National Opinions

OPINION: In travel chaos, flight crews also suffer and still get blamed

FAA Outage

Just like everyone else stranded in the Kansas City airport on Wednesday, the flight attendant from Arlington, Va., was frustrated, tired and wanted to get home.

Three times, the captain had the flight crew board the plane, as the nation’s transportation officials worked to resolve a Federal Aviation Administration system error.

And three times, the flight attendant seated surly passengers, sorted overhead bins and absorbed the simmering — sometimes volatile — frustration of more than 70 travelers.

After all that, the flight was canceled.

The flight crew didn’t get home that day, and they didn’t get paid “because the boarding door never closed,” said Marivic, one of thousands of airline workers ensnared in the latest air travel fiasco.

As travelers, we curse the airlines when we’re squashed into shrinking, inhumane spaces, charged for water and every pound of luggage, when we’re left sleeping on floors and missing weddings because of poor planning and operational failings by companies poised to make record profits this year.

But the flight crews who get the full gale force of our anger — who are right beside us in all the inconveniences — keep getting shafted. Salaries remain stagnant while operational issues make their jobs increasingly insane. And though practices around curtailing pay vary by airline, these snags hurt employees as well as travelers.

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They’re dealing with constant flight delays fueled by a changing climate’s weird weather and airline infrastructures that aren’t nimble enough to keep up. Meanwhile, the passengers they have to smile at and manage are paying higher prices for shrinking seats, lugging more stuff to dodge predatory baggage fees and seething with pandemic anger.

“Sixteen to 18-hour days, day after day after day. And, you know, with limited rest,” Randy Barnes, the president of Transport Worker Union Local 555 — the union representing baggage handlers and ground crew — told a local TV station during the holiday travel hell that upended trips for everyone, especially those using Southwest Airlines.

Some workers couldn’t get home between shifts because of bad weather, he added.

“I don’t think passengers realize that crew is subject to the same delays,” said Marivic, a 50-year-old flight attendant whose home base is Arlington. She asked that I withhold her last name and airline so she doesn’t get in trouble for speaking out.

In December, as passengers waited for hours to rebook flights during the Southwest Airlines meltdown, “We were having the exact same experience, on hold for five, six, seven hours waiting for an assignment,” said Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA.

Unions blasted the airline in December, accusing the carrier of paying dividends to stockholders rather than investing its profit in infrastructure and staff.

“And they’re not alone,” Nelson said. “We’re holding our breath,” expecting more disasters from other airlines that invested similarly.

Let’s be real: Airlines have been taking advantage of passengers and front-line crew for years now.

“People were really, really mad at the airlines going into covid — all the bag fees, change fees,” Nelson said after hearing horror stories from flight attendants who were spat on, harassed and even followed off planes and out of airports. “And we were dealing with all that.”

Flying in the United States had changed even before the pandemic.

After 9/11, we respectfully agreed to the shoe removal, the body scanners that produce ghostly nudie shots, all those seized tubes of expensive face cream. We even paid for it.

While most companies — like us here at The Washington Post — absorb the costs of increasing security, airlines get help from us passengers to cover security costs.

I just paid my 9/11 tax last month, as I do every time I fly — $5.60 each way. With about 2.9 million people flying every day, that means airlines save more than $16 million on security fees daily. What a sweet deal.

Once they figured out how to get their security costs paid, airlines decided to try offsetting rising fuel costs in 2008 by making us pay extra for the luggage that used to be part of the deal. They made an extra $2.8 billion in 2009 on baggage fees alone. Whoo-Hoo! It ka-chinged up to $5.7 billion of found cash by 2019, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistic’s numbers.

Meanwhile, the front-line workers trying to deal with the ridiculous amount of carry-on bags and various capers (that guy wearing his ski boots on board) got nothing for their increased troubles.

Then, the pandemic hit. Flight attendants — facing job insecurity and the risk of contracting covid — were deputized as mask police. Assaults against them severe enough to trigger investigations shot up to 1,099 in 2021, from just 155 10 years earlier, according to federal data.)

Nelson said that although masks may have sparked many of those incidents, alcohol was the real fuel. After a brief pause in liquor sales, airlines have resumed super-profitable alcohol sales, despite a call from Nelson and others to permanently ban booze. (Sales numbers are hard to find, but one market researcher found $43 million of alcohol sales on airplanes in just four months of 2014.)

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For decades, flight crews have been trying to bargain for better working conditions, for pay that starts when the job starts — not when the airplane doors close, for investment in staffing and infrastructure, for more-predictable schedules. Some airlines that unionized have this, Nelson said. But many do not. And she thinks there is enough public sentiment to push through serious reforms.

“I kept it to facts and federal rules” when passengers become hostile, Marivic said. “But on the sits I called or messaged my friends, family, boyfriend, all of my people,” for support.

Let’s vent at the airlines and not at the front-line workers, who are on the same, bumpy ride as all of us.

Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. Before coming to The Post, she covered social issues, crime and courts.

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