Is it still more difficult to become a Delta Air Lines flight attendant than it is to gain admission to Harvard?

One of my favorite odd statistics I’ve come across while writing about big airlines and small businesses is the one about Delta Air Lines and its flight attendants.

If you crunch the numbers correctly, you can make the case that becoming a Delta Air Lines flight attendant is statistically more difficult than getting into Harvard University.

Take 2017, for example, when more than 270,000 people applied for roughly 1,700 open Delta flight attendant jobs, resulting in a 0.62 percent success rate. Harvard had a 5.2 percent acceptance rate that year. (At Harvard, it’s now down to 3.4 percent.)

Delta Air Lines announced plans to hire 1,500 new flight attendants last week, just in time for Labor Day, along with an additional 1,500 flight attendants who made it through the hiring process before the pandemic began in early 2020, but were unable to begin work due to the crisis.

All of this comes at a very good time for the Delta Air Lines flight attendants who are currently employed, and it’s safe to say they’ll be overjoyed with the news. During the pandemic, approximately 4,000 of their fellow flight attendants took early retirement or other separation options, and the strain on those who remained has grown.

Delta isn’t the only company with hiring plans. According to the cabin crew recruitment site Paddle Your Own Kanoo, United Airlines recently announced that it will hire more flight attendants following its pandemic pause. American Airlines is looking to hire 800 flight attendants, while JetBlue wants to hire 2,500 new flight attendants. Furthermore, Southwest Airlines increased its recruiting efforts and recently announced that it will reduce its schedule in response to flight attendants’ complaints that they felt “weary, exhausted, frustrated, and forgotten.”

Nonetheless, given the history, it was Delta Air Lines’ announcement that drew the most attention.

Now, I usually put an asterisk next to the Delta-versus-Harvard acceptance rate comparison because it costs nothing to start the application process at Delta.

Applying to Harvard at the very least necessitates the payment of an application fee. At Delta, the top of the funnel is simply larger, so the odds of reaching the bottom of the funnel are greater. However, I believe it is both a slick statistic to be able to cite and a legitimate expression of how desirable these jobs appear to many people.

Or, at the very least, how desirable they once were.

It will be very interesting to see how many people apply for these jobs now, and whether the allure of flying for a living, with the benefits of nearly unlimited, nearly free travel around the world, will still be appealing in our current world situation. In fact, the job has become much more demanding across the industry, due to both airlines’ challenges in maintaining the correct staff-to-flight ratio and the seemingly infinite new ways passengers have found to behave badly over the last 18 months.

Here’s an example: This year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued more than $1 million in fines to unruly airline passengers and initiated more than four times as many incident investigations as it did in all of 2019.

As a business owner in any industry, I believe it will be instructive to watch and learn from the outcome of this. Because, while it is impossible to predict whether Delta’s low hiring rate will be similar to what it was years ago under current conditions, it is clear that Delta will face some of the same challenges you most likely face in your business.