Flight Attendants Use Job Perks for Good Cause

Free travel and free baggage are a means of helping those in need for these three flight attendants

by Amanda Robb
luggage attached to parachutes image
Photograph: Illustrated by Oliver Munday

The next time you see flight attendants zooming through an airport, don’t assume their luggage is packed with clothes for a Paris overnight. They may well be transporting urgently needed supplies to some of the world’s poorest citizens. Because what these Samaritans lack in billions—their average salary is $41,720—they make up for in perks: free travel and, on some airlines, free baggage.

When United flight attendant Mary Beth Lavin heard in 2008 that an Ethiopian orphanage was nearly out of formula, she stuffed three suitcases full of the product and, off duty, got on a plane. In 2009 she founded Formula One Life (formulaonelife.org), a nonprofit that delivers formula, supplements and water-purification devices to Ethiopia, Guatemala and Haiti.

For Kary Doerfler, who flies a Delta New York–Ghana route, the motivation was more personal. “On layovers, I missed my own three kids,” she says, “so I started visiting the Osu Children’s Home in Accra.” Three years ago, she started Dreams for Orphans (dreamsfororphans.org) to raise money to build a nursery for the home’s infants.

Soon after United’s Trish Hack-Rubinstein began flying, she discovered her schedule allowed her to be a “volunteer junkie.” Today she runs a foundation that supports Fresh and Green Academy, a private school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (friends​of​fresh​and​green.com). “There are public schools in Ethiopia, but they don’t provide food, so poor kids drop out,” Hack-Rubinstein says. “Our school gives them three meals a day.”

Hack-Rubinstein hosts fund raisers for the $4,000 a month needed to run the school. But she also packs wisely. “Every trip, I fill two large duffel bags with donated clothes,” she says. “What the kids can’t use, their moms sell at a store next to the school. They use some of the money to buy yarn to make scarves, and I take those back in my now empty bags to sell in the U.S. For a lot of the women, it’s the first income they’ve ever had outside prostitution, begging or stone hauling.”

This kind of experience can put day-to-day flight travails in proper perspective. “Yes, sometimes passengers do go kind of crazy over dumb things,” Hack-Rubinstein says. “Their bag is too big to carry on, or they have to sit in the middle seat. I say, ‘Relax, it’s not that big a deal.’ And I mean it.” 

Next: 11 Trusted Charities Worth Your Donation

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First published in the February 2013 issue

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