The past year has seen a deluge of negative publicity aimed at airlines and airline staff. While many of those complaints were justified, I think it’s time to be fair and to recognize the fine job the majority of flight attendants actually do, and to acknowledge just what a hard job they have.

A few weeks ago, a 23-year-old passenger on a Delta Airlines flight from Seattle to Beijing attempted to open the aircraft’s exit door while at 32,000 feet. Two flight attendants tackled him, but were violently shoved away. As the traveller continued to operate the door mechanism and release handle, the attendants returned only to be punched in the face and hit by a wine bottle. A third flight attendant and several passengers finally managed to subdue him, but only after smashing two wine bottles over his head and strapping him to a seat.

The pilot returned to Seattle, where the offender was forcibly removed by security. He may now face up to 20 years in prison.

Although the difference in air pressure between the interior of the cabin and the outside made it unlikely the culprit would ever have succeeded with his efforts, all praise is still due to the cabin crew who, with the help of a few brave passengers, helped avert a potential catastrophe.

Living the High Life

If being a flight attendant was ever a glamorous profession, that arguably ended in the 1960s when pillbox hats, leopard-skin handbags and ivory-filtered cigarettes went out of fashion—and even then I suspect it was a lot of work for a little thrill.

Not to mention the ordeal of being locked in a metal tube, breathing in not just everyone else’s exhalations for hours on end, but also the clouds of cigarette smoke that permeated airline cabins until just two decades ago.

Certainly, since the 1990s, glamour has been in short supply. No matter how appealing it may be to have a few paid days in a nice hotel in Paris, Rio or Hong Kong each month, working four flights a day between Bismarck and Fargo in winter doesn’t quite match up.

All of that said, no one was ever forced to become a flight attendant. Like many other professions, flight attendants chose their jobs, and like everything else in life, you make your bed and lie in it.

Or, in their case, you make a bed in first class, and someone else lies in it.

vintage stewardess photo

Old-school cool: a vintage Pan American flight attendant from the 1960s. (cheelah/Flickr Creative Commons)

More than a Waitress

Being a flight attendant is a physically, emotionally and mentally tiring job. Too many people perceive flight attendants as nothing more than airborne waiters and waitresses, and treat them with indifference at best, and arrogant dismissal at worst. The only difference is that while waiters and waitresses get tips at the end of the meal, flight attendants are lucky to get a “thank you” as most of us leave an aircraft. Plus, most wait staff don’t have to worry about terrorists, fires, bird strikes and medical emergencies.

Or people attempting to open doors at 32,000 feet.

As anyone who has ever worked in customer service knows, the public can be very difficult.

Overall, I think most people are naturally nice, and even when things go wrong, as long as you make a genuine effort to help, they’ll take problems graciously. But there are customers who’ll never be happy and are just there to either get something free or to make everyone’s life miserable.

And while there’s never an excuse for lousy customer service in any customer-service position, there are also passengers who don’t understand the difference between being onboard an aircraft and sitting in their neighbourhood coffee shop. And there is a very big difference.

For a start, if someone causes a stir in a restaurant, managers or staff can call the police, who will be there within minutes. If someone causes a stir in an aircraft, help could be hours away.

In addition, if there’s a problem in a restaurant, other patrons can simply up and leave. Not an option on an aircraft—and in an environment that includes people who suffer from claustrophobia, very real fears of flying or who are travelling for unwelcome reasons, it’s everyone’s responsibility to act maturely and sensibly.

Stakes are as High as the Altitude

In many ways, an airliner is the ultimate test of trust and faith in humanity. With just a handful of (unarmed) staff to attend to perhaps 400 passengers for up to 16 hours, there is an unspoken rule that the average passenger will not step out of line.

Sure, the threat of arrest, imprisonment and a lifetime flight ban at the next airport is a pretty good incentive, but there’s more than that. There’s a social expectation that all passengers will act responsibly and decently, and be respectful of their fellow passengers (their fellow human beings!) and airline staff.

Unfortunately, when something does go wrong—whether it be major, like an assault or someone attempting to open a door, or relatively minor, like some thin-skinned flier with odorous feet removing their shoes—it’s the flight attendant that stands between decorum and airborne anarchy.

Having said that, it also goes without saying not all attendants are paragons of selfless professionalism. Although they may spend their lives flitting about the heavens, they’re definitely not all angels.

Like everyone else, flight attendants have their good days and their bad days. Some may be job-weary or past their best-before dates (professionally-speaking, not age-wise!); but given the peculiar circumstances of the social experiment of being confined onboard an aircraft, flight attendants have a very difficult job that deserves recognition, not condescension.

Remember: it’s not the flight attendant’s fault that your bags were lost on your last flight, or that this flight is late, or that the baby seated in front of you is teething, or the one behind you has mistaken your seat-back for a soccer ball. Flights attendants did not design the cabin that left nowhere for your knees or elbows to rest comfortably, nor is it their fault everyone ahead of you picked the good food, leaving you only the minced-liver salad.

However, should you genuinely have a negative customer-service experience, by all means feel free to report it to the onboard cabin service director. If that doesn’t work, ensure you robustly follow up with the airline once back on the ground—just not while in the air!

Otherwise, if all goes well, the next time you fly, spare a moment to really thank the cabin crew as you leave the aircraft. Who knows—if everyone took that opportunity, perhaps we’d all have a better flying experience.

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