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If you thought it's bad being a plane passenger right now, try being a flight attendant

It's been a horrible few weeks for plane passengers, but how have the multiple incidents affected those working on them? Brad Bernoulli*, a flight attendant for a major US airline, says the skies are not so friendly since the David Dao incident

Brad Bernoulli
Thursday 18 May 2017 15:49 BST
Spare a thought for those working to keep airline travellers happy and safe, says ‘Brad’
Spare a thought for those working to keep airline travellers happy and safe, says ‘Brad’ (Rex)

‘God grant me the serenity to accept the catering I cannot change,

The courage to pour Diet Coke during light chop,

And the wisdom to not end up on the 5 o’clock news’

Two days after the now infamous incident of Dr David Dao being brutally dragged down the aisle, I was setting up my galley for my first flight since the wall-to-wall coverage. My friends at United had already passed on brutal stories about how the situation in the skies had suddenly changed – that passengers were blatantly disregarding crew instructions – and I was praying nothing would happen on my flight to make me end up in the background of the latest grainy cell phone video. Every time a passenger took out a phone to text, send a last-minute email, or update their Facebook status, I hoped the camera would not be trained on me.

Sadly, it didn’t take long. During a chaotic boarding, a passenger grew irate when they got to their seat only to find no space in the overhead locker immediately above it. After a heated exchange and a demonstration of my world-class Tetris skills at moving other bags around, a space appeared several rows back. Unhappy with the outcome, the passenger refused to move his bag from the aisle, preventing the closing of the aircraft doors.

I approached the man again and let him know his options. His response: “What are you going to do, drag me off?”

Behind my much practised, wide smile, I could only think to myself: Oh girl, I certainly won’t be the one dragging you off myself, but you can test your luck with a very surly security officer (whether that’s TSA, local police or airport police – it varies from airport to airport) who I’m sure doesn’t want to be on the 5 o’clock news either.

Let me get this clear: I love almost every aspect of my job as a flight attendant. In a previous life as a government employee, I dealt with many upset or angry constituents – which has stood me in tremendous stead in dealing with the current rash of incidents on various airlines and the increase in passenger boldness. What’s boldness, you ask? It can be anything from walking to the bathroom during turbulence after I’ve reminded you that the seatbelt sign is on and standing up to get your bags while we’re taxiing to the gate, to refusing to stow your bags if you’re seated in a bulkhead, keeping your phone switched on, right down to the most mundane thing possible: buckling your seatbelt for take-off or landing.

I’m not here to talk about specific incidents in the news at the moment – although I do have my views – but I will say it’s very important to note there are two sides to every story, and it’s even more important to hear both sides before coming to a conclusion.

Think of it from my point of view: flight attendants are provided with very limited resources to effectively do our jobs. We’re stuck on a metal tube, hurtling through the atmosphere at 500 miles per hour, with only each other to back us up. And yet it’s almost as if people lose their sense of decency once they smell jet fuel, and forget their manners once the engines start to spool. From full-scale meltdowns when I’ve run out of their meal choice (come on people, it’s chicken or pasta) to asking for a glass of water with a “single, medium-sized ice cube” or the passenger who asked me to chill her Coke with ice, but then strain then out after it was cold enough. From not being able to figure out how to open the lavatory door (push where it says push!) to watching porn during flights, uncontrollable children running amok in economy, the list goes on and on.

It does work both ways, of course. Many of my colleagues across the industry forget how stressful flying is for the general public. I know you’re uncomfortable and poorly fed – believe me, I’d love to bring back the golden era of flying where I could serve surf and turf, free drinks and world-class wine to everyone onboard. But until my company asks the general public to pay $1,000 for an economy ticket on the 90-minute flight from Washington DC to Chicago, that won’t be happening. Gone are the days of plush seats, tranquil boarding – and, it seems, mutual respect between passengers and crew alike.

Many passengers expect the kind of service that disappeared in the 1950s, says our flight attendant (Getty) (Getty Images)

So what has changed in the airline industry? I’m a relative newbie, having started this job last year, but almost everyone I’ve talked to points to one incident: 11 September. Before 9/11, you could practically waltz onto an aircraft, with no TSA lines, aggressive pat downs, or being made to take off your shoes to pass through security. 9/11 brought massive losses to the industry, from which we are still trying to recover; it also changed the culture of air travel forever.

Another important – perhaps the most important – change to air travel is social media. Flying has always been a complicated and messy process. My more seasoned colleagues have stories of out-of-control passengers and ridiculous outbursts; but today, we hear about every single story because someone has a mobile phone, Facebook or Twitter account, plus the burning desire for their 15 minutes of fame. While most viral passenger stories, of course, reflect of true and unpleasant experiences for our guests, there are always people who want the limelight and the quick buck.

You may not believe this, but it’s very hard and exhausting to keep a smile on your face when you have passengers who treat you like crap, complain about power ports, lack of food options, cramped seats, weather, and every little issue. If I had control over any of these items, I certainly wouldn’t be flying four legs a day and explaining over and over that we haven’t had hot meals in coach for the better part of a decade or asking the captain what river we are currently flying over.

Why do all the rules you complain about and their compliance matter, you ask? Because if you are unable to follow instructions on the ground, what on earth makes me think you’ll be responsive up in the air where I have practically no resources at my disposal? In as much as I like to hear my own voice, I don’t make PA announcements for kicks and giggles. There are rhymes to the reason and methods to the madness of a flight attendant. I don’t go into your place of business and argue about which your rules are worth following. I wish you’d do the same in mine.

As we tell you repeatedly as your board our aircraft, flight attendants are here primarily for your safety, but we’ll do our best to make your flight as enjoyable as possible – as long as you do the same for us. So sit back instead of arguing over your middle seat, relax instead of trying to Skype with your “boo” during flight, and hopefully we can all enjoy our journey.

*Name has been changed

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