Flight attendants strike back | the new yorker
Before the pandemic, Nelson was already one of the most visible leaders of the American labor movement – a surprising achievement, given that his union is relatively small. (The American Federation of Teachers, with 1.7 million members, is almost thirty-five times the size of the AFA; the Teamsters, with 1.2 million, is about twenty-five times the size.) The pandemic raised Nelson’s profile, attracting new attention. to her and the AFA, as the working conditions of her union members deteriorated. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, a record number of more than seven thousand “unruly passenger” incidents have occurred on planes since the start of 2021, although the term “unruly” does not begin to capture the seriousness of some of these. behaviors, which has led to headlines such as “Video shows assault on Southwest flight attendant who lost 2 teeth *.*”
Nelson spoke out forcefully against passengers “using flight attendants as punching bags”. She urged Congress to pass a bill that would put passengers convicted of assault on a no-fly list, and she advocated for an end to the sale of take-out drinks at airport bars, because unruly passengers are often intoxicated. These efforts mark the latest chapter in his union’s eight-decade battle to improve working conditions for its members. Currently, however, the promise that attracted Nelson and his colleagues to this profession years ago – the idea that it offered autonomy and a chance to see the world – has been eclipsed by the reality that airplanes have become an increasingly stressful workplace.
In the 1960s, flight attendants were known as air hostesses – the title changed in the 1970s – and when they pushed the drinks cart down the aisle, they could at barely see where they were going. “From seat level to the ceiling, there was nothing but pure smoke,” recalls Diane Tucker, a flight attendant who has worked for United since 1968. After the plane took off, the noise of passengers which light up fills the cabin. And the airlines encouraged smoking. “We actually put little packets of cigarettes on the trays when we served people,” Tucker said. “Right next to the coffee cup.” Flying was also different in other ways. There were hardly any female passengers in first class, Tucker said, and the menu was better. “We would cut roast beef for first-class people,” she said. “We also had gourmet food in the back.”
At that time, no one could make a career out of being a flight attendant. The airlines had age limits: Tucker, who was hired at the age of twenty, had to agree to quit at the age of thirty-two. Hostesses were forbidden to marry, and strict rules dictated their appearance, including banning braces and hair dye, and requiring hostesses to wear nail polish. Tucker would start each workday by pulling up her skirt so that an older woman, known as the “appearance supervisor”, could peek underneath. “We lifted our skirts and showed our belts,” Tucker said. “They didn’t ask me if I had my textbook or my flashlight, or if I had enough money to take a taxi if I needed one – they just wanted to know if I had my belt .”
Airlines often exploited the appearance of their stewardesses as a marketing strategy. One of the most egregious examples was a National Airlines ad campaign that featured a young flight attendant and a not-so-subtle tagline: “I’m Cheryl. Fly me. Many airlines have restricted the weight of flight attendants, and some women have taken diet pills or starved themselves to avoid losing their jobs. “If there was the slightest suspicion that you didn’t look exactly how the appearance supervisor thought you should look, she’d have you jump on the scale in front of everyone,” Tucker said. . “If you weighed ten pounds over your maximum, they would remove you from your flight.”
In 1972, Sandie Hendrix, a stewardess at United, was fired after weighing one hundred and twenty-seven pounds. (Hendrix was five-foot-two and his height limit was one hundred and eighteen pounds.) His story made national headlines, but not everyone was on his side: a syndicated columnist at the nationwide, writing about the possible demise of the airlines. weight rules, lamented a future in which “human hippos start handing out the trays.” Flight attendants fought against weight limits, but they remained in place at many airlines for years; at United they were phased out in the early 1990s, shortly before Sara Nelson was hired.
Nelson grew up in Corvallis, a small town in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where she was raised in a family of Christian scientists. His father worked for a sawmill; her mother was a music teacher at the local public schools, and she also had a successful singing telegram business on the side. (When Nelson first told me about it, she stopped in the middle of the story and started singing: “Valentine, with a little kiss / You fill me with so much bliss . . .”) Nelson recalls telegrams calling at all hours and belly dancers – who were hired to deliver telegrams known as Belly Tellys – stopping by the family to pick up their paychecks.
