Short-haul or long-haul: what’s the difference if you’re a flight attendant?

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The job of a cabin crew member is an exciting and challenging experience. But in addition to jetting off to exotic destinations, the role also requires a high degree of responsibility and specialization to ensure the safety and comfort of passengers in line with industry regulations.

In the world of aviation, cabin crew members usually work on either long-haul or short-haul flights. So, what are the main differences between short and long-haul operations for flight attendants?

What are short-haul and long-haul operations?

After qualifying as a cabin crew member, a move into the world of long-haul or short-haul operations is typical. The type of role usually depends on the employer airline. For instance, a wide range of carriers, such as Singapore Airlines (SIA1) (SINGY) and Cathay Pacific, only operate long-haul operations, while a number of airlines focus exclusively on short-haul operations, like Jet2 and Helvetic Airways.

In general, specified distances define flight types as short-haul or long-haul. Having said that, the flight types themselves can be further defined as short-haul, medium-haul, long-haul and ultra-long-haul. For example, Hong Kong Airport (HKG) considers most of Asian destinations to be short-haul with everything else, including the United States, Australia and Europe, long-haul. On the other hand, American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) uses flight length as its measure to define what is short-haul or ultra-long-haul.

However, the most common parameter used to define a flight type is duration. Short-haul flight times range from under an hour to three hours. Long-haul operations are the opposite, with flight hours lasting from six hours to 12 hours. Flights ranging between three to six hours are considered medium-haul, while ultra-long-haul flights can last beyond 12 hours.

Aircraft types are also considered a major player in making short-haul and long-haul operations different for passengers and cabin crew. In fact, aircraft are specifically designed to operate routes of a certain distance.

Commercial short-haul aircraft usually have low volumes of around 100 to 200 passenger capacity. The most common short-haul aircraft are the variants of the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320. As for long-haul operations, the most popular aircraft include the Boeing 777 variants, larger versions of the 787, larger versions of the 767, the Airbus A330 variants, the Airbus A340 variants, the Airbus A350 variants, the Airbus A380, and the iconic Boeing 747.

This means that the training provided by the airline can determine where the flight attendant ends up working. Short-haul flight attendants would usually be trained for narrow-body Airbus A320 or Boeing 737 family aircraft, while long-haul flight attendants would have a license to operate on certain widebody aircraft, such as Boeing 777 or Airbus A380.

The experience on both: short and long-haul operations

As far as cabin crew members are concerned, long-haul and short-haul operations differ when it comes to work and lifestyle. Jordan Milano Hazrati, a former flight attendant with Virgin Atlantic and British low-cost carrier Jet2, is currently doing a Master‘s degree in human factors in aviation. In an interview with AeroTime, she told us about her career in the skies, and the possibility of flying on both short and long-haul operations.

“My experiences in both are very different. There is no doubt that the work is different but ultimately your goals are very similar. For example, your goal is to ensure the safety of your passengers, whether it will be a 15-minute flight or a 12-hour flight, the priority is to make sure that your passengers and your fellow crew are safe at all points.“

Procedures and workload while on aircraft

While safety is always paramount no matter the type of flight, Jordan notes that with short-haul operations the cabin crew’s service is very different. The service on short-haul is “time-focused” while long-haul operations provide cabin crew with more time to build the connection with passengers and ensure greater customer service.

“On a short flight you have a short amount of time to build that rapport, to make the connection with people onboard. You have to ensure that you are out with those services, you are providing passengers what they want within that short amount of time.“

She continues: “Long-haul operations can work to your advantage in many ways. I could ensure that all of the passengers that I was responsible for, I really spent time getting to know to make them feel valued. Especially with the upper and premium class cabins.”

Furthermore, the widebody aircraft deployed on long-haul operations typically have three travel classes that are most commonly known as the first class, business class and economy class. Generally, short-haul air carriers have only one travel class.

“With short-haul operators you usually have only one class of cabin, whereas with long-haul widebody aircraft you have upper class and premium class cabins that require different services,“ says Jordan. “The things you have to do in the upper class you might not need to do in the economy. For example, boarding drinks.“

Jordan adds that long-haul flying has more breaks where the cabin crew are able to rest. Short-haul flying has fewer breaks onboard and additional duties after landing, such as tidying cabins and making sure that all the in-flight equipment stays on the aircraft. The checks must be quick as short-haul cabin crew need to get ready for the outbound flight. As for long-haul operations, “the cabin crew goes straight to their hotel rooms” after arriving.

“In regards to long-haul versus short-haul, with Virgin Atlantic we were at widebody aircraft, where you have different types of features within the aircraft. For example, you have a crew rest, which in itself has different procedures for use, whereas on a short-haul aircraft that was not a thing.”

