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Nerves are fraying as attempts to restructure American Airlines into a viable, freestanding company through the bankruptcy process drag on. Last week in Forbes, I took the airline unions to task for their roles in the financial destruction of the legacy airlines. (“US Airways And American Airlines Seek A Deadly Embrace”) The backlash was swift, ugly, and severe. In all my years of writing, opining on countless controversies, I’ve never been subjected to such abusive feedback, including outright threats of physical violence.
Unions have a long history of violence against management and so-called “scabs.” But threats of violence against customers for having the temerity to complain? This is something new.
In the 35 years and more than a million miles that I’ve traveled on business (in coach) I’ve always shown the utmost courtesy to flight attendants and gate agents, despite how frequently such civility has not been reciprocated. There’s nothing particularly surprising about this. I can’t imagine a job more frustrating and corrosive than dealing with the traveling public.
Judging from the laments recorded by the many flight attendants who wrote to berate my ignorance, their jobs stink, they hate their bosses, they hate the company they work for, they feel grossly underpaid, they work far too many hours, and they are sick and tired of serving people like me, who they deeply resent – especially “you million mile travelers” and “greedy one-percenters.”
Which was exactly my point. Travel any legacy airline and you can see it on their faces. They are as sick and tired of flying as I am. Not all of them, certainly. Several months ago I was so shocked by the good nature of a flight attendant who chatted me up that I wrote to his supervisor to commend him. But with few exceptions, boarding a plane these days is about as much fun as visiting the motor vehicle bureau.
To quote one angry flight attendant:
“Yes, Flight Attendants are getting older, and tired. They would like to retire, but this Airline has yet again, dashed those hopes by filing for bankruptcy. Flight Attendants are tired … yes … but they are tired of people who seem to think flying and abusing this privilege to travel across the country or around the world for a mere pittance of their income compared to what it cost for the same privilege in the 1980′s, they are tired of 15 hour work days while only being paid for 8, they are tired of getting to a hotel at midnight and only getting 6 hours of sleep before starting it all over again!”
“14 to 16 hour days, going without meals, 9 hr break after a 4 day trip … to be sent out again on another 14 hour day. Do you really think that the airlines are scheduling breakfast, lunch, and dinner breaks for these employees? No they are not … while you are impatiently waiting to board your aircraft they are usually cleaning it … because the American public doesn’t know how to clean up after themselves.”
And the best of all was the revelation of exactly what many flight attendants think their customers are worth:
“Look at what YOU pay me. When your flight has 200 people on it, YOU are paying ME 25 cents .. REPEAT: TWENTY FIVE CENTS an hour!” I suppose this explains why flight attendants sometimes treat passengers like they are worth two bits.
Mind you, all most of us see when we interact with flight attendants is someone who serves drinks, collects trash, and tries to herd clueless tourists with too much carry-on baggage into their seats, in between shouting at travelers who don’t know the rules about switching off their electronics. We don’t realize that they are all highly trained EMTs ready to perform emergency surgery on ailing passengers, as well as first responders in the global fight against Al Qaeda. This refrain was repeated so often I have to believe it came from a union talking points memo.
Admittedly, I had some harsh words for flight attendants in my last piece. In retrospect I should have been more temperate. As I’ve noted, they’ve got good reason to be angry and tired. But I stand by the only remedy that makes sense for both airlines and passengers. Being a flight attendant should not be a lifetime career, it should be an interlude between graduating college or high school and moving on to something else. It would take a superhuman character to do this job for 40 years and not end up hating it.
Which begs the question, if the working conditions are so awful and the pay so bad, why not move on to something else? This is America. There are thousands of ways to make a living, and hundreds of ways to start a business and be your own boss (allowing you to yell at yourself if you don’t like the pay). People with far fewer skills do it every day, including many who arrive on our shores not even speaking the language.
Even allowing for the propensity to flame when making online anonymous posts (and please look up the word up; it’s not a gay slur), the rage, exhaustion, and entitlement expressed by so many flight attendants could not have made a more eloquent statement about what ails the part of the airline industry that is most visible to the rest of us.