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Flight attendants deal with increasing demands ; Glamour of job has lessened

It's a two-Hershey-bar trip for Kristen Heller.

Nine flights hop-scotching six cities over 48 hours; for fliers, it's an itinerary that reads like a dare.

For Heller, it's long enough to earn her two of her guilty pleasure treats. But the 6,450 air miles isn't an unusual "sequence" for the American Airlines flight attendant to fly. As the breadwinner in her family at the moment, Heller flies as many hours as she can each month since flight attendants, like pilots, get paid only for the time the planes are moving.

The candy bars -- she likes them with almonds -- are her special treat on the road to help take the edge off what's become a grinding career for flight attendants.

Gone are the jet-set days where the job was its own passport to exotic shores -- when flight attendants were the stars of air carrier advertising. Now most airline flight attendants, having given back money and benefits to help keep their carriers financially aloft last decade, work more hours to earn their old salaries and face new security-related duties and planes that are fuller than ever.

Heller, who has been a flight attendant for nearly two decades, still loves the job.

"It is still fun," she said. "I still even get excited about takeoff, isn't that so corny? I'm totally about the takeoff."

Some flight attendants are more about the landing and exit. When a JetBlue Airways flight attendant in August screamed at passengers, grabbed beers from a beverage cart and slid down an evacuation chute, it put a spotlight on a profession and its pressures.

Globe-trotting whimsy, adventure and even high fashion have given way to a job that can be a grind.

Heller's average schedule has her flying 80 to 85 hours a month and, while that might sound cushy, it actually puts her on the road for 16 to 18 days a month. When she flew an international schedule from American's Miami base, she was often out for 21 days a month.

The glamour attracted her to the job as a 21-year-old; today, at age 40, it's a bit harder to find the thrill.

"This doesn't happen every day, but I just got a bag of vomit handed to me," she said in the back of an MD-80 flying from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to Portland, Ore. Later in that same flight, a passenger hands her a dirty diaper to throw away.

As the airline industry has been squeezed for profits, flight attendants find themselves up in the air longer, managing more irate passengers and scanning rows for suspicious behavior.

"If there's glamour still in this job, I don't really see it," said Laura Glading, a New York-based flight attendant who serves as the president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants. Having to work harder to earn the previous levels of income, coupled with more responsibilities and a coarser flying public, can create fatigue.

"I feel very motherly about it, but in my position I think our members are flying a very, very unhealthy lifestyle," Glading said. She has a hard time recommending the profession to people interesting in flying. American says flight attendant pay ranges widely, from under $24,000 for someone flying the minimum number of monthly hours needed to get full benefits to more than $73,000 for a senior flight attendant who flies international routes.

American's top-scale flight attendants earn $46 to $49 an hour depending on whether they fly internationally or not -- but remember that they're flying 70 to 80 hours a month.

For Heller, the nine flights on this trip will net her about 18.5 hours of paid flight time, plus $1.25 an hour per diem for the time she's on duty.

She says a flight attendant with her experience and schedule usually earns about $38,000 a year, which is just above the pay range for an average flight attendant given by the APFA.

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