Can flight attendants and pilots ride out their job turbulence?
Poor wage numbers don’t tell the whole story, Herbst says. “The airline industry as far as labor goes is stretched to the limits,” he says, with fewer employees—there are 26,000 fewer working flight attendants now than in 2000, he says—having to deal with more passengers. “In ten years, we’ve gone from an average of 60 percent [of seats filled] to 85 percent.” At the same time, some airlines have employed tactics to lower the number of flight attendants on board. Because the FAA mandates how many attendants must be on a flight based on the number of seats, not passengers, an airline may be able to slash that required number by removing a single row of seats from each plane.
Job complaints also come from the recent string of airline mergers. For flight crews, seniority is everything. It determines your pay, the flights you work and more. And unlike in other careers, where your hard-earned experience travels with you from job to job, when pilots and flight attendants go to a different airline, they often start in a lower position.
Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, a Washington, D.C.–based union, says when airlines merge, it’s up to the unions to determine how seniority shakes out. The AFA goes by date of hire. While one of the most fair methods, the end result can’t please everyone. Look at it this way: If you’ve been working for an airline for ten years and suddenly gain dozens of colleagues who have 15 years of experience, you’re moving down a few rungs. That means when Southwest merged with AirTran in 2011, some employees were, essentially, demoted. The same may happen as United finishes its merger with Continental, and if the pending merger between US Airways and American Airlines goes through.
I sympathize with the repercussions for affected attendants; those lowest on the totem pole will be given the worst seat position on the plane—the middle of the aircraft, where there’s nowhere to hide from passengers.
And let’s acknowledge the elephant in the cabin: Tension between flight attendants and passengers runs high. “After 9/11 for about a year, passengers were more respectful to us,” Chad says. “Now they see us as an annoyance and roll their eyes and sigh during the safety briefing.… [Boarding] is the worst part of the whole flight. It ends up being this huge clusterfuck,” he says, with passengers insisting it’s his job to put their heavy bags in the overhead bin (it is, per United) even though he’s not covered medically by United if he hurts his back (injuries incurred on the job are typically covered by workers’ compensation, the United rep says). “Since when did Hefty bags become acceptable as a carry-on?” he adds.
“Allen,” 52, a pilot for a large regional airline for the last 26 years, recalls a flight he was on as a passenger in which the oxygen masks came down because the pressurization failed: “Half the people couldn’t figure out how to put them on because they weren’t paying attention to the briefing. You should have seen the flight attendants scrambling to make sure everybody was breathing,” he says.
“I don’t totally blame the passengers,” Edward says. “It’s the way the airlines have made it for them. There’s no customer service anymore.” Add to that the lack of food—for those too young to remember, a full hot meal or, on shorter flights, a cold one, used to be the norm on most flights—probing TSA screenings, a decrease in open seats due to fewer flights, and the increase in fees, including those for baggage, headsets and “upgrades” for aisle and window seats, which can add hundreds of dollars to the original ticket price for families that want to sit together, and it’s no wonder passengers are fed up by the time they get on the plane. “Most people feel like meat on a seat,” says Hanni of FlyersRights.org.
Christine Negroni, an aviation writer and former airplane safety investigator says to fix these problems, airlines need to come up with innovative ways to make money—perhaps adopt a burgeoning Air New Zealand program, in which passengers would be given free Wi-Fi and a portion of any in-air shopping revenue would go to the airline?—as well as improve communication to passengers.
Passengers, though, need to get more realistic about their expectations and get rid of the entitlement attitude, she argues. “I don’t go into the fitting room at Marshalls and expect someone’s going to come in and ask if I need help. If I want that, I go to Saks. If you want to be treated well on an airline, buy a business or first-class ticket.”
Herbst contends that passengers need to accept an enormous fare hike to account for major fuel-price increases. “If airfares were adjusted for inflation over the last 20 years, they would be twice what they are today,” he says. “The media tends to give the traveling public the idea that airline travel is supposed to be some low-cost mass-transit system. Not everyone was meant to get on an airplane.”
Hanni bristles at that statement. “It’s insane for anyone in the airline industry to blame the passenger,” she says. “I don’t know a business on the planet that could operate that way and sustain itself.… Flight attendants’ jobs have gotten much worse over the years, but to blame the customers for the problem? That’s outrageous.”
In February, with pushes from Hanni’s organization, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Safety Improvement Act of 2012, which puts into action much of the long-awaited Airline Passenger Bill of Rights, including a mandate for more realistic scheduling to minimize delays and a requirement to tell passengers which baby seats can safely buckle into which aircraft. But what would a Flight Attendant Bill of Rights look like? Based on my conversations with flight crews, it might include:
1. Increase starting wages to something decently above poverty level. If your company is paying its execs $16 million, you can afford it.
2. If we are required to be in the airport, we should be getting paid—delays included.
3. Nix the minor infractions that can get us written up and fired. Forgetting the belt on our uniform really isn’t that big of a deal.
4. Give us jurisdiction to bend FAA rules in times of crisis.
That last one especially could make a huge difference, perhaps allowing a flight crew to move passengers inside rather than keep everyone captive on the tarmac in the case of last-minute delays. As Hanni puts it, based on personal experience: “If you’re going to hold people for nine hours on the ground, with the toilets overflowing, is that even human?”
Additional reporting by Marissa Conrad.