If you’ve got the wanderlust bug like I have, I bet you’ve probably considered a career as a fight attendant. Decent pay, incredible perks, plus your screw ups are more like serving decaf when you meant to serve regular and not, you know, crashing a whole damn plane. But like so many things in this world, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned a dream job into a nightmare.
Being a flight attendant is now less charming first-aid master with a drinks cart and a full passport, and more customer service worker with zero power or authority tasked with upholding federal laws while sealed into a metal tube with a few hundred tired, stressed-out-to-the-point-of-fraying assholes. It’s no wonder despair is on the rise in our skies.
Other passengers’ bad behavior reflects a time of receding civility. Like the man who argued with attendants when they told his son to stop vaping. As he was escorted off the plane, he yelled at a flight attendant, “Imagine all of you in body bags.” Or the man who dumped a diaper filled with poop in the beverage cart, ending service for the rest of the flight. “The bathroom was three feet away,” Roger, a flight attendant who asked me to use a nickname that his friends call him, told me. “There was only one family with a baby on the plane, so we asked him. The dad admitted to it, but he never apologized.”
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.
Flight attendants told NYTimes that airlines rarely follow up with attendants who report unruly passengers. While the airlines are passing those reports on to the Federal Aviation Administration the lack of follow up with those on the front lines leave many feeling adrift. One flight attendant started a text line for her fellow distressed workers. An explosion of workers are turning to the Association of Flight Attendants-C.W.A.’s Employee Assistant Program for help with mental illness, work-related trauma and drug abuse.
COVID-19 restrictions and fears often keeps flight attendants isolated in hotel rooms until their next shifts, and COVID-19-related cancelations hit flight attendants particularly hard. Think about how frustrated you get when your flight is delayed or canceled, now imagine that happening to you several times a week, for weeks on end. Now you’re expected to smile through the abuse flung at you by passengers as you try and enforce a federal mandate with all the authority of a barista at Starbucks. That is, if that Starbucks was sealed and 30,000 feet in the air and there was no escape from the people trying to hurt you for doing your job.
Great work, Americans, you’ve ruined another thing. The entire story is depressing, shocking and well worth your time.