As airlines cope with the mass reopening of travel routes and a rise in unruly passenger behaviour, a growing number of US airline staff have reported experiencing depression, with some saying they’ve had suicidal thoughts.
An Association of Flight Attendants survey of nearly 5,000 crew this summer found that 85 per cent had dealt with disruptive passengers this year; of those incidents, 17 per cent had escalated to physical altercations.
The study also found that 71 per cent of crew who filed incident reports with their airline said they received no follow up action.
A majority of respondents said they saw no efforts to counteract the rise in passenger aggression.
“This survey confirms what we all know, the vitriol, verbal and physical abuse from a small group of passengers is completely out of control, and is putting other passengers and flight crew at risk,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants.
“What’s been happening on the plane is just completely at odds with what we know and feel about our jobs. It’s confusing, it’s frustrating, it’s sometimes terrifying – but also not something we can accept as a new normal.”
The results of the AFA survey tally with the anecdotes received by Nas Lewis, a flight attendant who started the Facebook group “thAIRapy” – a place for those in the industry to vent and share experiences.
Drawing on the experiences of the more than 4,000 members in the group, Lewis told Yahoo! that she’d seen a worrying rise in mentions of depression and burnout from airline staff.
“So many flight attendants [tell] me, ‘Oh my gosh, I need a therapist’ or... ‘I’m really feeling suicidal,’” she says.
“Just last week, a foreign student came on and she was like, ‘I need help. I’m broke. I really don’t feel like I’m going to live anymore.’”
She said that members of the group had seen little support and regard for crew members who had “basically saved the industry” last year.
“Talking about mental health in my profession is a big conflict of interest," says Lewis.
“[Airlines] don’t want the liability of [passengers knowing] that your flight attendants are suffering, and they’re committing suicide. They don’t want us to say those things. But I’ve been saying it.”
During the pandemic, the industry has seen the rise of “mask rage” on flights – just last week Iata reported that unruly passenger incidents had doubled in 2020, with the trend continuing into 2021.
One member airline reported 1,000 incidents of non-compliance in a single week.
Twenty years ago, “every single person who came on our plane was completely on our team,” Sara Nelson recently told the New York Times. Now, she says, flight attendants have become “punching bags for the public”.
Sometime, quite literally: in October, an American Airlines flight bound for John Wayne Airport in Orange County was diverted to Denver after one of the passengers physically attacked a flight attendant.
The US’s Federal Airline Association (FAA) recorded 4,600 incidents between January and early October 2021 – 72 per cent of which related to non-compliance with the country’s federal mandate to wear a mask on all planes and in airports.
The airline body has levied more than $1m (£842,530) in fines against disruptive passengers in 2021.
Southwest Airlines’ chief operating officer, Mike Van de Ven, spoke out in August, telling employees he was aware that the pandemic had “taken a toll on our operation and put a significant strain on all of you. And for that, I am sincerely sorry.”
An American Airlines spokesperson told Yahoo!: “We offer all American Airlines team members and their families access to mental health support through our Employee Assistance Program.
“This includes opportunities for virtual, phone and in-person support through on-site counsellors at several of our locations.”
A Delta spokesperson said: “Delta in recent years has invested in expanded access to and coverage of mental health resources for all of our people.
“We have long held that civility in our airports and on our flights is a hallmark of our values-led culture and we thank our flight attendants for the safety-professional role they play to ensure an enjoyable, reliable and comfortable experience for our customers on every Delta flight.”
Lewis says that many cabin crew want to persevere and feel happier in their careers, but employer support and aviation reform is crucial to that happening.
“We love our jobs,” she says. “All we want to do is actually be transparent about what’s going on.”
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