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Flight Attendants Keep The Peace On The Fly

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American Airlines flight attendant Suzanne Moore has a strategy for dealing with passengers who won’t turn off their cell phones.
She tells them that their flight has been selected for a test, and “in five seconds we will flip a new switch, which will cause any electronic devices that are on to self-destruct.” Moore says this is “a flat-out lie but extremely effective.”
Cell phone fiends, enormous carry-on bags, lavatory smokers and passengers going ballistic because there aren’t any pillows — these are the baggage of a flight attendant’s life in these testy times.
“I was promised glamour,” says Moore, who is based in Fort Worth. “Now I go to work as law enforcement. I am a baby sitter making sure passengers don’t fight. I am a nagging wife telling people to turn off electronics. I am at work 13 hours with sometimes eight hours off before I do it all again — do it all again for 30 percent less than I made in 2002.”
Deep breath.
“I still like my job,” Moore says.
Her sentiments are echoed by many flight attendants. Most saw their pay cut after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and are now coping with passengers cranky about having to pay for food and checked bags.
The situation perhaps reached its nadir last month, when during a United Airlines flight from Puerto Rico to Chicago, a flight crew duct-taped an unruly passenger to her seat.
“The job is more demanding; the passengers are more stressed,” says Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants, the flight attendants’ union. “And if you compare it to 10 years ago, flight attendants work more for less money.” She said the average pay for a flight attendant is $33,500, though pay can vary widely.
Flight attendants say their job got harder when airlines decided to charge for checked bags. Passengers not only drag behemoth bags onto the plane; they often expect the flight attendants to heave them into the overhead bins.
“You know those sizing things they have in the departure lounge, where you can put your suitcase in to see if it fits?” asks JetBlue flight attendant Nisa Mrizek, who lives in Austin but is based out of Boston. “Have you ever seen anybody use one? I haven’t.” She says she’ll help passengers with big bags but won’t risk injury by lifting the bags herself.
Irritation might be high, but reports of unruly-passenger incidents aren’t going up. In fact, they’re going down. Cabin crew reports of unruly passengers to the Federal Aviation Administration hit a high of 304 in 2004 but totaled only 147 in 2007.
This year, there were 78 complaints as of September, and if that trend holds, this year will show fewer unruly passengers than last. These reports are entirely voluntary; there is no set of criteria compelling a crew to produce a report.
The other reporting system, also voluntary, is through NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System. From January 2007 through August 2008 there were 15 reports filed on an array of incidents, including passengers with overheated batteries, passengers stampeding to the lavatory during taxi for takeoff, passengers refusing to turn off cell phones and passengers staging a near-riot after the temperature in the plane hit 100 during a mechanical repair. Then there was the guy who urinated on a beverage cart because the lavatory was occupied.
Annoying stuff. Still, 15 reports in nearly two years isn’t many.
“The numbers aren’t accurate,” Caldwell says. “There are no reporting standards. What’s reported is the worst of the worst.”
Do today’s flight attendants have it tougher than their predecessors? Not to hear the veteran flight attendants talk.
The first flight attendants, called hostesses, were nurses. The very first was Ellen Church, who flew from Oakland to Chicago on Boeing Air Transport in 1930. She and other early hostesses not only had to be registered nurses, they also had to be willing to help push the plane into the hangar. They made $125 a week.
Winifred Holmes of Meadowlakes went to work as a hostess for Trans-World Airlines in 1946. She says the cabins of the McDonnell Douglas DC-3 she flew in weren’t pressurized, much less air-conditioned, and she dispensed Chiclets to passengers so their ears wouldn’t pop.
Pamela Meyners of Georgetown, who was a Continental flight attendant for 37 years, sums up her career this way: “I fought fires, cared for passengers who had medical emergencies at 37,000 feet, handled disgruntled and disorderly passengers, quieted screaming babies, soothed frightened unaccompanied children, served drinks and meals in the most horrible turbulence, dealt with threats and abuse from drunks as well as serving some of the most delightful people in the world.”
Meyners’ flying career started in 1969. At that time, flight attendants had to walk the aisles, even during turbulence, in suits and heels, sometimes serving entire meals during flights of less than an hour. They had to meet strict weight restrictions, and they could not marry.
“We wore white gloves, spiked heels and girdles,” says Toni Spalding of Austin, who flew for Pan American in the ’70s. “They would check to make sure we were wearing girdles.”
Then, in the ’80s, Southwest Airlines introduced hot pants and boots. Michelle Crum, who became a Southwest stewardess — by then the term — in 1981 and now trains them at Southwest’s Dallas headquarters, keenly recalls those high-heeled brown boots.
“My feet hurt,” she says. ” I never knew what dogs barking meant until then.”
Shortly after Crum joined Southwest, it added a wraparound skirt over the hot pants. In the mid-’80s, men joined the cabin crew, the name changed to flight attendants, and the Southwest uniform became slacks and shirts.
Other airlines also began allowing their flight attendants to dress more comfortably. High heels and girdles went away (after all, men couldn’t be required to wear them). Weight restrictions were phased out, too.
But Crum remembers her early days of flying fondly, saying the passengers, mostly men traveling for business, were kind and genteel.
“Everything was much more relaxed,” she says. “It used to be fun. The public has changed. We’ve gone from (passengers wearing) ties and business suits to asking somebody to turn their shirt inside out because there’s a profanity on it. We still maintain our upbeat spirit, though. We still try to make it fun.”
“The challenges are greater,” says American Airlines Chicago-based flight attendant Kevin McGuinness, who has flown for 30 years, “but the heart of it hasn’t changed. It’s still about safety. We’re moving so many more people now, and they come on board with a lot of anxieties. Sometimes people don’t want an answer. They just want to vent. You just do your best and say a lot of ‘I’m sorrys.’ ”
American Airlines New York-based flight attendant Sharon Wilson, who’s been flying for 22 years, agrees.
“I love doing what I do,” Wilson says, citing time flexibility; she can put together a whole month off by trading work days with other flight attendants. “You just have to have a sense of humor.”
That strategy seems to be working. When the American-Statesman asked passengers and flight attendants to send in anecdotes about their interaction, most of their tales were upbeat.
Passengers wrote about flight attendants giving them free wine, calming their fear of flying and playing with their children. Flight attendants wrote about passengers who took the trouble to thank them. A few passengers and flight attendants liked each other enough to wind up married.
Flight attendants wrote of meeting celebrities (Al Pacino did a hearty “Hoo-Wah”; Tippi Hedren asked where her salmon was caught) and presidents.
Of course, there were some complaints. One passenger wrote about a flight attendant who barricaded herself in a lavatory. Another is still mad at a flight attendant who dogged the passenger to take her seat, even though her massive seatmates hadn’t left her any room to squeeze in. Flight attendants and passengers alike had stories of alcohol-induced passenger misbehavior.
But most, by far, were positive reports — they’re all on with this story — and flight attendants say that even when a passenger gets riled, duct tape is rarely necessary. The situation, they say, can usually be defused with a friendly gesture.
“You smile, you bring somebody a cookie or cup of water,” Mrisek says. “Even people that are upset from delays or a long day of flying with children, you can change their whole day.”

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