Being a flight attendant was a dream job. Now it’s a nightmare.
But mask challengers create the most problems and the greatest risks for flight crews. A stewardess with 25 years of airline experience told me about a passenger who repeatedly refused to put a mask on her young daughter. When she disembarked, after the stewardess told her, “Have a good night,” the woman looked her in the eye and threw a crumpled mask at her face. On a Delta flight from Dublin to New York last month, a 29-year-old man repeatedly refused to wear a mask, pulled down his pants and exposed his buttocks, threw a can at a passenger and put on his own cap and on the pilot’s head as the pilot passed through the cabin, according to the FBI. Then the man clenched his fist and said to the pilot, “Don’t touch me.” Several months earlier, after a Southwest flight attendant asked a woman to buckle her seatbelt, put on her tray table, and wear her mask over her nose, the woman got up and repeatedly punched the flight attendant, drawing blood and chipping three of his teeth.
The threats are Big enough that Roger, who has been flying for seven years, now avoids working as a main attendant: the risk and liability are not worth it. Another attendant who asked me to use his middle name, Wilson, said he wouldn’t sign up for jobs where he was the only attendant on smaller planes, like the 50-seater he has worked last year when a passenger about 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds refused to put on a mask. When Wilson approached him, the man stood up and held out his arms and hands, essentially saying to back off. Wilson was stuck 30,000 feet in the air with only pilots behind bulletproof doors to support him. He reported the incident to the pilot, but when everyone disembarked, the passenger walked away. “I get all these emails from the airline saying we have your back, and then I felt lonely and deflated,” he said. “I’m stuck in a tin can with this guy. It’s not like I could run. I knew he could drive the snot out of me.
Roger said he filed more than 30 complaints about unruly passengers and never received a response from the airline. Same with another flight attendant who told me she filed 100 reports. In the union’s survey of attendants last year, 71% said they received no follow-up from their airlines after filing incident reports, and a majority saw no effort to address passenger behavior. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA has called on airlines to improve communications with flight attendants. “Airlines are doing a decent job of forwarding complaints to the FAA for investigation,” said union spokesman Taylor Garland. “But there is no feedback loop with the flight attendants.”
When I contacted several airlines about the issue, they either didn’t address it directly or said they were reviewing the reports and following up with the crew member or their flight manager. Some flight attendants have told me that these days they either only file reports sporadically or they have stopped doing so altogether. Not only are they tired, but they also usually have to file reports during non-working hours – and they’re not convinced that makes a difference.
Flight attendants also feel isolated in other ways. “I used to get off a flight in DC, change my uniform, call an Uber, and walk around the National Mall and the Smithsonian,” Roger told me. “Now I go to the hotel room, order takeout, turn on the TV. I haven’t been out to eat with the crew in a long time. He’s become, as he puts it, a ‘slam clicker”. These are the crew members who, when the flight day is over, go to the hotel, close the door behind them, click the lock and do not come out until the working day begins again. They were once in the minority, but now flight crews are full of them, either because of their Covid fears or simply out of exhaustion. And in some cases, they have no choice. In Tokyo and Seoul, prime destinations for executives, flight crews can no longer leave their hotel rooms at all due to national pandemic rules, except to get to and from the airport.
I spoke to an attendant in January who called in sick because he was exhausted after more than a week of 4 a.m. alarms and 2-hour days. Several months earlier, he found himself stuck in Chicago overnight after several schedule changes due to last-minute delays and staffing shortages. He was stuck in an airport lounge until 3:30 a.m. when his airline found him an empty hotel room. (He must have woken up at 6 a.m. for a flight home.)
“How much more do they want from us? Nas Lewis, a flight attendant, said. “We are at our wit’s end.” Last year, when a passenger who arrived late took an overbooked flight, Lewis, who has been flying for seven years, searched for a possible seat for her. When Lewis found nothing, the passenger yelled at her and pushed her. Lewis did not report the incident. “It’s been quite a long day,” she said.