The Performer: Jennifer O'Neil, flight attendant

On teamwork, dealing with bozos, and how to stay healthy when your schedule’s up in the air.


Photo: Trevor Brady

Do you remember the golden age of airline travel? Being served caviar and champagne free of charge? Probably not—but Jennifer O’Neil does. The U.K. native has worked as a flight attendant for 38 years, most of that with Canadian Pacific, which merged with Air Canada in 2000. In her career, she has served the glamorous and the not-so-glamorous, and borne witness to airline mergers, downsizings and the past decade’s dramatic tightening of security. The 61-year-old has kept up with the changes, still working regular long-haul flights to Sydney and Maui. She spoke with Canadian Business reporter Angelina Chapin.

Date of Birth: 08/11/50
Longest flight: 15½ hours (Vancouver to Sydney)
Average jet lag recovery: Three days
Favourite destination: Thailand
Must-have travel item: Her bathing suit
Favourite menu items from flying’s glamour days: Caviar and vodka
Favourite celebrity she’s served: David Duchovny

Your schedule is literally so up in the air: London one week, Japan the next. I’m surprised I caught you at home in Vancouver.
I’ve actually been off for the past five months with a work injury. I was opening a sparkling wine bottle—something I have done many times in my career—but it was at the wrong angle and had a very dry cork, and did something to my thumb and wrist.

Interesting occupational hazard. It’s not often I see someone ordering sparkling wine on a plane. Is it because I’m sitting in economy class?
The style of flying when I first started was more glamorous—and the travelling public was far more respectful of flight attendants. Everybody was served a hot meal, and if the flight was international, you didn’t have to pay for drinks. The big offer back then was steak and champagne. First class was really first class, and you did things like carve a roast in front of passengers. Executive class is still nice, but not as fancy as it used to be.

Sounds like flight attendants had a different job description back then. How have you dealt with the changes?
Because of the economy, the industry has had to tighten its belt in different ways so, sadly, the flight attendant’s main duty on aircraft is to ensure safety. I’m old school and still like to give good service. I’ve found it hard to change my mentality, but to not wear myself thin I have to work smarter, not harder. I’m constantly reminding myself there’s only one of me for all these wonderful people in the seats, and I have to do the best I can with that.

How do you do stay healthy when you’re constantly travelling?
I take all my own food on flights. I don’t eat airline food because it’s full of too much salt and preservatives. I drink lots of fluids. I don’t do these big long sleeps. When I land in a destination, I get two hours sleep and get out and do things on that time zone. If I come home early in the morning, I’ll go to bed for a few hours, and still get up very early and go to the gym. I go to the gym most days. For me, it kicks the jet lag—or as I say to my friends, “I just have to dust the cobwebs.”

But sometimes you’re working flights to Sydney that span 15 hours, and you’re coming back the next day. The schedule must start to grate on you.
I have more stamina than a lot of people. In fact, most of us that started when I did went through such rigorous training, we learned the work ethic and [developed] the backbone to deal with long hours because we didn’t always get sleep breaks. We were more primed for it than some of my contemporaries.

Do you get sleep breaks now?
On long-haul flights, we have bunks, and there is enough crew that we have a decent [amount of] time for sleep. Whether you can or not is the key, but at least you’re resting. On those flights to Sydney, I prefer the second sleep break after our passengers have been fed. Some of the crew are so tired they want a break first, whereas I always manage to sleep before the flight. There are things like severe turbulence that can make it hard, particularly on Sydney flights at certain times of the year. I’m fairly good at sleeping through that. I’ve never taken a sleeping pill—ever—and on flights we’re not permitted to. I just have some camomile tea and try to relax.

Unlike most professions, you’re physically stuck with your customers. How do you deal with someone who’s being obnoxious?
It’s an art. Sometimes, it’s difficult when the jet lag hits and you haven’t had the best sleep. You have to keep apologizing as best you can. My line is usually, “I understand how you feel,” or “How can I make this better for you?”

On any given flight, you’re working with a different flight team. How do you adapt to and work with so many different personalities?
I like to keep a fresh attitude. Even if I look at the crew list and see I’m not so crazy about flying with that person, I say, “Perhaps they can teach me something today.” I know how that sounds, but that’s how I live life. I believe in teamwork, and I know not everyone is a team player, but you need to be flexible. If anything happens, you have to look out for each other, because your job is to get passengers off the aircraft.

Can you describe some of those emergency situations where you’ve had to pull together as a team?
We’ve had people die on the flight, and a lot of medical emergencies where we’ve had to land somewhere because of the situation. We had an incident where a passenger was rather disruptive, and we had to make a detour and land. I happened to be in the bunk sleeping at the time, and the flight attendant in charge came upstairs and woke everyone up. She said, “We’re landing in Honolulu in 20 minutes.” Everyone had to pull together and come back to our stations and be ready for landing.

How do you stay calm in the face of chaos?
We have to rely on our safety training, and let that kick into action. The adrenalin starts running, and it just happens. I pull on everything I have inside me and have faith that I’ll be safe and everything will work out as it should.

It can’t be easy. How much longer do you want to do this?
I’ve always said I’ll retire when I feel incapable of doing it anymore. I’ve been lucky. I’ve met movie stars, and I did have those golden years of flying. I don’t regret anything—and if I had to leave tomorrow, I would consider myself a lucky woman.