Can we take a moment to appreciate the hard work of flight attendants? Consider the interference they have run this past year, enforcing COVID-19 requirements appropriately mandated by their employers but too often resisted by some of their passengers. Overlay this on the usual work they have, comforting travelers and keeping them safe. They are the face of the airline for most people, charged with representing the organization. When they feel tired or overworked, they still have to push through that fatigue and project a reassuring, helpful attitude in the aisles of the aircraft. It is a rewarding career for many, but it is also an extremely difficult job.
I hope the poor behavior of late has peaked with the recent story of a flight attendant struck in the face so hard that she lost two teeth. Fortunately, another passenger stepped in to help her and the assailant was eventually arrested, but this news is sadly part of a pattern of passenger resistance during the pandemic—unleashed on frontline employees who never control policies like mask mandates but still must administer them.
I used to work in the airline industry myself, and I am deeply familiar with the various tiers and hierarchies of employment, the responsibilities of mechanics, pilots, ticket agents, managers, and executives. Believe me when I say there is no one in that industry who works harder than a flight attendant. Outside of work, I am also a seasoned traveler; in fact, it is one of the deepest joys of my life to fly and visit friends around the world. Part of what makes my experience in flight so pleasant is the reassuring presence of the flight attendant, that human connection to the airline. Flight attendants are experts at pacing and sequencing a flight in ways that make hours seem like minutes. If you treat them with respect, they will go out of their way to help you. What’s more, most of them genuinely enjoy interacting with passengers.
Many of them are veterans of the skies, working for many years as employers over the decades have sensibly shifted their qualification criteria away from youth and more toward experience. The average age of a flight attendant is around forty-four, and the average salary is around $50,000. While more and more men are joining the ranks, the profession is still dominated by women, who represent 75 percent of the workforce. All flight attendants require training and FAA certification—depending on the airline, this can last up to six months—and much of that training revolves around safety and emergency procedures, flight regulations, and first aid. In other words, they’re not just serving drinks and handing out peanuts. If there is an emergency, you will depend on them for your life, and their intensive training can ensure that you emerge unscathed.
My mother—one of the strongest, most even-keeled women I have ever known—was a flight attendant with United in the early ’60s. Back then, they were called “hostesses” or, at best, “stewardesses,” and they were exclusively women, as well as exclusively unmarried. While ageism was prevalent in the profession at that time, there were still the same expectations for the flight attendant to be medically trained, familiar with the aircraft, and expert in emergency regulations. It was obviously a different era, more rife with sexist behavior, but flight attendants were nonetheless expected to manage passengers and enforce safety measures. Occasionally, even my mother encountered a difficult passenger who proved to be too recalcitrant: On one occasion, she had to call the pilot back in order to keep Jerry Lewis (yes, that Jerry Lewis) from climbing into the overhead bin as a gag.
Most of us are good passengers on a flight, surrounded by other good passengers. When we reach our destination, we’ll describe the trip to friends who are curious and say it was “uneventful.” We just flew, and we got where we were going. For the most part, we want our flights to be uneventful. But behind that unremarkable word is the incredibly hard work of the flight attendant. It’s easy to take that work for granted, but we never should. We need to respect their professionalism, their accessibility, and their genuine interest in our safety and comfort.