Air Travel

These ‘Reserve’ Flight Attendants Keep Your Flight From Getting Canceled

Most airlines keep flight attendants “on reserve” to fill in for last minute crew shortages. This summer, they’ve been busier than ever.
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At any given airline hub, chances are there’s a room hidden away high above the passenger concourse or deep below the terminal that's full of old couches, recliners, a landline telephone, and flight attendants. This isn’t the same location where crews go to check-in for their next flight assignment, though. This is “the hot room,” where so-called reserve flight attendants await a last-minute assignment.

Most airlines require new-hire flight attendants to begin their career on “reserve.” These crews don't bid for a flight schedule, but instead are reserved to assist the operation in the event of crew mishaps like sick calls, day-off requests from more senior flight attendants, and any other reason the airline may need additional staffing. Essentially, reserve flight attendants are used to rescue flights from short notice issues in an attempt to keep the airline running on time or to prevent cancellations. If you've recently had a flight delayed because of crew issues—as is happening with many disrupted flights this summer—reserve flight attendants were probably called in to save the day.

Generally, reserves are paid to sit at home and wait for a phone call from the crew scheduling department advising them of their next flight assignment, which could require them to report to the airport in two to four hours. But sometimes, the reserve flight attendants' assignment doesn’t involve a flight at all. Instead, they're told to pack for a trip to unknown destinations that could last as long as six days, report to the airport, and wait four to six hours in the hot room for a potential assignment. 

Some airlines call this “hot reserve,” others call it “ready reserve” or “airport reserve,” and flight attendants call it “airport appreciation.” In the hot room, the crew members usually bicker over what to watch on TV or try to take a nap all while staring at a corded telephone mounted on the wall hoping it’ll ring. Everyone hopes when it does ring, the crew scheduler on the other end will save them from boredom by assigning them a flight to a sought-after destination. “Hot reserves” can replace colleagues that get stuck in traffic, have a flat-tire on their way to work, or become unavailable due to other flight disruptions. 

For example, I was recently sitting at Boston Logan International Airport and overheard an announcement that a flight to New York City was most likely going to be delayed because the flight attendants scheduled to operate the flight were still in the air en route from Tampa. However, shortly thereafter four flight attendants showed up and boarding soon commenced. They were airport reserves. In this situation, they were utilized not to work the flight to New York, but just to board the aircraft for the late arriving crew members and have it ready to depart, therefore minimizing the delay.

With the pandemic leaving many airlines with crew shortages, reserve flight attendants are becoming more important than ever. Most airlines are hiring new crew, but on average, flight attendant training programs are four-to-six weeks long; therefore, most of the summer travel season will remain understaffed as we’re roughly two months away from new hires being trained, tested, and eligible to fly. 

In the meantime, current reservists are in a difficult situation as they get assigned a flight, reassigned, then reassigned again as airlines struggle to maintain their current schedule. “I’m not looking for sympathy, I love this job, but many passengers don’t realize the sacrifices flight attendants have made recently to ensure their flight takes-off,” says Taryn Curtis a reserve flight attendant for a major airline based in Washington, D.C. She says her her schedule has been reduced to the minimum days off allowed, and her time at home with her family is now less than usual. “Things are tough right now. I hope as people head to the airport this summer and are told they’re going to be delayed for a missing flight attendant, a late arriving crew or something like that, they don’t take it out on the flight attendants that show up. Chances are they’re on reserve, have already had their day and week rescheduled multiple times, and now they’re there to help you get to where you’re going.”

In my personal experience as a flight attendant, anytime a flight was delayed for a crew scheduling issue I always heard comments from the passengers. Statements such as “Did you get enough sleep?” or “I’m happy you finally showed up; because of you I missed my meeting” were quite common. Little did they know I had been sitting at the airport for hours before they even arrived or was just called in from home to work their flight and had nothing to do with the issue.

As air travel reaches a fever pitch this summer, airlines have fewer crew reserves at the airport to draw from—many have already been scheduled on upcoming departures that were short-handed. That means that there may not be a substitute should a crew member call in sick or if a delay causes a flight attendant to “time out” after working the maximum amount of hours allowed by safety regulations. So as delays and cancellations continue to soar, keep one thing in mind: Be kind to your cabin crew. They may very well be salvaging your flight.