After high school, Nelson went to Principia College, a small liberal arts school founded by a Christian scientist, in southwestern Illinois. Nelson was “so bubbly” and “very, very passionate about everything”, recalls Caviness, her best friend. Nelson had grown up singing in a children’s choir founded by her mother, and in Principia she performed as Maria in a production of “West Side Story”. “Everyone was drawn to her,” Caviness said. “She had this kind of dynamic personality and acting, where she’s just on stage, but in the best way.” At sporting events, she always categorically supported the school team. “Everyone was turning around and smiling because they could hear her — this little person, and she would have this super booming voice,” Caviness said.
By the time Nelson started working for United, the workplace culture had improved. There was no longer any age limit or ban on marriage. But United measured Nelson’s height – five feet, which the airline deemed acceptable – and during his training, she said, there was a “makeup day”, where “the men had a day off and the women had to go and learn how to put on make-up”. on.” Meanwhile, the sexism in the cabin had persisted. One day, shortly after Nelson went into labor, a passenger approached her from behind as she stood alone in the galley. “He ran his hand along the outside of my hip and up almost to my rear end and said, ‘What, no belt?’ “, she recalls. “’How can you look so good in your uniform without a belt?’ “She was stunned. “No one ever warned me that something like this could happen.” At the time, flight attendants had little recourse in such situations. “So you just try to protect yourself and then say to the rest of your crew, ‘Hey, watch out for Handsy at 5-F,'” she said.
There were other downsides to the job, like the salary. Nelson remembers earning about twenty-one thousand dollars in his first year; for sustenance, she sometimes relied on food from the plane. The work was also physically exhausting. Nelson’s workplace was often a Boeing 757, but sometimes a 727 or 737, and she quickly learned the distinctions between each aircraft. The 757 carried so many passengers that a flight attendant could easily run out of room in her cart for all the trash when picking up trays after a meal. The 727, however, had no trolleys at all. “You had to hand-deliver every meal,” she said, adding that some of her colleagues, who wore pedometers, said they walked ten miles in a single shift. Nelson’s least favorite plane was the 737-200, an early version of the 737. Flight attendants called it the Nasty, Nelson recalls, because the galley was so small that trash piled up and the stench persisted.
Initially, Nelson was unsure how long she would remain a flight attendant. But, once she started working for United, her social life became largely defined by work. It was partly a matter of timing. “It’s hard to relate to other people with nine-to-five jobs,” she said. There was also free air travel, which expanded the list of possible excursions. “You’d be like, ‘Hey, do you want to fly to LA tonight? “Titanic” plays. Let’s go to dinner and go to the movies,” Nelson said. In 1998, she married another flight attendant, and for a time she went by her married name, Sara Dela Cruz. (They divorced a few years later and she has since remarried.)
She also devoted a lot of time to union work. In 2001, she was vice president of her local council, and on September 11, she was scheduled to attend a union training event in Chicago. She took an overnight flight from the west coast, landing around 5.30am a m that day at O’Hare airport and then went straight to the nearby Hilton hotel. She was a regular at the hotel’s fitness center — she ran on a treadmill and lifted weights every time she stopped over in Chicago — and that morning she asked an employee that she knew if she could use a massage table to take a nap.
She dozed off until shortly before 8 a m Chicago time, when a hotel employee woke her up with the news: a plane had just crashed into one of the Twin Towers. Nelson, still groggy, left the room and found a television and watched another plane crash into the second tower. She didn’t know it at the time, but that second plane was United Flight 175, which had taken off about an hour earlier from Boston. It was a flight she had worked on in the past and she knew all the crew members on board.
Recently, I spoke with Nelson on the phone about this day. She is known to be open to her emotions, sometimes choking on public appearances, and soon I could hear her sobbing on the other end of the line. I thought she might try to change the subject or cut the call short, but instead she cried and talked for the next four minutes. She told me about Amy King and Michael Tarrou, two flight attendants who had been dating for over two years and were working together that day. She recalled Robert Fangman, a recruit she had met on the first day when she gave a union presentation for new recruits. And she mentioned two gate agents who took flight 175: Marianne MacFarlane and Jesus Sanchez. “They were two of the gate attendants who were picking up everything extra time. They were there everything the weather. They were so much fun,” she said. “I used to joke that every door led to Jesus, because he would see me leaving and close the door, and when I came back to Boston, he would be there to open it.”