Private Jet Attendants Tell All About Flying the Super-Rich

·7 min read
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

After decades as a flight attendant on private jets, Lori has encountered it all. There was a pot-bellied pig that took a plane ride by itself, a celebrity’s guard dog that bit a member of the crew, and a British footballer who asked if he could change his knickers. “He got butt-ass naked right there in front of me,” said Lori, who asked to be identified only by her first name.

That wasn’t her only run-in with the footballer. On another trip, he boarded his plane in New York after spending the night partying with his wife. As Lori made her way to the athlete’s cabin, his assistant asked her to stop. “They’re shagging in the back,” the assistant said. She shrugged and stayed out of the way.

“I don’t think that’s inappropriate personally, because this is literally their flying home,” she told The Daily Beast. “They pay millions and millions of dollars. If I was them, and I was paying that amount of money, and I wanted to shag my husband, I would do it.”

Such is the life of a flight attendant for the ultra-rich, where customers pay anywhere from thousands of dollars for a single charter to millions for a full-time share of an aircraft. The variance in passengers’ behavior is just as wide.

Attendants divulged a host of wild accounts to us—from outlandish tips to lascivious escapades. Most spoke under the condition of anonymity, since they signed non-disclosure agreements and feared compromising their relationships with clients and employers.

Together, they offered a rare look into some closely guarded lifestyles. “It’s like you’re tapping into these people’s world,” said an industry veteran. Some clients, she said, travel with one nanny for each child, while others use private jets as a shipping service for their pets.

“These airplanes are just transportation for these people,” she said.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Private jets let the well-heeled fly in luxury—and give flight attendants a glimpse of the high life.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Reuters</div>

Private jets let the well-heeled fly in luxury—and give flight attendants a glimpse of the high life.

Reuters

Tales of mile-high hijinks have long captured mainstream attention. In 2019 a California congressman pleaded guilty to misusing campaign funds, including to buy plane tickets for his pet rabbits, Eggburt and Cadbury. (The rabbits reportedly flew commercial.)

WeWork’s fallen founder Adam Neumann, meanwhile, allegedly smoked weed with his friends on a private flight to Israel that same year, leaving behind a large amount of pot for their ride home. The freaked-out jet company, worried about so-called “trans-border marijuana transport,” reportedly ditched him in the Holy Land.

Flight attendants who spoke with The Daily Beast said they have rarely encountered issues with drugs; alcohol is a bigger concern. “That’s definitely, in my opinion, probably the most touchy subject,” said one employee based in the Northeast. “On commercial there’s a lot of backup if people get rowdy or whatever. But in private, it’s really hard to cut off a billionaire on their aircraft.”

For the most part, businesspeople tend to be well-behaved, staffers said, since they’re often just commuting from one conference room to another. Celebrities, professional athletes, and rich kids are more prone to debauchery—as are wannabe billionaires. “They’re all crazy wealthy, but the less wealthy... were the more demanding,” said a contract worker based in the South.

Some lucky attendants have yet to accumulate war stories. “I’ve been blessed. I’ve never had any big issues with any of my guests,” one attendant says.

One of her peers has a different track record: “You’d get a [customer] and... after the trip you’d say, ‘I hope I never get that person again.’”

Multiple private jet staffers said they got into the business after burning out as commercial airline attendants, where starting salaries can be brutally low. At many airlines, workers are paid based on “block time”—the duration between when the plane’s doors close before takeoff and when they open after landing—one former commercial attendant told The Daily Beast. As a result, staffers frequently are not compensated for time they spend commuting, waiting at airports, or helping passengers load their luggage.

One employee who previously worked at a mainstream airline said she earned just $21,000 in her first 12 months at the company, about five years ago.

“I lived in what we call a crash pad,” she said. “We had 14 people in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment.” The unit was intended as short-term housing for itinerant flight attendants, “but I lived there because I couldn’t afford to live anywhere else,” she said.

After two years, she followed a friend into the private jet business. “Naturally, when someone offers me double the pay working with famous people, it sounds very appealing,” she said. Her first full-time gig paid her an annual salary of $65,000.

Major private companies, like NetJets, which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, are incredibly competitive to break into, flight attendants say. Once hired, employees are rigorously trained on how to interact with customers. The company keeps dossiers on its clients, so that flight attendants know their preferences before they board the plane.

Most private jet workers say they don’t expect tips, but a gratuity of $100 per person at the end of a flight is always appreciated. In rare cases, clients have been known to hand out extravagant bonuses, those stories quickly making their way through the whisper network of flight attendants.

One VIP attendant said a customer offered her a free Super Bowl ticket after she dropped him off at the game; she declined, opting to stay with the rest of the crew. Another worker who spent time in the Middle East said that clients were known to hand out Rolexes, even “suitcases full of money. That kind of craziness.”

Attendants said they quickly grew accustomed to unusual missions. Once, a contract worker recalled, a pair of private jet customers died in an accident while on vacation overseas.

“I had to actually pick up the body bags,” she said.

In some cases, no human passengers board the plane at all. Instead, designer dog breeders use the jets to ship puppies to their new homes, or estranged spouses shuffle pets between mansions.

“I noticed this particular case with these two beautiful dogs,” said one current flight attendant. “The wife would have it that week, and then the husband would come in and then pick up the animals. You really get into the personal lives.”

For high-end aviation workers, transporting celebrities is a part of the job, though each star has their own peculiarities. One flight attendant described a famous actress who suffered from anorexia. Crew members were instructed to hide all visible traces of food. Otherwise, “she would get through the food and purge on the aircraft,” the worker said.

Another attendant recently staffed an international flight with a famous singer. After paparazzi tried to storm the plane, an armed guard escorted the passenger and crew to their hotel, and they had to guard the plane overnight to prevent break-ins.

In a third, more unsettling case, a flight attendant said she flew a technology billionaire to his compound across the country. He asked her for a wake-up call near the end of the trip. Just before landing, she walked over to his bed.

“He sort of casually threw off the sheets,” she said, “and he was just laying there all pale and frail in his little tighty-whities.”

She added that private jet staff frequently see things that could command major cash from a tabloid, but they diligently protect confidentiality.

Eventually, some salaried flight attendants choose to leave their jobs at private jet companies, opting for contract gigs that generally pay between $500 and $800 per day of an assignment, even while the plane is on the ground.

“If you take a family to Hawaii for two weeks [and] you’re sitting there in your hotel room, you’re still getting that pay,” one industry veteran says. “And they’re comping your food and they’re paying for your hotel. It’s a great gig.”

“It's really easy to get used to that contract money,” another long-time attendant attested. There are drawbacks, though, including an unpredictable schedule and assignments that ebb and flow. “You have to say yes to trips because you don’t know when the next one’s gonna pop up… The work-life balance isn’t always there.”

Every flight attendant who spoke with The Daily Beast said they wanted to stay in the business. “In aviation, we’re our own little kind of people,” one attendant said. “In our DNA, we’re giving people, we’re nurturers.” And after all, the super-rich need nurturing, too.

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