Are We Turning Flight Attendants into the Postal Workers of the 21st Century?

Is it just me or are the friendly skies becoming decreasingly friendly as the years roll on? Now, we all know that the events of 9/11 forever raised stress levels for all parties in-flight. But doesn’t it seem as though the past week or so has been particularly dicey in the skies above? This week’s wrap-up is dedicated to the changing reputation of air travel: moving from friendly and innocent to downright bizarre.

Don’t You Dare Call Them Stewardesses

Writing for MSNBC.com this week, Bill Briggs raises the issue that flight attendants are finding their roles ever-expanding and their responsibilities often in conflict. They are greeters. They prepare and serve meals. Pour coffee. Care for ill passengers. Provide comforts of a warm blanket and pillow (sometimes for a “nominal fee”). Prepare for emergencies. Serve as first responders. Enforce the rules in flight. Ensure a safe and comfortable experience. They provide these services, more often than not, with a pleasant smile and demeanor.

As we learned last week, they also have a breaking point. Like any other human being I know, if pushed far enough, they can snap – and in special cases, grab a couple brews before jettisoning to the tarmac below. I mean, how many of us have dreamed of “de-planing” a bit early to avoid the unnecessarily-aggressive mob of a**holes that fly on any given day? Are you with me people?

Editor’s note: Please pardon the salty language, I could only think of one word to properly describe the traveling public.

Folk-hero and former JetBlue employee Steven Slater will most certainly become a future answer to a bar trivia question, but I wonder if his story is a better indicator of a larger problem. In the high-stress world of travel at 35,000 feet, are we asking too much of flight staff? And, are we offering them too little in exchange? In his report, Briggs interviewed a spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, who noted that the average flight attendant earns $35,000 annually with new hires starting at less than $20,000.

Now, I’m no labor expert, but 20-large seems a tad low when you consider (1) their growing range of work responsibilities and (2) the overall stress of their workplace. (As I type this post, I’m watching a story develop about a phone threat grounding and cancelling an American Airlines flight in San Francisco.) This is serious work with a warm smile veneer.

Media Scrutiny Only Makes It Worse

Another consequence of 9/11 is the unceasing, microscopic coverage of all things air travel. Every minute detail of every possible mishap or issue associated with air travel is breaking news in the post-9/11 world. This creates an environment of national scrutiny usually reserved only for Capitol Hill types or those with the last name Kardashian.

Case and point: Beverly Kay McCurley, a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines, made headlines this week. Sensing a problem, she removed a baby girl from her mother after observing the mother striking the child on a flight from Dallas to Albuquerque. Fifteen years ago, this would have been news in Albuquerque, but would it garner coverage from CNN?

Under the microscope, reporters scrutinized McCurley’s statement to police, touching off a debate about whether she had the right to remove the child. The crowd mentality of sensational news media cared less about the facts and more about the “shock and awe” (read: entertainment value) of a controversial question. Ms. McCurley found herself at the center of a media storm that forced her to clarify her statements and ensure that the truth was heard. I sure hope Southwest pays her more than $35,000 after enduring (1) the actual event 15,000 feet over the Western High Plains and (2) the subsequent media frenzy.

Closing the news of the week, it seems as though flight attendants for Delta Air Lines will soon vote on whether they wish to unionize. I hope they’re successful. It seems as though strength in numbers might be exactly what they need.

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3 Responses to Are We Turning Flight Attendants into the Postal Workers of the 21st Century?

  1. seanfindlen says:

    Many thanks for your kind words. I liked your post as well. Sounds like that was quite a trip.

  2. Pingback: Catching Lightning in a Bottle « The Fosbury Flop:

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