Flight attendants face soaring tension in the unfriendly skies

Career — By on September 15, 2010 at 8:49 am

Many flight attendants are fed up with being perceived as waiters or waitresses

Kitty Bean Yancey,

Tensions between fliers and cabin crews are common in today’s increasingly unfriendly skies. After reportedly clashing with a passenger over an unwieldy bag last month, JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater deployed the emergency slide and grabbed headlines (along with farewell beer). At a time when planes are as packed as sardine tins, everything from unpopular airline fees, to lack of manners, to increase d flight attenda nt respo nsibil ities (suc h as help ing clean plane cabins) is sending tempers and stress levels soaring. A recent USA TODAY online survey asking “What flight attendant behavior bothers you most?” drew 5,152 responses. “Surly demeanor” was the top vote-getter (38%), followed by “gabbing together in the back” (21%), refusal to deal with unruly passengers (20%), a “schoolmarm attitude” (12%) and slowness in serving drinks or food (9%).

“Employees of the airline industry feel underpaid and overworked, complaining about doing the work of two to three people as a reason for their sometimes surly behavior,” says frequent flier Ryan Yamamoto of New York City. “I can’t accept this as a valid reason. In these tough economic times, everyone feels underpaid and overworked … but most of us are just happy to have a job.” Attendants often are “barking commands,” while “hiding behind the guise that their attitude is such for our benefit and safety,” adds Yamamoto, who appreciates the cheerfulness of crews on airlines such as Virgin Atlantic.

On most flights, attendants “are simply polite, make sure I have a beverage and that’s that,” says Rehm. But she has had good experiences with flight attendants, such as when one moved her away from a “cold stone drunk” male seatmate. And many of four dozen USA TODAY readers who emailed experiences with flight attendants praised them overall. In his 750,000 to 1 million miles of flying, consultant William Brown of Redding, Conn., estimates he receives “very acceptable” service 74% of the time, followed by 25% “outstanding” and 1% “miserable.”

Making anyone’s “outstanding” category would be the SAS attendant who helped Anna Liisa Van Mantgem’s stepson retrieve the passport he lost while making his first transatlantic flight July 19. The woman asked all passengers to look under their seats and then phoned the departure airport, where the passport was turned in and Fed-Exed to Europe. “She did all this for us without us having to ask,” says Van Mantgem, of Brunswick, Md. As for flight attendants, many are fed up with being perceived as waiters or waitresses and with deteriorating passenger manners, according to responses to a USA TODAY flight attendant query on usatoday.com.

Passenger-flight attendant relations also are stressful because a plane is “a hotbed of emotions” in a cramped space, says Carolyn Paddock, a former Delta flight attendant and founder of inflightinsider.com, which offers tips on traveling. You have the anxious, the angry, the intoxicated. After 9/11, the divide widened, she says. “It was our duty to act as if any number of people on the plane could put a flight at risk. It became an us/them situation.” And in an era of airline cutbacks, attendants are front-line targets for rants about policies — such as no free meals, lack of pillows or blankets — or disputes over carry-on baggage.

What attendants ask of passengers, from turning off cellphones and other electronic devices to raising seatbacks to allow for easy emergency exit, is required by the Federal Aviation Administration, says Houston-based flight attendant Sara Keagle, author of theflyingpinto.com blog. (Pinto doesn’t refer to airplanes; it’s her maiden name.) “I think passengers think flight attendants are on a power trip when we ask for things that we’re mandated to do,” she says.Also, “you can’t make everyone happy,” adds Keagle, who remembers a time she covered her mouth while coughing in the aisle. “This couple said I’d ruined their vacation and they were going to be sick.” She wrote down the details in case the pair griped to the airline.Fear of complaints can keep attendants from stepping into situations with rowdy tots or obnoxious fliers, Paddock says.

Some won’t “go out on a limb,” to save their jobs, she says.It’s not only a job — it’s a peripatetic lifestyle that most FAs love, despite its rigors and absences from home. Some even take a flight to commute to their jobs. U.S. attendants make about $35,000 a year on average, says Corey Caldwell of the Association of Flight Attendants. Starting pay can be less than $20,000. “We had a flight attendant who got fired for publicly saying that she was on food stamps because she made so little money,” Caldwell adds.

“I have been hit, spit on and called unspeakable names” for running out of chicken dinners, making a mother take her sleeping child off the floor during turbulence and ser vin g the wron g drink, says former attendant Carrie Thomson of New Orleans, who flew for United and Continental. She was once suspended without pay after she tried to stop a misbehaving child and the mom complained, she says. Most colleagues did their best, though “we all have our off days,” and some attendants “are an embarrassment to the profession.” But generally, travelers should cut attendants a break, says frequent flier Brown. “How often are we expected to solve the problem of two adults in a confrontational mode in a supermarket aisle or (another person’s) child screaming? Try putting yourself in their shoes for four hours.”

Other fliers suggest greeting flight attendants with a smile and treating them well, on the theory that you get what you give. Adds veteran traveler Norwood, who has seen businessmen pout like schoolkids when they didn’t get a coveted aisle or window seat, “It takes a special person to be able to do that job. They don’t always get it right, but then again, neither do I. They endure treatment that would make most of us, well, hit the emergency slide.”

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