Air rage

Can flight attendants and pilots ride out their job turbulence?

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Illustration: Jason Lee

‘Is there a doctor onboard?” is something you never want to hear on an airplane, let alone be the one asking it. But as the lead flight attendant on a trip from Florida to Chicago in 1995, it was my job to shout for a medic when an elderly woman, concerned about her husband, pushed the emergency call button near her seat. Fortunately, there was a doctor able to monitor the man—who had most likely suffered a heart attack—until the plane made an emergency landing in Kentucky, so the other attendants and I didn’t need to administer medical aid. I never found out what happened after we landed.


That was nothing, though, compared to what some of my fellow ATA flight-attendant-training classmates went through on a trip from Midway Airport to St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1996. After a major decompression, the captain, flight engineer and a flight attendant passed out. In the cabin, the passengers who hadn’t put on their oxygen masks—they never received the warning to do so—were experiencing hypoxia-induced symptoms of their own. It was only through some quick thinking by the first officer, who had put on his oxygen mask right away, that the plane didn’t crash. Months later, one of the attendants from that flight told me she felt like she still couldn’t breathe on a plane.


As scary as those incidents were, we knew they were part of the job we had signed up for. (As was dealing with the woman who neglected to tell me it wasn’t a small dog in her carry-on, but a monkey. There wasn’t anything in our manuals regarding monkeys, so we let her stay on. “Make sure she keeps the damn thing in the bag,” the captain warned.) But back in the mid-’90s, when I worked the skies, at least our uniforms earned us some respect from passengers.


Today, it’s a different story. From the “disoriented” man who refused to sit in his seat as an American Airlines plane taxied to its gate in Miami in May, to the woman who was pulled from a United Express Chicago-bound flight in April after arguing with flight attendants over a missing wallet, to actor Alec Baldwin, who was kicked off an American Airlines flight in December after he refused to turn off his cell phone, passengers behaving badly is on the rise.


Worldwide, the number of incidents involving unruly airline passengers shot up about 29 percent between 2009 and 2010, according to the International Air Transport Association. (The FAA data on domestic “unruly passengers,” which show a decrease in incidents since 2004, is qualified by two limiting factors: Only incidents reported by flight crews are tracked, and data excludes anything deemed a security violation.) “When you confine people in a sealed metal tube, and airlines continue to make economy seating tighter and tighter, people are going to snap,” says Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org, a nonprofit that advocates for airline passengers. Based on the frequency of complaints sent from FlyersRights’ 25,000-plus members, as well as a preponderance of recent news stories, Hanni believes air rage is at an “all-time high.”


Perhaps that’s why flight crews have had their own share of recent newsworthy incidents—and we’re not just talking about the infamous former JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater, who in 2010 quit his job over the plane’s intercom, deployed the emergency slide and escaped to the tarmac, beers in hand. There’s the American Airlines flight attendant who disrupted a flight from Dallas–Fort Worth to Chicago in March, announcing over the speaker system that the plane was going to crash and ranting about the airline’s bankruptcy reorganization. And the JetBlue captain with an impeccable flight record who, in March, after rambling about Jesus and Al Qaeda and proclaiming there was a bomb onboard a flight to Las Vegas, was locked out of the cockpit and restrained by passengers. (Ten passengers on that plane filed suit against JetBlue this month, seeking unspecified damages for emotional distress.)


Or maybe we can chalk up these flipouts to the current world of flight-crew pay cuts, inflated airline-exec bonuses and airline mergers that can push some experienced employees lower on the totem pole. Either way, these days the skies are anything but friendly.


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