More on the changing workplace.  Some of the uncounted costs of

10 January 2003
The Wall Street Journal  

[It's not just unruly passengers. Thanks to a hard year, flight attendants
are getting testy, too. Brooks Barnes on the latest twist in flier
J'AMY OWENS was expecting a quiet flight home to Seattle when she suddenly
heard a commotion. But it wasn't an unruly passenger -- it was a flight
attendant. According to Ms. Owens, the attendant started berating a man
across the aisle. Pretty soon she was making a scene, even shouting at the
confused passenger. His mistake: leaving a beeping cellphone in the overhead
"I about jumped out of my skin," says Ms. Owens, a retail consultant. "I'm
thinking the guy's going to be duct-taped to his seat." 
In case you hadn't noticed, there's a new kind of air rage out there -- but
it's the crew, not the passengers, who seem to be losing their cool.
Stressed out by layoffs, extra security duties and now two big airline
bankruptcies, pilots and flight attendants may have reached their boiling
point. While no one keeps hard numbers on angry outbursts aloft, in a
first-of-its-kind survey American Express found that 55% of fliers have seen
a "noticeable decline" in cabin service, and one big flight attendants'
union just hired a psychologist to study job stress. Even the airlines
acknowledge they've got a frazzled work force. "As human beings we can only
take so much," a United spokesman says. 
Of course, most flight attendants still do their jobs without blowing their
stacks. But the past few months have brought a host of new pressures, from
pay cuts big and small (Northwest just trimmed health benefits) to a 20%
reduction in the number of attendants on some flights. The list of
9/11-related security duties keeps growing, too. "A lot of us are in a
terrible mood before we even set foot on the plane," says Glenda Talley, a
US Airways flight attendant who just took a pay cut. 
How bad is it? In one widely reported case, an American pilot went so far as
to throw a balky steward off the plane. According to an airline spokesman,
the attendant started "exhibiting rude behavior" so badly the pilot had to
make an emergency stop in Dallas. (Both the airline and the flight
attendants' union declined to comment further.) In another case, Josh
Holdeman says he couldn't believe it when a stewardess turned him down for
pretzels -- and told him to watch his waistline. "I'm still furious," says
the New York art expert, adding he works out three times a week. (The
airline, which happened to be American, says his experience was "very
It wasn't all that long ago that flight crews struggled to cope with rowdy
passengers, whose alcohol-fueled antics made "air rage" an everyday term. In
one particularly violent incident back in 2000, a passenger died while being
restrained during an air-rage outbreak on a Southwest flight. More often,
flight attendants found themselves coping with disorderly fliers, like the
investment banker who defecated on a service cart after being denied another
Now the gripes are coming from the passengers, though flight attendants say
a lot of what seems like rude behavior isn't their fault. For some time now,
under new federal rules, flight attendants have been required to step up
scrutiny of passengers for security risks while smiling and serving drinks.
With pilots locked in the cockpit, they can't count on extra help to calm
unhappy fliers either. "We would just grin and bear a lot of bad behavior,"
says Pat Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. Now, "we
treat even the most minor disturbance as a level-one threat." 
Still, even Ms. Friend concedes that increasingly testy treatment of
passengers is an "issue that needs to be addressed." Some numbers suggest
the problem is getting worse. Gripes specifically about flight attendants
are up about 12% among big U.S. airlines in just six months, according to
PlanetFeedback, a consumer-complaint service, while airline complaints
overall are up about 9%. And though the government's numbers show formal
protests against airlines were down for much of 2002, that decline has
tapered off sharply during the past few months. The Department of
Transportation, which compiles those statistics, says it believes incidents
are underreported, in part because many travelers still don't know how or
where to file complaints. 
Lisa Wallis, of Portland, Ore., says she was "afraid to move a muscle" on an
Alaska Airlines flight to Los Angeles this fall after a flight attendant
made a harsh announcement over the intercom. "Basically, people," she
recalls the steward saying, "sit down, shut up, eyes forward -- and never
forget that we are in control." ("Not everybody on every flight can have the
same sense of humor," an Alaska spokesman says.) Even flying in first class,
normally a haven with polite crew members, hasn't helped. Instead of
pampering her, Ms. Wallis says, a harried-looking flight attendant turned
down her drink order, then spent the flight napping in an empty seat -- with
slippers on. "I just sat there in disbelief," says the sportswear-chain
manager. "For $1,800, I at least expected her to stay awake the whole time."

Airlines say such incidents remain extremely isolated, given the thousands
of daily flights. But they also acknowledge they've either witnessed a surge
of sign-ups for stress-management programs -- or have taken new measures to
reduce stress in the air. "Certainly there's more stress to the job lately
and that takes a toll," says Kristi Tucker, a spokeswoman for Delta Air
Lines, which expects to furlough up to 1,000 flight attendants in the coming
months. The union for United and US Airways has commissioned its own "coping
study," while American's union, the Association of Professional Flight
Attendants, hired Loyola College psychologist Jeffrey Lating to study
members. Among the questions he's asking: "Do you feel the urge to withdraw
from people?" 
Flight attendants say the flying public isn't exactly making their job
easier. "It didn't take long after Sept. 11 for people to start acting like
complete idiots again," says Rene Foss, a flight attendant who recently
wrote a book titled "Around the World in a Bad Mood." She says that after
hearing the warning, people still try to light up in the lavatory. And less
egregious annoyances -- "the `fasten seat-belt' sign applies to everyone but
me" -- wear down stressed-out employees, Ms. Foss says, leading to
Many analysts say the bad mood in the sky will get better only when
travelers start returning and airlines start posting profits. But even
before all the industry's woes, attendants complained their pay was too low
for "friendly" service -- with some of the jobs starting at $15,000 and even
veterans rarely making more than $50,000. And the responsibilities of the
haggard flight attendants only go up, forcing at least some to give up
before they lose their cool. 
That includes Kevin Gaspari, a steward who joined US Airways in 1987 and
fondly remembers the days of free Europe trips and tranquil cabins. A few
months ago he found himself at a new training course, learning how to
brandish a coffee pot as a weapon and "elbow" potential terrorists to the
floor. "I need a break," says Mr. Gaspari, who's now taking a voluntary
three-year furlough. "A lot of us just didn't sign up for this." 
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