and sashaying through the airport in uniform the next. Flight attendants say that can be an accurate depiction of the job.

"You get a 24-hour layover, you get to go to Paris, you get to do all of those things, so it is very glamorous," says Atlanta-based flight attendant Brianna Burnett.

Denver-based flight attendant Rachel Thomas agrees. "It can be very fun," she says. "Especially during non-covid time. You can have a blast depending on how long your overnight is."

False: Flight attendants party all the time

After a turbulent trip to Bangkok, Cassie spends a layover night in Seoul drinking heavily alone in her hotel room. Burnett says it isn't unheard of for flight attendants to drink at the hotel during a layover, although it's normally in a social setting vs. Cassie's problematic consumption.

"A lot of people will have their own bottles of wine, their own beer or whatever, and just kick it in their hotel room and drink ... . When I first started, that was a regular thing that we did." she says. "When I went to the regional airline, I had never seen that much drinking in my life."


But while it's possible to travel around the world and party during layovers, Burnett says it's usually a phase, and not realistic to do so to the extent that Cassie does.

"The lifestyle of a flight attendant, I do believe that it really depends on what stage you are in your life," Burnett says. "I think this girl is in her late 20s, early 30s. It looks like she's living her best life, but she has a lot of problems internally."

Thomas says that Cassie's lifestyle would catch up to a normal flight attendant.

"I don't think that it's realistic that any person could have that type of overnight then fly," Thomas says. "A lot of people, when they're very young and they start this career, they do have a blast and then eventually their health catches up to them and they realize they're exhausted all the time."

False: Flight attendants can drink on the job

Drinking is for passengers only.

Drinking is for passengers only. Photo: iStock

Throughout the first episodes of the miniseries, Cuoco's character throws back vodka round-the-clock, including on the job. Flight attendants, like Chicago-based Heather Holding, say this is one of the most unrealistic parts of the show.

"We get drug tested randomly. So, if you get caught, you're fired," Holding says. "She could never realistically be a flight attendant because she's an alcoholic."

Oahu-based flight attendant Randi Oketani says maybe drinking or stealing mini bottles on the job might have happened 30 years ago but there's no way that would happen now.

"For our company, we get drug or alcohol tested when we get back to our base," she says.

False: Flight attendants hook up with passengers on flights

In the first episode, a passenger hits on Cuoco's character, and they end up kissing in the lavatory. Flight attendants all agreed this was not likely to happen in real life, particularly because the lavatories are not places in which you would want to spend any extra time.

"That would never happen because we know how disgusting those bathrooms are," Holding says.

However, Oketani says, it's not strictly forbidden for romance to blossom in-flight and meet up later.

"If you wanted to go get a drink with a passenger, I don't think that'd be breaking the rules or anything," she says.

False: Flight attendants pack as light as possible

Flight attendant's don't pack that light.

Flight attendant's don't pack that light. Photo: iStock

When Cuoco's character flies to Bangkok, she is shown rolling a small TravelPro suitcase. Flight attendants say that's a brand they use, but it's way too small of a model to be realistic.

"She goes on her layover and her suitcases were so teeny ... then just suddenly has a sparkly dress packed," Holding says. "If I am going to Asia ??? no, I am not bringing a briefcase."

True: Being a flight attendant can be extremely lonely

On a post-flight date with a passenger, Cassie is asked about whether she gets lonely being a flight attendant. At first, she balks at the question, denying the job is anything but fun. Then she relents. "Maybe you're right, a little bit," Cassie tells him.

Holding says loneliness is something all flight attendants deal with.

"You definitely have ups and downs with the job in general, and then in addition to that, you have ups and downs of loneliness," Holding says, adding that it's easier to manage if you have a support system at home.

Burnett says the job can be extremely lonely, and like the show portrays, it can take a toll on close relationships.

"I've missed weddings. I missed many Christmases. I missed birthdays," she says. "I can never commit to practically anything when people invite me to something. If I can come, it'll be extremely last minute. It's sad because you can't be reliable even though you are the reliable friend."

True: Flight attendants are friends with their co-workers

Ryanair flight attendants.

Ryanair flight attendants. Photo: Alamy

While it's unlikely flight attendants will have the same crew on every flight like the show portrays, it is not unlikely the crew members will hang out on and off the flight. Holding says flight attendants do commiserate about the job, from passengers who are being nice to passengers who are being not-so-nice, like the crew does in the show.

"When they're doing their galley chat, we call it 'galley gossip,'" Holding says.

But that doesn't mean flight attendants always hang out with each other on every trip.

In one scene, Cassie passes on a group dinner and ends up sneaking out on her own instead. "That type of thing is pretty normal," Thomas says, adding that you don't want to do that too often. Flight attendants can get a reputation for keeping to themselves.

"There is what is called a 'slam clicker,' and that is the flight attendant that goes in the room, closes the door, locks it and doesn't leave that room until it's time to lobby," Thomas says. "When I started, you didn't want to be a slam clicker, that was like a bad thing ... then as you get older and you prioritize your health and your money and your relationship, then you realise that that's the healthiest thing for you."

The Washington Post

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