However, more flying time on long-haul operations usually creates other challenges for cabin crew members. There are a number of situations classified as disruptive passenger behaviour, such as threats, verbal or physical abuse, excessive alcohol consumption, non-compliance with cabin crew instructions or disputes with other passengers. With long-haul operations there is more time for such challenging situations onboard to emerge.

“If there is a passenger situation on a long-haul flight, it is not like you’re saying goodbye to that passenger in 40 minutes or two hours. You‘ve probably got that passenger onboard for potentially five or six hours where you have to manage an emerging and disruptive situation. That again can be quite difficult and you have to rely on your fellow crew, on its spirits and strength to ensure you all remain safe and other passengers’ experience isn’t affected.“

Jordan added that varying aircraft types mean that different skills must be employed by cabin crew. On a narrow-body single-aisle aircraft that is usually deployed on short-haul operations, the flight attendant has less space than on widebody aircraft. Not only does that present different challenges, it also means that certain situations, such as medical emergencies, must be dealt with in a smaller space.

Jordan explains: “If you are on an average Boeing 737-800 aircraft you have a very small galley in the front, and if you have a medical emergency and you want to get someone out of the cabin it is not that easy. On a long-haul aircraft there is potentially more space to play with.”

Lifestyle and mental health

Lifestyle and the work-life balance is often discussed when talking about the differences between short-haul and long-haul operations.

Long-haul operations usually have layovers in far-flung destinations that can last for five days in a row, potentially giving more time to rest and explore. Such operations usually provide the cabin crew with the possibility to travel across the world and become acquainted with new cultures and people. In comparison, short-haul flights could be treated as a so-called nine-to-five job, where the cabin crew members have the ability to return home and lead a more settled lifestyle. However, it is worth mentioning that some short-haul carriers do operate stopovers in short-haul destinations.

“I have seen the best of both worlds,“ Jordan says. “I was extremely lucky to work for both of them. The decision to choose whether you want to work on long or short-haul flights entirely depends on your lifestyle, home commitments.

“For some people it isn’t that easy to have a roster that means you could be away for days. But some people really like their nights at home. For me, it was very easy to go long-haul, as I had no ties at home.”

According to Jordan, short-haul cabin crew generally experience different ways of living during the summer and winter periods. For short-haul cabin crew operating within Europe, the peak season normally falls from May and continues throughout summer until about October. During that period, the work is expected to “take a large amount of time of your life”.

“Those months are very busy. You could be expected to work on average 16 duties that could be a combination of flights, home standbys, airport standbys, reserved days, training duties.” She adds that cabin crew are expected to rest and that does not leave much personal time. “Although you think short-haul is short, there could be very long days.“

In the winter, however, the short-haul cabin crew roster looks more relaxed. “Those who remain on roster for winter would potentially operate really half the amount of duties. So you do get that downtime in the winter to sort of fit all the things in and see family, see friends, go out.”

There is also maintaining good mental health to be considered. While operating on both flight types, cabin crew members are exposed to stresses and health-related challenges that can be physiological as well as psychological.

Flight attendants traveling through different time zones usually experience jet lag. A lot of jet lag can affect an indvidual‘s circadian rhythm (a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep–wake cycle), which can have mental health implications. While attendants working on short-haul operations typically do not encounter jet lag, their substantial workloads and irregular rosters can lead to more frequent fatigue.

In 2020, the academic journal Frontiers in Psychology reported that a review of multiple studies on flight attendant health by Niren L. Magda and Michael D. Koontz showed that, in most cases, cabin crews on international flights suffered less from stress and fatigue than their colleagues working on regional, short-haul flights. However, it is worth noting that due to often experienced jet lags, fatigue effects can appear for cabin crew operating long-haul flights as well.

“Fatigue and short-haul is absolutely a thing, and is really something to be mindful of,” Jordan says, while talking about the health-related challenges while working on short-haul operations.

Despite having “largely positive experience” with regards to psychological health and welfare, Jordan told us that ”with long-haul cabin crew members there are some stresses that come with a job that potentially don’t come with a short-haul job. For example, isolation is something not many people talk about.

“If you take the pandemic for example, you might land into China and they test you and put you in a hotel room on your own for maybe up to 48 hours. It is a huge period of isolation. During that time you might have home concerns, you might be missing family events or anything in your personal life without that connection to any support around you, and it is not just during COVID-19.”

While a strong network and good relationships within the aviation sector can help cabin crew to manage their mental health and welfare, there is much that could be improved. Jordan says that, especially for the flight deck, there is still a stigma attached to open conversations about mental well-being.

“There is always more we can do with mental well-being within the industry. What we need to support within aviation is a non-punitive culture, where people can say, without fear: I don’t feel fit to operate. If we encourage that, then we will ultimately end up with a very open and safe industry and that is something to strive for.“

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