Ridiculous or not? When flight attendants attack

Maybe I should take more road trips.

After last week’s column on flight attendants who hate their passengers, I’m pretty sure a “wanted” poster of me is displayed in every crewmember break room and galley.

I heard from passengers who shared their own horror stories of abusive crewmembers. I heard from airline employees who confirmed the sorry state of airline service and tried to help me understand it. And I heard from a small group of apoplectic flight attendants who thought the best way to counter the well-documented problems was to kill the messenger.

Let’s start with the passengers. Reader Pat Vinroot agrees that many crewmembers dislike the people they are supposed to serve and shouldn’t be working on a plane.

“Some of the flight attendants I have flown with on US airlines are wider than the aisles and have to turn sideways to walk through them,” she told me. “Many feel that with the pay cuts that airlines have had that they are underpaid and shouldn’t have to do much. Many are rude because there are no consequences and they won’t to be bothered to answer a question or assist passengers. Sometimes attendants in business do less than the ones in economy because they are more senior and sometimes a little lazier. In the past few years when I have gone to the back of the plane for something I have often found attendants playing games and just sitting there talking.”

Vinroot wonders why they can’t be more like the flight attendants on Singapore Airlines, who are “young, thin, polite, attentive, accommodating,” she says. “You name it, they are.”

Flight attendant John Deming, who sent me an exceptionally polite rebuttal, acknowledged a “real disconnect” between passengers’ expectations and today’s reality of airline travel.

“Somehow, people still compare us today with how things were in the 50s and 60s and then are upset when those expectations aren’t met,” he says. “These programs, such as the upcoming Pan Am TV series and movies like Catch Me If You Can and View From the Top portray a level of glamour in the industry that simply hasn’t existed for decades.”

Deming told me the average flight attendant loves his or her job and is happy to be helpful to every person they greet, “within reason.”

“When you combine the airlines’ need to cut costs and raise prices on everything with the expectation that since they paid for it, the public is entitled to whatever they perceive as paid for, it’s bound to end up a recipe for disaster,” he says. “And at 30,000 feet, there is very little a flight attendant can do to fix some of these issues other than apologize and be creative in trying to quell an upset passenger.”

One other thing: Flight attendants are under a great deal of stress because of increased security threats, continually changing federal regulations, bankruptcies, furloughs, salary cuts, and loss of pensions and benefits. But Deming agrees that there’s never a reason to forget your manners.

“There really needs to be a common courtesy established between the traveling public and the airline employees, but it’s usually the flight attendants who are expected to make the first move,” he says.

Some air travelers say they understand the good old days are over. John Black recalls one pre-deregulation flight on Eastern Airlines with his young family. “We were served a filet mignon roast that was carved at our seats,” he recalls. “Oven roasted potatoes and vegetables were also served with the filet. A sundae served at our seats finished this wonderful meal. My daughters still talk about this flight 25 years later.”

Black doesn’t expect the same first-class treatment, not with airfares as low as they are compared with back then. But he expects to be treated with courtesy. Service today, he says, “is despicable.” He says airlines are to blame for the toxic attitude, and passengers shouldn’t be surprised either when they pay such low fares.

“Airlines have set up the atmosphere of a confrontational work environment with all of their fees and reduced salaries for their employees compared to the good old days,” he says. “Consumers do not want to pay for service so they get what they pay for, disinterested and sometimes hostile and lackadaisical flight attendants.”

All of which brings us to the shrill minority of flight attendants and commenters who thought they could score points by attacking yours truly. They accused me of writing an “unbalanced” story. They said I’d done “zero” research on the topic. And they accused me of being a corporate shill, presumably for their employers.

Some weighed in with their opinions through social media, which is great. I love a good discussion. But in the blizzard of expletives some of them unleashed, they inadvertently proved my point about the demise of civility. If these people are — pardon the expression — serving us on the plane, then we’re headed for serious trouble.

With that kind of attitude, they really don’t belong in any customer-facing position. Ever.

However, in the interest of transparency, I’m happy to answer my critics. No, the column wasn’t fair or balanced. It’s an opinion column. (And you know where to go for “fair and balanced” don’t you?) I cited five sources and a poll in my original story, so I’d be more comfortable calling it “some” research — certainly enough research to form an opinion.

As for the corporate shill part, that’s really funny. Apart from a six-month freelance writing stint for an airline credit card back in the early 90s, I have had no ties, formal or informal, to the airline industry. In fact, it’s been a difficult relationship which I often wish could be better.

I’ll say it again: I don’t think all flight attendants hate their passengers. But in the last week, I’ve heard from a few airline employees who should probably be looking for a new line of work.

Really, folks. Don’t put yourself through this for a subsistence salary and a few elusive flight benefits. It’s not worth it.

(Photo: dcm aster/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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