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Flight Attendants: The Glamour is Gone

Flight attendants once reflected the glamour of air travel, serving four-course meals, chatting with passengers and globetrotting. Now with lower pay, greater responsibilities and little respect, they are the public face of a stressed-out airline industry.

When first-class passenger John Reed quietly asked for orange juice with his meal on a flight from Dallas to Sacramento in December 2009, he got a loud lecture from a sharp-tongued flight attendant instead. When the frequent flier later suggested that her reaction was inappropriate, Reed didn’t get an apology but a letter on the spot stating that he was an unruly passenger in possible violation of federal law. Outraged fellow passengers vouched to airline representatives that Reed hadn’t done anything wrong, but to little avail. The mere issuance of such a letter sparks an investigation by multiple federal agencies.

Unruly passenger citations are rare: Less than 100 were issued last year, down from a high of 304 in 2004, and meltdowns like the flight attendant’s on Reed’s flight are even rarer. But anyone who has removed his shoes, belt and jacket at security, struggled to find overhead space or handed over $5 for a bag of chips knows that airline service isn’t what it used to be. And no wonder: Airlines have spent the past decade slashing pay and gutting benefits, while instructing cabin crew to hawk everything from headphones and sodas to credit cards, even holding in-flight raffles to raise revenue. The government, meanwhile, demands that flight attendants be the last line of defense against terrorists, as well as police passengers with flu-like symptoms. By grappling with passenger carry-on bags, enjoying prolonged exposure to poor-quality air and ensuring cabin safety in emergencies, flight attendants have on-the-job injury rates comparable to those of miners and construction workers. Then, as if that weren’t enough, the FAA slaps them with personal fines of $500 or more if they forget to tell you to turn off your electronic devices before takeoff or landing.

“It is not the glamour job it used to be in a lot of ways, but you don’t have the glamorous passengers, either. You get the Greyhound Bus people, because flying is so cheap,” says Wendy Stafford, a former flight attendant who runs Flight Attendant Express, a three-week preparation course for cabin-crew wannabes. “Flight-attendant jobs don’t pay extremely well, [and] in the beginning, you have to be on call until you get seniority, so you don’t know where you’ll be from one day to the next.”

Stafford has prepped some 3,000 people in 11 years of running her program. Despite the downsides of the job, so many people want to be flight attendants that only 5 to 10 percent of applicants are accepted. “There is a mystique attached to it, being able to travel at will all over the world [for free, on standby] and meet people,” she explains. Still, early burnout is very common, thanks to new hires’ having to fly “reserve,” the on-call status that can last for as long as 10 years at some of the major legacy carriers.

On some regional carriers that operate legs for multiple major carriers, burnout rates are as high as 90 percent for first-year employees, according to the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the 55,000-strong union of American cabin crew members.

Many industry watchers peg the decline in service to 2001, when terrorism sent airline revenues reeling and added a new, stressful layer of security to the flying experience for passengers. On top of their primary safety function, flight attendants now need to actively defend the aircraft, yet Congress mandates no counterterrorism training for them. In addition to ensuring that passengers have a safe flight, today’s flight attendants must also help raise revenue, adding an unwelcome facet to the job description. Worst of all, the airline bankruptcies that followed 9/11 sparked net layoffs of 100,000 airline employees, as well as the slashing of flight-attendant pay and benefits. At United Airlines, for instance, cabin crew make the same salaries now as they did in 1994, but with weaker benefits, says Bill McGlashen, a union spokesperson and 20-year veteran flight attendant with US Airways. “When pay was established [at legacy carriers], it was a good, middle-class job.” But not anymore, he adds. “You see the retreat, and it is clear. Pensions have been frozen, there have been vacation cuts and others beyond the surface wage cuts. It’s been a very, very bad decade for flight attendants.”

According to some observers, the decline in flight-attendant benefits and the concurrent drop in airline customer service have been by design. “The airlines never wanted this profession to be a full-time profession,” says Dr. Drew Whitelegg, an academic and the author of Working the Skies: The Fast-Paced, Disorienting World of the Flight Attendant (NYU Press, 2007). “They didn’t want the pensions, the seniority. They wanted the sexy stewardess. Remember, in the 1970s, that was a competitive weapon,” Whitelegg adds, noting the provocative—and successful—ad campaigns such as Braniff’s “striptease” and National Airline’s “Fly Me.” Essentially, airlines would like to return the job to a time when attractive twenty-somethings worked for five years, then moved on to something else. This would mean lower labor costs, with the side benefit of good-looking people working the aisles. If that sounds a little outlandish, it isn’t: Some domestic airlines have started introducing five-year service contracts for individuals. When the contract is up, you’re out. Asian carriers do this frequently. Singapore Airlines’ flight attendants “retire” after 10 years, around age 33. That’s not the only reason Singapore rates so highly for customer service (the carrier also regularly rotates its crews out to study wine with experts like Steve Spurrier, for instance), but it appears to lure enough business customers that Thai Airways recently began buying out its female flight attendants over age 45.

Yet for those flight attendants who can accept the low pay and deal with the uncertain future of the unhealthy airline industry, there is still a lot to love about the job. “I expected people to be grumpier, and I am really finding that to be a minority,” says Kim Oglesby, a flight attendant with Mesaba Airlines, who started the job mid-2008 after raising her children. “I don’t know if any of my flights are typical. It’s always changing—every mix of passengers is a grab bag.” Her favorite story is about an 89-year-old, wheelchair-bound passenger named Maggie who was flying from Des Moines to Minneapolis to catch a connection for Christmas. A blizzard diverted the plane to Wisconsin, turning a two-hour flight into an eight-hour odyssey. Oglesby accompanied Maggie into the Wisconsin terminal, bought her a cheeseburger, phoned her family and made sure she got another connecting flight. The grateful passenger now sends Oglesby handmade cards and photos. “It was such a rewarding experience—this lady shared her life story with me, and I got to be a part of helping her go home.”

Even with severe cutbacks in the airline industry, there are still times when service can turn a bad situation into a good one. But apparently not as often as it used to.

BRENDAN COFFEY is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers business and travel.

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