Flight attendant's job: Harder than it used to be?

Flight attendants, including JetBlue's now-famous Steven Slater, often deal with annoyed or irate passengers. But the climate in which they work is more stressful than it used to be, experts say.

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    Flight attendants deal with annoyed or irate passengers on a regular basis. But the climate in which they work is more stressful than it used to be, experts say.
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Whatever caused JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater to make perhaps the most memorable “departure” in airplane history is no doubt more complicated than an unpleasant run-in with a passenger.

After all, flight attendants deal with annoyed or irate passengers on a regular basis. Attendants are, for better or for worse, often a passenger's first human contact with anyone from the airline – and depending on how the passenger's whole airport experience has gone, that contact can be pleasant or raw.

The challenge now is that the climate surrounding the job of flight attendant has become more stressful than it used to be, say some flight attendants and those who study their careers.

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“Our jobs have changed so much over the past 10 years," writes 20-year veteran flight attendant John Safkow of Castro Valley, Calif., in an e-mail. "I never used to feel it was a 'job'. Never felt as if I was going to work. Now, it's a job. I just want to get the hours in and go home.”

Mr. Safkow, who writes online under the name “Martha Stewardess” and requested that the name of the airline he works for not be published, is one of dozens of flight attendants who blog – and sometimes vent – about their in-flight experiences.

Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he writes, airlines were profitable and spent money trying to make passengers more comfortable.

“Passengers and crews were happy. We had great trips with wonderful layovers,” writes Safkow. “Now, the carriers have cut back and continue to cut corners and costs. And now the services have been 'unbundled' and fees added. At the same time, airlines have eliminated so many of the features that passengers expect. Our work schedules are worse too. We're doing more for less.”

While rude or uncooperative passengers can boost the stress level, "incessant uncertainty" is at the root of what makes flight attendants' jobs difficult, says an e-mail from Bobbie Sullivan, an occupational health psychologist based in Hawaii, who has researched the lives of flight attendants and writes about her studies on www.AircrewHealth.com and www.AircrewBuzz.com.

Job insecurity, especially in this economy; irregular work schedules; substantial time away from home and family; and fatigue from long hours and short breaks are among the challenges, she says.

The mean annual wage for attendants is $43,350, just below the average for all US occupations $43,460, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Flight attendants can be scheduled as many as 14 hours a day, with somewhat greater maximums for international flying, the BLS says. Attendants are typically away from their home base about one-third of the time, flying between 65 to 90 hours a month and spending another 50 hours a month on the ground writing reports, waiting for planes to arrive, and preparing planes for flight.

“Full-time flight attendants experienced a much higher than average work-related injury and illness rate," according to the BLS. “In addition, medical problems can arise from irregular sleeping and eating patterns, dealing with stressful passengers, working in a pressurized environment, and breathing recycled air.”

Though employment of flight attendants is expected to grow by about 8 percent over the next decade – the average rate anticipated for most occupations – the attendant job market is likely to remain competitive for a profession where the average tenure is 16 years and rising, says the BLS.

While the number of unruly passenger reports filed to the Federal Aviation Administration has decreased in recent years, “a new study by the International Air Transport Association found an increase in instances of disgruntled passengers and violence on planes, with the chief cause being passengers who refuse to obey safety orders,” according to The New York Times.

Like Safkow, most flight attendants do not expect that every passenger will be polite.

“[Passengers] are frustrated and have no one else to take it out on. We have no way of knowing what each passenger is going through or just experienced before boarding. Some are afraid to fly, and others intoxicated,” he writes.

“For many flyers, we are their first contact with a human representing the airline,” wrote in an e-mail. “They've booked and purchased on the web. Checked in on-line or at a kiosk in the terminal. Waited in lines, dragged themselves through security, only to wait at the gate. Some are frustrated beyond reason. Others are just plain angry. They want to unload on someone, and that would be your flight attendant trapped with you inside this metal tube flying very fast at 34,000 feet.”

Of all an airline’s front-line employees, flight attendants have the most face time with customers.

“If nothing else," writes Ms. Sullivan, "that extends the opportunity to vent their frustrations on these poor workers, who likely had nothing to do with late departures, lost bags, fees, schedule disruptions, and such. Nor do flight attendants have any control over such things.”

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