Prepare flight attendants to tackle today's air dangers

February 05, 2002|By Christine Negroni

NEW YORK - By inviting the flight attendants who foiled Richard Reid's attempt to blow up an American Airlines jet in December to his State of the Union address, President Bush acknowledged the contribution flight attendants can make to air security and safety. But in the rush to federalize airport screeners and arm pilots with stun guns, it's time to make sure hiring standards and training for flight attendants reflect their significant role.

In the early days of commercial aviation, stewardesses were registered nurses. They were hired to reassure passengers about what was, in reality, a fairly risky mode of transportation.

Over the years, expectations changed. Today's flight attendant tries to dispel the notion that the job is all about serving drinks and pretzels and making sure your seat back is in its upright and fully uncomfortable position for landing.

That they have not been terribly successful in changing that perception is illustrated by the sometimes shocking way travelers treat them - each year hundreds report being assaulted by passengers - and the way airlines compensate them, with starting salaries of about $18,000 a year.

Flight attendants will tell you that safety and security have always been their highest priorities, but even they admit they are unprepared to handle the kind of responsibilities resulting from Sept. 11.

Which is why the Federal Aviation Administration presented the airlines with sweeping new guidelines for flight crew security training several days ago. The FBI is working on parts of it, and details are secret. But in broad strokes, flight attendants will be learning the kinds of fight-back techniques Hermis Moutardier and Cristina Jones put into such positive effect on discovering Reid and his explosive sneakers on a flight from Paris to Miami.

Flight attendants soon will be participating in simulated hijacking situations conducted on real jetliners. Self-defense, storage and use of nonlethal weapons, updated information on how to recognize a wide variety of bombs and what to do next - all are expected to be part of the new curriculum. On some regional airlines, flight attendants are already conducting preflight cabin inspections.

This is a dramatic departure from a 20-year-old policy that taught flight crews to passively comply with hijacker demands.

Reviewing the role of flight attendants was born of security concerns, but there are good reasons to enlist them in efforts to improve air safety as well.

I sit on an FAA committee looking into hazards associated with aging aircraft wiring. Recently, we debated the value of teaching flight attendants to identify and properly report the kind of minor cabin events like flickering lights or a burning smell that might be symptomatic of more serious problems. Pilots are no longer available to help them distinguish which sounds and smells are normal because, except in extreme situations, they're required to remain locked in the cockpit. For that matter, the pilots won't be helping flight attendants open jammed cabinets anymore, either.

If one agrees with Jeff Zack, spokesman for the Association of Flight Attendants, that the more flight attendants know, the safer everyone on the airplane is, then advancing their training will be a positive development. Further, in the troubled world of commercial aviation, it's good news when solutions can be found using existing resources in new and innovative ways.

Of course, not all flight attendants will welcome such fundamental changes in the job description. Some have already decided to look for less dangerous work, and who can blame them? In hiring their replacements, airlines should consider applicants who are willing to be equal parts bouncer, handyman and nurse.

After all, once the luggage has been screened, the passengers patted down and the cockpit door closed and locked, we are left alone in what is, frankly, once again a scary environment, with just the flight attendants to turn to if things go wrong.

Christine Negroni, an aviation writer, is the author of Deadly Departure: Why the Experts Failed to Prevent the TWA Flight 800 Disaster and How It Could Happen Again (HarperCollins, 2000). She is a member of the FAA's Aging Transport Systems Rulemaking Advisory Committee.

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