I recently met a good friend who works as a junior member of a cabin crew for a well-known airline. I won’t disclose its name or hers for obvious reasons; you’ll see why as you read on.
Suffice to say that working conditions for flight attendants have degenerated badly, for this company and doubtless others. My friend had much to say about this, but the key issues follow.
Flight attendants undergo long, intensive training but despite that, safety measures aren’t ingrained in the crew culture. The written exam that attendants take at the end of their training serves as the sole assessment of competency. However, high scores alone can’t guarantee the effectiveness of any cabin crew when it faces a real emergency, just as a doctor isn’t considered qualified until he gains practical experience during residency.
The same goes for flight attendants’ theoretical knowledge of first aid. It takes guts and initiative to run and rescue someone; a split-second reflex can make a huge difference in saving a life. Unfortunately, this isn’t emphasized or adequately practiced during flight attendant training, according to my friend. Airlines are more concerned about recruiting attractive, biddable crew members who will serve passengers and do what they are told.
Thus, when you hear on the plane that “our crew is perfectly trained to assist you in case of any emergency,” perhaps cynical doubt is a better response than blind trust.
With my friend’s airline, junior crew members must have a sponsor, who’s in fact the master and commander of their subordinate’s career. When juniors ask for a promotion or job change, the sponsor is the one who decides, even to the extent of determining whether the junior should be fired. You can get promoted faster, says my friend, if you report your colleagues’ mistakes.
Conversely, there is no formal system for reporting passengers’ complaints about senior crew members to higher management. A junior is a junior, period. They are expected to keep their heads down and mouths closed. The notion of continual improvement and constructive criticism as a team is nonexistent.
Health risks include damage to the veins in attendants’ feet, legs, and hands, due to cabin pressure and over-oxygenation. Jet lag, chronic dry eyes, and a changing parade of skin fauna also abound: Globetrotters, remember, are also allergen and pathogen vectors. Perhaps at some point germ contamination will finally globalize, and we’ll all be immune to everything, but for the time being, flight attendants are both victims and perpetrators.
A typical flight runs nine hours to the destination, followed by a 14-hour layover and 10 hours back. On the second day, crew members must still wake up at 5 a.m. to attend the flight, and of course give the well-groomed, 110-percent effort expected of them.
While traveling, crews are accommodated in multi-starred hotels, the ones closest to airports. Airlines pay for the rooms and include a meal allowance based on the average prices for that locale (typically covered by the flight attendant's per diem). Often there’s a discrepancy between that figure and the high-end world of a fancy hotel. If attendants are on standby, which is most of the time, they must make up the difference from their own pockets.
Flight crews are paid by the actual hours they are in the air; standby or layover time isn’t included. For long flights attendants must be on standby 12 hours in advance of the flight, which means not moving from their accommodation site. There is some logic in that, since the airline doesn’t want to be short of cabin crew, but some kind of reimbursement should be given—and some kind of contingency planning, too.
If and when junior crew members decide they would rather work for a different airline, they must wait two years, during which time they must not work in the industry.
I can’t blame passengers for underestimating the difficulties of a career as a flight attendant. After all, airlines spend a huge amount of advertising money promoting beauty, service, comfort, and travel points. Travelers are encouraged to equate air transport with these luxurious ideals, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for contemplating the quality of safety or your service providers’ working conditions.
As in any service industry, the quality and safety of the provided service is in direct proportion to the quality and safety given the employees. If airlines truly want to offer exceptional service, they must begin by improving safety and employee morale. They must create a culture of mutual respect. But until that happens, my advice is don’t fly. Ride a bicycle or a horse, or just jog with your dog. It’s more fun, it costs less, and it’s probably safer.