Fighting flight attendants: Not nearly as funny as it may seem

During the past week, we’ve been treated to two news stories about flight attendants getting into arguments that required their respective flights to head back to the gate.

One argument came on an American Eagle flight that was ready for take off. Ben Mutzabaugh, writing for USA Today‘s travel section, explains how it got started:

Passengers on a New York-to-Washington American Eagle flight were delayed for more than four hours Wednesday after the airline’s attendants got into an argument with each other, according to NBC Washington.

Witnesses tell NBC the spat seemed to begin when one attendant was on her phone. That’s when the flight’s other attendant made this announcement: “Everyone needs to put their phones away, and electronics and so on, including the flight attendant.”

On Wednesday, two attendants on a United Airlines flight got into it soon after take off, necessitating that the plane return to the airport. Mutzabaugh reports again:

A fight between two attendants forced a Chicago-bound United Airlines flight to return to Raleigh/Durham shortly after takeoff this morning, according to The News & Observer of Raleigh.

“Our law enforcement team was notified by the tower that the captain had requested law enforcement to meet the aircraft,” Mindy Hamlin, RDU spokeswoman, tells the News & Observer. “The aircraft had gotten about 50 miles out when he reported a possible assault on the aircraft.”

Flying the stressed-out skies

Fighting flight attendants. It sounds like the stuff of a late-night talk show monologue, doesn’t it?

But before we start making fun, let’s at least acknowledge that since 9/11, working in the passenger aviation industry has become an increasingly stressful job — especially for rank-and-file cabin crews. Layoffs and furloughs have been frequent. A job once associated with glamour and seeing the world has changed dramatically.

Flight attendants now are expected to be the front line eyes and ears against possible terrorism. They must work packed flights of passengers who are surly about going through the TSA security gauntlet and then stuffed onto planes with a beverage and pretzels to tide them over.

In addition to lousier working conditions, their compensation and benefits have been in a free fall. Their unions have been pressed to make major concessions, and airline pension funds have gone bankrupt. These cutbacks and pension fund implosions have occurred despite healthy bonuses given to high-level executives at many major airlines.

I don’t know anything about the individual flight attendants involved in these arguments. And regardless of the stressors they’re facing, the safety risks involved in these behaviors likely justify disciplinary measures.

That said, instead of joking about “cat fights in the air,” we should consider the strong possibility that stressful working conditions and sharp cuts in compensation are fueling tensions between these workers and making it more likely that similar incidents will occur.

4 responses

  1. Good points, as always, David. We all know flying on commercial carriers in the US has become far more stressful. It’s got to be at least that much more stressful on the people who work for the airlines. You hear stories about pilots making McDonalds-type wages and flight attendants, baggage handlers and others losing wages and benefits, too. It’s a wonder worse things haven’t happened.

  2. I encountered some nasty flight attendants in the 1990s who were simply bullies, but also some delightful ones. Just like all other workplaces the bullies make life miserable for everyone else. I am sure that the work is very trying because just like nurses they are always the one to blame for every problem. Having to put up with high stress while getting paid small wages with crappy benefits certainly adds to the tension. Going to college is almost impossible now if you make just enough to get by on and there are very little oportunities to switch to another kind of work.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this article. As a 25 year flight attendant for an airline currently in bankruptcy, I don’t think you nor the traveling public have any idea what it is like on the ” inside “. Let me assure you, it is not pretty. All airline employees are stressed, saddened and beyond angered at what is going on. We have all worked so hard for so long, simply to be stomped down and essentially robbed at gunpoint what we have worked so hard for, and were promised, for that matter. Thank you for bringing the situation to light

    • Mary, thank you! The working conditions and compensation issues facing cabin crew members are a largely untold story. In the meantime, the CEOs keep raking it in, regardless of THEIR performance!

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