Industry turmoil takes toll on flight crews

August 23, 2005|By Christopher Elliott | Christopher Elliott,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Skip Bowman didn't see it coming. Otherwise he would have raised his hands to ward off the impact, or at least ducked.

Bowman, a composer and musician from Portland, Ore., had boarded a flight home from Houston recently and noticed his seat did not have a pillow. So he asked a flight attendant for one.

She instructed him to swipe it from another seat. That didn't seem right to him. "Then she grabbed a pillow herself," he recalled. "And she threw it at me."

Things are getting a little tense on commercial flights these days. And no wonder. As the busiest summer in the history of commercial aviation winds down, many crew members have reached a breaking point. Overworked, underappreciated, worried about job security as one airline after another struggles to avoid bankruptcy, they are showing an emotional side that is taking passengers like Bowman aback.

"Airlines are constantly making work more stressful for the flight attendant with increased duty time, inadequate rest periods, and understaffed flights," said Corey Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the 46,000-member Association of Flight Attendants.

While no one keeps track of the number of thrown pillows or rude comments from flight attendants, plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that their mood is darker than it has ever been. Several months ago, I was flying from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Dallas with my infant son. When I asked a purser to point me to a restroom with a changing station, she just rolled her eyes.

"I wouldn't know," she sniffed. "I don't do babies."

Such an exchange would have been unthinkable before airline deregulation. Now, passengers like me who are scolded by an airline employee almost feel lucky that they aren't also escorted from the plane and thrown into a security force holding cell.

"When flight attendants have nothing to be happy about, they stop caring," said James Wysong, a flight attendant and author of the book Air Travel Tales From the Flight Crew: The Plane Truth at 35,000 Feet, writing under the wryly chosen pseudonym A. Frank Steward. He cites recent cuts in pay and benefits as the main reasons his colleagues have turned hostile. "An airline employee's job dissatisfaction is passed on to the consumer," Wysong said. "You can hardly kick someone in the posterior and expect them to pass on a smile."

Flight attendant Sharon Wingler described this summer as "the perfect storm" for her profession. "We've all taken pay cuts and many of our companies are struggling to survive," she said. "We fear losing our pensions - if we haven't already lost them. We're working more flights for less money, the flights are full, and summer is the season of amateur travelers - the infrequent fliers who are appropriately dressed for washing their car."

And we're not exactly in a happy mood, either. Sure, airline employees have to put up with us, but we have to endure long lines, even longer delays, crowded airports, crowded cabins, perfunctory service, and poor or nonexistent food.

"Many airline passengers are angry these days," said Elliott Hester, a flight attendant who wrote the book Plane Insanity: A Flight Attendant's Tales of Sex, Rage and Queasiness at 30,000 Feet. "They wait in long lines. They rarely get food on the plane, and when they do, it's served at a cost. I can't tell you how many times I've been yelled at by a passenger who simply expected some food on a long flight."

How to defuse this mile-high standoff? Bowman avoided a pillow fight and vowed to "develop a thicker skin" as a traveler. He said he would think twice before asking an attendant for help again.

Humor can take the edge off a tense situation, too. Allowing flight attendants to practice their stand-up comedy routines does wonders for airlines like Southwest and Song. And having a flight attendant sing an in-flight safety announcement makes her seem more like an in-flight MC than an enforcer.

But laughter will get you only so far. The Federal Aviation Administration recently conducted a study on flight attendant fatigue and promised to release it in June, according to the Association of Flight Attendants. So far, it has not. Caldwell, the union spokeswoman, says her constituents are being pushed beyond their limits.

But don't expect relief anytime soon. As long as the industry keeps bleeding red ink, its dwindling work force is going to continue to sport that harried look. And as long as planes are filled to the bursting point, passengers are going to get grumpier and grumpier.

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