Being a Flight Attendant Was a Dream Job. Now It’s a Nightmare.
But mask-defiers create the most problems, and the greatest risks, for flight crews. An attendant with 25 years of airline experience told me about a passenger who repeatedly refused to put a mask on her young daughter. When she deplaned, after the flight attendant said, “Have a good night,” the woman looked her in the eyes and tossed a crumpled mask in her face. Last month, on a Delta flight from Dublin to New York City, a 29-year-old man repeatedly refused to wear a mask, pulled down his pants and exposed his butt, threw a can at a passenger and put his own cap on and off the pilot’s head when the pilot walked through the cabin, according to the F.B.I. Then the man made a 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 up her tray table and wear her mask over her nose, the woman stood up and repeatedly punched the attendant, drawing blood and chipping three of her teeth.
The threats are great enough that Roger, who has been flying for seven years, now avoids working as a lead attendant: The risk and responsibility aren’t worth it. Another attendant who asked me to use his middle name, Wilson, said he won’t sign up for jobs where he would be the sole attendant on smaller planes, like the 50-seater he worked last year when a passenger who was about 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds refused to put on a mask. When Wilson approached him, the man stood up and put his arms and hands out, essentially saying back off. Wilson was stuck 30,000 feet in the air with only pilots behind bulletproof doors to back him up. He reported the incident to the pilot, but when everyone disembarked, the passenger just walked away. “I’m getting all these emails from the airline saying we support you, and then I just felt alone and deflated,” he said. “I’m stuck in a tin can with this guy. It’s not like I can run. I knew he could whale the snot out of me.”
Roger said he has filed more than 30 complaints about unruly passengers and never received a response from the airline. The same with another flight attendant who told me that she has filed 100 reports. In the union’s survey of attendants last year, 71 percent said they received no follow-up from their airlines after filing incident reports, and a majority saw no efforts to address passenger conduct. The Association of Flight Attendants-C.W.A. has called on airlines to improve communications with flight attendants. “Airlines are doing a decent job of forwarding complaints to the F.A.A. for investigations,” Taylor Garland, a spokeswoman for the union, said. “But there’s not a feedback loop with flight attendants.”
When I reached out to several airlines about the issue, they either didn’t address it directly or said they review reports and follow up with the crew member or their flight leader. Some flight attendants told me that these days they either file reports only sporadically or have stopped doing it entirely. They are not only tired but also usually have to file reports during nonworking hours — and they aren’t convinced it makes a difference.
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Flight attendants feel isolated in other ways too. “It used to be that I’d get off a flight in D.C., change out of my uniform, call an Uber and walk around the National Mall and Smithsonian,” Roger told me. “Now I go to the hotel room, order takeout, turn on the TV. I haven’t gone out for a meal with crew for a long time.” He has become, as he says, a “slam clicker.” Those are the crew members who, after the flying day is done, go to the hotel, close the door behind them, click the lock and come out only when the workday starts again. They used to be in the minority, but now flight crews are full of them, either because of their fears of Covid or just exhaustion. And in some cases, they have no choice. In Tokyo and Seoul, prime destinations for senior attendants, flight crews now can’t leave their hotel rooms at all because of national pandemic rules, except for traveling to and from the airport.
I talked to one attendant in January who called in sick because he was burned out after more than a week of 4 a.m. alarms and 14-hour days. Several months earlier he got stuck in Chicago overnight after multiple schedule changes because of delays and last-minute staff shortages. He was stranded in an airport lounge until 3:30 a.m. when his airline found an empty hotel room for him. (He had to wake up at 6 a.m. for a flight home.)
“How much more do they expect for us to take?” Nas Lewis, a flight attendant, said. “We are at our wits’ end.” Last year, when a late-arriving passenger got on an overbooked flight, Lewis, who has flown for seven years, scouted for a possible seat for her. When Lewis found nothing, the passenger yelled at her and shoved her. Lewis didn’t report the incident. “The day was long enough,” she said.